Outside this triangle of sceptics, accommodators and apologists there is another group of men and women who number in the thousands, whose works fill the academic libraries and journals of the world and yet whose views are rarely considered in popular discussion of this topic. I am talking about professional biblical historians: not professors of theology in religious institutions but university historians specialising in the language, literature and culture of the biblical period. Be they Christian, Jewish or agnostic, such scholars shun both overreaching scepticism and theological dogma. They approach the Gospels not as zealous fabrications or divine scripture but as texts comparable with any other from the period. All texts have blind spots and points to prove. If historians waited until they found a source with no angle, they would have nothing left to work with (ancient or modern). The goal is not to discover an agenda-less source but to analyse every source in light of its discernible commitment. This is how scholars read every ancient text, including the New Testament. They do not privilege the Gospels, but nor do they come to them with prejudice. Christians may be unsettled by this objective historical analysis of their sacred texts but there is no comfort here for the dogmatic sceptic either. For while mainstream scholars disagree on many things about the life of Jesus, there is a very strong consensus that the basic narrative of the Gospels is historically sound.
Take the question of Jesus' existence. Dawkins may have his reservations; so might Onfray and Hitchens. But no one who is actually doing ancient history does. I contacted three eminent ancient history professors this week and asked if they knew of any professional historian who argued that Jesus never lived. They did not. Professor Graeme Clarke of the Australian National University was happy to go on the record as saying: "Frankly, I know of no ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ - the documentary evidence is simply overwhelming." Dawkins inadvertently proves the point. In The God Delusion his sole example of a serious historical case against the existence of Jesus is that of "Professor G.A. Wells of the University of London". Dawkins does not mention that George Wells is a professor of German language, not history.
That Jesus lived cannot be disputed...
Now the resurrection... that's a different question - and the subject of my Easter morning sermon!