Dear Richard, please admit you screwed up with your review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book

So… before I get into the meat of this post, I want to say that for a long time, I was quite eager to read Richard Carrier’s books on the historicity of Jesus (actually I’ve just ordered the first one; the second one isn’t out yet). I hadn’t been impressed with most of the “mythicist” literature I’ve read, but my experience had been that Carrier is excellent whenever he writes on history, whether it’s rebutting Christian apologetics, or writing about the history of science, or writing about Hitler’s religious views, so I figured when his books on the historicity of Jesus finally came out they’d be excellent.

Indeed, if I didn’t hold Carrier in such high regard, I wouldn’t have bothered to read his responses to Ehrman, or write this or my previous post. But after reading Ehrman’s latest, most detailed response (thankfully not behind a paywall) to Carrier’s review of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?, I’m convinced Carrier screwed up badly. His accusations of “incompetence” against Ehrman turn out to be based on a loot of incorrect assumptions. For example, he says Ehrman is wrong to say that Osiris did not return to life on Earth after his death, and furthermore:

[Carrier] indicates that I received this information entirely from an article by Jonathan Z. Smith, and that if I had been “real scholar” I would have looked up the ancient sources themselves.   As it is I made a “hack mistake” showing that I was “incompetent.”  His counter claim is that “Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to earth… and that the did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body.”  He gives as his reference Plutarch “On Isis and Osiris,” 19.358b.

Carrier is wrong on all points.   I did not get this information just from J. Z. Smith (who, by the way, is one of the most eminent and distinguished historians of religion walking the face of the planet, and certainly no hack) and his charge that I have not behaved as a “real scholar” is completely unfounded.  I have read Plutarch’s account of Osiris many times.  For years I used this text in the graduate seminars I taught on Graeco-Roman religion.  In my reading of the myth of Osiris, he does not rise from the dead back to life here on earth.

Ehrman then defends his reading of Plutarch, quoting some passages from Plutarch that he argues support his view. At the end of that discussion he says:

Carrier and I could no doubt argue day and night about how to interpret Plutarch.   But my views do not rest on having read a single article by Jonathan Z. Smith and a refusal to read the primary sources.

I’d emphasize here that even if Carrier were right about how to interpret Plutarch, he still made a completely unsupported and incorrect assumption about the basis for Ehrman’s conclusion about Osiris. That means he was wrong to use this as evidence that Ehrman is “incompetent” etc., and ought to apologize for that. In a similar vein:

Carrier indicates that he almost fell out of his chair when he read my discussion of the letters of Pliny.  Sorry about that!   He points out that when I talk about letter 10, I really meant Book 10; and when I summarize the letter involving Christians, I provide information that is not found in the letter but is assumed by scholars to apply to the letter based on another letter in Book 10.

To the first charge I plead guilty.  Yes, when I said letter 10 I meant a letter in book 10.  This is what you might call a real howler, a cock-up (not in the Peter sense).   I meant Book 10.  This is the kind of mistake I’m prone to make (I’ve made it before and will probably make it again), that I should have caught.   A more generous reader would have simply said “Ehrman, you say letter 10 but you mean a letter in book 10,” and left it at that.  Carrier takes it to mean that I’m an idiot and that I’ve never read the letters of Pliny.

I may have moments of idiocy, but I have indeed read the letters of Pliny, especially those of Book 10.  I’ve taught them for years.  When he accuses me of not knowing the difference between a fact and a hypothetical reconstruction, though, he is going too far.  I do indeed know that the context scholars have reconstructed for the “Christian problem” is the broader problem outlined elsewhere in Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan.   The problem here is simply that I was trying to summarize briefly a complicated account in simple terms for readers who frankly, in my opinion (right or wrong) are not interested in the details about Pliny, Trajan, provincial disorder, and fire brigaids when the question is whether Pliny knows about Jesus or not.

These are just two examples, but having read both blog posts, I’m convinced that on every point, Carrier’s accusations of incompetence etc. are unsupported. That’s really bad. This is true even if Carrier is right about some of the academic points at issue. For example, I suspect he may be right about the prefect/procurator issue, but the relevant journal articles just aren’t widely enough known even among experts. (By the way, the blog post at that link is really interesting, and a good example of one of the things I like about Carrier.)

It’s important to point out that there really are people out there parading as scholars who are incompetent, hacks, cranks, etc. This means I can’t adopt a policy of treating all such accusations as “overheated rhetoric” and ignoring them. Sometimes they’re true, and it’s important to know when they’re true, and in fields I don’t know very well it’s valuable to have someone who can point out to me who the incompetents, hacks, and cranks are.

Right now I can’t trust Carrier to fill that role. Hopefully he’ll demonstrate the good sense to admit he screwed up on this one. But if he doesn’t, it will be difficult in the future to trust him even on matters of history, for the reason Carrier often cites when warning people not to trust other writers: as a non-expert, it’s too difficult for me to sort out the correct information (book 10, not letter 10) from the hastily drawn inferences (Ehrman is incompetent). In this case, for example, I suspected that many of Carrier’s claims were somehow exaggerated before reading Ehrman’s post, but prior to that I had no way of knowing which claims were exaggerated or in what ways.

