Initial Thoughts on the 2nd Dan Barker vs. James White debate…

First blog post in MONTHS!

Well, I just got off the AOMin chat channel and finished listening to the White/Barker detate that happened.  It was a little over 3 hours, and it was definitely quite the show.  Right off the bat, I’m not going to pretend that I remembered everything that was said (and won’t suggest that my representation of the debate is factually inerrant in any way), but here’s my synopsis:

1.  Dan comitted a fatal error right off the start.  When White started his opening statement, Barker interupted him and pleaded for a point of order; he asked that White would not quote from his own book Godless.  Why?  Barker essentially has changed some of his positions from the book (released in 2008) and doesn’t want to have to defend some of the things that he’s changed his mind on.  Ironically, the book was apparently for sale on the merch table at the debate though.  Fatal error is an understatement.  Barker came to the debate and brought his latest book, but protested to his opponent actually refering to his published offerings on the subject.  If Barker is still in transition on the issues of the debate, selling his book at the debate while admitting it’s error is both a marketting flaw and a debating seppuku.

White rightly remarked that he’d never heard of anyone doing that in a scholarly debate.  Usually, people desire to have people quote their books (as opposed to some T.V. interview, or some sound bite, or a blog post, etc.).  It seems that when a person writes a 400 page book on an issue, they’re relatively confident on the subject matter and have done enough thinking about the issue to think it’s worth publishing, for the benefit of the world at large.  Barker is a bizarre exception to this rule.

2.  Barker got horribly outgunned by White on the various source texts that are used to establish the Isis/Mithras/Osiris issue, as well as the supposed Christian borrowing from those texts for the creation of the “Jesus Myth”:

  • First, White knew the source material and had done original language work that adequately challenged the translation of some of the source documents.  Barker apparently does not know Greek enough to simply read a Greek text without helps, since he had nothing to say about White’s interpretative points stemming from original language work.
  • Secondly, White commented on the parallels and showed how utterly non-parallel they are; i.e Osiris was “resurrected”, but this really means he was hacked to pieces and sewn together and ultimately became a zombie.  Not quite as similar to the resurrection of Christ as many people attempt to portray it.
  • Barker admitted that the Old Testament’s essential message was one of how the Israelites were constantly flirting with idolatry; thus he made the effort to show how the Israelites were familiar with paganism and attempted to incorporate it into Judaism.  White responded by pointing out that the univocal response to paganism in the OT was one of disgust; the prophets consistently and constantly showed a hatred of paganism in all its beliefs and practices.   Also, the paganism was essentially set by the leadership; i.e. when a king was bad, the nation was bad (idolatrous like Ahab or Manasseh), but when the leadership was good, the nation was good (non-idolatrous like David or Josiah).  It’s very hard then, knowing how completely “anti-idolatry” the Jews were after the Babylonian captivity, to suggest that anyone in Judaism would support what would have clearly been idolatrous concessions, if early Christians were Jews stealing from paganism to make up their Christianity.  The Jews, especially the leadership (Pharisees and Sadducees), would have condemned any pagan concessions, and the early Jewish converts would have gone with them in condemning the ‘psuedo pagan message’ that the Christians were delivering.  This is not the case with Christ though.  Everyone knew he was a miracle worker, and the historical records of the gospel suggest blasphemy where Christ said he was God.  This was an utter attack against the Jewish monism that was found nowhere in preceding paganism.  The 1st and 2nd century Jews knew that Christianity was new and different, but nobody thought it was a reversion to, or new version of, pagan idolatry.  Many things were rightly said of early Christianity by the Jews, but ‘pagan rip off’ was not one of them.
  • Barker completely abandoned this topic in both of his Q&A periods, which is telling.  Barker used his Q&A time to pursue obvious ad hominem arguments; namely the idea of Young Earth Creationism and ideas surrounding Mormonism and their “scriptures”, attempting to establish evidences of inconsistency with White.  The YEC questions were simply attempting to show that White was a crack pot, and Barker didn’t go near Mithraism/Isis/Osiris, etc. in his Q&A time.  In channel, everyone was consistently asking “Why is he changing the debate subject?” and “Why is he using such obvious rhetorical traps and ad hominem arguments?”

3.  Barker started off the debate attempting to give proof that Christianity stole from pagan sources to manufacture the “Jesus story” but ended up the debate reverting to a pleading for uncertainty.  He closed his final statement suggesting that White looks for “proof” when you cannot prove anything, suggested that Christianity is unprovable, his atheism is equally unprovable but more rational (though he abandoned any form of reasoning, outside of ad hominem attacks against White, to show how it is more rational), and gave the standard “I only believe in 1 less god than you” line.  Barker was on the ropes, and it seemed like he knew it.  I was wondering where his notorious “capital ‘A’ atheism” (I’m going to prove that God does not and can not exist…) went by the end of the debate.

I’m guessing that’s why the “Jesus never existed” camp is so utterly small (what, >10 biblical scholars support that, if that?), and why the “Jesus is entirely a concoction from earlier pagan myths” camp is not much bigger (what, >100 biblical scholars, if I’m being generous?).  The first position, when thrown in the ring of actual debate and when demanded to present its factual evidence in the face of articulate and informed rebuttal, is simply atrociously weak and utterly indefensible.  The second position, when thrown in the ring of actual debate and when demanded to present its factual evidence in the face of articulate and informed rebuttal, needs to rest in ambiguity and has to completely ignore the numerous glaring differences between Christ and the pagan ideas in order to argue for precious few tiny similarities.

