John Remsberg: A Critique

If you've read my item on C. Dennis McKinsey, author of the Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, you may recall me quoting McKinsey with such claims as, "most scholars admit that the works of Tacitus have not been preserved with any degree of fidelity." I asked who these "scholars" were, for McKinsey provided no cite, and the Taciteans have said no such thing.

I now know that the above is from none other than the work of John Remsberg (variously spelled Remsburg), author early last century of a number of freethinker books, among them the one under study here, The Christ.

An alert reader sent me this summary of his qualifications: "John E. Remsburg (1848-1919) was one of the most popular and widely travelled freethought lecturers of the late nineteenth century. Raised in poverty in small-town Ohio and largely self-educated, Remsburg entered adulthood as one of the youngest soldiers in the Union Army. During the Civil War, he acquitted himself with distinction in the battle of Fort Stevens and received a special certificate of commendation from President Lincoln himself. After the war, he became a school teacher and eventually superintendent of public education in Kansas."

Obviously, this is not someone who is qualified to speak on matters of Biblical history and interpretation. Let's look at some samples.

It is from Remsberg that McKinsey -- and now I realize, a number of Skeptics -- have taken some of their most unreasonable objections. For example, the above about Tacitus comes straight out of Remsberg: "It is admitted by Christian writers that the works of Tacitus have not been preserved with any considerable degree of fidelity. In the writings ascribed to him are believed to be some of the writings of Quintilian."

I should note that McKinsey erred in referral here; it wasn't "most scholars" even, but unnumbered "Christian writers" (whoever they were, Remsberg does not name them) who made this statement -- and that bit about Quintilian which is way off base. Remsberg also provides the argument that several writers, including Quintilian, a teacher of rhetoric, should have mentioned Jesus, but didn't.

It is also suggested that Tacitus' cite is to some extent a forgery, for "Origen, in his controversy with Celsus, would undoubtedly have used it had it existed." No justification is given for this; Remsberg's say-so is all the "evidence" given.

And: "The blood-curdling story about the frightful orgies of Nero reads like some Christian romance of the dark ages and not like Tacitus." Not that Remsberg provides an extended literary analysis and comparison between "Dark-Age" Christian romances and Latin historians. All he does, again, is say so, and that is taken to be sufficient.

Of the cite of Josephus it is said, "its brevity disproves its authenticity," for Josephus would not have dismissed a great being like Jesus in just a few lines. But doesn't that assume that Josephus thought Jesus was as great as Remsberg thinks he should have?

No surprise, Remsberg's source for Josephus is Nathaniel Lardner. Lardner, according to our research assistant "Punkish," died in 1768; his Works was published in 1788 [and it is this that has the list of reasons Remsberg uses against Josephus] and may involve stuff written much, much earlier [possibly 1723]. Lardner wrote his "Credibility on the Gospels" - used often by Robert Taylor, BEFORE he got his D.Div.

Here also McKinsey got his hint that Pliny's letter was a forgery because it is "found in but one ancient copy of Pliny." That story, Remsberg says, had to be off, too; Pliny wouldn't have tortured deaconesses, because "Never have the person and character of women been held more sacred than they were in Pagan Rome," and they would not be tortured unless proven guilty of a crime.

Really? And this is based on -- what? Nothing. No documentation, no quotations of Roman histories or sources.

Miracles are dismissed, in capital letters: "THE LAWS OF NATURE ARE IMMUTABLE." I may as well comment on this here.

Frankly, the "laws of nature" claim is overdone. Healing a blind man, for example, may simply involve no more than God doing some manipulation on a molecular level; stuff we try to do with lasers and theoretically could do with the right size of tweezers. Except for maybe ex nihilo creation, which was "pre-nature" anyway, God's miracles may not violate any natural laws at all -- He's just a little better and faster at doing what He does than we could ever hope to be.

More from Remsberg: We don't know Jesus' exact birthdate, and this is a problem -- why? Remsberg doesn't say why this isn't a problem when we don't know the same info for Julius Caesar (though Remsberg also relates the problem to "Christ" and is often vague about distinguishing between Christ and Jesus.

That Nazareth didn't exist is posited -- on that, see here.

Mary's hymn of praise in Luke, because it follows the pattern laid down by Hannah when Samuel was born, could not have possibly been inspired by God; otherwise it would have been more original, we are told. This is untrue: Per Malina and Rohrbaugh's social science commentary, it was considered to be a sign of talent and honor to be able to rework older traditions for new situations. Moreover, on what basis is it decided that inspiration only produces original material? This is merely claimed arbitrarily.

