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, 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 CassandreiaEumenes, and Nearchus, among others.

Moreover, these early historical sources 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

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: David Hart’s Rant against Atheism and Naturalism in “The Experience of God”

the-experience-of-godTheologian and philosopher David Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss has made something of a ripple since being published about a year ago in 2013. Shortly after its publication, columnist Oliver Burkeman wrote a review for The Guardian, titled “The One Theology Book All Atheists Really Should Read,” insisting that Hart’s new book is, well, a book that all atheists should take the time to read. The reason why is because many atheists have (allegedly) been attacking the wrong idea of God all along, whereas Hart explains and defends the actual theologian’s conception of God and shows through a cross-cultural survey of theology that atheists are not really attacking the strongest arguments for God, nor the actual beliefs of many theists and/or supernaturalists. For a rebuttal to this notion by a secular philosopher, see Daniel Linford’s “Do Atheists Reject the ‘Wrong Kind of God’? Not Likely.”

Burkeman writes:

“One reason that modern-day debates between atheists and religious believers are so bad-tempered, tedious, and infuriating is that neither side invests much effort in figuring out what the other actually means when they use the word ‘God’. This is an embarrassing oversight, especially for the atheist side (on which my sympathies generally lie). After all, scientific rationalists are supposed to care deeply about evidence. So you might imagine they’d want to be sure that the God they’re denying is the one in which most believers really believe. No ‘case against God’, however watertight, means much if it’s directed at the wrong target.”

Now, let me say right off the bat that I think that Burkeman has accurately described the rhetoric and behavior of *some* atheists. After all, I would hardly call Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion the strongest atheist critique of the theological arguments for God out there. But does it really need to be? Dawkins wrote a popular book directed towards a lay audience, whose main purpose was to argue against the normativity of religion and God in Western culture. After all, “New Atheism” is primarily a cultural/social/political movement directed towards increasing secularization and removing religion from everyday life. New Atheism *is not* a philosophical or theological movement directed towards answering the most arcane questions of philosophy, nor does it even really espouse a particular worldview or metaphysical model of reality.

Now, where then are atheists to turn if they wish to interact with and counter the strongest theological arguments for God? To the writings of atheist philosophers and a-theologians who specialize in philosophy of religion and the arguments for God.

That is why I had hoped in this book that Hart would interact more with the works of professional atheist philosophers of religion, such as Graham Oppy (though Oppy is mentioned in a brief note on pg. 350, to be discussed below), who in Arguing About Gods provides a critical survey of all of the major theological arguments for God throughout history, and “discusses the work of a wide array of philosophers, including Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, and, more recently, Plantinga, Dembski, White, Dawkins, Bergman, Gale, and Pruss.” Even Christian apologist William Lane Craig has written a relatively praiseworthy, though critical review of Oppy’s work, calling it “a wide-ranging and penetrating critique of the arguments of natural theology.” Has Oppy, after all this research and work, simply been arguing against the wrong conception of God?

Now, I do not normally like book reviews that start with, “The author did not interact enough with argument X, or author X, so this book is useless.” That is not what I am saying. There is a lot of interesting stuff in The Experience of God (I particularly think that Hart’s cross-cultural survey of metaphysics and theology across multiple religions is worthwhile). However, there is a major flaw and shortcoming of this book that undermines Hart’s entire thesis that atheists are not attacking the right version of God or the strongest arguments for God: Hart fails to interact with the works of the best atheist philosophers, and he is also highly dismissive of naturalism, despite naturalism being the majority view in the professional philosophical community. This is especially disappointing for a book that is supposed to be about focusing on the strongest arguments on either side and not setting up a straw man against the opposite position.

Hart fails to give a fair representation of atheist philosophy and naturalism in The Experience of God, and, because of this, his book is an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

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Posted in Apologists, Philosophy, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments