Galileo was Wrong (Richard Carrier and Arguing from Consensus)

Richard Carrier has posted on arguments from consensus on his blog. It is, like most of his posts, unnecessarily long to make the point that it seeks to.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong.

The experts may be resistant to new ideas. But they are also required as part of their profession to come up with new ideas. And when the experts agree about something for good reason, regularly the general public then resists what the consensus of experts tries to convince them of. That doesn’t suggest that most laypeople are well poised to do better than the consensus of experts.

Even experts can be wrong. And even the consensus of experts can be wrong. But it is rarely the case that someone without expertise will be the one to discover and then persuade them that they are wrong. And rarely is it the case that a scholar who is persuaded that he is right and the rest of the academy wrong turns out to be right.

And so I thought I had better mention Galileo.

While there is a bizarre website defending geocentrism that bears the title “Galileo Was Wrong,” that should not deter us from acknowledging that Galileo was indeed wrong – although not, it turned out, about heliocentrism. As yet he had no workable mechanism to account for aspects of the system (that awaited Newton), he was not eliminating the epicycles of the Ptolemaic system, and some of his arguments – such as that based on tides – were demonstrably wrong in his own time.

Galileo contributed to progress in our understanding of the cosmos. But it would have been as foolish to simply follow Galileo on the basis of what he offered in his time, as it would have been to insist that the consensus could not be wrong. As the relevant evidence amassed, it turned out that Galileo was on the right track but that the actual state of affairs was different than either what his view or the earlier Ptolemaic view proposed.

And so, when it comes to Jesus mythicism, by all means entertain hopes that the scholarly consensus may change. But don’t think that it is appropriate to suggest from the comfort of your armchair that the consensus probably is wrong, and fringe voices that you happen to agree with – whether themselves experts or not – are certain to be vindicated one day. Not all consensuses are wrong, and not all challenges to consensuses are successful or should be. Let scholarship work its course. That’s the best method we’ve found to make progress in getting an increasingly accurate understanding of science, history, and other subjects. It sorted out the questions Galileo wrestled with. Why think that it is now no longer capable of doing so, when in fact we have much greater freedom of expression and more finely honed scholarly methods in place than we did a century ago, to say nothing of several centuries ago.

Returning to the question of the historical Jesus, Carrier bizarrely writes:

But a consensus has zero argumentative value when the individual scholars comprising that consensus have neither (a) examined the strongest case against that consensus nor (b) examined enough of it to be able to identify and articulate significant errors of fact or logic in it. So it is fallacious (indeed, a conspicuously unreliable practice) to just cite the consensus on anything, without first ascertaining whose opinions within that consensus actually count. The most reliable population to heed is that which consists of all qualified experts (those who have requisite expertise in the subject being appealed to, e.g. climate science, evolutionary biology, economics, the historicity of Jesus) who have met either condition (a) or (b), and therefore exclude from consideration all such experts who meet neither condition.

Notably, when questioning the historicity of Jesus, this means excluding from consideration nearly all historians of Jesus. Because almost none have met either condition (a) or (b)…There is something else driving their opinions, something other than a careful and objective examination of the facts.

It is absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism – by this, is he referring to the deeply flawed nonsense that Earl Doherty has self-published? Or is he referring to his still-forthcoming book? Or is he referring to the arguments that were made and adequately addressed more than a century ago?

It is interesting that he concludes by saying the following:

Generally, eventually, you will find one side to be disproportionately more dishonest about the facts (citing bogus sources, or misrepresenting what those sources say or demonstrate, or not even citing sources for their claims at all, or any evidence you can independently verify) or illogical in its reasoning (and basic competency in detecting fallacies is all you need here, a competency everyone should have, or certainly labor to develop if they don’t).

Then you will know which side’s opinion you can safely discount.

That doesn’t leave any real room for mythicism, does it? It fascinates me how someone can say all the right things regularly on a theoretical level, and yet still have a blind spot when it comes to having been duped themselves by some crackpot theory or other.

When someone who accepts a fringe view tries to convince you that the reason their view is rejected by almost all the experts is because the experts haven’t really looked at the matter properly, I am hopeful that, even without the extensive knowledge of relevant content and data that experts have but you probably do not, you can see the unlikelihood of what is being proposed, and the probability that this is more likely to be motivated reasoning at work than an accurate analysis of the incompetence of the world’s professional scholars.

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Something about “consensuses” that doesn’t look right. “Consensusa” or consensusii”? No, I guess those don’t look any better. How about “consensusae”?

    • arcseconds

      Is this a joke? Or do you genuinely think that the way to form plurals is to randomly attach suffixes to nouns and see which one looks the best?

      I’m not trying to be rude here, I’m genuinely baffled as to what you’re doing.. if it’s a joke (or you’re just being playful) then it’s mildly amusing, well done, but I’m afraid you might actually be serious about it…

      FWIW, the Latin plural of consensus is consensus, although it’s said with a long ‘u’, you could write it consensūs if you wanted. It’s a 4th declension noun…

      • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

        Hi Arc,

        I was joking or being playful, but now that you pointed out the Latin plural, I think my intuition that there was something wrong about “consensuses” wasn’t completely off. I took Latin long, long ago in another age, but it seemed to me that there had to be another way to form the plural of “consensus.”

        • arcseconds

          OK, cool, sorry for thinking you might be serious, but people say and do strange things sometimes :-)

          We don’t like forming plurals with words ending in ‘-us’ in the normal English manner (whereby ‘-s’ becomes ‘-ses’) because we’re trained from an early age that the plural of ‘cactus’ is ‘cacti’, etc. We’re often taught this as a rule: drop ‘-us’ and replace with ‘-i’. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work! There’s a number of 4th-declension nouns in English, plus octopus which Latin borrowed from Greek and retained the Greek plural, and virus, which is kind of its own strange beast but in Latin was mostly used as a mass noun and therefore didn’t take a plural, but in the modern world is very definitely a count noun.

          Frankly, I’d be in favour of adopting a rule where following the normal English rules are always acceptable. Otherwise you’re forcing everyone to learn and remember the exceptions on a case-by-case basis, or expecting them to know details of Latin plurals. Or, what is more likely, they won’t know either, so it becomes a horrible trap.

          One of the worst things about this trap is that frequently people think they know better and correct people who are correctly using the English plural! And then I have to correct them, and then a fight breaks out, because no-one likes to be corrected, especially those who think they know better and figure they’re the ones that get to correct others.

          • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

            I agree with your idea “of adopting a rule where following the normal English rules are always acceptable.” Who makes these decisions? How do petition for such an adoption?

  • beau_quilter

    All scientists are wrong at some time or another. Galileo was wrong about tides, Isaac Newton was wrong about alchemy, Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics … it’s part of the process.

    But to say that he had no “workable mechanism to account for aspects of the system” doesn’t really say much about the validity of his (and Copernicus’) model at the time, since the geocentric model had no such mechanism either (unless you count angels). The fact is that Galileo contributed vital scientific evidence to the growing “tide” of support for heliocentrism, including:

    His observations of the moons of Jupiter
    His observations of sunspots
    His observations of the phases of Venus
    His studies of falling bodies, pendulums, and acceleration
    His studies of inertia (he was the first to express it mathematically, verify it experimentally, and introduce the important concept of frictional force) paved the way for Newton.

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

      When I wrote that he had “no workable mechanism” I wasn’t thinking primarily of the motion of planets, but of the lack of an understanding of gravity which could explain how the Earth could be spinning rapidly but without us feeling it. I hoped it would be clear from what I wrote that Galileo contributed in important ways. My point was that it took more evidence and work to sort out some of the flaws in his own claims and provide the definitive case for what eventually became the way we now understand things.

      • beau_quilter

        Sean Carroll often points out that all physicists can do is come up with alternative (and sometimes competing) models for the universe, and these models are constantly being revised. Even Newton didn’t provide a “mechanism” in that his explanation for gravity was more a description of the motion of bodies in relation to each other, with assumptions about attraction at a distance which would be later explained by Einstein as the effect of the warping of space-time.

        If I sounded a little reactive, it’s because it’s become a popular meme among apologists to claim that the case for geocentrism at the time was better than Galileo’s case for heliocentrism – that he was right only by “accident” – a patently false notion that ignores Galileo’s contributions in favor of a misguided attempt to defend the church.

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

          I really do appreciate that concern. Mine was the other side of the coin, namely combating the tendency of those who challenge the consensus in their time to presume that they are the next Galileo, without considering that it will in all likelihood only be with hindsight that that proves to be true, if ever.

        • arcseconds

          I think the case for geocentrism was indeed better. The Tychonian model was the model that avoided the most pitfalls, those of Galileo and those of the Ptolemaic system.

          But I think the more profound thing to say is that the available evidence didn’t actually conclusively prove or even very convincingly pick out any model. The thing to do in this situation is to propose lots of models and keep tinkering, which is what the astronomical community actually did.

          As the evidence didn’t pick out any particular model, and was compatible with several models, and that Galileo got a lot of things wrong, the fact that Galileo was right about the most dramatic aspect of the theory (and the one that was centrally involved in the infamous ‘affair’) has to be considered luck, doesn’t it?

          • arcseconds

            ‘Right-ish’. The sun actually orbits the center of mass of the solar system, like everything else.

          • beau_quilter

            Apparently not so lucky, since he was convicted of heresy specifically for promoting heliocentrism.

            Of course, Tycho Brahe’s great claim to fame is the huge data collection he amassed of astronomical observations; data that he tried to apply to his own “geo-heliocentric” model. He had the sun, moon, and fixed stars orbiting the earth, but had the other planets orbiting the sun. Ultimately, his data was used by Kepler to support a heliocentric model with elliptical orbits.

        • arcseconds

          If you’re standing on a body, and you see some other body moving through space near you, is it the body you’re standing on that’s moving, the other body, or both?

          What Newton provided was a framework in which that question can be answered.

          • beau_quilter

            Speaking of standing, it was Newton who said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

            Newton’s first law of motion is based on an understanding of inertia first mathematically formalized by Galileo.

            • arcseconds

              hmm, so, it kind of feels to me like you think you’re disagreeing with me, and engaging in some kind of argument against me, would that be right?

              But reading what you actually wrote, it doesn’t actually seem to be disagreeing with me but just adding some trivia.

              You’ll have to forgive me for thinking that you’re taking a contrary stance if you’re not, because usually when I have this discussion I get negative reactions because I’m not cheering sufficiently enthusiastically for Team Galileo, and to be honest that’s my suspicion as to what is happening here, too.

              So hopefully I’ve misunderstood and we’re in agreement that Galileo’s rock-solid certainty of heliocentricity was misplaced, as he didn’t have the apparatus with which to even decide that question. Yes, his influence on the figure that gave us that apparatus was instrumental in eventually realising that, but that doesn’t change the fact he wasn’t justified in his certainty.

              As far as exchanging trivia goes, my understanding is that the famous quote from Newton was more delivered as a potshot against Leibniz rather than as praise for Galileo (or more generally a humble remark about himself).

              • beau_quilter

                arcseconds

                I’m often in agreement with points that you make on this blog. I don’t agree with this one; you can stack up evidence for and against any astronomical model in Galileo’s day – in the end, they were all wrong on some level, but, Galileo’s contributions to the field are undeniable.

                Of course, you may cheer for whatever team you like.

                • arcseconds

                  OK, so I was completely right in thinking you think you disagree with me, then.

                  But I’m still unable to see where the disagreement lies!

                  You keep reiterating that Galileo made undeniable contributions to the field, as though that were the contentious issue. But I’m not contending that, never have, never will, and explicitly agreed with this in my last post.

                  On the other hand, I do contend that Galileo’s model wasn’t correct and wasn’t any better supported by the evidence than any other model. And you don’t deny this, and never have, and explicitly agree with this in your last post.

                  Is it the case that when someone says “Galileo’s model wasn’t actually that well supported by the evidence of the time” you hear “Galileo made absolutely no contributions to science”?

                  • beau_quilter

                    Are you looking for a disagreement, arc?

                    • arcseconds

                      Yes! You say there is one, so I’m looking, and I can’t find it!

                      As far as I can see, we agree on all or nearly all matters, but you’re not acting as if we do.

                      Normally you’re very reasonable, at the moment though you’re behaving like a bruiser in some rough-house bar, taking a combative stance over nothing and then accusing me of looking for a fight.

                      It seems silly to fight when there’s nothing we disagree on. If you can point out where we disagree, we could discuss that. Maybe we could even fight about it, but at least then it’d be over something. At the moment, though, I really just don’t know what’s going on. Why are you acting like this?

                    • beau_quilter

                      I’m behaving like a bruiser in some rough-house bar? The only item I don’t agree with is the idea that Galileo’s promotion of heliocentrism was a lucky guess. But I don’t remember acting like a bruiser about it.

                    • arcseconds

                      Well, that’s good, because that’s the only thing I can see us disagreeing on, too!

                      However, I’d have to say it’s a little confusing you saying “I don’t agree with this one” in reply to a post of mine that isn’t the one where I say Galileo got lucky, and then say “but Galileo’s contributions to the field are undeniable” as though that was the point you were disagreeing with.

                      Anyway, as far as luckiness goes, I don’t think his system was luck in the sense he wrote down a bunch of random speculations and happened to get a few right. He clearly worked hard at it, and maybe he worked harder than anyone else (although Kepler’s painstaking work on his laws can’t be discounted).

                      However, you seem to agree with me that the evidence at the time did not single out Galileo’s theory as being the only real contender (even if you don’t agree with me that the Tychonian system had the least problems). And you also don’t seem to be denying that it had its problems.

                      I really don’t understand how you can agree with that and yet insist that it wasn’t luck that future evidence vindicated some dramatic elements of Galileo’s theory (even as it demolished others).

                    • beau_quilter

                      Arc, Sorry that you’re confused, but at the risk of beating a dead horse, the comment in which I said “I don’t agree with this one” was in reply to a comment in which you said:

                      “So hopefully I’ve misunderstood and we’re in agreement that Galileo’s rock-solid certainty of heliocentricity was misplaced …”

                      There is no such thing as rock-solid certainty in the world of scientific theory, even today. Even Newton’s brilliant breakthroughs described gravity as a sort of “action at a distance” that falls quite short of models of the universe that now incorporate general relativity and quantum mechanics. Today and in Galileo’s day, we only have competing models of the universe based on the evidence available to us.

                      I simply think that Galileo contributed enough evidence for a heliocentric model to legitimately outweigh competing models of his day. That why I listed the evidence he contributed and added that “Galileo’s contributions to the field are undeniable.”

                      But I am happy to live with a little disagreement on a moot point.

      • Matt Brown

        Hey, Dr.McGrath, I think Richard Carrier might be a myth. I mean no scholar has really heard of him(except a few).

      • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

        Galileo certainly made important contributions to the evidence fo heliocentrism, but also stuck steadfastly to some bad theories and refused to admit error, as Thony Christie has pointed out: http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/gopnik-galileo-and-ed-yong-galileo-not-admitting-being-wrong/

  • Matt Brown

    I don’t know why Carrier thinks that because the consensus of certain things in the past were wrong, that therefore the consensus of today’s professionals must be wrong.

    What Carrier doesn’t realize is that many people of the past didn’t have the technology and or reliable methods that we do today, to give us an accurate understanding of how things work(Science) or what happened x amount of years ago(history).

    • Herro

      >I don’t know why Carrier thinks that because the consensus of certain things in the past were wrong, that therefore the consensus of today’s professionals must be wrong.

      [citation needed]

      • Matt Brown

        Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong.”

        “And so, when it comes to Jesus mythicism, by all means entertain hopes that the scholarly consensus may change. But don’t think that it is appropriate to suggest from the comfort of your armchair that the consensus probably is wrong, and fringe voices that you happen to agree with – whether themselves experts or not – are certain to be vindicated one day. Not all consensuses are wrong, and not all challenges to consensuses are successful or should be. Let scholarship work its course. That’s the best method we’ve found to make progress in getting an increasingly accurate understanding of science, history, and other subjects. It sorted out the questions Galileo wrestled with. Why think that it is now no longer capable of doing so, when in fact we have much greater freedom of expression and more finely honed scholarly methods in place than we did a century ago, to say nothing of several centuries ago.”

        • Herro

          Nowhere in that citation does Carrier say that “because the consensus of certain things in the past were wrong, that therefore the consensus of today’s professionals must be wrong.”

          Stop misrepresenting him.

          • Matt Brown

            But Carrier does in someway believe that excuse. Besides, Carrier’s a crank, and his views aren’t correct

  • GakuseiDon

    Reminds me of what has been called one of Arthur C Clarke’s “Rules”:

    “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

    Isaac Asimov’s corollary to the above rule:

    “When, however, the lay public rallies around an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion—the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.”

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

    How about Carrier’s claim that “historians of Jesus have all been generating their conclusions from demonstrably invalid methods, and worse, have accordingly generated countless contradictory conclusions from the same body of evidence.”

    Is he wrong about that?

    • the_Siliconopolitan

      Now, now. Don’t confuse the discussion with facts.

      • Matt Brown

        That’s not a fact that historians dispute Jesus existence. They draw the same conclusion that he existed. Where they differ is in who Jesus was(The same with many historical figures). Using the argument because historians dispute who Jesus was to trump the overwhelming consensus of professional historians and scholars that Jesus existed is circular and not valid

        • beau_quilter

          I think the_Siliconopolitan was agreeing with your original point; he was just being ironic.

          • Matt Brown

            Oh, okay, thanks. I couldn’t tell at first

          • the_Siliconopolitan

            No, my point was the Carrier, while talking about the history of Jesus, discusses general principles which the OP doesn’t engage with.

            • beau_quilter

              Ah, sorry, didn’t mean to misrepresent you.

    • Matt Brown

      Yes, he’s very wrong about that. The same methods that scholars and historians use for Jesus, are very much indeed the same methods that historians use for other figures in history as well(with a few differences). The point is that like young-earth creationists, mythicists typically deny the methodologies used by professionals.

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

        If they are not using different methods, why is it that classicists don’t think it is possible to have any certainty about what Socrates actually said despite having the writings of three independent contemporaries who knew him personally while historical Jesus scholars think that it is possible to be certain about things that Jesus said or did when all they have are anonymous writings that are the product of decades of oral tradition..

        • Matt Brown

          Vinny JH, what you have to understand is that in historical or scientific studies, they will typically tell you that you can’t have 100% certainty. Certainty is a property of belief. It’s not necessary in order for something to be true or false.

          When historians say that they are “Certain” about a figure in history, they mean that it’s highly probable that a figure or event existed or happened in the past. (Probable I think is a better word to describe since it deals with evidence.) Based on the evidence for Jesus, historians can have an extremely high certainty. Based on the evidence for the age of the earth, scientists can have an extremely high certainty that the earth is 4.5+ billion years old.

          Historians aren’t certain about everything when it comes to Jesus. They still have difficulty dealing with recovering all his deeds, teachings, and beliefs about him. The point of historical studies, is to reconstruct a figure or event that happened in the past with the tools or methods available, so that we can come to a solid and accurate conclusion of what most likely happened.

          It’s more plausible and fare more probable that Jesus of Nazareth existed than him being a myth made by Monotheistic Jews in the past.Similarly, it’s far more probable that the earth is billions of years old than being only 6-10,000 years old.

          Dale Martin, a Yale professor of NT studies, makes a great point about this during his lecture.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_dOhg-Fpu0

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

            All historians seem willing to concede that nothing is 100% sure, but not all historians seem to use the same criteria when it comes to determining how much less than 100% sure they can be. For example, from what I can tell, Socratic scholars are quite willing to admit that they cannot distinguish with any certainty between what Socrates actually said and what words Plato put in Socrates mouth. They are willing to admit that the best they can hope to recover is a theoretically possible Socrates rather than a historical Socrates. Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, think they can be certain beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that Jesus existed because they know Paul met his brother and they think they can be almost certain about things that he said and did. How can historical Jesus scholars be so much more certain if they are using the same methodologies?

            • Matt Brown

              But Socratic scholars are certian that a ‘historical’ Socrates existed. Just like Historical Jesus scholars are certain that a ‘historical’ Jesus existed. Why? because of the evidence.

              It may be true that historians have difficulty with certain aspects of Jesus life, but that’s true of almost any figure in history; whether Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great. There are still questions that historians ask about these figures. But none of these questions are “Did these people actually exist?”

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

                How can the certainty of HJ scholars be “just like” the certainty of Socratic scholars? The evidence is quite different. For Socrates, we have the writings of three contemporaries who knew him personally. Those writings describe things that Socrates said and did without making any supernatural claims about him. For Jesus, our earliest source is a man who didn’t know him personally, said almost nothing about what he said or did, and claimed only to have encountered him in supernatural visions and revelations after he died. The only descriptions we have of Jesus’ life come from anonymous religious propaganda filled with supernatural stories based on unidentified sources removed an unknown number of times in decades of oral tradition.

                Now it may well be that it reasonable to believe it more likely than not that a historical Jesus existed. I’m still on the fence about that. Nevertheless, the evidence for Jesus is problematic in ways that the evidence for Socrates is not.

                The problem with the methods being employed by historical Jesus scholars is the wide range of reconstructions of his life and mission and the wide range of disagreement about what can and cannot be known about him. With Socrates, Plato, or Alexander, you will not find nearly as much disagreement concerning where the questions and uncertainties lie.

                • Matt Brown

                  I don’t follow your problem. You seem to think that Historical Jesus scholars base their conclusion on “faulty evidence”, but that’s not the case. The evidence we have for Jesus is excellent. Just because certain things in the gospels are supernatural, that’s not proof that there wasn’t a historical Jesus.

