Further Problematizing Richard Carrier’s Claims about Jesus

Ian has a further detailed explanation of Bayes’ Theorem on his blog. It problematizes Richard Carrier’s use of it in relation to history in general, and the historical Jesus in particular.

I am also grateful to Nick Covington for sharing this video, which shows more of what Richard Carrier thinks about the figure of Jesus than he sometimes explicitly says on his blog or in other places:

YouTube Preview Image

The slides are available online. You can see some of the glaring problems even on a cursory viewing. He compares what happened in Roswell to early Christianity, and yet even if we had detailed knowledge of what was found there, he still reverses the trend twice over, having Jesus initially a “demigod” (his term) who is later historicized, even though the historical trajectory seems to be from human being to one who embodies the divine Wisdom/Word/Spirit to treatment as identical to that hypostasis, and the Roswell comparison likewise suggests that a turning of a demigod into a figure that looks like a Jewish rabbi is not a parallel scenario.

He makes what is a clear reference to Doherty’s sublunar firmament viewpoint, and says it is the best mythicist theory. And he says that Philo says that the Logos was named “Jesus” – ignoring the fact that in the relevant passage (On the Confusion of Tongues 62-63), Philo is offering an allusive reference to, and allegorical treatment of, a text in Zechariah which mentioned a historical high priest named Joshua. To see this as an argument in favor of mythicism, you have to ignore the details and just really want Philo to call the Logos “Jesus.”

He treats the “Last Supper” as originating from a hallucination of Paul’s. Note in that section the sleight of hand – he goes from passages that he acknowledges are at best ambiguous, to the Gospels – which assume that one of the possible meanings of Paul’s words is clearly the case, but Carrier then dismisses Mark as resembling a “metaparable” by which he seems to mean something like Barbara Thiering’s wacky approach.

It is apologetics, not scholarship. If this is what he has to offer, as the only professional historian who finds mythicism to have historical merit, then I think I can safely say pretty much what I have been saying all along: anyone who thinks that the historicity of Jesus as a real human messianic claimant is “a theory in crisis” is rather like that infamous other group that uses that phrase.

I can only hope that more people will emerge within the so-called skeptical movement who will treat Carrier’s claims with the same skepticism that they wield so ably against the claims of others.

  • Erp

    It is a problem that so many people don’t see the problems in Carrier’s ideas. I think I know why other atheists are attracted to them; I might be attracted myself except I have read quite a few historians in the area and looked at the source material (in translation) and do have some training as a historian (only a bachelors though). I heard Carrier speak back in 2006 and it didn’t make sense then. At least Ehrman is dealing with the evidence side and others with the misuse of Bayes Theorem.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey
    ignoring the fact that in the relevant passage (On the Confusion of Tongues 62-63), Philo is offering an allusive reference to, and allegorical treatment
    of, a text in Zechariah which mentioned a historical high priest named Joshua.

    ignoring the fact that in the relevant passage Philo is offering an allusive reference to, and allegorical treatment of, a text in Zechariah which mentioned a historical high priest named Jesus — he was reading the Septuagint. http://bibledatabase.net/html/septuagint/38_003.htm

    Anyone interested in actually broadening their knowledge of how Bayes Theorem has been used and modified and applied since its inception ought to read Sharon McGrayne’s “The Theory That Would Not Die”. It is the sorts of multiple layered and many-headed causal factors and nuances that are encountered in the real world of human affairs that BT is especially suited to address. But even if you don’t use the maths, no-one can ever justify ignoring the inputs and considerations to be evaluated in any examination of historical evidence that Carrier addresses. Ditching Bayes yet ignoring the full range of factors historians ought to consider still leaves most historicist arguments in the naive and apologetic basket.

    • Ian

      Sharon McGrayne’s “The Theory That Would Not Die”, really?

      You do know how overwhelmingly that book was panned by mathematicians, statisticians and economists, right? For exactly the same reasons I criticised Carrier’s book.

      “multiple layered and many-headed causal factors and nuances” can be dealt with using Bayesian methods, but it is very difficult, and you can’t use the form of Bayes’s Rule given in either Carrier or McGrayne’s books. Neither of them claim, nor give any example, at all of doing Bayesian calculations with multiple causal factors. Nor even the very basic process of updating existing probability values with new information.

      You can use Bayes’s Rule for all sorts of things, but there are a large cadre of amateurs who think, therefore, it can be used for anything. They are enamoured by their discovery of a big hammer, and everything seems like a nail.

