Zaidman and Pantel, “Religion in the Ancient Greek City”

As I announced in a previous post, I am taking a seminar this quarter on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins. In particular, we are looking at the Greek (and sometimes Roman and Egyptian) polytheistic religions that were predominant in the regions of the Mediterranean that Christianity first originated and spread within. Since polytheism is just as important to the time and region that I study (the Roman Empire c. 31 BCE – 192 CE), as Judaism and Christianity are, I think it will be worthwhile to discuss some of the history and theology of the polytheism that once thrived in the pre-Christian ancient world.

Zaidman and PantelI think that a good place to begin this discussion is by reviewing an influential monograph on this topic — Louise Zaidman and Pauline Pantel’s Religion in the Ancient Greek City (1992). Zaidman and Pantel’s study is highly foundational to modern approaches to Greek religion, since they were among the first to emphasize the importance of the polis (“city-state”) to ancient understandings of polytheism. The polis was the basic political, economic, and social unit that emerged in Greece during the Archaic period (c. 800-480 BCE). The Greeks did not have a united political center or capital, and this form of cultural organization deeply affected how they viewed their religion.

The fact is that for most of us living in Western cultures, we are something of a mystery to ourselves. Our modern concepts like democracy, philosophy, science, theatre, and even sports all grew out of Pagan, polytheistic societies. But these societies were taken over by a variant of Christian theism in the 4th century CE. After that event, polytheism moved from the foreground to the background in European society, until dwindling to the point that few of us in modern times really understand it. But polytheism was once pervasive in cultures that are historically linked to our own. To rediscover this polytheism is thus to rediscover a bit of ourselves, even for secularists.

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Posted in Classics, Religious Studies, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Co-Authoring a Critical Review of Geisler and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” with Jeff Lowder

I have a publication announcement about some of the recent work that I have been doing with Jeff Lowder, president emeritus of the Secular Web.

Geisler and TurekLowder is doing a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter critical review of Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Lowder has done similar critical reviews before of other popular apologetics books that attack atheists. For example, Lowder edited a comprehensive refutation of Josh McDowell’s atrocious and tragically bestselling apologetics book ETDAV, titled The Jury Is In: The Ruling on McDowell’s “Evidence”, which is a great resource for countering stock apologetic slogans and assertions. Lowder has also done a critical review of apologist Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God, which is another polemical apologetics book attacking and ridiculing atheists, titled “An Emotional Tirade Against Atheists.” In addition to this, Lowder also edited The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, which is required reading for doing counter-apologetics on the resurrection. Lowder is one of the most knowledgeable and thorough counter-apologists that I have ever read. I consider Lowder, along with John Loftus, to be one of the top counter-apologists whom William Lane Craig should debate, and yet has been avoiding.

The index to Lowder’s review can be found here. Below is a summary of what I have contributed to his review of chapter 9:

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Posted in Apologists, Publications, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Why I Chose to Study Classics

This academic quarter I am commuting up to UC Santa Barbara to take two Religious Studies seminars with professor Christine Thomas, who does work in Biblical Studies, Classics, Turkish Archaeology, and a lot more! I am very grateful to have this opportunity, since Dr. Thomas is offering a first-ever seminar on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins, as well as a course on the New Testament. Dr. Thomas is an outstanding expert in her various fields, and is on the executive committee of the Society of Biblical Literature, among many other things. A great part of being a graduate student in the University of California system is that you can take courses at any UC campus (as well as get inter-library loans from every UC campus, which has helped give me access to a very wide range of books).

For those who are familiar with the geography of Southern California, my “commute” may sound rather crazy! My home campus is UC Irvine, which is a good two and a half hours South of UCSB, without traffic, and traffic can easily double that time. Fortunately, I actually don’t live in Irvine, but further North in Long Beach, which shaves some time off the commute, but not much. To make things work, I am driving up on Tuesday to take one course, spending the night in Santa Barbara (I’m at a Motel 6 right now), taking the other course Wednesday morning, and then driving back down to Long Beach around noon (a good traffic window). Dr. Thomas was very generous in helping to make this arrangement feasible for my schedule, and I am even able to still TA a course at UCI this same quarter. But there is a catch: I had to get up at 4:30 AM this morning, and get out the door by 5:3o AM, in order to beat the LA traffic. It worked pretty well, since I was able to get up here by 8 AM and was even able to grab breakfast before class.