                  There are many figures who have stories that involve the supernatural and legend or myth, but we know that the person behind these obsure myths and legends were real.

                  Take for example

                  “The problem with the methods being employed by historical Jesus scholars is the wide range of reconstructions of his life and mission and the wide range of disagreement about what can and cannot be known about him. With Socrates, Plato, or Alexander, you will not find nearly as much disagreement concerning where the questions and uncertainties lie”

                  That’s not true though, there are some uncertainties about these figures as well. Socrates scholars still have difficult with trying to come up with a clear portrait of who Socrates was, other than the fact that he was a Philosopher. They still question certain ideas about him, however, that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.

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

                    The evidence we have for Jesus is not excellent. It is highly problematic. One way to think about it is to imagine trying to reconstruct the life of Joseph Smith based only on biographies written by devout Mormons in the late 1800′s, It would be a nightmare.

                    I haven’t said that the existence of supernatural elements in the gospels proves that Jesus didn’t exist. That is your straw man. I said that anonymous writings containing supernatural elements, which are removed by decades of oral tradition are not “just like” the writings of contemporaries who claim to have known the subject, particularly when those writings do not contain such elements. If you cannot see why a historian should prefer the latter to the former, then there is really no point in having a discussion.

                    You are quite right that Socratic scholars find it difficult to be certain about much more than the fact that he was a philosopher despite having the writings of three people who knew him. HJ scholars, on the other hand, think they can be certain about many details of Jesus’ life and teachings despite the much more problematic nature of the gospels. That is difficult to explain if they are using the same methods.

                    • Matt Brown

                      “The evidence we have for Jesus is not excellent. It is highly problematic. One way to think about it is to imagine trying to reconstruct the life of Joseph Smith based only on biographies written by devout Mormons in the late 1800′s, It would be a nightmare.”

                      I meant the evidence for his existence. Your analogy backfires because although historians probably question certain things about Joseph Smith(As with any historical figure), they certainly don’t question his existence.

                      “I haven’t said that the existence of supernatural elements in the gospels proves that Jesus didn’t exist. That is your straw man. I said that anonymous writings containing supernatural elements, which are removed by decades of oral tradition are not “just like” the writings of contemporaries who claim to have known the subject, particularly when those writings do not contain such elements. If you cannot see why a historian should prefer the latter to the former, then there is really no point in having a discussion.”

                      But your still maintaining something that isn’t correct, and that is by saying we can’t trust oral tradition of writings, that might contain anonymous sources. The problem is, you have to understand that these sources are reliable enough to tell us a lot of things about Jesus: Like the Fact that he existed. Also, these sources are very early compared to other writings in history. A historian who is looking at something written “decades” vs. “a century” has hit historical Gold. The fact that they were written so early gives the historian a much more accurate and consistent picture of what happened.

                      Also, you must consdier the fact about the non-biblical sources that write about Jesus. They confirm certain things in the Gospels(Jesus existence, Crucifixion, Christian belief, resurrection, movement,etc.)

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

                      Of course no one questions the existence of Joseph Smith, but then, our earliest sources for Smith are people who actually claimed to have known him during his lifetime. If our earliest source was someone who claimed only to have encountered Smith’s ghost an unknown number of years after his death, our knowledge of his existence might be more problematic particularly if that source knew little to nothing about what Smith had said or done during his life. And before you raise the same straw man, I’m not claiming that it would prove Smith’s non-existence. I’m just saying that it is problematic.

                      According to tradition in my wife’s family, her great-great-grandfather was a Confederate spy who was killed while trying to sneak behind Union lines. My mother-in-law finally tracked down some records and it turns out that he was a private in the Union Army with a wife and children in Illinois. He deserted after the battle of Shiloh and impregnated my wife’s great-great-grandmother in Mississippi before disappearing. There is some indication that he may have gone to Utah and married again. The fact the the tradition was written down a few decades after his disappearance didn’t make it any more reliable..

                    • Matt Brown

                      “Of course no one questions the existence of Joseph Smith, but then, our earliest sources for Smith are people who actually claimed to have known him during his lifetime. If our earliest source was someone who claimed only to have encountered Smith’s ghost an unknown number of years after his death, our knowledge of his existence might be more problematic particularly if that source knew little to nothing about what Smith had said or done during his life. And before you raise the same straw man, I’m not claiming that it would prove Smith’s non-existence. I’m just saying that it is problematic.”

                      But your misunderstanding how ancient history works. People typically wrote about a person or event centuries afterwards. Claiming that we have no sufficient evidence for the existence of a historial Jew 2000 years ago in Palestine, is problematic. You can always doubt certain stories about Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that the Gosepl accounts aren ‘t reliable enough to recover a historical figure that existed. The accounts are verifiable by historical methodology, whether they’re anonymous or identified, the material that is written is not of the genre of myth. If the gospels where a genre of myth, then your case would be much easier to substantiate, but most scholars agree that they are biographies.

                      “According to tradition in my wife’s family, her great-great-grandfather was a Confederate spy who was killed while trying to sneak behind Union lines. My mother-in-law finally tracked down some records and it turns out that he was a private in the Union Army with a wife and children in Illinois. He deserted after the battle of Shiloh and impregnated my wife’s great-great-grandmother in Mississippi before disappearing. There is some indication that he may have gone to Utah and married again. The fact the the tradition was written down a few decades after his disappearance didn’t make it any more reliable..”

                      But it does prove some things doesn’t it? It proves that your great-grandfatherexisted. It also proved that he lived in the US, and that he served in the military. Your analogy actually serves the point I’m trying to make. Even if some things about your great-grandfather were not true, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist. It just means that certain things about him were false.

                      Just because some Scholars think certain things about Jesus in the Gospel accounts are myth or legend, is not proof that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. It would at best show that certain things about his life didn’t happen(I would disagree with some of those scholars on thinking that), but you get my point.

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

                      Once again Matt, I haven’t claimed that anything is proof that Jesus didn’t exist. Maybe when you get that through your head, we can make some progress.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But your claiming that the evidence we have is “problematic” and that just isn’t the case.

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

                      Yes, I am arguing that it is problematic, but instead of responding to any argument I have made, you keep attacking your own straw man.

                    • Matt Brown

                      How? you keep claiming it is, but haven’t shown how it is.

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

                      I’ve pointed out that the evidence for Jesus is worse than that for Socrates. I’ve pointed out its similarities to the kind of evidence that would be completely unreliable when it comes to Joseph Smith. If you can’t understand either of those points, I can’t help you.

                    • Matt Brown

                      No, what you’ve pointed out is discrepancies that Historians find troubling when figuring out who Jesus was. But you ignore the much abundant evidence that historians find extremely useful, in telling us that there was a historical Jesus that existed. There is in fact much better evidence for Jesus than Socrates. There are historians who wrote more about Jesus than Socrates within 150 years of his life. Paul’s epistles, the Gospels, the NT, Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Thallus,Celsus, Porphyry, etc. If these aren’t enough to prove that Jesus existed, then what is? That’s what I wonder about mythicists. They want to claim the evidence we have is “problematic”, but they in turn don’t offer any evidence or reason for doubthing the existence of Jesus.

                      If mythicism were true, then why don’t we see any evidence of it in the gospels? How hard is it to prove that someone existed? The mythicist argument is getting weaker and weaker by the second. Carrier is a great example of this.

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

                      I’m not arguing that Jesus didn’t exist. Can’t you get that through your head?

                    • Matt Brown

                      I didn’t say you were, but you are arguing that the evidence we have is problematic, and I’m telling you it’s not.

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

                      Yes, you are. That’s very helpful.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      I doubt any progress will occur with Matt, but I appreciate you trying.

                      As for the good doctor, about the same.

                    • Andrew Dowling

                      “One way to think about it is to imagine trying to reconstruct the life
                      of Joseph Smith based only on biographies written by devout Mormons in
                      the late 1800′s, It would be a nightmare.”

                      But actually that analogy goes against your point:

                      A) There was a historical Joseph Smith

                      B) Any recreations of his life would certainly contain theological motifs and exaggerations, but also authentic historical material. Just like the Gospels. Just think of what your implying . . “we had a great leader we thought was (insert religious conviction here) . . let’s write about his life. It will be completely fictional.”

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

                      Since my point was not that Jesus didn’t exist, the fact that Smith did doesn’t go against anything I’ve said. You’re just bashing Matt’ straw man.

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

              Which historical Jesus scholars would say such a thing, who are not conservative Evangelicals that are not consistently employing secular methods of historical inquiry? Are you comparing scholarship from the same period?

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

                Among liberal scholars, It was Ehrman who spoke of scholars being sure “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed based on Galatians 1:19. It was you who spoke of things that “Jesus almost certainly said” in a post last year. I also recall Casey expressing high degrees of certainty about the authenticity of some of his Aramaicisms.

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

                  I certainly think that it is unreasonable, unless someone comes up with a plausible case for mythicism that deals with the evidence in a way that mythicists thus far have failed to do, to deny the existence of a historical Jesus. And given the evidence, I certainly do think that there are a small number of things which it is very probable that Jesus said – the use of abba in reference to God being a good example. You will also find regarding Socrates and other figures that, just because most things are very uncertain, that does not mean that all things are completely uncertain. I know you like to maintain your stance as a fence-sitter despite the way the preponderance of evidence points. But there is a core of evidence, however minimal, which points clearly in one direction, and no evidence which points clearly in the other. That ought to count for something.

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

                    The problem when it comes to Socrates is that for anything Plato credits him with saying, there is no way to eliminate the possibility that Plato simply put his own idea in Socrates’ mouth. There are some allocations of ideas between Socrates and Plato that are logically more coherent and more plausible, but no way to establish any one of them as most probable. That’s the Socratic problem and it’s why some classicists speak in terms of a theoretically possible Socrates rather than a historical Socrates.

                    That same problem is magnified several times over when it comes to Jesus. Anything that the gospels credit Jesus with saying could have been attributed to him by the evangelist or someone in the oral tradition. Some allocations of ideas to Jesus may be more plausible than others, but any idea that was passed along was passed along because it was useful in perpetuating belief in the Risen Christ, which means that it might have been invented for that purpose.

                    I think I agree with you that it is unreasonable to deny the existence of a historical Jesus without a compelling explanation of the evidence, but I think that one can still recognize it as a theoretical possibility that cannot be eliminated. For me, however, the more significant possibility is that nothing of the historical Jesus is recoverable beyond the bare fact of his existence. As I noted, stories were told to perpetuate belief in the Risen Christ. I cannot see any way to determine that any particular story reflected Jesus’ understanding of his life and mission rather than his followers understanding of the apocalyptic meaning of their own visions. Had Jesus actually been a revolutionary Zealot who preached violent resistance to the Romans, I would still expect the stories to reflect his followers’ understanding of the Risen Christ. As a result, I don’t see how we can assign a higher probability to Jesus using Abba rather than someone down the line attributing it to him.

