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 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, Replies to Critics | 9 Comments

When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?

alexander_athens2One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them. Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades and centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.

As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity. Strobel and Blomberg, for example, thought that Plutarch and Arrian (writing 400 years after Alexander) were the earliest biographers of his life [1], when actually the biographer Callisthenes of Olynthus was an eyewitness contemporary to Alexander, who traveled with him during his campaigns. Callisthenes’ biography is still partially preserved in fragments, which are read, studied, and used for information today by modern historians in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians. There were also several other contemporary and eyewitness historians who recorded Alexander’s deeds, such as Anaximenes of LampsacusAristobulus of CassandreiaEumenesl, and Nearchus, among others.

Moreover, these early biographies would have been available in libraries, such as the Great Library of Alexandria, and could be accessed by later biographers such as Plutarch and Arrian. Were it not for these contemporary written sources, and if there really had been no biography or history written about Alexander for a gap of 400 years after his death, modern historians would be far, far more skeptical of our ability to know the details of Alexander’s life (as is the case for many other ancient politicians who, despite being historical, had no extensive biography or history of their deeds written until hundreds of years after their death, such as Cyrus the Great, who certainly existed, but whose life is considerably more obscure than Alexander’s).

On the other hand, skeptics can often be overly skeptical in arguing that an absence of contemporary sources implies the non-existence of the person or event in question. For example, I do not consider it a good argument that Jesus did not exist, simply because nobody wrote about him until several decades after his death [2]. The fact is that there were many poor and illiterate people in the ancient world that nobody wrote a single text about, but who still historically existed. Nevertheless, the absence of contemporary sources for Jesus does make the details of his life considerably more obscure, legendary, and irretrievable to historians. As such, the lack of contemporary or early written sources is not irrelevant to the debate of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.

So, when do contemporary or early sources matter in ancient history? As discussed above, this is a complex methodological issue, so spelling out some of the main criteria, and explaining how they are relevant to the problems of later myth-making, is now in order.


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Posted in Classics, Historical Jesus, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

SBL/AAR 2014: Plutarch and the New Testament

Things have been insanely busy this academic quarter, which is why I announced earlier this year that I will be on something of a sabbatical from blogging, until I finish my qualifying exams and advance to candidacy in my Ph.D. program.

However, I am currently visiting family in Phoenix for the Thanksgiving holiday, and, now that I have a chance to catch up on some blogging this weekend,  I would like to discuss my visit to the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion 2014 Conference in San Diego last weekend.


This was my first visit to the SBL/AAR annual conference, and I was only able to visit for a couple days of the conference, owing to graduate work. I had a really great time, though, visiting the panels and feeling the pulse of current Biblical, Philosophy of Religion, Ancient Mediterranean Religions, and Classical scholarship. The panel I enjoyed most during my visit was the Sunday Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti panel “Plutarch and the New Testament.”

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Posted in Academic Conferences, Ancient Biography, Announcements, Classics, History | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

PAMLA 2014 Paper: Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here.

The paper that I presented yesterday represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two:

  1. Physicality
  2. Uniformity
  3. Open vs. Closed Causality
  4. Mental Objects & Properties
  5. Teleology

Final Slide

You can read the full transcript of the paper that I presented here, which includes all of the images of my attending PowerPoint presentation.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Academic Conferences, Announcements, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

Κέλσος and Civitas Humana Plans for Academic Year 2014-2015

This week the Fall 2014 academic quarter starts up in the UC system, meaning that I am heading back to grad school. As I discussed in a previous post, this year will be especially important for my graduate career, since I will be taking the last 3 (out of 7) of my Ph.D. qualifying exams (Latin translation, Greek translation, and ancient literature). If I can pass those, then I will advance to candidacy and be cleared for starting my dissertation.

I am fortunate to have a 6-year fellowship at UC Irvine, so that, if I can pass my qualifying exams this year, I will have 3 years after that to work on my dissertation. I also plan to finish my book project during that time. All of this will hopefully take place during academic years 2015-2018.

