Secular Humanism’s Second Wave: How Scholarship Undermines Religion

I think most secularists would agree that something unexpected has happened in America since 2004 when Sam Harris’s End of Faith burst onto the scene. Its timely appearance, at the height of the Bush administration’s courting of the Religious Right and Bush’s hubristic invasion of Iraq, had a galvanizing effect on the growing segment of the population that isn’t at all religious. Even more remarkably, it was followed in swift succession by equally forthright volumes from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and the Center for Inquiry’s own Victor Stenger—sometimes (along with Michel Onfray, Michael Martin [with Ricki Monnier], Nicholas Everitt, Alex Rosenberg, and George Levine) collectively described as the “New Atheists.”

I call that development the “First Wave.” It carried out an initial assault on the territory of religion and established a beachhead for further operations. The New Atheists have been remarkably successful at getting attention for their viewpoints, providing an unexpected burst of energy for this previously seemingly dormant group. But you might recall the Penn and Teller quote on the Dawkins book’s dust jacket: “If this book doesn’t change the world, we’re all screwed.” More than a decade later, would anyone say that The God Delusion has changed the world? It’s clear that secularists can’t rely on just the First Wave.

Of course, the other side, stung by the suddenness and ferocity of the New Atheists, has mounted a desperate counterattack. Although the Divine Being itself hasn’t inspired any books lately to reaffirm its continuing existence, its supporters have tried to make up for that awkward silence with a swarm of pro-theistic volumes. These authors include Karen Armstrong, Peter Hitchens (yes, Christopher’s brother), Timothy Keller, Keith Ward, Peter Williams, and coauthors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Occasionally, the pro-theists do score some points: the sharpest critiques of the New Atheists have focused on their lack of professional credentials in religion and their relative naïveté when they deal with things such as theology, philosophy, and Bible scholarship.

So, borrowing a phrase from Alvin Toffler, who was famous decades ago for writing Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1981), I’m calling into existence, through this article, a “Second Wave” of secular humanism. I will do so by assembling a set of experts with impeccable credentials who can move comfortably within this metaphorical “enemy territory” and whose published works can “undermine religion” from the inside. Accordingly, I hereby declare them “allies” in our campaign, although some might not want to find themselves “on the side of the Devil.” As it happens, some of their most striking comments are buried in academic tomes and journal articles that only professors and graduate students will ever read, so one purpose of this essay is to bring those remarks into public view.

The most important word in my subtitle, scholarship, involves a significant parallelism. We all know the role of the scientific method in dispelling religiously driven superstitions of the past; “scholarship” implies a similar methodology in modern Bible-related research. In that field, the phrase serious people apply to their work is “historical-critical,” indicating a rejection of such elements as divine inspiration and miracles and also at least the intention to test what purports to be evidence by normal, rational standards. Two examples will show the terminology in action. In 1835, the twenty-eight-year-old David Friedrich Strauss issued a 1,487-page work titled The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. He may have been the first to use the term critical with reference to the study of Jesus, meaning not that he was taking a negative view of the subject but that he was exercising judgment in assessing evidence and drawing conclusions—the Greek root krit- in the word critical originally meant “sift,” in the sense of sifting wheat from chaff. In 1979, Newsweek ran a cover story, “Who Was Jesus?” (published, conveniently, on December 24), including a quote from the eminent Jesuit scholar Joseph Fitzmyer: “In Scripture matters, education today is so retrograde that one cannot even raise a critical question without shocking people.” Fitzmyer uses that word, critical, to identify the modern approach—which was a very recent development within the Catholic Church. The Anti-Modernist Oath of 1910, which condemned all nonliteralist approaches to Bible interpretation and was mandatory for priests and teachers, had been rescinded only a dozen years earlier.

In the following survey of secular humanism’s unrecognized allies, I will deal with four topics where underappreciated resources are available to secularists: the Hebrew Bible; Biblical Archaeology; the Historical Jesus and the New Testament; and the Resurrection.