It’s also worrisome to see PZ and JT doing posts with titles like “Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman” and “Ehrman gets NAILED by Richard Carrier.” Yo, guys: to echo Jerry Coyne, why do you even care? This is an obscure academic debate and nothing more. Ehrman’s conclusions don’t vindicate Christianity. In fact (even though Ehrman isn’t up front about this), they’re incompatible with Christianity as the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout history have understood it. Not that that means you shouldn’t care, it’s great to get interested obscure academic debates out of sheer intellectual curiosity, but neither of you show any signs of actually knowing anything about this debate.

None of this stopped me from buying Carrier’s book on the historical method, but I bought it mainly for the philosophy, where I won’t have to worry as much about Carrier misstating or exaggerating the facts. Time permitting I’ll have it read and comment on it within the next couple of weeks.

  • Stacy

    Ehrman’s conclusions don’t vindicate Christianity. In fact…they’re incompatible with Christianity as the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout history have understood it.

    Seriously. Yet, sadly, some atheists seem emotionally invested in mythicism, as if the existence of an historical Jesus would somehow be a point against “our side”.

    I cringe whenever I hear fellow atheists and skeptics trot out junk mythology in order to tout knee-jerk mythicism. I cringe a lot, especially in December.

    • mnb0

      I wholeheartedly agree. It’s even a mistake to think to prove “Jesus is a myth” will deconvert christians.

    • mnb0

      I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a mistake to think proving “Jesus is a myth” will deconvert christians.

  • John

    I agree so many atheists rush to anything that defends are position, no matter the source or evidence. Sometimes we can be as ignorant as those in the pews. We should all be diligent in looking at all sides of an issue. Let us never be accused of just defending points just out of convenience. Both scholars in my view screwed up, Dr Ehrman by not correctly citing Dr Carrier’s credentials. Dr Carrier for being so mad about it (my inference only I do not know his full motives)that he rushed to judgement. Good luck to both who I enjoy hearing from in selling their books.

    • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

      I hate to bring this up, but I can understand some of the acid in Carrier’s response. Originally, Erhman compared mythicists to Holocaust deniers because they do hack scholarship. If Carrier is a mythicist, then this implies that Carrier is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier who does hack scholarship.

      So Carrier responded in kind. It’s a bit like when a grammar nazi corrects you for incorrect grammar while using grammar mistakes himself.

      Hopefully we can drop the whole Creationist/Holocaust denier rhetoric in the future.

      • mnb0

        I don’t know about RC, but yes, several Jesusmythologists (Earl Doherty) reject the scientific method in the same way as Creationists do.

        • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

          I’m not sure what you mean by “scientific method” in this context. The criterion of embarrassment, for example, is not scientific methodology. To reject it, then, is not to reject the scientific method.

          Bayes’ theorem, on the other hand, is scientific methodology, and that’s exactly what Carrier is attempting to get historians — especially historical Jesus scholars — to use instead of invalid criteriology. It just so happens that Carrier is also going to attempt to argue for Jesus Mythicism with Bayes’.

  • Corey

    The problem with this article is that you exaggerate the level of Carrier’s negativity toward Ehrman. The truth is that Ehrman certainly fired the first few shots here, and in the course of writing his book (and pre-book-release-article) misrepresented the views of mythicists like Carrier, blithely throwing him in with the likes of Archaya S and Peter Joseph. Seriously? Carrier has gone out of his way to debunk Zeitgeist Movie mythicism. Ehrman makes no distinction, and it is quite dishonest.

    The other problem with this article is that you never point out how Carrier was wrong and Ehrman correct in any way, other than perhaps Carrier used some too-strong language in his treatment of Ehrman. Fair enough, but Carrier is still right about the innacuracies in Ehrman’s work, and neither Ehrman nor any of his apologists have dealt with the substantive claims. You’re essentially playing the hurt card on behalf of Ehrman. So now I can’t trust this blog anymore? lol, so staying in the spirit of you post here, maybe you should apologize to Carrier.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      “You exaggerate the level of Carrier’s negativity toward Ehrman.”

      No I don’t. Have you read Carrier’s review? I actually left out some of the nastiest bits, like, “it will disease your mind.” (EDIT: Ack, no, that’s not quite right, for details see my reply to marella.) Seriously, I was going to compile a list of examples of Carrier’s negativity, but after the second paragraph of Carrier’s review, I realized it would be way too long.

      “Ehrman makes no distinction, and it is quite dishonest.”

      Yes he does, see i.e. the first full paragraph on p. 21 of the book.

      “The other problem with this article is that you never point out how Carrier was wrong and Ehrman correct in any way, other than perhaps Carrier used some too-strong language in his treatment of Ehrman.”