  • Ian

    Thanks for the link again James.

    I find Carrier a bit of a chameleon. At times he seems to come across as quite neutral: as if he’s suggesting that, even if a historical Jesus were more likely, our confidence in either theory is fairly low (a position I can just about agree with, though it is a little more pessimistic than I think is warranted). At other times he seems to be deploying a full court press of pseudoscholarship to suggest we can be relatively confident Jesus was mythical. I understand these are my impressions of him (I can’t, off the top of my head, point to specific statements of these claims).
    In my posts I made clear a couple of times that I largely agree with many things he says. But then I watch that video and think “I really don’t want to be associated with that, in the slightest!”

    I wonder if he’s basically reasonable, but gets drawn into dubious areas because of his audience (a temptation I could imagine succumbing too easily enough), or whether he’s basically an apologist who can turn on reasonable sounding rhetoric when he thinks it will aid his credibility. Or whether he’s just nuanced, and I’m just terrible about wanting to shove him into a box.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Well, the video presentation seems to me to be lacking in nuance. But that still leaves open many possible scenarios. I heard from a renowned biologist that he had learned that a comparably infamous proponent of Intelligent Design with a large family was basically pursuing that as a way to put his kids through college. We all have to eat, and some people find they have to choose between sensationalizing nonsense and poverty. We associate that in particular with conservative institutions and their statements of faith, but that isn’t the only sort of situation, and it isn’t only on that end of the spectrum.

      All that just to say that there are many reasons people do things, and without insider knowledge, we may make a wrong assumption. I can think of several scenarios that would make sense of the very different signals I get from Richard Carrier’s discussions of a range of topics.

      • Ian

        Thanks James. I’ve heard that rumour from a couple of people about Behe: that his assessments are rather different in private. But they’ve come to me third hand, so while plausible, I’ve not paid them much heed. I certainly know Christian ministers who are frustrated that they can’t preach their progressive understanding of their faith in their more conservative churches. So yes, I think the potential to play to the gallery is probably in all of us.

        • http://www.facebook.com/nick.covington.353 Nick Covington

          I’m a little unclear here: is the rumor that Michael Behe does not really believe in ID or that his views are a little fuzzier on the issue in private?

          • Ian

            I’ve heard both. I would reiterate, however, that it came to me a minimum of third hand. And creationists also like to claim biologists are only pretending to believe in evolution, for promotion / money sake. So unless someone has more direct evidence, you’re getting it at least fourth hand from me :)

        • http://norwegianshooter.com/ Mark Erickson

          I don’t think that’s right about Behe, at least not the put the kids through college stuff. His son has come out as an atheist and has discussed his family on reddit and other places. Nothing I’ve read from him suggests Behe is insincere, just the opposite in fact. Plus, he’s making decent money as a professor and unless he’s morally opposed to college loans, his kids should be able to attend any school they get into just fine. Plus his books can’t make that much money and he didnt get paid for testifying at Dover either. On the negative side, he’s been completely ostracized in his department. It all points to true believer for me.

      • arcseconds

        I doubt Carrier’s options are really:

        (a) take a position which is in some ways radical and controversial, but in other ways pandering to a certain crowd,

        or,

        (b) starve.

        If we’re to start, somewhat uncharitably, looking for motives other than a pure search for truth (and who is motivated solely by that? few enough, I feel) then a desire to court controversy and enjoyment in be reviled on the one hand and idolized on the other seems not entirely implausible, especially given that we’ve some displays aside from merely being controversial that there might be a wee bit more ego involved than average, and a wee bit less humility.

      • http://norwegianshooter.com/ Mark Erickson

        Please share these scenarios with us, rabbi.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    He compares what happened in Roswell to early Christianity, and yet even if we had detailed knowledge of what was found there, he still reverses the trend twice over, having Jesus initially a “demigod” (his term) who is later historicized, even though the historical trajectory seems to be from human being to one who embodies the divine Wisdom/Word/Spirit to treatment as identical to that hypostasis, and the Roswell comparison likewise suggests that a turning of a demigod into a figure that looks like a Jewish rabbi is not a parallel scenario.

    As I understand the Roswell analogy, it is offered for the limited purpose of demonstrating how quickly a complex narrative can arise without any supporting evidence. As far as I can tell, Carrier is not claiming that it has any direct parallels with the process by which demigods were historicized in the ancient world.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Note in that section the sleight of hand – he goes from passages that he acknowledges are at best ambiguous, to the Gospels – which assume that one of the possible meanings of Paul’s words is clearly the case, but Carrier then dismisses Mark as resembling a “metaparable” by which he seems to mean something like Barbara Thiering’s wacky approach.

