Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Snap: Charles Freeman's "New History of Early Christianity"

The caveat for this review is that I only read the first two chapters of Freeman's A New History of Early Christianity (NHEC) -- because most of what is beyond that deals in areas of church history beyond my expertise. Chs. 1 and 2 are about Christianity of the first century, and while it is mostly sound, when Freeman (a Skeptic, I am given to understand) tries to explain away the Resurrection, he falls as easily as any other critic.

In particular, Freeman misses on the relevance of honor and shame (surprise!) to the narrative. His explanation is a minor variation of the "authorities took the body" scenario, in which Caiaphas had junior priests (mistaken for angels in their white robes) remove the body, and left Mark's "young man" behind with a message that Jesus would see them in Galilee. The pretense: Caiaphas hoped that this would make the disciples leave for Galilee and remove the problem from his jurisdiction.

Freeman regards this as a "plausible" explanation, but that is an otherwise unknown use of that word. Never mind the problem of sanctified priests (even junior ones) subjecting themselves to ritual impurity inside a tomb, and by touching a corpse. Never mind the failure of the women to recognize what would have rather obviously been priestly garb.  Never mind (per McCane, who is missing from Freeman's bibliography) that the whole point of the burial was to shame Jesus, and that professing that he had "risen" (as Freeman supposes the young man had been instructed to say) turned that plan on its head by indicating that God had in fact overruled the death sentence Caiaphas himself had sought, and restored Jesus' honor. Never mind that Freeman's "geographic solution" ignores the obvious point that Galileean Jews would return to Jerusalem repeatedly for festivals. Never mind that this scenario allows for the obvious retort that the authorities took the body after all. 

Freeman, however is so desperate that he manages to find in the Gospel of Peter a recollection of his alleged scenario. And to really seal the blunder, Freeman also thinks Paul never reported the appearance of a physical person or any empty tomb. Note that all of this in spite of that he is plainly aware of Wright's huge tome debunking all of these claims; but Wright gets dismissed in a couple of sentences on the grounds that he doesn't even consider the possibility of anything like Freeman's thoroughly inane thesis.

I expect NHEC might be a good introductory text in spite of this. However, I'd be wary of any portion where Freeman strays from fact and into the realm of opinion.


  1. Don;t know if you're aware JP, but Freeman has crossed swords with James Hannam a few times over the content of his "God's Philosophers" book. Hannam and Tim O'Neill, for their part, were pretty scornful of Freeman's earlier work "The Closing of the Western Mind". The threads are still viewable on the Quodlibeta blog, I think; Freeman wrote at least once on Butterflies & Wheels, so you could pop over there if you don't mind putting on a tinfoil hat and conspiracy t-shirt... :s

    1. @JR Yep, I did see Hannam's response at least. Freeman sure changes his tone when he gets a thunbs down.