Last year, I met popular skeptic and Christ-myth proponent David Fitzgerald at a debate and agreed to read and review his book Nailed. I read it almost immediately, but never got around to reviewing it. After reconnecting with him recently, I agreed again to review it and then dialogue with him a little about the book.
What follows isn’t a comprehensive refutation of all Fitzgerald’s arguments. That’s been done elsewhere, and it seems that doing so would be redundant and even unhelpful at this point. Instead, I’ll focus on a few things that caught my attention as I read Nailed, and expand my comments or discuss any particulars that come up as our exchange progresses.
To begin, I like Fitzgerald’s style. He writes succinctly and displays a low tolerance for ideas he doesn’t like. In the same way an author like Ann Coulter uses her disdain for Democrats to keep the reader interested, so David Fitzgerald does with Christianity. I give him points for presentation, but that’s about all he gets praise for. If the picture doesn’t give it away, his thesis is cartoonish.
Nailed opens with a chapter justifying the rest of the book. Is it ridiculous to even consider the Christ myth? Fitzgerald says no for two reasons: most biblical historians have always been Christians, and have ideological reasons not to fairly consider the Christ myth; and there are several lines of historical evidence that can be cited in support of the hypothesis. (16-17)
Normally I don’t mind people opposing the scholarly consensus in religious or political debates. I do it often, in fact. In the case of the Christ myth, however, snubbing the consensus is problematic. Skeptics like Fitzgerald have made a hobby out of attacking Christians for their abuse (or complete ignorance) of science, especially evolutionary biology. They don’t hesitate to throw around the consensus argument in that context. But when it comes to biblical history, tossing aside the consensus point of view is acceptable, because, conveniently, the evidence is on their side.
But there are other problems besides the blatant hypocrisy. Even if we were to throw out the work of evangelical scholars, the experts without a religious ax to grind, including those openly hostile to Christianity, have repudiated the Christ myth. For example, Bart Ehrman, who Fitzgerald cites many times throughout the book, has taken a few swings at the mythicists for their special pleading and suggestions that the early church would invent such an unpalatable messiah like Jesus.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is Fitzgerald’s treatment of the Gospels, specifically the contradictions in them. “Is the Image of Jesus Consistent?” caught my attention because the arguments Fitzgerald makes are the same ones that nearly eliminated my faith when I first started investigating the evidence for Christianity. Six years later, the arguments haven’t changed at all. It’s a discovery that warms my heart each time I read counter-apologetics literature. Nailed didn’t disappoint in this regard.
After that initial response, my second reaction to this chapter is, “so what?” It’s undeniable that the evangelists give diverging accounts of the life of Jesus. Most apologists will grant this, too. But this same “problem” affects a lot of history. In fact, if you were to read four different accounts of any historical figure, chances are that they’d contradict each other in similar ways the Gospels contradict each other. No rational individual would conclude, then, that those biographies are worthless, or that their subject never actually existed. Why reach such a conclusion when we’re talking about the Gospels?
That leads to another relevant question: why is it wrong to harmonize the conflicting accounts? Many scholars, Christian or otherwise, have attempted to reconstruct the life of Jesus, and Fitzgerald ridicules them for remaking Jesus “…in their own image…” (89). But I don’t follow the rationale for the ridicule. If there are conflicting historical accounts, the good historian’s job is “…to tease out the ‘real’ Jesus…” as Fitzgerald mockingly puts it. Interestingly, he doesn’t interact much with any of these attempts, some more formidable than others. There isn’t a mention in the chapter or its end notes of any scholars (Craig Blomberg, Daniel Wallace, to name two examples) who have put up very compelling defenses of the Gospels as reliable biographies.
I also found Chapter 9 – “Did Christianity Begin With Jesus” – very intriguing. This, I think, is the heart of Fitzgerald’s argument in many ways. After all, if Christianity didn’t start with the guy it’s named after, the heavy lifting is done, right? For the Christ-mythers, unfortunately, the evidence for this hypothesis is severely lacking. The best Fitzgerald can do is point to the diversity among early Christians as proof that the religion didn’t start with Jesus.
As with his chapter on the Gospel contradictions, this portion of the book makes almost no reference to contrary scholarship. For example, both Phillip Jenkins and Ben Witherington III destroyed Fitzgerald’s arguments years before he decided to start making them. But neither gets so much as a place in Nailed‘s bibliography. Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities gets a nod, of course. But even Ehrman, for all his attempts to stir up panic among Christians, admits that the Gnostic gospels are much later than the canonical material and carefully avoids judging which flavor of Christianity came first. More to the point, however, diversity in the early church doesn’t mean Jesus or his earliest followers never existed. Division among Christians, some of whom shouldn’t even be given the name, doesn’t prove that no side in the debate was right.
Despite its flaws, I would recommend Nailed to everybody with an interest in the history of Christianity. If you’re a skeptic, read this book, but do so critically. Don’t let the horrendous errors Fitzgerald commits escape your attention because you agree with him. And if you’re a Christian, you should read this book because it’s popular in skeptical circles, and you’ll likely encounter the arguments in it.