The Hebrew Bible

The vast majority of people in this country don’t know Hebrew or Greek, although the texts of the Bible are written entirely in those two languages (aside from a little Aramaic). So we have a situation that has only a few parallels in the whole long and depressing history of religion—vast numbers of folks who have a fervent belief in their sacred text but have never actually read it in its original languages. Even stranger, most leaders of Christian communities can’t read it that way either. To put it very bluntly: there is at the core of American Christianity an astonishing amount of sheer ignorance and brazen hypocrisy; at least 99.99 percent of its adherents have never actually read the Bible—and they don’t seem to care. Stephen Prothero, chair of Religious Studies at Boston University, made the same observation (without my tartness of expression) a few years ago in his book, Religious Literacy—echoing Will Herberg a half-century before, who noted that many Americans don’t believe in specific dogmas but that they “believe in belief.” A possible bumper-sticker comes to mind: “Read the Bible Responsibly.” Alas, Google says that I’m not the inventor of the phrase; several Bible schools say in their catalogues, “We will teach you to read the Bible responsibly”—which almost certainly is what they won’t do. My use has, obviously, a double meaning: the mischievous allusion to alcohol ads conveys the (entirely justified) suggestion that the Bible can be a toxic substance with the power to do real harm, and the surface of the phrase hints that responsible reading means reading in the original—or, since that’s impossible for most people, reading it with the aid of truly competent scholars. And that brings us to the personnel of the Second Wave.

It would be nice to “begin at the beginning,” with Genesis, long read in grotesquely literal fashion by sizable numbers of our fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the definitive resource—the long-awaited scholarly commentary on Genesis in the Anchor Yale Bible series—is still in gestation. Its author is Ronald Hendel, professor of the Hebrew Bible at Berkeley, who’s been at work on this project for more than two decades. I have no idea when it will appear, but in an e-mail exchange several years ago, William Propp, the Anchor Bible Exodus commentator, assured me that it was “in good hands,” which in context clearly implied that Hendel would be as skeptical as Propp himself is in his Anchor Exodus volumes. Of course, a thorough dismissal of “historicity” in Genesis might arouse a furious response; but, as we will see momentarily, something like that has already happened with Exodus—and hardly seems to have been noticed.

However, there is a passage that illustrates what two centuries of the historical-critical method have concluded about the “
truth-value” of Genesis. In the two-thousand-page third edition of the Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael Coogan, professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College (a Catholic institution in Easton, Massachusetts), says this at the end of a subsection titled “The Historicity of the Ancestral Narratives in Genesis”: “Biblical writings probably do preserve some authentic historical memories, but these have been so refracted by the processes of transmission and the idealization of the ancestors that it is impossible to designate any of the individuals mentioned in Genesis as historical or to establish anything resembling a precise chronology.” Coogan might have risked censure and perhaps even excommunication if he had published that sentence before the Church rescinded the Anti-Modernist Oath.

We have better luck with an equally central Hebrew Bible text, Exodus. There are two recent scholarly commentaries—one, on a modest scale, by Carol Meyers, professor of religion at Duke, and the other, a huge two-volume, 1,600-page work by the aforementioned Propp, professor of Hebrew at the University of California, San Diego. Both commentators address the issue of “historical truth”—and fervent believers might be dismayed to see that both say quite openly that the claim of literal historicity is untenable. Consider these three quotes from Meyers: “It may look like a history book . . . but it is no longer useful to think of Exodus in such terms.” The second is more striking: “After more than a century of research and the massive efforts of generations of archaeologists and Egyptologists, nothing has been recovered that relates directly to the account in Exodus of an Egyptian sojourn and escape, or of a large-scale migration through Sinai.” Finally: “The archaeological evidence from Egypt and Sinai is all negative.”*

At the very end of volume two, Propp is even more candid about the need to separate the credulous mind-set of religion from the serious study of history: “The Torah describes unnatural occurrences so bizarre that, were they the testimony of a modern witness, I would unhesitatingly consider him/her to be schizophrenic or ‘under the influence’. Because of the peculiar history of biblical research as a subdiscipline of theology, it is embarrassingly necessary to insist that the supernatural has no more place in academic scholarship than it has in the courtroom.” Note Propp’s emphatic use of my theme-word, scholarship.

Propp also has a twenty-page “Appendix on Historicity,” and anyone who reads it carefully will never again think that Moses really existed, especially not in the fashion inflicted upon us every Easter-time in that childishly literalist film, The Ten Commandments. Quoting Propp again: “Even de-supernaturalized, the story of the Exodus does not map well against the historical and archaeological record. In fact, it hardly maps at all”—meaning that if the record is valid, then the story is false.