                    In any modern biography of George Washington, you are likely to see the author discussing how difficult it is to discern the historical Washington through the Father of His Country mythology. The problem is exponentially more difficult in discerning the historical Jesus through the Risen Christ mythology. It’s like writing Washington’s life with only Parson Weems as a source.

                    I maintain my stance as a fence-sitter because I haven’t seen the argument for historicity that is independent of any particular reconstruction of Jesus’ life and teachings. I think there probably is one as several bloggers I respect seem to hold that position including Ian, Matthew Ferguson, DagoodS, and Thomas Verenna. The common denominator among all of them though is that they do not bash mythicism in general, or Carrier and Price, in particular the way that you and Casey and Hoffman and Ehrman do.

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

                      Not “anything” attributed to Jesus can plausibly be attributed to the later church. And not everything that is connected with him can be shown to be likely to come from someone else – indeed, some of it is hard to account for in those terms, as I feel I have explained countless times in the past.

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

                      I am familiar with many of your explanations. For example:

                      Paul uses the Aramaic word “Abba.” Mark quotes Jesus using the word. You argue that “there is no reason Paul would have used the term in writing to non-Aramaic-speaking Christians other than that the term already had some significance for them, presumably in connection with Jesus, the object of their faith and devotion.” Therefore, the historical Jesus used the word “Abba.”

                      Possible? Sure. Very probable? Of course not. It is a huge leap from “Use of ‘Abba’ predates Paul” to “Jesus must have said it.” There is no basis to assess any higher likelihood that Jesus introduced the word into the Church’s vocabulary than that Peter or John or any other Aramaic speaker did. All we have is Mark’s recreation of a prayer that no one would have been there to hear.

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

                      That casual dismissal does not seem like an at all adequate response to the extensive research that has been done on this topic, and the compelling case made for authenticity.

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

                      Since you referred to the “countless times” you have explained things, I was responding to the explanation you offered. As to that explanation, I think that it is more than sufficient to point out that it is a huge logical leap from “Use of “Abba” predates Galatians” to “Very probable that Jesus said it.” I can’t imagine what kind of research could bridge that gap, but I would be fascinated to find out.

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

                      You might want to read one of more book-length studies on the historical Jesus in general, if not a monograph that tackles his use of abba. Most of the former discuss the subject.

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

                      I have read several book-length studies on the historical Jesus, although I do not specifically recall the discussion of the historicity of Jesus’ use of “abba.” Do you truly believe that any of them successfully bridge the logical gap between “Christian use of “abba” likely predates Corinthians and Romans” and “It is very probable that Jesus said it”?

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

                      I find that hard to believe – which books did you read?!

                      If historical scholarship had not made such a case, I obviously would not hold the view that I do.

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

                      Based on a post you wrote several years ago titled What Jesus Said and Did: 1) Prayer in Gethsemane, it is not obvious to me that historical scholarship has made such a case, or at least not that it has made a very good one. Specific books that I have read about the historical Jesus include Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Crossan’s The Historical Jesus The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, and Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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

                      This is one reason why I constantly emphasize the need to read books and articles, and not just a scholarly field and its conclusions on the basis of blog posts, especially very brief ones.

                      The history of scholarship since Joachim Jeremias’ classic study on the subject covers many of the points. While Jeremias was badly wrong on one infamous point – that abba is a close equivalent to the English “daddy” – the work since his time has addressed that but also confirmed the argument that the use of the Aramaic vernacular in addressing God was not something common. When coupled with the importance that the later Christian tradition gave to Jesus’ use of this, and the fact that Paul could toss in the Aramaic word in a letter to Gentile Christians who did not know Aramaic in the context of sharing in Jesus’ “spirit of sonship,” and it becomes clear why historians think it likely that it goes back to Jesus.

                      For Jeremias’s study: http://books.google.com/books?id=37uJRUF6btAC&q=Abba#v=snippet&q=Abba&f=false

                      Geza Vermes has dealt with the relevant Jewish evidence in ways that go beyond and correct Jeremias, while still suggesting the historicity of the attribution of this to Jesus: http://books.google.com/books?id=6DYAzeXr4M0C&pg=PA182&lpg=PA182&dq=meier+marginal+jew+abba&source=bl&ots=BGJ_94mggu&sig=EU0q-_nGZli0CLXjDAUhFDZT40U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=BxV-U_64GcuoyASfgoHYCA&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=meier%20marginal%20jew%20abba&f=false

                      Marianne Meye Thompson: http://books.google.com/books?id=kJmQortbOQgC&pg=PA29&lpg=PA29&dq=jeremias+abba&source=bl&ots=ts7FVKptcf&sig=5W9rxyGdFE1dhDsePcZOWrIHmAc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mPJ9U-WwOoa1yASspoKwDg&ved=0CGAQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=jeremias%20abba&f=false

                      And of course, Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth.

                      Those are a few of the really obvious ones that come immediately to mind.

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

                      It is clear to me why historians don’t think that Paul introduced the use of “abba” in connection with the relationship of Christ or Christians to God–at least not in Romans or Galatians–but that doesn’t give me any reason to think that it is very probable that it was Jesus who did so as opposed to some other Aramaic speaking Christian prior to Paul. There is a huge gap in the argument there.

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

                      So you think that it was earlier than Paul, and it clearly became widely accepted as distinctive of Jesus, but nonetheless you consider it less likely to come from Jesus than from some other person in the early Christian movement? Can you explain your reasoning, or is this just another instance of your characteristic stance of not caring what the arguments are for two different views, but simply making a leap of faith into agnosticism about the matter?

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

                      Are there things in the gospels that were not widely accepted by the early church as being distinctive of Jesus? Wouldn’t that criteria necessitate that we judge everything in the gospels to be historical? I have read a fair amount of Civil War history and I have found that Lincoln and Grant and Lee didn’t say many of the things they have been credited with saying, or at least that the evidence that they said them is not nearly as strong as you might think given how widely accepted the quotes became. Many of the problems arise from the earliest source for the quote being several decades after the fact.

                      I don’t think that the use of “abba” is less likely to have come from Jesus than someone else. I think that we have no basis to assess its likely source at all.

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

                      There are things in the Gospels that were not practiced or emphasized by the early church, as far as we can tell.

                      But since you seem to be adopting your usual stance, “I am going to be agnostic about this because I don’t think any evidence could justify drawing actual probabilistic historical conclusions,” I really don’t see any point in discussing this. That is your response no matter whether the historical case is strongly in favor of historicity, strongly against, or somewhere in between, and so it seems that specific details of evidence have no bearing on it. And so is there a point to trying to discuss the details with you?

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

                      The problem isn’t in the details of the evidence. The problem is in the logic of criteria that looks to what “became widely accepted as distinctive of Jesus.”

                      It was once widely accepted that George Washington said to his father “I cannot tell a lie.”
                      It was once widely accepted that Lee said of Longstreet at Gettysburg “He is a good fighter when he gets in position, but he is so slow.”
                      It is still widely accepted that Lincoln said of Grant after the Battle of Shiloh “I cannot spare the man. He fights.”

                      In all three cases, we either know or have some idea who it was who was supposed to have heard the words spoken and that person is only one or two steps removed from the first person to write the story down. Nonetheless, the evidence in not sufficient in any of the three cases to make it the consensus of historians that the quotation is very probably authentic.

                      I am agnostic about the authenticity of the things Jesus said and did because the kind of evidence we have is not the kind of evidence that I have seen any historian in any other field deem to be sufficient. Historical Jesus scholars are the only ones I know of who think that they can say that it is very probable that Jesus said particular things using anonymous writings based on unidentified sources which are removed an unknown number of times in decades of oral tradition from people who may or may not have had any first hand knowledge.

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

                      But are there any instances in which the majority of historians conclude that the gist of what is attributed to an individual is more probably authentic than not? You don’t seem to be suggesting, in your comment as worded, that those cases are fundamentally different from the case of Jesus.

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

                      I think that authentic quotations of Lincoln or Washington or Lee are fundamentally different from those of Jesus in that both the person who originally reported the statement and the person who originally recorded the statement are known and are deemed to be reasonably reliable and unbiased. The statements are reported within a relatively short period of time and are consistent with other things the speaker is known to have said or done during the relevant time frame.

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

                      Can you give some examples?

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

                      I am not sure what examples I could give you because the only time I see the issues of authenticity discussed is when an historian is challenging some well-known quotation. I’ve never seen an author write “Everyone believes Lincoln really said this because . . . .” They just cite a source which is might be something written by Lincoln or by someone who was present when the words were uttered..

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

                      Because, as is obvious, it is generally easier to obtain a higher degree of certainty when we are dealing with a highly literate era, or prolific authors, or influential public figures.

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

                      Exactly correct, which is why I think I am being perfectly reasonable to maintain that we cannot have any certainty about anything said by an ancient itinerant preacher who went unnoticed by the literate and prominent people of his day. I have observed how often quotes get invented and misattributed for very well documented people and how difficult it can be to determine what people like Washington, Lincoln, and Lee really did or didn’t say, So when historical Jesus scholars tell me that they can be almost certain about which sayings of Jesus survived thirty to forty years of oral transmission, I think I am fully justified in expressing a high degree of skepticism. Is the New Testament scholar who deems it highly probable that Jesus used the word “abba” really applying the same methodology as the historian who doesn’t think that we can be certain that Washington said “I cannot tell a lie”?

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

                      The Washington/Weems quote illustrates that (1) legendary material, particularly about the childhood of an important figure, can appear even in an author contemporary with the figure being written about, which is why the infancy material in the Gospels is considered by most to be completely worthless as history, and (2) that most sayings not written by an individual are going to be of uncertain historicity, especially when it is about a figure’s childhood rather than their adult public life.

                      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/2014/03/i-cannot-tell-a-lie/

                    • L.W. Dicker

                      James, would you mind pointing out the verse in Paul’s epistles where he puts the word ‘Abba’ into the mouth of Jesus?

                      Oh, right, Paul never does that. He uses that word as though it came to him through a ‘revelation’ from The Lord.

                      Just like he does with everything related to Jesus.

                      Thanks anyway!!

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

                      He says that Christians share in the spirit of sonship whereby they call out to God in that Aramaic word that would have been meaningless to people who did not know Aramaic, unless they had been introduced to it.

                      I am always astonished that mythicists are so willing to accept Paul’s claim to have received miraculous revelation, and that it genuinely gave him information that put him in agreement with other early Christians. I prefer to be more skeptical, reject the supernatural, and find more mundane explanations.

                    • L.W. Dicker

                      James, in Galatians Paul writes that “God has sent forth the spirit of his Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba!, Father!.”

                      And in Romans Paul states that “you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba!, Father!.”

                      James, do you notice the conspicuous absence?

                      Let me help you out. In neither of Paul’s references to ‘abba’ does he even remotely put those words into his Saviors mouth. Does that strike you as somewhat odd?