    Why is it necessary to resort to pejoratives like “sleight of hand”? Carrier isn’t “dismissing” anything. He is proposing a hypothesis which he thinks better explains the writings we have. I don’t know that I find it completely convincing, but I don’t see him doing anything deceptive or misleading.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Well, I think that he is doing precisely what I said. He suggests that Paul is at best ambiguous, and then treats the Gospels in a manner that rides roughshod over the fact that they view Jesus in a manner that is essentially the same as one of the possible meanings of what Paul wrote. And so why should Carrier’s treatment not be considered apologetic trickery? It certainly seems to constitute a deliberate attempt to depict the overall impression one should get from the New Testament as at odds with the impression that historians and scholars get, and get because the evidence points more naturally in that direction.

      • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

        It shouldn’t be considered apologetic trickery because he is
        being forthright about the fact that his interpretation is in the extreme
        minority. He is also forthright about
        acknowledging that the gospels read as though Jesus was a historical individual
        who lived in a particular time and place. He is merely suggesting a possible explanation
        for the gospels reading that way doesn’t necessitate a historical Jesus. There is no trickery involved.

        I cannot see anything wrong with deliberately attempting
        to depict the overall impression that one should get from the evidence as different
        from the impression that most scholars get.
        If there were, then Mark Goodacre would be guilty of apologetic trickery
        for trying to convince people that the Q hypothesis is wrong. What would be wrong would be if Carrier misrepresented
        the evidence or misrepresented the state of scholarship or misrepresented the
        counter-arguments to his hypothesis.
        That is what I typically see apologists do. There can’t be anything wrong with arguing
        against the consensus as long as the evidence and arguments on the consensus
        side are represented fairly.

        • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

          Dr. McGrath,

          I have argued with lots of conservative Christians in the blogosphere and it is usually pretty easy to tell when someone has relied on the work of apologists rather than scholars.
          People who have only read apologetics are frequently surprised by facts and evidence. For example, they are surprised to learn how thin the evidence is for the martyrdom of the apostles or
          for the traditional authorship of the gospels. They are surprised because apologists misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and evidence in order to make them seem as weak as possible and
          apologists overstate the evidence for their own position.

          A scholar, on the other hand, fairly presents the evidence both for and against his position and seeks to address the strongest counter arguments. A scholar may not always be able to escape his own biases in his conclusions, but he should be able to
          present the evidence in a way that exposes those biases. I don’t think that Carrier has ever misled me concerning the evidence for or against mythicism and I don’t recall ever being surprised
          by counter arguments or evidence that he tried to sweep under the rug.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Well, the way he put the Philo claim simply astonished me. If you compare the impression he gives with what the evidence is, would you say that he has communicated the actual state of affairs accurately and fairly?

            • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

              I don’t think that I have any misapprehension regarding what Philo wrote. When I went and read the passage for myself, it was about what I expected it to be based on what he said about it. I’m not convinced that it supports the argument for mythicism as much he seems to think it does, but I wouldn’t accuse him of sleight of hand anymore than I would accuse you of sleight of hand simply because you put more weight on “born of a woman” than seems warranted to me.

              I would also note that this is thirty minute lecture giving an overview of the topic, not a peer reviewed publication addressing the issue in detail.

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                But part of what worries me is that Carrier acknowledges in print that mythicism is not a credible option unless it can persuade historians and scholars with relevant competencies, and yet he is presenting it as a viable theory to a general audience even so.

                I don’t want to make too much of this, but the presentation seems to me to be designed to make mythicism seem plausible to an audience of non-experts when it would not seem that way to those familiar with the relevant evidence.

                As for the supposed Philo reference to the Logos as “Jesus” I am really surprised that you expected, based on what Carrier said, to find that Philo does not refer to the Logos as Jesus…

                • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

                  Your complaint sounds a lot like the ones that some conservative Christian scholars made about Misquoting Jesus, which was that lay audiences lacked the expertise to evaluate the information that Ehrman.