Propp also says something really extraordinary: discussing the problem we moderns have imagining a culture where oral transmission plays a large role, he says: “Let me offer a familiar example of a proto-literate culture, one in which traditions are manipulated even as they grow organically . . . I am thinking of the society of the very young. For I cannot escape the queasy feeling that the biblical accounts of Israel’s origins are analogous to the hilarious versions of American and world history produced by our schoolchildren . . . George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Squanto—each commemorated in his own annual historical festival [three birthdays and Thanksgiving]—become contemporaries, exchanging exploits and iconography. Imagine sifting that for history!” Notice the significant metaphor, sifting.

It’s pretty remarkable to find a first-order scholar describing Exodus as, historically speaking, hilarious. Propp follows that paragraph with a section titled “So What?”—where he basically gives up: “A good myth is mightier than history, immune to both evidence and analysis. I have no doubt that, the foregoing remarks notwithstanding, the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt will remain a historical fact for 99 percent of educated Americans.” Of course, it would be wildly optimistic to think that even 1 percent of educated Americans will ever open Propp’s two monumental volumes—which makes it all the more urgent to bring his comments to a wider audience. Propp also makes a pungent parenthetical remark that supports my previous comment about Bible translations: “Having access to the Hebrew, I find the celebrated King James Version excruciatingly dull!” And I can top even that: hidden away quietly on page 722 of volume two, Propp states that he’s an atheist—not exactly the “job description” you’d expect for an Anchor Bible Commentary author.

Biblical Archaeology

There has been a sea-change, just in the past few decades, in the academic field that used to be called “Biblical Archaeology.” Beginning in the late nineteenth century, people went to “The Holy Land” and confidently expected that if they started digging, they’d easily prove the truth of the Bible. Instead, the “massive efforts” that Carol Meyers mentioned have led to the realization that, whatever else one may say about the Bible, its historical truth-value is very low. Two helpful summaries of this important development are Tom Davis’s Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology and John Laughlin’s Archaeology and the Bible.

In fact, one of the leading figures in the field, William Dever, now emeritus from the University of Arizona, has proposed dropping the phrase “Biblical Archaeology” altogether and renaming the field “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology.” I’ve put three of his numerous publications in the references list; the most entertaining may be Did God Have a Wife? The answer appears to be “Yes”—a heavenly consort named Asherah, who was apparently expelled from the written traditions by a wave of puritanical monotheism, although there is archaeological evidence for her existence and importance. One can’t help noting that having the status of Divine Bachelor did spare God from potentially awkward domestic complications when the time came to have a son by “some other woman.”

In a move that reveals this shift of priorities with unusual directness, the preeminent English-language scholarly journal in the field, after sixty years of being called Biblical Archaeologist, adopted in 1998 the less tendentious title Near Eastern Archaeology. (They were probably also distancing themselves from Biblical Archaeology Review, which has been involved in a number of heated controversies in recent years.) Finally, I should mention two outstanding examples of historical-critical revisionism, each coauthored by Israel Finkelstein, a professor at Tel Aviv University: The Bible Unearthed and The Quest for the Historical Israel. It’s often said that what is radical in one generation becomes mainstream in the next; much of the “undermining” of traditional opinion about the early history of Israel has come from “young-Turk” Bible scholars, who thus qualify as allies in the Second Wave, whether they want to or not.

The Historical Jesus and the New Testament

The title of Finkelstein’s second book provides an easy segue to the next topic, since that phrase clearly echoes Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, originally published in 1906. In that work, Schweitzer used the historical-critical method to demonstrate the fictionalized nature of most nineteenth-century Jesus biographies. About a fifth of his book deals with the impact of Strauss’s Life; ironically, attempts to refute or dismiss Strauss’s work consigned most of those books to error and insignificance. Dissatisfaction with the heavily negative results of early twentieth-century resea
rch prompted a new quest in the 1950s and 60s and then a third Quest, which began in the mid-1980s and is still “a work in progress.” The often-criticized “Jesus Seminar,” organized by the late Robert Funk (who was a well-trained scholar himself), has been the most publicly visible part of this quest.

Father John Meier, a Jesuit priest and an endowed-chair professor at Notre Dame, produced in 1999 a survey of the third quest’s strengths and weaknesses. Given his position, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want to be called an “ally” of a secular humanist movement; nonetheless, he makes a strong contrast between theological and historical-critical approaches to Jesus. Here’s a typical quote: “It is, after all, historical-critical research that enables scholars of vastly different backgrounds and commitments to propose, test, and adjudicate claims in the public arena by commonly accepted criteria.”

Father Meier has surprisingly candid things to say about Jesus’s reported miracles: “I felt that intellectual honesty demanded that I proceed to probe every single miracle story in the four gospels . . . After some 400 pages of testing [in A Marginal Jew, volume two], I came to the conclusion that at least some of the miracle stories and sayings went back to the historical Jesus.” He specifies two or three exorcisms, various healings of blind, deaf, and generally sick people, and sayings of Jesus that assert he performed exorcisms and healings. However, the “faith healers” pilloried in James Randi’s very angry book, The Faith Healers, do that sort of thing every week, and they’re obvious frauds. Furthermore, Meier dismisses the “nature miracles” (except for suggesting that the feeding of the multitude “has a fair claim to go back to some remarkable event in Jesus’s lifetime”)—not exactly a ringing endorsement for the wonder-working son of God. So, whether he’d like it or not, Meier can be enlisted as an ally.

Meier’s four-volume, three-thousand-page study is already the largest serious biographical work on the “Historical Jesus.” But it’s surprising to see that while those four volumes do have the imprimatur of the Catholic Church (allowing them to be printed), they do not have a nihil obstat (meaning that they are not totally free of doctrinal or moral error). There may be other reasons for the absence of the nihil obstat, but one is clear from the first volume: Meier, like several other historical-critical Catholic scholars (as stated in a 1995 story by John Dart of the Los Angeles Times) does not accept the doctrine of the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. That is, he realizes that it’s not possible to explain away, as the Church tried to do for centuries, the plain meaning of the Greek in Mark 6:3, which mentions four named brothers and at least two unnamed sisters of Jesus. In the newspaper article, Notre Dame professor Jerome Neyrey is quoted as saying, “No linguistic evidence warrants our interpreting Gospel passages about Jesus’ brothers and sisters as his cousins.” Pheme Perkins of Jesuit-run Boston College is even more emphatic, saying that calling Jesus’s brothers cousins “is plain ridiculous.” In the intervening two decades, those scholars’ views have not been embraced by the Church; in fact, they, like professor Coogan, may be lucky not to have been disciplined or excommunicated.

Another example of scholarship denying conventional belief comes in journalist Charlotte Allen’s book, The Human Christ; she says that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar (about eighty scholars) were supposed to take a vote on the paternity of Jesus. But the majority refused to take a public position that might expose them as rejecting the traditional claim of God as father; Allen describes cofounder Robert Funk as reacting in irritation, calling them “a bunch of cowards—scholars believe Jesus had a human father.” This nicely combines two of my themes: that serious scholars often have decidedly unorthodox views, at least in private, and that many of them are reluctant to publicize those professional opinions, thus demonstrating not ignorance but plain hypocrisy and a lack of intellectual integrity.

One more item before I pass on to the Resurrection: the problem of textual variants in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, which together have about 146,600 words in Greek. When the much-loved King James Version was replaced in 1881 by the Revised Version, a committee of scholars altered the readings of the underlying Greek text in some five thousand places—on average, once every thirty words. But the full set of ancient variants is far larger: a 2007 article in Harvard Theological Review by the respected textual scholar Eldon Jay Epp suggests that the total number of variants, counting not only those in the Greek manuscripts but also ancient translations into Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Ethiopian, along with quotations of the fathers of the early church, may be as high as a third of a million—an average of two per word in the standard text. Even if many of those variants involve minor details, the claim that there lies behind them an original “perfect and inerrant” text representing the true Word of God which might somehow be recovered from that enormous mass, is pretty obviously delusional. One could hardly ask for a better example of serious scholarship undermining the supposed bedrock of Christian beliefs.