      If you read Ehrman’s rebuttal, you’ll find he argues in detail that a number of the alleged errors are not errors. I saw no need to repeat his work. But more importantly, as I point out in my review, accusing someone of incompetence is not merely “strong language.” It’s a serious charge. And when I read Carrier’s work, there’s no easy way to know just from reading it what parts are accurate and which I should be dismissing as rhetorical bluster.

      • drdave

        Carrier’s point is not that Ehrman made some mistakes, but that the reader for whom the book was intended will not know what the mistakes are, and therefore come away with misinformation and invalid conclusions based on the mistakes.

        That he blasts Ehrman with both barrels is understandable, given the poor runup in the press and the really poor article in HuffPo. And for Ehrman to call Carrier a “classicist” (twice) rather that an historian with specialties that Ehrman lacks lights a fire.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          And Ehrman’s point is that most of the alleged mistakes are not mistakes. Carrier may disagree, but all indications are that these are things informed people can disagree about. So the accusation of spreading “misinformation” doesn’t hold up.

          • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

            Chris,

            I have argued with many internet apologists using Ehrman’s books as my reference and I have never wound up with egg on my face as a result of misstating the evidence. If someone tried to challenge a mythicist based on what they read in Did Jesus Exist?, I think they would find themselves coming up short frequently.

          • Steven Carr

            Which was the most serious charge against a historian?

            That of inventing sources.

            And Ehrman stopped defending his stuff before he got on to the serious charges Carrier brought.

            Carrier’s charges were in ascending order of importance.

            ‘ Instead, I will here address his strange method of inventing sources and witnesses…..We don’t in fact have those sources, we aren’t even sure they exist, and even if we were, we have no way of knowing what they said. ‘

            And Ehrman never touched that charge of ‘inventing sources and witnesses’.

            Because Ehrman knows his hypothetical independent sources are invisible documents.

            He cannot defend the existence of invisible documents or say what was written on them or defend their historicity.

            Ehrman actually uses a story of a girl being raised from the dead as evidence for the historicity of Jesus because, (wait for it) some of the story is in Aramaic.

            Did Ehrman defend that against Carrier’s charge that he used false stories as evidence?

            No. He didn’t.

      • marella

        Carrier does NOT say that Ehrman’s work “will disease your mind” he says that of “The Jesus Mysteries” by Freke and Gandy. Please get your own facts straight before you start accusing people of abuse.

        And there’s not much point in saying Carrier’s review of Ehrman was all wrong when you only mention points on which he was right! Ehrman did get the letter/book thing wrong, and you think he got the prefect/procurator thing wrong too. So when you want to show us how Ehrman is right and Carrier wrong, perhaps it would be a good idea to point out where that actually happens, instead of where it didn’t!

        It may well be that Ehrman is a nicer person that Carrier, I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m interested in who is right, not who is cuddlier.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          Ack, that was sloppily worded, and I apologize for that.

          What Carrier *did* say though is that Ehrman’s book is “almost as bad” as the Freke & Gandy book that “will disease your mind.”

          Within the first two paragraphs of his review, Carrier *also* said that Ehrman’s book “completely fails,” is “lousy with errors,” is “actually the worst” in its category.

          So the point that I wasn’t exaggerating Carrier’s negativity remains absolutely correct.

          Though it’s kind of a red-herring anyway. This was never about asking Carrier to be “nice.” It’s about poorly supported accusations of incompetence.

  • Corey

    …and yes, it should be pointed out that Carrier and Ehrman agree that jesus-as-described-in-the-gospels never existed. Ehrman’s “jesus” is a moot point, it’s not Rick Warren’s jesus.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    I think that Carrier was much too nitpicky about areas of Roman history that may have been slightly outside of Ehrman’s expertise, particularly since they weren’t particularly relevant to determining whether Jesus existed.

    However, I can’t see any excuse for getting Carrier’s credential’s wrong. Did anyone do any proofreading or factchecking on this book?

    • Steven Carr

      No, there is not even an index.

      It seems Bart did not get his graduate students to check the facts, as he would do for his ‘scholarly works’.

      In fact, Bart’s long response says that Carrier was wrong to expect the book to be a work of scholarship, written for scholars, and engaging with scholarship. It was written for a ‘general audience’.

      This is a strange thing for Bart to say. Aren’t his ‘popular’ books supposed also to be works of scholarship? How could the reference to Pliny’s letter not be checked?

      Carrier’s tone was wrong. Period! Ken Humphrey’s review was much better in terms of tone.

      But it is interesting that Carrier (as he often does) put his complaints in ascending order of seriousness.

      So Bart just stopped after the first few complaints, which were the least serious charges.

      • mnb0

        Ken Humphrey’s tone may have been better, but as a conspirationalist – I refer to his website – he is also a perfect example of a Jesusmythologist using creationist methods.

  • Matthew

    Perhaps everyone should apologize to everyone else. Followed by a group hug. ;-)

    Following this has been rather interesting. It seems a bit like the non-theist version of angels on pinheads (with a bit more substantive evidence of course). Since there isn’t enough evidence (apparently) on either side to reach a definitive conclusion, it does make for an entertaining intellectual boxing match.

