Over at Vridar, Tim Widowfield made an observation about the Overton Window as applied to NT scholarship, which all came about as a result of James McGrath comparing Jesus Mythicism to Creationism. Here, I’ll let Tim speak for himself:
The band of acceptable thought in the areas of social studies, politics, history, etc. can be quite narrow. If you stray too far from the norm, you may find yourself labeled as a nutjob. The Overton Window in politics, for example, may drift to the left or right, but its width remains essentially the same, which explains why certain policies in the U.S. that used to be considered within the bounds of normal, polite discussion are now considered “too radical,” and vice versa.
However, the boundaries in biblical studies are unique. In fact, we would be mistaken if we used the word “boundaries,” since the boundary on the right does not exist. Within the guild a scholar can still be considered competent and highly respected even though he or she believes all the books in the NT are authentic and the inspired Word of God. You can watch a debate between a mainline scholar and an evangelical scholar about whether half of Paul’s epistles or all of Paul’s epistles are authentic. But you’ll never hear from a scholar who thinks they’re all late and spurious.
McGrath and his crew would explain that an electrified fence that seals off all “unsafe” ideas on the left simply doesn’t exist. They would argue, simply, that no scholars in academia believe in those extreme, radical, silly ideas. In a way, they’re correct. Self-censorship and self-selection are much more effective (and cheaper) than relying on thought police. The advantage of unwritten rules is that scholars, aspiring scholars, and students internalize them. Of course, nobody argues for those “crazy” things, because anybody who would have done so has already opted out, and anyone remaining who privately thinks that way is smart enough to keep her dangerous thoughts to herself.
So we arrive at the question proposed as the title of this post. Which is more absurd: That a personal god exists, incarnated (one third of) himself in the form of Jesus the Nazarene, and that the NT is at least 90% accurate in recounting the origins of Christianity; is literally the (inspired) word of god? Or that a pretty pedestrian nobody who more secular scholars claim to be the founder of Christianity didn’t actually exist?
A better way of framing it: Which is more mundane? More boring? More “every day” ho-hum? A nobody was such a nobody that he didn’t actually exist, or the NT is basically a CNN-like report of the beginnings of Christianity?
Which should require more evidence to convince you of: A normal, boring, everyday event? Or something extraordinary like god himself walking among us mortals in the flesh for a few years?
As one should know by now from reading this blog, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; that’s not just some pithy saying or thought-terminating aphorism. It is an inexorable mathematical conclusion. I personally waver around 45% – 55% likelihood that Jesus existed (I have yet to read Richard Carrier’s and Rafael Lataster’s books on the subject; I’ll probably get to them once I finish this semester of grad school). But the entire orthodox Christian interpretation of Christianity’s genesis? That is exceedingly extraordinary, and would require much more evidence to convince me of than the evidence necessary to show that Jesus didn’t exist.
The fact of the matter is that conservative/literalist biblical NT scholars (who are also much more likely to be actual Creationists!) are welcome in the guild while scholars who go about questioning the existence of Jesus are beyond the pale. This is evidence, to me, that something too far removed from just scholarship is going on to explain the disparity. Indeed, it seems more like basic tribalism. To the more liberal NT scholars, biblical literalist NT scholars are fellow Christians. While Jesus Mythicism is overflowing with atheists and agnostics.