                      Can you think of a good reason why Paul would not give any words that actually came from the one and only Son of God the due credit, and force, that they would deserve?

                      James, wouldn’t proclaiming that Jesus himself had proclaimed these words have given them a special providence and authority?

                      James? Are you there, James?

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

                      Did you expect me to post a reply before you posted yours, while you were still writing it?!

                      If Paul were informing people about Jesus and his teaching for the first time in his letters, it would indeed be odd. But clearly abba is a word the significance of which Paul has no need to explain.

                      Why do mythicists struggle so much with basic reading comprehension skills?

                    • L.W. Dicker

                      James, do you really believe that not connecting important teachings regarding the savior of humankind, to that Savior himself, is completely expected and normal? Really, James?

                      James, when you attend your church, do none of your pastors or Sunday school teachers ever connect the teachings or sayings of Jesus with Jesus himself!!?

                      If a teaching of Jesus has any significance whatsoever, why in the name of Baal would anyone not actually connect that teaching to the Savior of humankind himself!!!???

                      James, perhaps reading comprehension is not your strongest suit?

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

                      In letters, people often make allusions to things that are familiar to both parties, with no need for chapter and verse, or to specify the song from which the snippet of lyrics are drawn, or whatever. It happens a lot in preaching and in conversation, too.

                      You seem not to grasp that the epistles do not answer the questions that a purely mythical Jesus raises, either. When it comes to myths about the celestial realm, people still expected details, and so the fact that the epistles offer allusions of a familiar story is neither here nor there, and certainly doesn’t lend the support for mythicism that some mythicists seem to like to pretend that it does.

                    • L.W. Dicker

                      James, you seem to keep missing the important fact that the things that Paul is supposedly alluding to supposedly come from the one and only Savior of humankind.

                      So maybe a little more might be expected than someone quoting song lyrics, yes?

                      And you completely miss the point of a celestial realm.

                      What specific details of YAHWEH do we have from the Old Testament, other than the fact that he was a misogynistic, barbaric, jealous bastard who liked the smell of a burning goat and was strangely obsessed with the penis and the menstrual cycle of women.

                      The only real purpose of Jesus was to be a blood atonement for the sins of humankind. What brand of sandals he wore was probably not a major concern.

                      James, you seem to get your panties in a wad over Jesus mythicists. I can only assume that you think that Mormons have a terrible argument for their beliefs but you don’t seem too terribly bothered by their ‘ignorant’ beliefs.

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

                      I discuss this because it is my field. I am bothered by lots of dubious views that people have, but it makes sense to focus on those about which I have some genuine expertise.

                      The one and only blood sacrifice offered in celestial rather than human blood? And then you complain that the Mormons have weird ideas?

                    • Jesus H. Christ

                      James, surely you are aware that , for the ancients, celestial and earthly were equally valid and real.

                      And your ‘genuine expertise’ must have been left in the same garbage dumpster that your left your ‘objective historian’ credentials.

                      And, James, I didn’t ‘complain’ about Mormons having weird ideas. Really, Jimmy, reading comprehension is something that you should seriously consider conquering in your lifetime.

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

                      I don’t go by Jimmy. And “objective historian” is a funny phrase, even if most of that sentence is incomprehensible.

                      You did say blood, as did Paul and other early Christians, rather than ichor, right?

                    • Jesus H. Christ

                      Jim, you’re right about ‘objective historian’ being a funny phrase. And people like you are partly the reason why.

                      And ichor is a reference to Greek gods. Jim, we’re discussing Judeo-Christian gods. Although you are correct in that they are both human inventions.

                      You try to pass yourself off as some kind of ‘enlightened, progressive’ Christian. But your comments leave no doubt that you have no more interest in actual contrary arguments that may possibly impact your faith than Kirk Cameron or Pat Robertson does.

                      You, sir, are as deluded with your Stone Age lunacy as the fundamentalist Christians that you supposedly abhor.

                    • Jesus H. Christ

                      Oh, and by the way, Jim. Have you managed to think of a single, rational reason why the Apostle Paul shows absolutely no awareness of his blessed Savior Jesus being the source of the ‘abba’ that occurs in his letters?

                      “And as our Lord Jesus cried “abba” to our Heavenly Father, so do we.”

                      James, would you mind taking off your dunce hat for a moment and offer a rational explanation for why we don’t see something resembling the above verse anywhere in the entirety of Paul’s epistles?

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

                      We were not talking about any gods. We were talking about the historical figure of Jesus, who is not depicted as a god in our earliest sources, as all but conservative Christians and mythicists recognize. You are free to say that I am a lunatic for accepting the conclusions of mainstream secular historians, but that does not mean you are right.

                      I can’t help but wonder whether, with all the time you spend insulting people on the internet, you might not do better to actually read the sources under discussion, with the input of academic commentaries on the text, so as to not be misled by the various cranks on the internet. Everyone knows that conservative Christians and mythicists are both reading the text in much the same way, as a source of small snippets that can be co-opted to argue what they wish, while mainstream scholars and historians seek to understand the relevant sources as what they actually are, namely human compositions in a particular setting in history, culture, and relgion, and to make sense of them as such.

                    • Jesus H. Christ

                      James wrote “mainstream secular historians”.

                      Jim, you (accidentally, I’m sure) failed to mention which mainstream, secular historians agree with your fundamentalist view of your god-man.

                      And of course by “cranks on the internet” you surely mean Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, etc. ad nausea.

                      And who in this conversation is contesting that Jesus was not depicted as a God in the earliest sources?

                      Jim, the idea that your god-man might be a work of complete fiction that was wrongly interpreted by the ancient, scientifically ignorant, goat sacrificing religious fanatics of the first Century seems to bother you rather substantially.

                      Perhaps you should consider converting to Scientology.

                      That particular strand of ignorant garbage is somewhat more open to inspection than your preposterous strand of Neanderthal lunacy that you call a religion.

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

                      I am contesting that Jesus was not depicted as a God in the earliest sources.

                      I am offering you all mainstream historians and scholars, with the exception of the two Biblical scholars you mentioned, one of whom does literary criticism and thinks it can demonstrate ahistoricity, and one of whom teaches at an unaccredited seminary. But if you prefer that I say they are merely wrong rather than cranks, I can live with that, although my experience interacting with creationists has persuaded me that merely holding an advanced degree does not make one immune from becoming a crank.

                      All of these issues were dealt with adequately a century ago. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the case for mythicism has become even less tenable.

                      If you want to hold a view that all professionals working in the relevant areas of history reject, you are obviously free to do so. But your arrogance and and insults suggests you don’t realize that you’re not dismissing religious nonsense, you are dismissing the conclusions of mainstream historians of antiquity about the likely existence of Jesus of Nazareth, not as a god-man but as a teacher and failed messianic claimant. Do you really think that anyone with even a modicum of wisdom ought to accept the insult-laced rantings of an anonymous blog commenter over the consensus of professionals in a field?

                    • Jesus H. Christ

                      James, for over one hundred years, possibly many more, what percentage of ‘scholars’ held the belief that Moses was, without a serious doubt, a historical person? As was Abraham, and Noah, and Lot, etc, etc.

                      And the very idea that any one of these people was not historical was considered complete nonsense by the scholarly ‘elites’ of the time.

                      You are fond of comparing mythicism with creationism.
                      Are you truly completely unaware of what a total jackass that you look like when you do so?

                      And the idea that these issues were dealt with a century ago simply demonstrates your astounding arrogance and ignorance.

                      As though the arguments for your blessed god-man
                      T

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

                      What god-man?!

                      Many still think that there may have been a historical Egyptian who was involved in freeing slaves, who became the subject of the Moses legends, since that seems to them more likely than that Israelites would invent a hero with the remnants of an Egyptian name. Either way, there has been longstanding agreement that the Exodus never happened anything like depicted, because of the archaeological and documentary evidence to the contrary. And I don’t know where you get your information about what scholars think about Noah. Perhaps you are reading sectarian religious works that are not representative of what mainstream secular scholars conclude?

                      I’m open to new arguments being made for mythicism, and I’m looking forward to reading Richard Carrier’s forthcoming books. But the most common mythicist claims are recycling outdated information, and there is no arrogance or ignorance involved in pointing that out. Nor is there any arrogance or ignorance in expecting a new case to be made for a position, when older formulations of it were shown to be untenable a century earlier. That’s simply how scholarship works. Not every idea propounded in a blog comment deserves scholarly consideration, much less something more than that.

                      Instead of calling scholars names when they compare mythicists to creationists, wouldn’t a better solution be for mythicists to be less like creationists?

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      “It’s like writing Washington’s life with only Parson Weems as a source.” Except of course we know who Weems was, that he was a contemporary of Washington, he wrote his tales one year after GW died, there were no supernatural parts, and there were no theological motivations for his work. Other than those, it’s the same. Tongue in cheek, Vinny, I appreciated the line.

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

                      You’re right, but I know that Dr. McGrath gets tired of my Mormon analogies so I thought I would change it up a bit.

                    • Matt Brown

                      In what way do supernatural or theological parts in the gospels make the evidence “problematic”?

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson
                    • Matt Brown

                      Stephen Law isn’t a historian. He’s a philosopher.

                    • the_Siliconopolitan

                      As such he ought to know a thing or two about epistemology and logic.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But he isn’t qualified to speak on the issue of historical evidence or theories because he doesn’t have expertise in that area.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Well, if it’s true that philosophers aren’t qualified to write about historical evidence or theories, somebody forgot to tell William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But WLC is also a NT scholar/Theologian. He has a Phd from the University of Ludwig Maximillian in Theological studies

                    • beau_quilter

                      Oh, so a theology doctorate qualifies you as a historian, but a philosophy doctorate does not?

                      I doubt there are many (if any) academics who would agree with that premise.

                    • Matt Brown

                      His theological stuides are relevant to the evidence since he knows the literature and methods. A philosopher isn’t trained in the field of biblical studies or critical methods

                    • beau_quilter

                      Whatever historical methods are studied by theologians (and this varies widely from seminary to seminary) are biased by the theologian’s religious presuppositions.

                      This is not my opinion. This is the complaint of a growing number of scholars, arguing either that theology be consistently separated from departments of religious study in all accredited universities, or dispensed with altogether.

                      And why would you think that philosophy PHD’s do not study historical methods? I beg to differ.

                    • Matt Brown

                      “Whatever historical methods are studied by theologians (and this varies widely from seminary to seminary) are biased by the theologian’s religiouspresuppositions?”

                      I’m pretty sure theolgians study the text the same way, but the difference is the questions they seek to answer.

                      “This is not my opinion. This is the complaint of a growing number of scholars, arguing either that theology be consistently separated from departments of religious study in all accredited universities, or dispensed with altogether.”

                      I’m not sure if that is correct.

                      “And why would you think that philosophy PHD’s do not study historical methods? I beg to differ.”