    • SAWells

      If we could all agree that there’s insufficient evidence for a definitive conclusion, we’d be fine. I understand Carrier’s position to be that the most likely hypothesis, on the evidence, is a mythical Jesus (Paul’s Jesus) who subsequently got a backstory set in Judea before the Great Revolt; and that the second most likely hypothesis is that there was a particular apocalyptic preacher Jesus who subsequently got a bunch of miracles attributed to him.

      The trouble is, people like Ehrman don’t simply say that they disagree on the relative likelihood of these hypotheses. Ehrman has written a book in which he repeatedly claims that a historical Jesus certainly existed. That’s a problem.

      • mnb0

        Nice that you point out the big weakness of many Jesusmythologists: most of their arguments do not contradict a historical Jesus with many, many myths attached to. As far as I know this is among scholars hardly a controversial view.

        • SAWells

          How is this relevant to the Carrier/Ehrman controversy?

  • Felix

    I now think Carrier made a big mistake by being so rude to Ehrman.

    If the HuffPo piece hadn’t been published then Carrier’s tone (in his DJE criticism) would likely have been less strident – he wouldn’t have already been in a mood with Ehrman.

    But when your opponent comes back with a good rebuttal and good grace (even if admitting some mistakes and not defeating every criticism) then you tend to look really bad.

    I don’t care whether Jesus existed, but I would like to know the best arguments for and against. I think the bad blood generated by this recent disagreement will hinder achieving that.

    I would suggest to Carrier that he should apologise for his tone, address Ehrman’s response and where necessary admit error and then write up the rest of his criticism (he said so far he has only given us a selection) in a more measured way so that everybody can see his charges and judge them.

    This may help avoid him being for evermore labelled as rude and arrogant, and allow other scholars to engage with him.

    I think it would be a worthwhile investment of his (no doubt limited) time.

    • drdave

      For additional evidence for how poorly Erhman’s book was researched and edited, follow Earl Doherty’s commentary here. Six posts and counting.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    As an atheist, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not Jesus the man ever existed. The only parts that would matter are not in dispute in this debate, with both Ehrman and Carrier agreeing that there is zero evidence for a son of God / born of a virgin / performer of supernatural miracles / resurrected after three days Jesus.

    I think when we put aside all the drama, the only real bone of contention is whether or not there was a charismatic first century preacher, with a following large enough to attract the attention of the authorities, who was executed for sedition in an all too common manner for the times. Given the time and place, this figure seems plausible to me. I’m surprised by how vested many are in this relatively minor figure being completely mythical.

    • SAWells

      That’s not the bone of contention, because we know from e.g. Josephus that there were _multiple_ charismatic preachers at the time claiming to be the Messiah and getting stomped by the Romans; entries 7,9,10 and 11 on the list here (http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html) are all first-century Messianic claimants who raised followers and were crushed by the Romans. It seems unreasonable to claim that all of them are “the historical Jesus” simultaneously, but by your criterion all of them are! The gospel stories follow a type, and thus don’t have to be based on a specific individual. The interesting point, indeed, is the distinct lack of a Jesus of Nazareth attracting the attention of the authorities at the time.

      Remember, the Gospel Jesus appears in stories written _after_ Judea got stamped flat during the Great Revolt circa 70 AD; these stories are set in Judea, but they’re not contemporary account _from_ Judea, they’re separated from the supposed events by a major cataclysm which isn’t exactly conducive to fact checking, and they’re not even aimed at a specifically Judean audience. They are not history, and they don’t make their central character a historical figure.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Cool link. Thanks! I should have included that the bone of contention included that the preacher was named Yeshua (Jesus) and was from Nazareth.

        You make a lot of good points and I fully admit it is possible someone made him up. But probable? Why make up a 2-bit preacher from a small village in a second class region of Palestine, most of whose “miracles” sound like magic tricks? Seems like if someone dreamed up Jesus that he would have been grander, more heroic. (Of course, he get’s grander and more heroic with each later gospel but the humble core seems to stick.) Obviously time and distance allowed the Gospel writers to embellish heavily, but it seems like they would have left out a lot of unflattering stuff if they could have started from scratch.

        • SAWells

          This is called the “criterion of embarrassment” and it’s a really bad argument to base history on. In particular this: “Seems like if someone dreamed up Jesus that he would have been grander, more heroic” has a simple rebuttal: if you make your Jesus grander and more heroic it becomes harder and harder to explain why nobody noticed him existing.

          • SelfAwarePatterns

            I guess I don’t see the criterion of embarrassment to be that unreasonable, particularly when coupled with the criterion of historical context. They seem to be widely accepted among credentialed scholars. (I know Carrier is a notable exception.)

            Regarding the rebuttal, it didn’t seem to inhibit them from claiming that the slaughter of the innocents, the resurrection of the saints, and other events that should have been very notable happened. If plausibility concerned them, I would think they’d have left this kind of stuff out.

