Friday, November 1, 2013

Do You Have a PhD to Have an Informed Opinion About Early Christianity? [Part One]

I have taken a few days off from blogging.  It was a lot of work writing and rewriting my latest book and I just needed a few days perspective.  In the meantime the latest 'heretical boogeyman' - Joe Atwill - has come along much to the delight of Bibliobloggers, many of whom are either professors, hold a PhD or are working to get one.  Many of these blogs love to point to people like Joe or Simcha Jacobovici.  It not only provides them with a victim to abuse together and to abuse these people with a sense of moral justification because of their 'wicked perversion of the truth' but more importantly unconsciously reinforces the 'need' in society for the 'academic approach' to the study of Christianity.

These academics make it sound as if the world is coming to an end because Joe Atwill or whomever else managed to get a full length story in a British newspaper.  But the reality is that there was always a place for wacky theories.  If you go back in time some of the bestselling books from the twentieth century involved UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle and various other conspiracy theories.  Why sound the alarm about a guy who believes the Romans invented Christianity by way of Josephus? 

There are many reasons for this strange transformation of academics into what one might call an 'active guild' in the greater culture.  For instance it is worth noting that many of these same professors who ridicule Joe and Simcha are promoting a new series from the History Channel that happens to feature - them!  What a surprise.  Yes you got that right.  The very same people that spend a great deal of time ridiculing amateur researchers have finally done something about it.  They have taken to the airwaves and helped produce a new show that is going to try and be entertaining and informative.

While there is nothing wrong with everyone getting a shot at producing entertaining television, one can't help but get the feeling that this the real reason why 'serious academics' have had it in for Joe and Simcha.  After all, as we noted earlier there has always been a place for wacky theories about history and religion in the popular media.  Yet it is worth noting that in the last fifty years the humanities and the study of religion in particular has diminished in popularity and respectability.  If you happen to be friends with many of these same people on Facebook as I am it is not uncommon to see them complain about (a) how much work it took for them to get their PhD (b) how badly they are now paid and (c) how little respect they get in society at large for all their 'expertise.'

As such it only makes sense that they would have begrudged Joe and Simcha for topping them without spending ten years grading papers and laying out large sums of cash.  But the real question is - do any of them have any large theories about how Christianity began?  What I mean is writing a PhD is a very specialized business.  You focus on a very narrow band of research and attempt to say something that moves the study of that particular thing forward.  Mark Goodacre recently oversaw Stephen Carlson's defense of his dissertation on the text of the Epistle to the Galatians.  Here is what Carlson spent most of the last decade working on for Duke University:

This dissertation investigates the text of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians and its history, how it changed over time. This dissertation performs a stemmatic analysis of 92 witnesses to the text of Galatians, using cladistic methods developed by computational biologists, to construct an unoriented stemma of the textual tradition. The stemma is then oriented based on the internal evidence of textual variants. After the stemma is oriented, the textual variants near the base of the stemma are examined and the text of Galatians is established based on stemmatic and eclectic principles. In addition, two branches of the textual tradition, the Western and the Eastern-Byzantine, are studied to assess the nature of textual variation in their history. This study reaches the conclusion that a modified stemmatic approach is an effective way to study both the text of a New Testament book and its history.

This sounds very interesting.  I might be interested in it.  A few of the readers of this blog might be interested in it.  But it is unlikely that this is going to make a very interesting History Channel series.

Now if you look at the topics of the new History Channel series they all seem 'controversial' in one way or another.  In many ways they seem like the subjects you might see in a Simcha Jacobovici documentary.  However there is one major difference the Biblioblog guild notes between their production and those of Jacobovici - they are all going to provide 'reasonable' interpretation of this sensational subject matter.  In other words, 'real academics' are going to be talking heads for the show not handpicked 'loonies' to reinforce the pet theory of the producers.

This sounds good in theory.  The miserable, underpaid and under appreciated academics get recognition and a chance to plug their books that no one is currently reading and more importantly the public will be protected from sycophants like Joe Atwill and Simcha Jacobovici.  But let's stop and take a close look at the 'new world order' these scholars have established for us - the viewing public.  The first thing to consider is whether - as Pete Townsend noted in a song once - the new boss is different from the old boss.  In other words, is the new producer of the History Channel series any less 'sleazy' and disreputable than Simcha Jacobovici?

Let's start with the new production company.  Robert Cargill has been at the forefront of the criticism of Simcha and his productions as well promoting the new History Channel series.  Not surprisingly he is one of the chief contributors to this show but also past shows of Prometheus Entertainment.  His Wikipedia page references the following:

  • 2011 “Civilization Lost” – Appeared as expert on episode that premiered on The History Channel, October 2011. (Prometheus)
  • 2010 “Ancient Aliens: The Series” - Appeared as expert on 6-episode series that aired on The History Channel, April-May 2010. (Prometheus Entertainment)
The Wikipedia page not only mentions his long association with Prometheus but interestingly his frequent appearances on CNN and other media criticizing Simcha's production company Associated Producers.  

Now let's face it folks there are only so many channels that do 'religious documentaries.'  Discovery Channel (which owns History) and National Geographic.  While Cargill was criticizing Simcha he wasn't doing so as a mere disinterested party.  He was clearing the way for his own production company Prometheus Entertainment to basically get the one or two programming slots away from Simcha's company.  This is the bottom line.  I am sure that Cargill really does believe that Simcha is a fraud.  But at the same time, Cargill benefited from Simcha's fall from grace.

If we turn the tables for the moment and ask whether Prometheus is any more respectable or less sleazy than Simcha let's turn the spotlight on some of their past productions - Ancient Aliens (a UFO conspiracy series), America's Book of Secrets (a Masonic conspiracy series) and various soft porn (but safe for TV) series like 'Kendra On Top' and various other 'hard news' documentaries on Playboy centerfolds.  Is there anything here that sets Prometheus apart from Associated Producers?  Oh, that's right - Associated Producers has won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism and various other awards.

I am not defending Simcha in any way.  As a point of disclosure I was recently flown to Israel and was interviewed by Simcha but so have a lot of other people, many of whom have a PhD.  We are all whores who will come to the table of anyone who wants to buy us a plane ticket and here the things our wives and husbands have long been bored of.  Cargill certainly possesses more critical reasoning skills - let's face it this is what academic training gives you - and more knowledge about the study of archaeology and early Judaism than Simcha.  But does that mean that Simcha shouldn't be allowed to make documentaries or - more importantly - that we shouldn't call out the fact that Cargill and his friends at Prometheus certainly benefited from his relentless attack against Associated Producers?

You're not going to hear a peep from the Biblioblogging community about any of this because most or many of the most prominent bloggers were hired (undoubtedly at Cargill's insistence) on to help with the project.  So we had one of group of Bibliobloggers work on Mark Burnett's recent Bible disaster and now another group of Bibliobloggers who will hopefully produce an interesting series with soft core porn producer (but safe for TV) Prometheus Entertainment.  This is apparently how things are supposed to be at the guild of academic Bibliobloggers.  Only they get to determine the stupid programming that we see on TV. 

It's a good thing because of all the problems facing America right now, the deceptive use of myth related to the Bible was at the top of everyone's list.  I am glad Cargill managed to solve an important crisis facing the world and the humanities in general while at the same time managing to benefit from his altruism.  This is why atheists like Cargill are always smarter than pious schlubs like Simcha.  They always keep their eyes on the prize ...

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