The web groups that applaud things like Zeitgeist are essentially filled with high-school level skeptics who are incompetent critical thinkers that are allergic to self-critical examination, and the whole “Jesus never existed” and  “Jesus is a concoction of pagan components” positions are built upon bizarrely improbable skepticism stacked upon bizarrely improbable skepticism stacked upon bizarrely improbable skepticism.   Let’s face it; the majority of people who support the latter position on a popular level, have no training in anything relevant to anything biblical (Ancient Near Eastern History, Religious Studies, Classical or Semmitic languages, let alone Biblical studies, theology, exegesis, biblical languages).  I think that’s why biblical scholarship (i.e. the SBL or…*cough* the ETS) currently has less than a dozen scholars who positively defend the position as opposed to the thousands of currently active biblical scholars who, although they represent a wide variety of opinions about Jesus, recognize that he was a figure who was not simply a figure built from the lego blocks of the paganism that came before.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts.  I look forward to none of the coming comments, knowing who usually comments on this sort of stuff!  Hooray!

Until Next Time,

The Armchair Theologian

James White vs. Dan Barker initial thoughts…

Okay.  I listened to the White vs. Barker debate on the Dividing Line live stream tonight, and then went to a Shai Linne concert at Masters College, so I’m writing this quick and late (it’s bedtime).

The audio from the debate switched off between White’s Skype feed (good) and one fella’s cell phone (he called Rich Pierce and streamed the microphone from his cell phone).  The audio was pretty bad for most of the time (mostly cell phone feed) and I couldn’t hear it much at all.  None the less, it was quite the exchange.

I can easily say that Barker doesn’t have a case for atheism beyond what he’s been repeating since before 1997.

He seemed to throw out the same arguments he’s used before…

…The Bible has contradictions in it; i.e. God is described 1 way in 1 verse and another way in another verse…

…therefore God cannot exist (due to inherent self-contradiction).

White delivered his opening arguments, using a intelligent design argument to attempt to show the differences in their worldviews (and Barker’s inconsistency) and Barker basically ignored him and threw out a long list of Bible contradictions.

Barker also tried to pull off the whole “the Bible has been tampered with and changed over history”, and talked to White as if this would be new information to him.  Barker gave the whole “Did you know that we don’t have the originals of the Bible?  What we have is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy” argument.  White responded and pushed him on the issue, and Barker backed away from it fairly quick (for some reason).  Barker understands nothing about textual criticism (as does almost everyone, Christian or atheist), so that’s understandable.

White also challenged his ‘bible contradictions’ and pursued several, like the whole ‘murder vs. killing in the Old Testament’ one (which I blogged about earlier today).  White asked him about lexical sources, and I believe that Barker somehow suggested that he learns the meanings of words from looking up the various uses of the words in the Bible and building up their meaning…

…i.e. it seemed that Barker claimed to do his own lexicography.  Not even joking.  I had to have misheard that one.

There was some back and forth Q & A, and Barker and White chopped at each other on biblical manuscripts, supposed contradictions, materialism and functionalism.  Barker asked White about how God could be Spirit and Barker consistently refused to accept White’s claim that God could be incorporeal and yet still think, since thoughts are the functions of a brain (*sigh*).

Barker also (attempted) to use the design argument against White, making the Dawkins argument that since designers are more complex than what they design, then God must be the most complex being in existence and likely then does not exist.  I didn’t hear or make out White’s response to that one.

All in all, Barker seems oblivious to the fact that he has been responded to, comprehensively, on all his ‘bible contradictions’ repeatedly; White himself started his Q&A time by saying that if Barker had done his homework, Barker would know that White had responded to all his ‘bible contradictions’ over the last 6 or so episodes of the Dividing Line.  Baker didn’t seem to care, and took strong offense to the whole accusation that he takes scripture out of context.  He claimed that he dealt with all the biblical passage in context in his books, and White was the one tearing scripture out of context.  Not much to say to that.  Barker is as blind as he is deaf to anyone who would disagree with him.

Honestly, from all the “Barker vs. whoever” debates I’ve listened to, I don’t know if Barker knows what a Bible scholar means when they say “context”.  He certainly didn’t learn it from his Pentecostal friends, and he apparently didn’t learn it at Asuza Pacific.  Someone should explain the term to him, just to be sure.  I’m guessing that to him it means “place in the sentence or paragraph” or something along those lines.

I cannot wait for the MP3, and I would love to hear another White vs. Barker debate.

As for who won the debate, I couldn’t hear it that well to make a judgment.  They both got audience laughs and they both had arguments.  I don’t think Barker has reality based arguments, nor arguments that show any meaningful understanding of Christianity, so I don’t expect much from Barker.  It you’re wondering about whether or not to buy it, I want to buy it simply to hear some of the comments that both made that had the audience laughing so hard…and I am seriously interested in Barker’s responses to White (which I didn’t hear too much of).

I’ll get the MP3 and give a serious review later on.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “The Armchair Theologian” Unger