            Again, it’s possible the historical Jesus never existed, but I tend to think his existence is more probable than not. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims certainty on any of this though, as Ehrman seemed to in the HuffPost article.

          • jamessweet

            The reliance on the criterion of embarrassment is one reason I have said that I find the historicists’ arguments unconvincing even when I take them at face value. The criterion of embarrassment is suggestive, but it falls far short of convincing.

            Consider: Jar-Jar Binks must have been a real person, because why would George Lucas invent a character that crappy?

            Now, it’s somewhat different, because The Phantom Menace never claimed to be anything other than fiction. But let’s say we knew very little about the circumstances under which The Phantom Menace was written, and there was legitimate controversy over whether it was a historical account. In such a case, Jar-Jar Binks would indeed present a bit of a puzzle. The character’s inanity (and apparent incongruence with related documents known to have been authored a couple decades prior to The Phantom Menace) begs out for some kind of explanation.

            In this case, we happen to know the explanation for Lucas’ “embarrassment”: He thought it would be good to have a character who was funny, he was going for an over-the-top extravaganza, and he was surrounded by yes-men. By the time it was recognized that the Jar-Jar character was a failure, it was too late to go back and write him out.

            There are other explanations for “embarrassment” besides “it was totally a real d00d”. So I accept the criterion of embarrassment as suggestive that there is something that needs to be explained, and that the character was based on a real person is a potential explanation… but it’s far from the only explanation.

            Again: Even if I take everything the historicists say at face value, it still only seems they have established the plausibility of a historical Jesus. And that’s all they’ll ever be able to establish, unless some totally new documentary evidence comes to light, which nobody believes exists anymore.

          • Andrew G.

            The criterion of embarrassment isn’t really even suggestive, much less convincing.

            Carrier spends over 40 pages taking it apart in Proving History, and it doesn’t really survive the process.

  • Felix

    @SelfAwarePatterns:

    I would disagree only only one point – that ‘many’ people are deeply committed to the mythicist view.

    One the one side we have a handful of writers and on the other the rest of the world!

    I take this not necessarily to be indicative of validity of any position, but rather caused by the extreme difficulty of proving that a single unimportant individual existed 2000 years ago (who has since become much more important), and the impossibility of proving that such a person did not exist (since, as is often said, you can’t prove a negative).

    Carrier alleges that the method used by biblical scholars in supporting the existence of Jesus is fundamentally flawed.

    If so then possibly over time the burden of proof may shift from the mythicists to the realists.

    • SelfAwarePatterns

      Hey Felix,
      Sorry, I actually meant ‘many’ in the atheosphere.

  • http://aigbusted.blogspot.com Ryan

    I’ve written something about this whole issue here:
    http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2012/04/ehrman-carrier-kerfuffle.html

    I’m not sure what is going on with Rick. I hope that he finds it in himself to apologize and alter his behavior in the future.

  • KG

    On the historicity of Jesus, I’m inclined to accept the general scholarly consensus that there was some historical individual on whom the mythical figure of the gospels was based, on the general grounds that it is rational to accept an expert consensus in the absence of strong reasons not to – and in this case that consensus includes many non-Christians, Ehrman included.

    Not directly relevant perhaps, but I read one of Carrier’s first blog posts when he arrived at FtB (I’d read and been quite impressed by some of his stuff before). It was a ridiculous, irrational, deeply prejudiced anti-vegetarian rant, claiming that all vegetarians think “meat is murder”. Since I know he is capable of such prejudiced nonsense, I can’t now trust anything Carrier says on any subject, any more than I could if he’d revealed himself as a racist, sexist or homophobic bigot.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      On the historicity of Jesus, I’m inclined to accept the general scholarly consensus…

      Well I’m not. I want to be shown the evidence which has driven these scholars to consensus. That was supposed to be the whole point of Ehrman’s book. And Ehrman has done a shit job of it.

      • mnb0

        The matter is in fact quite simple. Which hypothesis covers the known facts best? The answer is complicated, because accounts from Antiquity hardly ever were meant to be historical, factual. This argument against the Gospels is not very good. For Flavius Josephus we have to rely on textual criticism. I am not aware of any Jesusmythologist who does. Earl Doherty doesn’t.

      • mnb0

        More obscurity: anyone interested in the procurator/prefect stuff should read this.

        http://www.livius.org/pp-pr/procurator/procurator.html
        http://www.livius.org/pp-pr/prefect/praetorian_prefect.html

        You know, Jona Lendering ís a scholar.

      • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

        I’m with you Reginald.

        I would like to see some evidence of the historical Jesus that is independent of a belief in the risen Christ. Supernatural stories were told about Alexander the Great as a result of his accomplishments in the real world. Natural stories about the earthly Jesus were preserved and transmitted in order to promote belief in the supernatural post-mortem accomplishments of the risen Christ.