                      Because Philosophers seek to ask questions of “Why” things happen. A philosopher isn’t someone who is trained in the field of ancient history or biblical studies, so they aren’t qualified to speak on matters. A philosopher seeks to ansewr things about the universe, nature, morality, knowledge, epistemology, etc.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Sorry, Matt, your characterization of how philosophers are and are not trained is far off the mark from reality. You cannot simply dismiss a scholar’s work in history, based on his PHD in Philosophy. In fact, the philosopher’s specialization in epistemology, the study of the scope of knowledge, has far more intersections in the fields of history and the sciences than theology, but without the presuppositional bias.

                      Listen, Matt, I’m not a mythicist – you have no arguments from me on that score; but I if you want to join the team against mythicism, you should stick to the arguments that actual scholars cite against mythicism, and don’t dismiss scholarship based on qualifications that you don’t understand.

                    • beau_quilter
                    • Matt Brown

                      a few articles and blogs mention what a few scholars thinh….ok.

                      Anyway, my main point is that Stephen law is not qualified to speak on the issues since he’s not a historian or scholar.

                    • beau_quilter

                      There are quite a number of PhD’s (other than those in history) with historical training and expertise.

                      Stephen Law, a professor, writer, editor, and provost, is most certainly a scholar, whether one agrees with him or not.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But he’s not a scholar in the NT or ancient history, therefore, his opinion is irrelevant to mainstream scholarship. It would be like quoting GA Wells(A Professor of German) who thinks Jesus was a myth. Wells isn’t relevant to the literature, therefore, his opinion is meaningless.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Wrong, Matt.

                      But it doesn’t really matter; without the right degrees, your opinion is meaningless.

                    • Matt Brown

                      Why is it wrong? Can you cite me his degrees in biblical studies or ancient history?

                    • beau_quilter

                      As I’ve already explained, Matt, articles on history and historical methodology are frequently written by scholars whose PhD’s are not in history. Why? Because history is already an integral part of the training in their field. In philosophy, in particular, the epistemology of historical studies is precisely what many philosophers study, and in fact, historical epistemology is what Law’s article is concerned with.

                      But, of course, if you really think that it’s a valid argument to dismiss Law’s article because of his PhD, then …

                      … can you cite me your relevant degrees? Because if you can’t, your comments on this topic are irrelevant and meaningless by your own logic.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But I’m not claiming to be a historian, and that’s not necessarily correct. Philosophers concern themselves with questions of “Why”. They concern themselves with epistemology, ethics, physics, ontology,etc. But history is a completely different field of philosophy. They aren’t trained historians of ancient history, nor trained scholars of the NT. The only philosophers that would probably be relevant(although I don’t know if this is right or not) would be philosophers of history. The point is that Philosophers aren’t experts when it comes to history, they may be experts when it comes to epistemology, knowledge, and evidence, but to say that a philosopher in general is relevant in writing about the historical Jesus when they themselves haven’t got any degrees in NT studies or ancient history, is inaccurate. Those are two different subjects

                    • beau_quilter

                      On the contrary, Matt, Law’s article approaches history from an epistemological viewpoint – which is precisely the expertise of philosophy. I’m surprised you do not know how much historical methodology depends upon epistemology, since you throw these words around a bit …

                      but then, you don’t have the relevant degrees to discuss these topics, so, again, by your logic, your comments are meaningless and irrelevant.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Incidentally, I have no doubt you’re getting this nonargument against Stephen Law from William Lane Craig’s site. William Lane Craig pretends surprise that Law has published an article on historicity in a philosophy journal (the peer reviewers of the journal seem not to have been surprised), but of course WLC himself is quite often guilty of publishing in areas such as cosmology and biology, in which he has no formal training.

                      Often to hilarious effect, such as when he argued:

                      “For the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain—a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates.” William Lane Craig

                      In case anyone is wondering – virtually all mammals have a pre-fontal cortex. Not just “humanoid primates”.

                    • Matt Brown

                      No, I’m not. I’m arguing based on relevance. The point is that you and I both agree that Jesus existed, and that virtually all scholars and historians are right about his existence. To claim that he didn’t exist is intellectually dishonest and psuedo-scholarship

                    • beau_quilter

                      Stephen Law is not arguing that Jesus did not exist in his article. Did you even read it?

                    • arcseconds

                      Philosophy of history is an actual subdiscipline in philosophy, see for example:

                      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/

                      there’s a journal:

                      http://www.historyandtheory.org/

                      Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was rather famous for making history into a central part of his philosophy. Arthur Danto is an example of a reasonably well-known (in the discipline) anglo-american figure who wrote on the philosophy of history, although his main field was philosophy of art.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But Stephen Law isn’t a philosopher of history

                    • arcseconds

                      That wasn’t your argument, though, was it? You made a general point about what topics philosophers were capable of addressing, and said that anicent history or biblical studies were not among them.

                      I presumed this meant you were unfamiliar with the sub-discipline of philosophy of history, because otherwise you would have said something like ‘Only philosophers of history have any business commenting on history, and Stephen Law isn’t among them’ or maybe ‘I know there’s a field called philosophy of history, but really it’s all bunk’ or something.

                    • Matt Brown

                      My point is that philosophy in general is as a different topic apart from history, however, I dont’ know what philosophers of history exactly do. Assuming they are relevant, then fine: Philosophers of history are qualified to speak on the historical Jesus. But my main point is that someone who isn’t qualified in that area, doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

                      The fact is that Jesus did exist, and there is near unaninmous agreeement by scholars and historians. Mythicism is psuedoscholarship, which I’m sure you and I both agree:)

                    • L.W. Dicker

                      Matt, Kirk Cameron would like his brain back when you’re finished with it.

                      And please don’t be too long in returning it, as he has an appointment with his proctologist this Friday.

                    • Matt Brown

                      What are you talking about?

                    • Gabriel

                      I didn’t know theologians were historians too ;-)

                    • Matt Brown

                      I think it would depend on what school you went to, and how it was taught. WLC went to a very prestigious school(Ludwig Maximillian is a research school). German scholars are usually liberal or critical in their teaching, so my guess is that WLC is familiar with the literature and biblical criticism.

                    • Anonymous

                      Stephen Law isn’t a historian. He’s a philosopher.

                      New Testament scholars aren’t historians. They’re theologians.

                    • Matt Brown

                      Wrong. NT scholars have credentials in historical methodology

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

                      It depends where they studied and work. Those who studied and work in sectarian institutions are likely to be taking an explicitly theological approach. Those whose training and employment are in secular institutions and programs in religious studies should be using the same methods of literary and/or historical study as is the norm in secular scholarship.

      • João Tavares

        There are indeed similarities between creationists and mythicists. Like creationists, most mysticists deny the mainstream position, feel their “scholars” (like Doherty and Acharya) are
        persecuted by real scholars, try (and fail) to show holes and mistakes
        (usually positions already explained by scholars) and can’t be convinced
        by evidence (always having an excuse and conspiracy theory for every
        evidence you show them), because they have a clear agenda (fundamentalist religion for creationists and anti-theism for mysthicists).

        • Matt Brown

          Yes, it’s very easy to to taunt and deny evidence, but when pressed, mythicists are generally hypocrites(I hate to say it like that) when you ask them for evidence or reasons for thinking that there was no Jesus of Nazareth because they offer none.

          Claiming that the evidence we have for Jesus is “problematic” is misleading and intellectually dishonest. As I said in my conversation with VinnyJH and Mark, just because historians have difficutly with certain things about Jesus(what he said, taught, did,etc.), that in of itself is not proof that Jesus didn’t exist.

          The point is that historians have been on a quest for the Historical Jesus for the past few centuries. The quest does not involve whether there was a historical Jesus or not(Virtually all scholars agree that he existed), but rather, who was the historical Jesus and what can we know about him.

          • João Tavares

            Spot on.

          • Anonymous

            (Virtually all scholars agree that he existed),

            Yes, virtually all New Testament scholars, 95%+ of whom are believing Christians and NOT historians, agree that Jesus existed.

            • Jeremiah J. Preisser

              They are certainly historians. History is what you are dealing with when you study the New Testament.

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

      He is certainly wrong that “historians…have all been generating their conclusions from demonstrably invalid methods.” And to the extent that there are people interested in writing about historical figures, there will be attempts to reinterpret them. You won’t find that the situation is fundamentally different about any other figure. You may, however, find that more has been written about Jesus, and thus the diversity of proposals is greater, or that you happen to know more about the diverse proposals about Jesus because of the society you happen to live in and the subjects you have taken the time to inform yourself about.

      • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

        You’ve got to be kidding me. How about St. Augustine? How is the historical writing about him not fundamentally different than that about Jesus?

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

          You will find that even in his case there are very different views on his life and thought. But obviously when we have someone’s own writings that imposes certain constraints that are not present in precisely the same way for figures from whom we do not have those kind of sources.

          • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

            So it is fundamentally different. And I’m not aware of contradictory views of Augustine, such as he was a Cynic sage or a political revolutionary.

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

              As I said, the greater the interest, the greater the number of different ideas there will need to be, by definition, for scholarship to continue. Isn’t that self-evident? And while it would give you a more similar scenario if you deal with someone with a similar kind of evidence base, I would venture to guess that you simply don’t regularly read monographs and scholarly articles about Augustine.

              • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                Yes, but barring new evidence, the basics are settled. Continuing scholarship will focus on smaller and smaller points or will emphasize different – not contradictory – facets of a person’s life or his writings when viewed from different points of view.

                I don’t need to read monographs on Augustine to know that scholarly opinion on him does not vary as widely as on Jesus. Is there any scholarly consensus on whether he was a pacifist or encouraged violence?

                Your original line was “You won’t find that the situation is fundamentally different about any other figure.” And it obviously is with Augustine. You are expert at walking back outlandish claims into more and more defensible ones, but that doesn’t make what you originally said any less wrong.

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

                  If you thought that my statement was that every figure has precisely the same quantitative and qualitative treatment, no matter how much evidence we have, whether they wrote any of that evidence themselves, how long ago they lived, and how much contemporary interest there is in them, then you misunderstood me.

                  Wynn’s Augustine on War and Military Service seems like it might provide a good recent example of how Augustine gets interpreted and reinterpreted.

                  Saying that you don’t need to read scholarship on Augustine to know what scholarship on Augustine says is very telling.

                  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                    No, I didn’t think that. I thought you meant that there were no fundamental differences between reinterpreting Jesus and other historical figures, because that is what you said. But that is not true, is it? Since there is so much less evidence about Jesus than many other historical figures, no writings from him and no writings about him in his own lifetime, Jesus can be and has been reinterpreted fundamentally differently.

                    And no, I didn’t say that about Augustine. I have read about him, just not monographs, and I know there is no way to reinterpret him as much as Jesus. And it might have been unclear about who “him” referred to on pacifism and preaching violence, but it was Jesus, the last mentioned antecedent. So, is there scholarly consensus on Jesus’ views on violence?