As readers might imagine, I am very, very interested in taking these seminars! But the truth is that I have had to do a lot of other crazy commutes in my graduate studies. If you can take advantage of the UC system inter-campus exchange, you can have access to a wide range of scholars to study under. I have taken courses on subjects such as Roman history and ancient education with Michelle Salzman at UC Riverside, Late Antiquity and numismatics with Edward Watts at UC San Diego, and have had the opportunity at my home campus, UCI, to take a seminar on inductive reasoning with Brian Skyrms (a leading expert in epistemology and philosophy of science, whose course was admittedly a bit over my head in some parts, but which also helped me learn a lot more about Bayes’ theorem; likewise, epistemologist and counter-apologist Robert Cavin also studied under Skyrms and also got his PhD at UCI in Philosophy). I am heavily invested in inter-disciplinary work, since I have used my time in the UC system to study not only Classics, but also Philosophy, History, Comparative Literature, and Religious Studies.

On the subject of inter-disciplinary work, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss why I chose Classics (or Classical Studies) specifically to pursue my PhD. Likewise, since I’ve been writing this blog for over two years now, I also think that now is a fitting time to talk about why I do what I do.

Classics Studies

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Musings, Religious Studies | 1 Comment

From Angry Atheist to Happy Humanist: How to Stop Hating on Religion and Start Celebrating Secularism


This article was just posted by Francis Adams on Civitas Humana, the sister-blog to Κέλσος; however, I have decided to share it here as well, since the points made in the article reflect the attitude and approach to discussing atheism/secularism/humanism that I likewise seek to promote here on Κέλσος.

Originally posted on Civitas Humana:

I deconverted from Protestant Christianity over 5 years ago, right after I began my freshman year in college. It was, I suppose, a fairly typical and drama-free deconversion: I progressed out of the fundamentalism of my childhood, becoming more and more concerned with the verity of my worldview all throughout high school, only to then be exposed to a diversity of new ideas and information in college. I participated in a fairly moderate, non-denominational Christian congregation for the beginning of my freshman year, until eventually coming to the conclusion at my dorm one night, under the stars, that I was, indeed, an atheist.

angry-atheistThe first 3 years of being “religion-free” went by for me with a certain level of ambivalence for all things spiritual. However, in more recent years, I have noticed a less tolerant trend in my attitudes and approach to religion. For a while, whenever I encountered religion…

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SBL Pacific Coast Region Conference 2015: Dennis MacDonald

Earlier this month I attended the SBL Pacific Coast Region conference at Azusa Pacific University. For those who have been following the Bible blog sphere, this conference was particularly prominent, since Richard Carrier defended his new book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ during the meeting, which is the first academically published book defending the Christ Myth Theory. I do not agree with the mythicist position, as I have discussed in a previous article, but I do think that Carrier’s new books is the best defense of the theory published yet. Unfortunately, I actually had to miss Carrier’s defense due to a scheduling conflict, but Simon Joseph has posted a (fairly critical) review of Carrier’s presentation, and Carrier himself has also written a post responding to Kenneth Waters Sr., who critiqued Carrier’s thesis during the conference. Each post provides a good summary of the arguments on either side.

MacDonaldIn this post, however, I want to discuss another defense which occurred earlier during the conference, that of NT scholar Dennis MacDonald defending his use of mimesis criticism in identifying parallels between the Homeric epics and the New Testament. MacDonald argues that a substantial amount of the New Testament — in particular, the Gospel of Mark (The Homeric Gospels and the Gospel of Mark) and the Acts of the Apostles (Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles) — was written in imitation of the Homeric epics. MacDonald’s view challenges many of the operating assumptions of form criticism, which is a method of biblical criticism that seeks to identify units of scripture based on literary patterns and to trace them to their period of oral transmission (for a discussion of form criticism, see here). In contrast, mimesis criticism argues that much of the composition of the Gospels and Acts was not based on oral traditions at all, but was instead derived from the literary imitation of earlier texts.

Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. I have previously discussed MacDonald’s arguments with NT scholars Christine Thomas and Nathan Bennett (one of MacDonald’s old graduate students at Claremont). Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. As such, I think that it is worth discussing some of MacDonald’s arguments here as well, especially since some of the analysis will relate to my blog series on ancient biography.

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Posted in Academic Conferences, Ancient Biography, Classics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Κέλσος and Civitas Humana Added to the ACI Scholarly Blog Index

I am glad to announce that my two academic blogs — Κέλσος and Civitas Humana — have recently been added to the ACI Scholarly Blog Index.

ACIThe purpose of this scholarly blog index is to provide the following academic resource:

ACI Scholarly Blog Index is an editorially created and curated index of scholarly social media. Authors are selected for inclusion based on their academic credentials as well as the scope and quality of their writing. Metadata, taxonomies, and proprietary Author Profile Cards are appended to each publication. An elegantly sophisticated search interface easily surfaces highly relevant articles. Post-search filtering allows researchers to further hone in on appropriate articles.

You can access my author profile on the ACI index here, and my blogs will likewise appear from index searches. Being added to the ACI index has also indexed my blogs on OCLC WorldCat and ProQuest Summon.