        If you strip away the supernatural stories about Alexander, you still find a flesh and blood man who left a significant mark in the historical record. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the only reason that any stories survived about him in the first place. This puts Jesus of Nazareth in a unique category as far as the application of historical methodology goes.

        This does not of course prove that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist, but I think that it raises questions that the historicists need to answer before I’m going to buy the idea that we can have any certainty about this.

      • KG

        If I regarded the matter as of any great importance, I’d want to go into it more deeply. I don’t: as has already been noted, Ehrman and Carrier agree that the supernatural tales told of Jesus are not factual.

  • http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/ Steven Bollinger

    Jeeez, if you love Ehrman so much, why don’t you just marry him? Carrier didn’t screw up, he’s just writing over your head. Way, way over your head.

    “It’s also worrisome to see PZ and JT doing posts with titles like “Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman” and “Ehrman gets NAILED by Richard Carrier.” Yo, guys: to echo Jerry Coyne, why do you even care? This is an obscure academic debate and nothing more.”

    – sez the Hallq in his FIFTH blog post about Ehrman’s new book. (You probably don’t understand what I’m driving at. Don’t worry about it too much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Which is why I wrote: “Not that that means you shouldn’t care, it’s great to get interested obscure academic debates out of sheer intellectual curiosity, but neither of you show any signs of actually knowing anything about this debate.”

      • http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/ Steven Bollinger

        “neither of you show any signs of actually knowing anything about this debate”

        Yeah, that sort of thing is frustrating, isn’t it? (Looking for the “unsubscribe” button.)

        • otherRyan

          Two snarky claims that Chris is clueless with no attempt to explain, much less argue, as much. A line about “just marry”ing Ehrman that every first grader recognizes to be the lame ribaldry of a less mature crowd. A declaration that he’s unsubscribing, as if Chris will regret losing such a valued presence at his blog.

          Steve wins the “complete dick with absolutely nothing to say” award. Congrats.

  • joachim

    Carrier is an arrogant prick.

    Atheists seemed shock that some other atheists think so.

    Arrogance leads to making mistakes, and he has made a big one.

  • JJ

    “Yo, guys: to echo Jerry Coyne, why do you even care? This is an obscure academic debate and nothing more. Ehrman’s conclusions don’t vindicate Christianity.”

    This is a similar point I’ve seen in other write ups and it doesn’t capture the argument that Carrier is making nor why he makes it in the way that he does.

    Carrier is not by training a philosopher or a biblical scholar, he has without a doubt done his homework in both fields, but they’re not where he lives and breathes. Carrier is an historian. And historians take the use and abuse of historical methodology very seriously. His harsh critiques have absolutely nothing to do with arguments about divinity; they are arguments about historical methodology. And while I can’t comment on the specifics of the history of the ancient Levant (not my area of expertise), I can say that the logic of Carrier’ arguments is sound.

    My personal opinion is people with specialties outside of history just really don’t like the tone of his blog post. But, in reality, his post is consistent with the way historians critique each other sometimes in the peer reviewed literature. Having a difference of opinion in interpretation is one thing, but ignoring the rules of historiography without explicitly giving warrant for doing that, that does get one blasted, even amongst scholars.

    Like I said, not being a student of the ancient Levant, I can’t weigh in on the specifics; but if Carrier’s review is factual, the fact that Ehrman did not clearly state and then engage the most cogent arguments for the mythicist position, is something that would get him harshly blasted by other historians, whether on a blog or in a peer reviewed journal.

    Like my adviser told me (a very, very long time ago). History is tough, thicken your skin or get out.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    The level of acrimony in this debate continues to baffle me.

    From my uninformed, outsider perspective, it does seem that a lot of mythicists have a credibility problem, and I’m not sure Carrier is helping himself in this regard by over-reaching in these ways. (Even knowing almost nothing about this debate, I knew Carrier was over-reaching, simply on a brief perusal of the Wikipedia entry on the historicity of Jesus: There were numerous points where Carrier attacked Ehrman as if he was saying something completely off the wall, when in fact in many of those instances Ehrman’s position was very much in line with the mainstream. This doesn’t make Ehrman right, but it makes it harder to argue that he is off the wall. A scientist in 2012 who believes in the aether is a crackpot, but it would not be fair to say the same of a scientist in 1886 who believed in the aether — even though both would be equally wrong.)

    On the other hand, I remain unimpressed by the certainty of many historicists. Even if I accept the arguments I have heard from historicists at face value, they do not really convince me of anything stronger than, “It’s plausible that there was a historical Jesus”. Maybe if I’m feeling really generous, I might buy — and again, this is assuming all of their arguments are correct, and I am not nearly knowledgeable enough in this realm to know if that is true — something as strong as “The odds that there was a historical Jesus are somewhat better than 50/50.”

    So I dunno… the certainty with which both sides argue here is just weird to me. And don’t even get me started on the virtiol… I’m not trying to play the false middle here, I just don’t see how the case could be that strong either way, not without certain types of evidence that appear to be non-existent here.