                  As for the Philo reference, my expectations were not formed solely on his statements in this lecture. I have seen him challenged on this point elsewhere and I thought his justification for characterizing the passage in the way that he did seemed seemed well within the realm of reasonable argumentation. I might agree with Nick Covington that he has over simplified the issue in this talk but I can’t comment much beyond that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nick.covington.353 Nick Covington

    Hi James,
    My name is *Covington* btw, but the misspelling is no big deal.
    Also, I just want to state for the record that I posted Carrier’s talk b/c I think it is interesting, I still believe an historical Jesus is the best explanation of the facts.
    “Philo is offering an allusive reference to, and allegorical treatment of, a text in Zechariah which mentioned a historical high priest named Joshua. To see this as an argument in favor of mythicism, you have to ignore the details and just really want Philo to call the Logos ‘Jesus.’”
    Here’s the relevant passage from Philo:
    I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech
    as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!”{zec 6:12.} A very novel
    appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of
    body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who
    in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name
    of the east has been given to him with great felicity.
    I’ve read Zechariah 6:12, and I’m a little confused because the passage itself doesn’t say anything about a man who’s name is the East. It does speak of a man whose name is “The Branch.” Here Philo says that this passage is supposed to apply to the Logos (the “divine image”). So, the original passage applies it to the ancient priest Jesus (Joshua is a form of ‘Jesus’) but Philo interprets it as applying to the Logos (which the Christians took to be Jesus). The parallels are stunning: The old Jesus is supposed to build the temple (Remember that the new Jesus said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it). The old Jesus is called The Branch, and in the new testament the new Jesus refers to himself as such (see John 15, for example). The old Jesus was a high priest. The new Jesus was/is too (see Hebrews). Carrier oversimplified by saying that Philo calls the Logos Jesus, but I think the facts do point to a connection between the two.

    • GakuseiDon

      Hi Nick,

      I’m afraid that Carrier here is doing what bad apologists do to “prove” that the Old Testament prophecized the Jesus of the Gospels. In fact, the argument that Carrier uses IS an apologetic one used on at least one Christian apologetics website.

      The problem here is timing. Philo quote-mines the OT looking for something to describe what Moses apparently wrote (at least from Philo’s perceptive). He sees Zech 6:12, which is something the Lord said about a high priest called Jesus in Zech 6:11. The problem is, Moses lived long before the time portrayed in Zech! So how would Moses know? The solution: instead of having the Lord say it, Philo attributes it to “one of the companions of Moses”.

      To my mind, Philo is treating “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” as an expression that was used from the time of Moses. I don’t think Philo has the Jesus high priest in mind at all when he wrote “On the confusion of tongues”; he just wanted to quote-mine the Bible wherever it mentioned “East”. It was only that the name “Jesus” became central to Christianity that bad apologists (Christian and mythicist) started thinking that Philo’s companion of Moses must have somehow known what was written at the time of Zech.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sorry – apparently there was some inadvertent cross-pollination from Carrier’s name as I wrote the post late at night. I’ve fixed the point.

      I do not dispute that there is a connection, ultimately – but unless one acknowledges that we are dealing with Philo allegorically dealing with a passage involving someone with the not-uncommon name Joshua, who is connected with the Logos; and then we have another Joshua, from Nazareth, about whom various people write, and eventually the author of the Gospel of John identifies him as the embodiment of that same Logos decades after the fact, then what Carrier is offering is a tangential connection that he is depicting as though it were a substantial one. I doubt that most people who heard his talk would have understood the actual relationship based on what Carrier said, and so I think that most likely constitutes the deliberate giving of a false impression.

  • GakuseiDon

    Carrier describes “Euhemerization” as “taking a celestial deity, putting them on earth and giving them an earthly story” (about 5 min 30 secs in). But that is not a good definition for that process. “Euhemerization” is taking a story of a god (often already in history) and “de-mythologizing” it, i.e. to claim that the story was really originally about a king or queen, but that over time legends became attached and traditions of respect about a person became traditions of worship of a god. If anything, it was a reaction to the idea that people were taking a person and making them a celestial deity.

    Carrier’s point on Romulus is something I’ve never heard before. Romulus was a celestial being and ancient people decided to put him on earth in history so put him at the time Rome was founded? Has anyone heard anything like that proposed before? Is there any evidence for this?

    To me, Carrier phrases both examples in such a way as to bring parallels to the Jesus story to mind. This does seem to be along the lines of bad apologetics. But maybe he expands on this in his next book.

  • Rambo123UK

    Clearly you need to look up the etymology of Yeshua/Joshua and “Jesus”. Identifying a “Joshua” as a “Jesus”, in particular when translating into Greek, is perfectly correct.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think you misunderstood the point, which was not about these being two individuals named Joshua, but about how Carrier was misrepresenting what Philo was talking about in that passage.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X