So now I want to discuss my plans for academic year 2014-2015. Κέλσος is nearing its two year anniversary on October 1st. I’ve blogged consistently for the first two years of my Ph.D. program and worked to share a lot of what I have learned from my graduate work about ancient history and the Greco-Roman world. I am also glad that during that time Κέλσος was ranked 75th Bible blog on the web in Peter Kirby’s (Early Christian Writings) 2014 Summer Report.

This year will be the most challenging yet of my graduate career. Since I have to pass both a Latin and Greek translation exam (3 hours each), based on a list of ancient authors spanning a thousand year period (8th century BCE – 2nd century CE), with no dictionary of course, I will need to be devoting my full energy and attention to preparing my Latin and Greek language skills. Also, in Spring 2015, I plan to commute up to UC Santa Barbara to take New Testament and ancient religion seminars in their Religious Studies department, which will be another major time commitment.

So, where does blogging fit into this year? I have thought about it, and, while I think that it would be possible for me to still keep up blogging, while studying for my Ph.D. exams, I have decided that it is probably not the best use of my time year. This year I need to not only pass my Latin and Greek exams, but also to hone my skills as a philologist and professional. After all, you only get your graduate years once, and when you are a Classicist, a substantial part of that time needs to be spent, not only learning Latin and Greek, but perfecting and mastering your skills in those languages. You will need to master these languages before you can be a professor in academia.

As such, I have decided that I will not be posting continuously this academic year on Κέλσος and Civitas Humana. For the past two years I have worked to put up multiple posts each month (usually 3 on Κέλσος and 1 on Civitas Humana). My posts are often long and take a long time to write. For 2014-2015, I will not be posting on a consistent month-to-month basis. I need to be fully freed from all other commitments, so that I can devote all of my energy to my Ph.D. graduate work this year.

Does that mean I will not be posting anything? NO. I still plan to post on this blog over the next academic year, I only do not promise to post anything consistently. I am right in the middle of my metaphysics series on Civitas Humana, and I have only written the first part of my ancient biography series on Κέλσος. I will come back and finish these series whenever I find the time. I also plan to announce future publications here, and to post papers from conferences.

The main difference for 2014-2015 is that I will only be posting more sporadically rather than on a consistent month-to-month basis.

I do plan to return in 2015-2018 to continue blogging more on counter-apologetics, especially as I work on my book project and dissertation.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading the blog! I’ve written a lot over the past two years and I appreciate everyone who has been consistent readers. Already, both Κέλσος and Civitas Humana provide great databases on ancient history, counter-apologetics, naturalism, and secular humanism. It’s great to already have this information out there, even if I write less this year.

Feel free to still post comments during 2014-2015. I’ll still be around and will still be studying ancient history, the New Testament, and philosophy. I also look forward to this being a refreshing year to study the Latin and Greek languages at my most rigorous level yet!

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 3 Comments

“Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Stew” Is Now on the Secular Web!

This summer I have been sending out a number of articles to publishers, and one has just recently been published on the Secular Web. I have reworked my old blog post “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup” into a Secular Web article, addressing the question of what evidence would be sufficient to persuade a reasonably skeptical person of Jesus’ resurrection.

The new article, titled “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Stew” (I thought that “stew” had a better ring to it than “soup”), can now be accessed online in the Secular Web Kiosk.

In other good news, I turned 27 just two days ago on September 18 (my birthday is on the same day that the emperor Domitian was assassinated). This article was published just shortly before my birthday, so I consider it a good achievement for year 26. Hopefully this will be followed by more publications ahead, which will be announced here.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Publications | 3 Comments

Fall Quarter and Where I’m at with My Book Project

I will be starting Fall quarter at UCI in the beginning of October (yes, the UC system starts school that late), and I want to give an update about some of the work that I have both behind and in front of me, including where I am on my book project, tentatively titled “Doubting Christianity: Is Unbelief Unreasonable?” (hitherto referred to as DC).

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Posted in Announcements | 9 Comments