The Resurrection

There are about a dozen reported postmortem sightings of Jesus. They occur first in Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4–8) and then in the Synoptic Gospels—two sources that, very awkwardly, have at most only one episode in common. This is critical because, as Paul says in that same letter, “If Jesus has not awakened, then your faith is in vain . . . If, having placed our hope in Christ, we live only in this life, we are the most pitiable of all humans.” That’s a dangerous admission to make, but the failure of Christianity to validate those “if” clauses hasn’t bothered the believers for two thousand years. In this area, our principal allies are some German “renegades,” Joachim Kahl, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Gerd Lüdemann, and also Alexander Wedderburn, all very well-qualified scholars. I highly recommend Wedderburn’s book, which in about one hundred pages gives a lucid summary of the problems in the resurrection narratives, clearly exposing their unacceptability from the historical-critical standpoint.

It’s commonplace of Christian apologetics that something real and utterly convincing must have happened, or the disciples wouldn’t have gone from presumed despair on Good Friday to triumphant confidence and ready to face death for their beliefs. Of course, mere willingness to face death has no connection to truth—otherwise, the 9/11 hijackers would be better witnesses than the apostles. But there are also some opponents of this “true-conversion” view within the scholarly community—which makes them people who have already declared themselves as allies. I’ve already mentioned Kahl, Ranke-Heinemann, and Lüdemann; there’s also Michael Goulder, whose essay “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision” rather breezily dismisses the resurrection appearances as a form of hallucination.

In addition, we have two “external allies,” not usually cited by secularist critics of conventional opinions but offering perspectives that clearly undermine Christian claims. Psychologist Leon Festinger’s once-famous 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, tells what happened when the leader of a space-aliens cult in the upper Midwest made a prediction of world destruction by cataclysmic flood—and, rather injudiciously, set a precise date for the event: December 21, 1954, with alien contact and rescue of the cult at midnight, catastrophe for everyone else at 7:00 a.m.

Festinger’s team quietly infiltrated the group to observe firsthand their reactions to the “cognitive dissonance” (a phrase Festinger coined) tha
t would surely occur after an undeniable falsification. What took place was very striking: the group talked through their turmoil during the night—and by mid-morning they had a new interpretation (arrived at in defiance of the evidence) that didn’t require giving up their previous beliefs. Before the event, they were completely secretive, not wanting to cause panic; after it, they called a press conference to declare that, by being receptive to the aliens’ message, they had saved the world! Because they were deeply committed and had a small but solid network of mutual support, they came away—illustrating the splendid illogic of religion—more committed than ever. That, by the way, was what Festinger had predicted.

In the introduction, written in the depths of the McCarthy era, Festinger raises—only to hold carefully at arm’s length—the ominous parallel with the Crucifixion, noting that present-day (that is, 1950s) New Testament scholars weren’t sure what the disciples believed on Good Friday or how they came to reaffirm, rather than abandon, their worship of Jesus. Casting doubt on the foundational Christian story by drawing on the seemingly remote field of experimental psychology seems a more plausible—and potentially damaging—critique than simply invoking individual and collective hallucinations; it’s another unusual but effective application of scholarship in order to undermine religion’s claims.

The second “external ally” is Raymond Moody, famous, along with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, for popularizing near-death experiences (NDEs) in his 1976 best-seller, Life after Life. But I suspect that very few people have ever heard of a small volume, charmingly titled Elvis after Life, which Moody wrote after traveling around the “Elvis Belt,” soliciting stories of postmortem encounters. One of the most interesting comes from a clinical psychologist, who at twenty-eight was having an early midlife crisis when Elvis appeared in her office. He immediately asks profound questions that display deep insight and warm affection, and he calls her “Missy”; “No one,” she adds, rather engagingly, “had called me that for years”—treating this detail as confirmation of Elvis’s external reality, not as a product of her own mind. The result was an intense, life-changing experience, although the woman didn’t try to start a “Church of the Risen Elvis.” Nonetheless, one could argue that her firsthand report, coming from a highly educated twentieth-century professional, has far more credibility than anything in the Gospel stories, which were told and retold perhaps hundreds of times before being written down some forty to sixty years later. Moody clearly indicates that he doesn’t accept such “return of Elvis” stories as factual, but, unlike Festinger, he appears not to notice their potentially damaging implications for the “return of Jesus” stories.

Conclusion

This article has presented more than a dozen Second-Wave allies from within the sometimes arcane world of Bible scholarship who are well equipped to help undermine religious claims. And, in a logical extension of the metaphor, Free Inquiry readers can now become part of the “Third Wave”: people who know about and can disseminate the work of the Second Wave. This is something everyone in the secular humanist world can do—and it should be especially encouraging to realize that so many experts “from over there” are actually on our side.