    • SAWells

      If Carrier had accused Ehrman of not representing the consensus on this topic, your argument ad Wikipedia would be relevant. But that is not the case. Carrier says (i) Ehrman is indeed reflecting the consensus, and (ii) the consensus in this specific field is wrong, because it’s based on methods which are fundamentally flawed and which aren’t used in any other historical field.

      • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

        Well, I guess you parsed Carrier’s words differently than I did. In many places, it came across as though he was not just saying Ehrman was wrong, but that it was scandalously wrong. Again, a scientist in 1886 who believes in the aether is not “scandalously wrong”…

        Re: The argumentum ad Wikipedia dig, one thing that Wikipedia is excellent for is representing an un-nuanced mainstream view on articles that have received a large amount of attention. I mean, that’s pretty much what it does best…

        • SAWells

          Part of the issue may be that things are routinely taken as normal in historical-Jesus circles which are scandalously wrong by the standards of any other field of enquiry. So we get a Consensus Of Relevant Experts who all take turns agreeing that there was definitely a historical Jesus, but from an outsider’s point of view, that is itself the scandal.

          Consider the comedy value of this: Ehrman says that there are no Jesus-mythicists on the faculty at theological colleges and divinity schools. Well, duh. There aren’t a lot of Angel-Gabriel-mythicists in madrassahs. We have a whole field of “history” here whose methods and consensus are radically decoupled from the rest of history, because when normal historical methods are applied, the field ceases to exist. It’s just an accident of history that we still have enough Christians to keep Jesus on the “maybe history” page, while the pagan gods have slid off to the “OK, they’re mythical” page.

          • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

            Part of the problem is too many experts and too little data. There is no way to overcome the fact that our sources are too few and too problematic, but all these experts keep combing through the same old data hoping to find something new. I think it creates an echo chamber that leads them to believe that they are making progress rather than just chasing their tales.

    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

      I’m not trying to play the false middle here, I just don’t see how the case could be that strong either way, not without certain types of evidence that appear to be non-existent here.

      Exactly right. We’ve got 75 pieces from a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle and both sides insist that they can tell us exactly what the whole picture looks like, just by virtue of having stared at those 75 pieces for countless hours.

  • F

    Hilarious. Atheists don’t care if there was an historical jesus because it doesn’t matter, and arguing over it won’t deconvert any christians.

    Both Carrier and Ehrman are historians. History interests them and they write about it. Guess what you should do if you aren’t interested in things historical and/or the process of building histories? (No, the answer isn’t to tell people their work and arguments are pointless and don’t further your personal cause but should.)

    I don’t think Carrier was that rude at all. He was expressive, in a “Wow, dude! WTF!” way about the HuffWoo article and then the book once he read it. Yet he untiringly recommend Ehrman’s other books. Why? Because they were better-written and solid scholarship, in his opinion, for which he outlines some of his his reasons. The arguments look pretty solid to me. (I’ve not seen this book yet, but the article was awful.) Is he too rough in his phrasing? Maybe he was just being more “popular” than “scholarly” at the moment.

  • Atheara

    Forget the tone or level of acrimony. The important point is that Carrier was wrong on every point of importance. On some issues, Carrier is wrong because he misread Ehrman’s sentences. On other issues Carrier was wrong because he represented Ehrman’s views as clear, incompetent errors — whereas Ehrman’s response clearly demonstrates those views to be positions that are academically respectible views that can be adopted by leading experts who clearly know historical evidence and methods as well as Carrier. This is the problem: Carrier could be right on the substance of each issue (though he does seem to be wrong on Osiris and some other points) and he would still be dead wrong in his assertion of incompetence. Identity politics ruin everything, as we’re seeing in this debate.

    • josh

      I strongly disagree. Carrier didn’t misread things and he didn’t claim Ehrman’s views were outside the academic mainstream. Basically, Ehrman wrote an anti-mythicist polemic aimed at convincing a general audience that mythicists are all incompetent cranks who can be ignored. Carrier, who has himself heavily criticized the dubious work of many mythicist authors, naturally takes exception to being lumped in with the cranks when he is a knowledgeable and thorough researcher who nonetheless agrees with their basic conclusion and believes there are serious criticisms to be leveled at the current standards in the field. He reads Ehrman’s book expecting to find a rock-solid case for the historicist position and instead finds a sloppy, scattershot attack on the fringe which doesn’t address the most serious cases for mythicism or against historicist methodology. He writes a review centered around all the things he thinks Ehrman left out and all the things he implied that aren’t true.

      Now Carrier made a mistake here, in that he repeatedly jumps from Ehrman not writing something he thinks is important, to Ehrman not knowing anything about it and calls him incompetent and completely unfamiliar with the evidence, didn’t do his research, etc. Then if you read Ehrman’s rebuttal, it’s all of the form “Of course I knew about this or that piece of evidence, I just didn’t write about it. That’s what I wrote but what I meant was… Anyways, it’s aimed at a popular audience so I don’t have to be thorough.” Some of it hinges on statements that are true (from Ehrman’s point of view) if read in a very narrow, technical way, like the Peter/Priapus statue, but which imply all sorts of libels against the mythicists if read in the way of a casual, uninformed reader. And on the most substantive points he’s either arguing fallaciously, like with Pilate’s title and the dying-rising god meme, or he has ignored them completely like most of the latter half of Carrier’s review.