That John's Gospel does not name the Twelve "is admitted to be a grave defect in the Fourth Gospel" though who admits this, and why it is a defect is....yes, not explained

The Gadarene swine story is "ridiculous", because: "If each hog received a devil there must have been two thousand devils. [The demoniac] must have been a very large man, or they were very little devils." The story is also ridiculous because Voltaire says it is.

Matt. 14:2 is criticized because "the tetrarch of Galilee is represented as entertaining the Christian doctrine of a bodily resurrection." That was actually a Jewish idea long before Christ.

Language is used that would hardly pass muster if it were used of a minority group today. The apostles were "ignorant," from Palestine, "one of the most backward of countries; the Galileeans were the most ignorant of the inhabitants of Palestine." McKinsey also got here the idea that in calling himself the disciple Jesus loved, John was being a "vulgar egotist." (That's far from the case; the idea of "ego" -- again, see the social science commentaries -- is a product of modern, individualist societies; in John's day, it would be a frank confession of what he presumed to be fact.)

From Remsberg came also the idea that Jesus cried from the cross, "why hast thou sacrificed me?" If that's what's being said, then by the Greek, 2 Tim. 4:10 says, "For Demas hath sacrificed me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica..."

Remsberg gets quite pedantic at times. Remember the coin in the fish's mouth? He says: "Did Jesus miraculously create it? If so, he was a counterfeiter. Was it a lost coin? In this case, if he was omniscient, as claimed, he knew the owner and should have restored it." But isn't a "counterfeit" a fake coin, not a real one? And anyway, what if someone threw the coin in the water for fun like we do at fountains?

John 9:2 (the man born blind) is said by a "Mrs. Evans" to prove that there was a doctrine of transmigration (reincarnation) behind the story, and that the story was stolen from Buddhism. Who Mrs. Evans was is not said, but the verse actually relates to the Jewish idea that a fetus might be capable of sin. An alert reader informed me that Evans was the author yet another Christ-myth book, samples of which show her to be as adept at documenting claims as Remsberg was.

John 18:3 ("Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.") is dismissed because, "lanterns were unknown in Palestine." How so? Did something at the border stop the Romans and Greek traders from bringing them in? This claim, like the rest: thoroughly undocumented.

As for Christians being persecuted, Remsberg says no: Rome was "an empire where all religious sects enjoyed as perfect religious freedom as the different sects in America today." That is entirely false, as has been demonstrated by numerous scholars such as Robert Wilken (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them).

Remsberg also uses well known arguments about Mithra and Dionysus (see series here).

What may be said in closing? This is simply very poor scholarship. Remsberg is not a reliable source where he can be checked, and seems to have gone to some pains to make himself "uncheckable."

Now for some updated material. Our assistant has been busying himself looking into the sources Remsberg used for his work, and here are some tidbits of interest:

Most of Remsburg's authorities are not listed by Schaff's History of the Christian Church (Warburton, Baring-Gould, Dr Giles, Chalmers, Campbell) because they either are not scholars or because they're too outdated - Schaff's scholarship (which Remsburg acknowledges elsewhere) goes back to about 1840. On the other hand, Schaff has lists of scholars which go for the full authenticity of the passage (Hauteville, Oberthür, Bretschneider, Böhmert, Whiston, Schoedel, Böttger), some for partial (Paulus, Heinichen, Gieseler, Weizsäcker, Renan, Farrar - Farrar's quote being after a discussion on Herod and is non-analytical) and two for "we think there was a negative mention of Christ here but the interpolator changed it" viewpoint (Paret, Ewald), all of which totally contradicts Remsburg's claim that Christian scholarship rejects Josephus as a historical witness.

What's so laughable about this is, Remsburg has all this information in front of him, because he quotes from the same chapter (Schaff, Vol.1 chapter 2) in The Christ, chapter 7! Clearly then, this work under study is presenting "arguments I like" rather than contemporary, analytical scholarship. So much for Remsburg the journalist! This is definitely the least credible work I've ever read!

So there you have it, a bunch of guys whose works shouldnt be cited as an authority (when they were written), yet they are. Argument by authority, point scoring and making mountains out of molehills!

More from Tekton Research Assistant "Punkish":