References

The First Wave: ‘New Atheists’ and the ‘Historical-Critical’ Approach

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2006. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking.

Everitt, Nicholas. 2004. The Non-existence of God. London: Routledge.

Harris, Sam. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: Norton.

Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve/Hachette.

Levine, George, ed. 2011. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Martin, Michael, and Ricki Monnier, eds. 2003. The Impossibility of God. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

­­———. 2006. The Improbability of God. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Martin, Michael, ed. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Onfray, Michel. 2007. Atheist Manifesto: The Case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. New York: Arcade.

Rosenberg, Alex. 2011. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. New York: Norton.

Stenger, Victor. 2007. God: The Failed Hypothesis. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Strauss, David Friedrich. 1994. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Ramsey, N.J.: Sigler Press. Originally published 1846.

Woodward, Kenneth L. 1979. “Who Was Jesus?” Newsweek, December 24.

Responses to the ‘New Atheists’

Armstrong, Karen. 2009. The Case for God. New York: Knopf.

Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, New York: Dutton.

Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. 2009. God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. New York: Penguin.

Ward, Keith. 2009. Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins. Oxford: Lion Hudson.

Williams, Peter S. 2009. The Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster.

The Second Wave

Hebrew Bible

Coogan, Michael D. 2001. “Cultural Contexts: The Ancient Near East and Ancient Israel.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Herberg, Will. 1960. Protestant–Catholic–Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Garden City: Anchor.

Meyers, Carol. 2005. Exodus, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Propp, William H. C. 1998, 2006. Exodus 1–18; Exodus 19–40, 2 vols. Anchor Bible Commentary. New York: Doubleday.

Prothero, Stephen. 2007. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Biblical Archaeology

Davis, Thomas W. 2004. Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dever, William G. 2001. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Dever, William G. 2003. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

­­———.2005. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Finkelstein, Israel, and Neal Asher Silberman. 2001. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press.

Finkelstein, Israel, and Amihai Mazar, eds. 2007. The Quest for the Historical Israel. Leiden: Brill.

Laughlin, John. 1999. Archaeology and the Bible. London: Routledge.

The Historical Jesus

Allen, Charlotte. 1998. The Human Christ. New York: Free Press.

Dart, John. 1995. “Some Believe Jesus Had Siblings.” Austin American-Statesman, December 22. Reprint from the Los Angeles Times.

Epp, Eldon Jay. 2007. “It’s All about Variants: A Variant-
Conscious Approach to New Testament Textual Criticism.” Harvard Theological Review 100.

Meier, John P., S. J. 1991–2001. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, four vols. New York: Doubleday; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Fifth volume forthcoming.

Meier, John P., S. J. 1999. “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain.” Biblica 80.

Randi, James. 1987. The Faith Healers. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

Schweitzer, Albert. 1950. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan.

The Resurrection

Festinger, Leon. 1956. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Goulder, Michael. 1996. “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision.” In Resurrection Reconsidered, edited by Gavin D’Costa. Oxford: Oneworld.

Kahl, Joachim. 1971. The Misery of Christianity. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Lüdemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Moody, Raymond A. 1987. Elvis after Life: Unusual Psychic Experiences Surrounding the Death of a Superstar. Atlanta: Peachtree.

Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Have to Believe to Have a Living Faith. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Wedderburn, Alexander J. M. 1999. Beyond Resurrection. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.

*This matter may not be quite as cut-and-dried as the foregoing suggests. I only recently learned, while talking with John Grebe of WZBC in Boston, that a large conference (“Exodus: Out of Africa”) was held at the QualComm Institute of the University of California-San Diego from May 31 to June 3, 2013; forty-five scholars, representing a wide variety of disciplines and commitments, delivered papers, all of which are posted at http://exodus.calit2.net. Summarizing such a mass of material is impossible here, but I note that William Propp does not abandon the position taken in his Exodus commentary.


James H. Dee retired from the Classics Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including several for Free Inquiry. He also lectures; early versions of this article were delivered to Center for Inquiry branches in Los Angeles (January 10, 2010), Austin (September 10, 2010), and Tallahassee (November 1, 2012).


Numerous religious scholars reject literal understandings of Christianity, often in terms average churchgoers would find disturbing to their faith. Secular humanists should do more to make their conclusions more widely known.

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