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The Smugness of the Certain–Thomas Sheehan and the Historical Jesus

skepticLately, I’ve been listening to an audio lecture course, courtesy of Stanford University, in which Thomas Sheehan opines–although he insists repeatedly that he is speaking historically and scientifically–on issues related to the historicity of the gospels, the nature of the historical Yehshua–Sheehan resists the Greek form of the name and insists continuously that “Christ” wasn’t Yehshua’s last name, as if any serious person believed it was. As I listen to the professor profess, I have to admit that I’m galled by the constant laughter of one of his auditors. The tone of her laughter strikes me as communicating a very clear attitude: “I’m so glad that I’m one of the enlightened and educated sorts who don’t fall for all that obviously false Christian claptrap.”

Sheehan himself is slightly less smug. He believes that once you thoroughly demythologize Christian scripture, you can find something valuable. In other words, Sheehan is an intellectual descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone who believes you can carve up the teachings of the scripture, pluck out the things that don’t suit your intellectual cast, and not kill the host. Like magic, this writer believes, the true and pure teachings can be drawn out of the thoroughly polluted containers provided by Paul and Luke and company. Amazingly, those true teachings just happen to correspond with the things that Sheehan and his audience would like to believe to be true.

I intend to return to this material when I’ve listened further into the lectures, but one piece of unintentional undercutting came from episode two, which I heard while slugging through my miles on the treadmill last night. Granted, the anecdote that the professor relates is not central to any of his arguments–frankly, he doesn’t make all that many genuine arguments, opting instead to draw fairly broad inferences from cherry-picked evidence and attempt to pass these off as “obvious”–but the tale does illustrate the glass houses in which many skeptics think themselves impregnable.

According to Sheehan, the first female governor of Texas, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, once opposed bilingual education, protesting that “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” That’s the sort of thing that causes immense mirth in Sheehan’s audience, laughter only tempered by the inconvenient fact that Ferguson was female. “Wait, we disdain Christian conservatives, but we adore powerful women. Which prejudice trumps the other?”

Of course, like most of those delightful stories, this one turns out to be nonsense. It seems that Ma Ferguson, if she made this statement, followed in a long line of others, who are typically recorded as displaying their laughable ignorance in some “smart set” publication. In 1881, when Ma Ferguson would have been six, the New York Times places a similar statement in the mouth of “an old farmer.”  Three years later, The Universalist Quarterly and General Review ascribes it to “a pious deacon.” By 1905, still years before Fergusons stint as governor, the New York Times found an “elderly Irish” woman defending English and in 1912 Puck placed the phrase into the mouth of a “well-known and eccentric preacher” from a hundred years previous.

One wishes to ask Prof. Sheehan, if you are this careless about a small matter on which you seemed so marvelously certain, how should we trust your various pronouncements on matters of more substance. But of course the smug and delighted lady near the microphone won’t ask this question.

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