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

                      I don’t think that anyone who understands the nature of historical study, and who wasn’t seeking to find a negative way to construe mainstream scholarship, would understand my statement the way you did, as opposed to the way I intended it to be understood. As I reread it now, it seems perfectly clear.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Oh, I see it now. You seriously think that your ellipses that substitutes for “of Jesus” in Carrier’s quote makes this a discussion of all historical scholarship – not focused on Jesus. I thought that was just weird at the time, but now I see why you did it. Pretty slick, in a “slick Willie” way.

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

                      What on earth are you talking about?

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Should I limit myself to short questions? Would that help?

                      Why did you put an ellipses for the words “of Jesus” in your quote from Carrier? : “historians…have all been generating their conclusions from demonstrably invalid methods.”

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

                      I’m curious about that, too. It fundamentally changes the meaning of the sentence thereby misrepresenting what Carrier wrote.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      I can’t tell if McGrath is lying for Jesus or just dense. Either way, I can’t take him seriously.

                    • Matt Brown

                      In what way is McGrath “lying for Jesus”? He’s simply defending what virtually all scholars agree as being true. Are you saying that historians and scholars are wrong about saying there was a historical Jesus? It sounds like you haven’t really studies the evidence for the Historical Jesus.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      I just answered your first question in another comment, Matt. Yes to your second.

                    • Matt Brown

                      But McGrath isn’t Evangelical, he’s liberal. Your claim is false. Dr. M is simply stating what the consensus is.

                    • Anonymous

                      Are you saying that historians and scholars are wrong about saying there was a historical Jesus?

                      But New Testament scholars aren’t historians. They’re theologians and experts in ancient Jewish literature. They don’t have PhD’s in history. They don’t even have undergraduate degrees in history.

                      When NT scholars refer to themselves as “historians”, they are being deliberately deceptive.

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

                      In most instances this is incorrect. New Testament, like Classics, is a field, with a focus on ancient texts and typical training including the use of both historical and literary methods of study.

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

                      If a scholar or historian concludes on the basis of the evidence that Jesus expected the kingdom of God to dawn in his lifetime, and was mistaken – and also as a corollary that he likely existed since mistaken predictions are unlikely to be invented – how is that “lying for Jesus”?

                      I left out those words because secular historians use the same methods whether they are writing about Jesus or someone else. You will find that New Testament scholars are in regular interaction with historians of ancient Judaism and the ancient Roman world, and the conversations are not “woah, you guys are doing something completely different!”

                      I don’t care whether anyone takes me seriously, but I do find it troubling whenever someone does not take seriously the majority view of experts in any field, and not only my own.

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

                      You may think that HJ scholars use the same methods as everyone else, but Carrier doesn’t and he’s the one you are quoting. Your ellipses change the meaning of his sentence.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Your first sentence is deluded. First, I did not invoke your conclusion about who Jesus was or what he did. I showed that your ellipses was deliberately misleading in order to put your view of the historicity of Jesus in a better light. Thus, lying for Jesus. Second, your corollary is a non sequitur. Even granting that a writer would not have a sympathetic character make a mistaken prediction, it does not follow that the character existed. Geesh.

                      Do historians outside NT studies use the criteria of authenticity? Do they draw so many detailed historical conclusions from similar source materials as the epistles and gospels?

                      I do take the scholarly consensus seriously, in that I care about it, I read about it and I try to engage with it. But these activities, as your side says so often, do not convince.

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

                      You will even find that the current tend to critique the criteria of authenticity mirrors discussions of subjects like cultural memory and the shift away from positivism found in the wider field of history. But of course, the criticisms are often being wielded in NT studies by conservative to moderate Christians who are unhappy with the way earlier approaches to historiography cast doubt on the historicity of so many details in our early Christian sources.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Again, an evasion or otherwise sidetracking. You haven’t answered either question.

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

                      Perhaps you are insufficiently acquainted with this scholarly field to understand my answer or grasp its relevance? If you explain to me why you felt it was an evasion, perhaps I can help you to understand whatever it is that you misunderstood?

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      No. I did not misunderstand. There were two questions and you evaded the first and ignored the second. You compared something outside the criteria of authenticity, saying it mirrored the NT-only criteria. That’s not an answer, other than implicitly admitting that non-NT do not use the CoA.

                      Both questions are yes or no. Follow up with arguments why yes or why no, but don’t pass off your shenanigans as my misunderstanding.

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

                      It seems as though all attempts in the past to have conversations with you have been similar. When you run out of convincing arguments, you start griping, misrepresenting myself and others, and complaining about shenanigans. I am really disappointed, although obviously anyone who tries to defend mythicism is eventually going to have to resort to such tactics sooner or later.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Hmm, I see it the same way from my end, just substitute “historicism” in the last sentence. See how easy it is to argue ad hominem?

                    • Matt Brown

                      How is he arguing ad hominem?

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      Do you see any meaningful argument in his comment?

                    • Matt Brown

                      yes. He’s arguing the position of historians and scholars. You’re arguing the position of internet bloggers.

                    • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                      You are beyond ridicule. Have a good one.

                    • Matt Brown

                      I wasn’t trying to ridicule you. I’m sorry if I came off that way. I’m simply saying that McGrath argues what professionals agree on vs. the mythicist argument that is being proposed by internet bloggers.

                    • Matt Brown

                      Mark, I don’t think you’ve read up on biblical criticism, which started in the 17th century and has developed from the 19th and 20th century. Biblical criticism drew from other disciplines that historians and scholars used broadly for anything and anyone else. Some examples would be: Archaeology, source criticism, textual criticism, and oral tradition.

                      It doesn’t make sense to doubt NT scholars, when in fact they are using the same methods just like anybody else. In fact, you can read up on what historians of ancient history or “classics” say about Jesus as being a real historical figure.

                    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

                      I left out those words because secular historians use the same methods whether they are writing about Jesus or someone else.

                      Like Michael Grant, for example, who we know uses the same methods writing about Jesus as when he writes about Caesar? Not!

                      You are just making this up, dear Professor. Have you ever read Grant’s book on Jesus and read how he explains his methods?

                      If you want a quick overview just look at How One Popular Historian Follows Jesus to Scholarly Perdition.

                  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2013/12/augustine-on-war/ A short review of Wynn’s book.

                    Correcting a mistaken earlier historical narrative isn’t a reinterpretation. Nothing about Augustine’s life or writings are claimed to be different than before.

                    At least some of the book is on Google Books, I’m reading it now. I’m curious to know if you have read it yourself.

                  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

                    Just read the intro and first chapter. Very interesting and the pitfalls of historiography hightlighted here reminded me of historical Jesus studies. But the point is this example of yours proves my point. Augustine is not being reinterpreted, but the scholarly consensus about him being the originator of just war theory – which isn’t monolithic in any case – is reevaluated and found wanting.

                    Reminds me of another of your faulty recommendations. I had asked and asked for a book about Paul’s supposed discussion of the earthly teachings of Jesus and you came up with a Dale Allison book which contained a section on what would we know of the crucifixion just from Paul.

            • Matt Brown

              Mark, Just because historians question who Jesus was, doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist.

  • Matt Brown

    “Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong.”

    “And so, when it comes to Jesus mythicism, by all means entertain hopes that the scholarly consensus may change. But don’t think that it is appropriate to suggest from the comfort of your armchair that the consensus probably is wrong, and fringe voices that you happen to agree with – whether themselves experts or not – are certain to be vindicated one day. Not all consensuses are wrong, and not all challenges to consensuses are successful or should be. Let scholarship work its course. That’s the best method we’ve found to make progress in getting an increasingly accurate understanding of science, history, and other subjects. It sorted out the questions Galileo wrestled with. Why think that it is now no longer capable of doing so, when in fact we have much greater freedom of expression and more finely honed scholarly methods in place than we did a century ago, to say nothing of several centuries ago.”

    -James F. McGrath, Galileo was Wrong

  • jondrake

    Carrier clearly operates under a double standard.

    Sadly, I don’t think it is even deliberate. He really doesn’t see it, and, from what I can tell, is blinded by a real hate for Christians. I had a discussion with him at the last “Skepticon” which made me realize that.

    • Matt Brown

      All he cares about is his ego. It’s funny how he calls people like Joseph Atwill(A lay person who claimed to be a NT scholar, and claimed that the Romans fabricated Jesus), deluded, when in fact, his own hypothesis is delusion.

      When you deny solid and evidence and facts and resort to name calling, that ought to tell you that you’re the problem, and not the rest of the scholars

  • arcseconds

    I’m in the uncomfortable position of having to say I’m kind of in agreement with Carrier here, at least broadly speaking. :-)

    In amongst the turgid prose and the laying down of doctrinaire methodology, the arrogant dismissal of all his opponents as raving loonies and the continual background stage-setting for his eventual demolishing of Jesus historicism, he makes some good points.

    In fact, I’d go even further: I’d say that laypeople, at least those who attempt to engage in the scholarly literature on the subject, don’t have any option but to evaluate the arguments of the experts.

    Before I go down that path, though, I’d like to briefly address the bulk of your post. It seems to me that your complaints about the Galileo story work well against your run-of-the-mill crackpot, who thinks they have divined some great truth that no-one else can see. Such people ordinarily aren’t very well informed about the real literature on the subject, and don’t care to be. While it doesn’t quite fit most denialists, who don’t usually think of themselves as having found some great hidden truth, but rather that the story of the experts is simply obviously wrong, similar points can be made.

    Another point you make is that one also shouldn’t pick an expert that happens to agree with you, and say “There, I can believe what I currently believe!”

    But it seems to me that Carrier isn’t addressing any of these sorts of people. He’s addressing intellectually honest, educated people who seek to inform themselves about a subject. He clearly expects these people to be engaging with the relevant literature. He also expects them to, in general, have a fair amount of respect for expertise. He also allows that expert consensus does indeed give you reason to believe in that consensus, and he doesn’t think that consensus can simply be ignored or dismissed, which again doesn’t fit into your Galileo story. So I think your Galileo example is misdirected.

    I would also suggest that it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s no huge gulf between experts on the one hand and laypeople on the other. There’s clearly a continuum of training and involvement, and there’s also a continuum (a lumpy one, maybe) of expertise in different subjects: an archaelogist or a historian of the appropriate area and period can comment with just as much expertise as a bible scholar on certain topics relevant to biblical scholarship (and of course sometimes they will be more authoritative). So it’s not possible to give an absolutely firm demarcation between ‘experts’ and ‘laypeople’.

    In fact, I think making this kind of mistake, thinking that experts are a closed-door, distinct group seperate from the rest of society, is part of the general mindset of denialism. A sympathetic view could see Carrier’s actions along these lines: frustrated with the biblical scholarship crowd, rather than turning his back on mainstream intellectual enquiry altogether he has decided to widen his focus and address himself to historians more generally and the interested, educated public.