It is a great honor to join this online academic community of bloggers, and hopefully Κέλσος and Civitas Humana will now draw even more academic readers from this resource!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Ross Clifford’s Response to Κέλσος

Recently a Christian apologist named Ross Clifford (principal of Morling College, Australia) has written a response to an article here on Κέλσος. Clifford’s response is to my article “Objection! The Resurrection of Jesus Is Not a Court Case,” which is a critical rebuttal to the arguments used by juridical apologist John Warwick Montgomery. Montgomery became famous in apologetic circles way back in the 1970’s for popularizing the argument that legal reasoning and the laws of evidence can be applied to documents of the New Testament in order to affirm the core claims of the Christian faith.

Clifford’s article is titled “Objection Overruled! Let’s Hear the Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” and was published in Vol. 12, No. 1 of Montgomery’s online journal, Global Journal of Classic Theology.

Now, as everyone who reads this blog should know, I do not even think that ancient historical methodology can be used to prove the miraculous claims found in ancient Christian scriptures (which is a far more relevant standard for evaluating ancient texts), let alone modern juridical reasoning. Ancient literature was not produced in a context or style that makes it useful for legal testimony or courtroom investigation, nor would any of the NT documents even be admissible as evidence in court. Montgomery and other juridical apologists are only using a pretense of legal reasoning in order to (like many other apologists) exaggerate the evidence for Jesus. The purpose of juridical apologetics is, in Montgomery’s own words (Faith Founded on Fact, pg. 42): “We must make clear to them [unbelievers] beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they reject the Lord of Glory, it will be by willful refusal to accept his Grace, not because His Word is incapable of withstanding the most searching intellectual examination.”

Despite such brash assertions, however, the reality is that none of Montgomery’s arguments are accepted in mainstream New Testament Studies, nor are they even widely accepted in legal circles. Instead, the notion of “juridical” apologetics mostly became popular back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when popular apologists like Josh McDowell were publishing lay apologetics books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Since then, even more serious resurrection apologists, such as William Craig and Gary Habermas, have not used the juridical approach, but instead fallen back on “minimal facts” arguments for the resurrection. Montgomery’s arguments are thus rather dated these days, even in apologetic circles.

Regardless, I was glad to see that Clifford’s response was not as overtly polemical as I had expected (to be sure, there were a decent number of jabs against myself, but nothing as excessive as I had expected). I had expected this response, because when legal expert Richard Packham wrote a critical rebuttal to Montgomery’s arguments back in 1998 (available here), a writer named Boyd Pehrson wrote a highly polemical response to Packham in Montgomery’s journal (available here). In Pehrson’s response he made a number of ad hominem attacks and false statements about Packham allegedly not having legal training, which Packham refutes in his response to Pehrson. Furthermore, Packham discusses how when he searched to find Pehrson’s legal credentials, he could not find the name “Boyd Pehrson” on any list of attorneys in England or the United States. When Packham asked Montgomery in an email for more information about Pehrson’s legal background, Montgomery literally accused Packham of having Alzheimer’s disease (you can read the email for yourself here).

Given this track record, I was expecting Clifford’s response to me to be full of personal attacks. As such, I posted an announcement here on Κέλσος a couple months back, in which I summarized Montgomery’s previous vitriolic behavior in dealing with Richard Packham, in order to anticipate any similar attacks against ΚέλσοςAfter reading Clifford’s article, however, I have decided that this preemption was not necessary. Accordingly, I have taken down my previous announcement (which, for the sake of record, can still be read here).

Part of the reason for why I think there is no need to preempt Clifford or Montgomery is because I am not sure that their article is even worth responding to at all. I had expected a large number of personal attacks against myself, but after reading Clifford’s response, I am not sure whether people who have not read my article previously will even be able to understand Clifford’s rebuttals to my arguments. Clifford seldom summarizes my positions with anything more than quoting a few words of text, so that my main points are not even really addressed in his response. Where Clifford does respond to crucial points, he is not persuasive. For example, one of the major points in the article is that it is a huge stretch to try to apply the “ancient documents rule” of legal documentary evidence to the New Testament scriptures, since the rule is normally applied to documents that are in the range of being over 30 years old, but not thousands of years old. Clifford (pg. 7) responds to this argument with the example of a newspaper that was admitted in Dallas County v Commercial Union Assurance Co., which was more than 50 years old. I think that exposing Clifford’s hyperbole in comparing a 50 year old newspaper to millennia-old religious scriptures, as allegedly being comparable in terms of legal evidence, requires no further elaboration on my part.

Nevertheless, I do want all of my readers on Κέλσος to be able to read Clifford’s response, if they are interested. So, here is the link to Clifford’s article. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments. I’m also interested in hearing whether readers think I should or should not respond to Clifford’s article. So, feel free to also indicate in the comments below whether you think that Clifford’s response deserves any rebuttal here on Κέλσος.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Apologists, Law, Replies to Critics | 15 Comments