    And this kind of view of experts being continuous with everyone else certainly works in Galileo’s time, because back in those days the idea of a completely specialist expertise was, at best, a new idea, and even people who were specialising would also be reading a substantial amount of literature from outside their area of expertise, and expecting their work to be read by non-experts. Dialogue Concerning the Two Cheif World Systems does not seem to be intended solely for experts at all, and so Galileo is really doing the same sort of thing as I’ve characterized Carrier doing: faced with a recalcitrant authority, he’s appealing to the general intellectual community.

    Anyway, let’s leave Carrier’s concerns about biblical scholarship to one side, and look at what an intelligent and intellectually honest layperson does when aquainting themselves with a new subject.

    The argument from consensus is essentially an argument from authority, it’s just that it’s the authority of a community, not an individual. And both give you reason to believe in a particular proposition in the sense that an expert or a consensus of experts maintaining p should increase your confidence in p (i.e. increase your bayesian probability that p). If you’re sufficiently confident in the abilities of the experts, it might even increase it close to 1.

    But I, and anyone interested in really understanding a subject, aren’t content with merely beleiving true things. We want to understand why they are true and why they are believed to be true. In Plato’s terminology, we want knowledge (which is more than simply justified true belief in Plato’s treatment), not merely true opinion. So I don’t think Carrier has really captured the most important distinction when he re-iterates the distinction between deductive and inductive arguments, and puts consensus arguments in the ‘inductive’ box. The difference is rather between arguments that allow us to understand a subject, and ones that don’t. We want to understand the arguments that the experts use to get to their position, both deductive and non-deductive, not just that they have a certain position.

    The consensus is the answers in the back of the book. To understand a subject, you have to understand the working.

    Of course, there’s often consensus on the arguments that lead to the consensus propositions, too. And in some subjects, you can get a rich understanding of the subject by just following those. But other subjects the consensus doesn’t really give you very much. I can tell you that there’s no consensus on anything much substantive in philosophy. I suppose there’s reasonable agreement about the general positions of famous phiosophers (but even there there’s plenty of quibbling), and there’s broad rejection of some particularly flawed arguments, but there’s no consensus on practically any substantive positive philosophical claim. No consensus is likely to emerge in the forseable future either. There’s more of a consensus in biblical studies over a few things, it seems, but as far as I can tell at the moment, the consensus nucleus is pretty minimal. And again, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be consensus over more and more things until eventually it resembles a natural science with consensus about all but the cutting edge. Maybe the nucleus will grow a little over time, but the bulk of the subject is going to continue to interpret and reinterpret forever, is it not?

    In these sorts of subjects, if one is to follow them at all in depth rather than extremely superficially, then I can’t see that one has any option other than to follow the work of individuals, and if not individuals, then groups of individuals — ‘schools’ and whatnot. Even textbooks frequently have a certain slant.

    And even in subjects like natural sciences, where you could spend a lifetime just following the consensus if you wanted, there’s interest in following the cutting-edge. Even if we’re going to reject the romance of discovery and the thrill of following breaking news (and why would we want to do that?) as irrational motivations, seeing scientific history unfold before your eyes and following the debates as they happen rather than in retrospect offers a view on science as it is actually occuring, and if you’re interested in science you should be interested in this!

    And if we’re reading critically, for understanding, then we can’t really be reading with the attitude ‘I’m going to accept everything this writer says, for they are an expert’ or even ‘I’m going to hold off having an opinion on anything that’s written here until the consensus has spoken, for I am not an expert’. We’re going to apply all that critical thinking expertise that we acquired at enormous expense, and think about whether the evidence really supports the conclusions, and about how strong the argument really is, and so forth. And yes, we’ll have our biases, like everyone, and we’re more likely to accept arguments and conclusions which reasonate with them, like everyone.

    And of course, if we aren’t experts, we may be left with a lot of loose ends and uncertainty, and we run the risk of buying into arguments which are weak in ways we can’t see or not seeing the worth in arguments that proceed in a way in which we’re unfamiliar.

    But I don’t see that there’s any alternative to this. Yes, you should approach works by experts with some humility, and presume they have something to teach you, rather than presume they have been written by idiots with an axe to grind generating shadow-puppets that you’re going to cut apart with your analytical knife. Yes, you should probably not be super-certain of any conclusions you come to after reading such a text. But I don’t think it’s actually cognitively possible for me, at least, to read a text involving arguments and not come to some judgement as to how convincing those arguments are.

    That means I might find a text quite unconvincing. And if this can happen with a single text, conceptually, at least, it could happen with every text produced by an intellectual community.

    OK, so there is an alternative. Non-experts should treat the consensus uncritically as an infallible authority, only read textbooks that represent that consensus, and avoid all other material, unless they’re intending on becoming experts themselves. If the consensus is minimal, they just have to live with that.

    I don’t think that’s a particularly palatable alternative. For one thing, it seems to entail I should stop reading your blog. It would seem mean that philosophy should only be read by philosophers, and people interested in biblical scholarship get to spend an afternoon reading the 100-page Consensus Biblical Scholarship booklet, and that’s all.

  • João Tavares

    “Therefore the “expert consensus” on the historicity of Jesus cannot be
    appealed to, because it is useless. Unlike the consensus of historians
    on almost any other subject.”

    So only the “expert consensus” on the historicity of Jesus can’t be apeealed? How convenient for Carrier. He wrote that because he knows his whole post contradcits his own words in his “Proving history” book:

    “an effective consensus of qualified experts constitutes meeting an
    initial burden of evidence” because “it is far more unlikely that an
    incorrect argument would persuade a hundred experts than that it would
    persuade only one; and it’s far more unlikely that it would persuade any
    expert than that it would persuade even a hundred amateurs””

    Dr.McGrath, you were right when you wrote: “If the internet mythicists of today were to take this advice to heart”. If only did they did indeed…

  • D Rizdek

    Some observations.

    1. I am not sure why it is so important to Christians that Jesus was a physical human being. If you believed it true, would you not be just as fulfilled worshipping a heavenly Jesus who was tempted and tried (by Satan), betrayed (by other heavenly followers, you know, angels), paid a price for our sins by being handed over to Satan for torture and a “spiritual” crucifixion and death. You could even believe he tried to make the Father’s message and love clear to humans by what he allowed these people to hear and see in their visions and dreams. Now, of course that would mean he wasn’t a myth, as in NEVER existed at all. But it would mean that the stuff folks wrote about that physical human was based on visions and dreams they had and then translated it into the idea of a physical man who walked among people.

    It IS hypothetical, but to me, anyways, it seems folks happily worship a heavenly God (the Father) who NEVER came to earth (unless one wants to believe Adam walked with God in a garden and Moses really saw God’s human-form “hind-parts”). AFAIK, the Holy Spirit never came to earth in physical form but folks find spiritual value in believing in that part of the trinity. Folks have no problem praying to, interacting with and having faith that God the Father exists and can be worshipped or that the Holy Spirit exists and serves whatever role they think “he” serves. Christians who believe in heaven probably imagine they’ll “see” God in some manner once they get there, so just because they might not think God “came to earth” he’s no less real. Just a thought, I’m not promoting mythicism.

    2. We often hear skeptics complain that the folks that study the Bible, ancient languages and the history surrounding Jesus were all Christians so their conclusions might be biased by their personal beliefs. The response is that of course most folks who study the Bible would be those having a personal interest in it. Who else would bother? I would venture to guess that very few, if any, atheists or even folks of other faiths chose a career in Bible subjects. What would be the point? Just to prove it wrong? (I haven’t researched that last point so I could stand corrected).

    But to me, a layperson, it makes me wonder when it seems the vast majority of scholars who rule on whether Jesus was real or a myth are Christian. It doesn’t necessarily make me “exclude” their conclusions, but I can certainly recognize the possibility of bias. It seems their faith depends on Jesus having lived. Their colleagues they study with and see at conferences also depend on Jesus having lived for their faith to be well founded. A large porportion of he group seems to have a potential bias. It would seem a significant part of their identity is tied up in affirming that Jesus lived…how can this NOT influence their lines of reasoning? I would venture to guess that many would say their “faith” in Jesus was more important to them than their historical studies. NOT that they would intentionally LIE, but we know lines of reasoning CAN be influenced by how we think things should be interpreted. The only ones I’d see who do not have THAT bias are those who started out their studies as Christians and then deconverted. Of course, I can easily realize they might have another (perhaps opposite) bias…as I see many here accusing Carrier of having. It very well might be. But somehow, all of us “lay people” kind of have to make a decision…don’t we?

    3.This leads to the last point. I reference this quote:

    “Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions.”

    Setting aside for a moment the topic of Jesus’ physical existence, doesn’t everyone pretty much have to evaluate arguments/lines of reasoning used by experts? If we draw any conclusions at all, even tentative ones, about almost any topic, MOST of us are doing so as laypeople.

    I am not an expert in any evolutionary science field. I am a scientist by training, but have not studied any field focussing on evolution. But I can well try to understand the reasoning behind evaluating the data that experts in the various fields have used and I can draw at least a tentative conclusion about whether I think they’ve “kind of” got it right vs just really made some unreasonable assumptions. How many of us can just “sit on the fence” with regard to evolution…abiogenetics…or cosmology? Don’t we all have to make a decision on how much we buy into these “cutting edge” areas of study? I am firmly of the opinion that life COULD have come from the purely physical world around us with NO special creation. MANY experts also agree and are, in fact studying this intently. Many “creationist” of various flavors resolutely deny that life could have formed naturally. They do so without being an expert in any field of science. Heck, many folks reject evolution outright saying there’s no way based on a very few scientists conclusion that go against the vast majority of the science community. They ARE drawing conclusions…their own…based on what they hear and what they think.

    Many might respond that indeed, they are wisely “sitting on the fence” for some or all of those other issues. But here’s the rub. With “Jesus, God and them apostles,” apparently I am forced to draw a conclusion. At least per Christianity and other religions which promote some sort of judgement after we die, ALL people…experts, laypeople and even dullards HAVE to make a decision. And that decision HAS to drive their very beliefs and they are supposed to commit with conviction based on that decision. See the difference? I can sit on the fence all day regarding…Socartes, Alexander the Great and even Washington, Adams and Kennedy. No historian is going to come knocking. There’ll be no “history tribunal” in the sky where I’ll have to face the “history gods” and explain why I didn’t commit. Maybe I can sit on the fence with regard to Evolution, Cosmology and even Jesus’ virgin birth…but supposedly I MUST, even though I’m a layperson, and perhaps a dullard, make a decision on whether Jesus is, in some manner, the way to salvation.

    • D Rizdek

      I think I was unclear about folks who reject evolution. I meant to say that THEY draw their conclusions based on a very few scientists who seem to have made it their business to find flaws in the various theories of evolution and highlight them claiming THEY prove evolution is false and will likely die away. These folks who believe this handful of experts and even folks who accept the majority opinion are doing so by “drawing a conclusion” in a field they are not experts in.


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