  • Metaphysical Ham Sandwich

    Apparently Carrier’s credentials, where Ehrman was demonstrably and apologetically wrong was of no importance. Don’t need to invoke the authority of scholars to debate that one.

  • Steven Carr

    Carrier has caught Ehrman quote-mining him in the most outrageous way.

    CARRIER
    mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically.

    CARR
    Ehrman chopped out the bit where Carrier said Thompson was an expert on Judaism rather than Christianity, and then laid into Carrier for neglecting that he (Bart) had said New Testament, not Judaism….

  • Steven Carr

    You should listen to the Homebrewed Christianity recording from about 20:30 minutes onwards.

    Ehrman flat out agrees with the interviewer who says Murdock drew the statue and that it was completely made up.

    Only a few days later, for Ehrman to write that the statue ‘does appear to exist’.

    Oh, that looks bad, bad, bad.

    For Ehrman to laugh about a made-up statue, when the author had given references showing that it existed, to dismiss a book about it, on radio…

    And then complain about personal attacks when it is pointed out to him that this is incompetence…

    That is bad.

    Why didn’t Ehrman just say he was so fed up reading Acharya’s drivel that he didn’t check the references?

    Rather than saying that he is the only scholar in the village and mythicists are not qualified to talk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    I left the following comment at Richard’s blog, which is now “awaiting moderation.” I’m about to go leave a comment at JT’s, and then I think that will be all I can be bothered to write about the issue for now.

    Link to “Richard Carrier on The Huffington Post Article (1)” (Behind a paywall, which I think is a mistake on Ehrman’s part, but if you signed up for the paysite, your problem may be that you need to re-log in.

    But with that detail out of the way:

    Richard, I’m completely horrified by your responses to Ehrman, first and foremost because you seem insistent on reading into his statements things he never said, when there are much more reasonable ways to interpret the intent behind his remarks.

    To take an example from this post, Ehrman never says that all your points should be dismissed as examples of the ad hominem fallacy, and in context I think it’s quite clear that’s what he meant. In “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier” he writes:

    Carrier, as many of you know, has written a scathing review of Did Jesus Exist on his Freethought Blog. He indicates that my book is “full of errors,” that it “misinforms more than it informs” that it provides “false information” that it is “worse than bad” and that “it officially sucks.” The attacks are sustained throughout his lengthy post, and they often become personal. He indicates that “Ehrman doesn’t actually know what he is talking about,” he claims that I speak with “absurd” hyperbole, that my argument “makes [me] look irresponsible,” that I am guilty of “sloppy work,” that I “misrepresent” my opponents and “misinform the public,” that what I write is “crap,” that I am guilty of “arrogantly dogmatic and irresponsible thinking,” that I am “incompetent,” make “hack” mistakes, and do not “act like a real scholar.”

    Most of his review represents an attempt to substantiate these claims. Some readers may find the overblown rhetoric offensive, but I have no interest in engaging in a battle of wits and rhetorical flourishes. I would simply like to see if the charges of my incompetence can be sustained.

    To my ear, “personal attack” does not necessarily mean a fallacy, and anyway in context it’s clear that he’s referring to charges of “incompetence,” etc. He doesn’t say that the fact you’re saying these things means you’re wrong, rather he acknowledges that you try to substantiate these charges, and then indicates he is going to show that these charges are unsubstantiated (which I think they were).

    It sounds like you may partly be thinking that the term “personal attack” is inaccurate because when you talk about “incompetence,” etc. you’re talking about Ehrman professionally. Perhaps you would restrict the term “personal attack” to “your mother was a hamster” type remarks? I don’t think that’s what the word “personal attack” means, but anyway it’s irrelevant to the question of whether Ehrman is accusing you of arguing fallaciously, because both “you’re incompetent” and “your mother was a hamster” can be used as premises in fallacious arguments. (“you’re incompetent, therefore your views are false” and “your mother was a hamster, therefore your views are false” – not that I think you made arguments in any way like either of those arguments).

    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

      I think that it’s way to early to call this one.

  • Craig

    Ds Rchrd Crrr xst, r s h crtn f th Athst Cmmnty?

    http://www.brtt-nln.com/wrdprss/2012/ds-rchrd-crrr-xst/

    I’m pretty tolerant on what comments I allow. As long as you’re trying to contribute to the discussion. If I get the impression you’re just here to promote your own stuff, you’re getting disemvowelled. – Hallq

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  • Squirrelloid

    Mr. Hallquist:
    Your reading of the debate is very superficial, and I find I can’t trust you and your interpretation of the debate at all.

    Specifically on the Pliny letters. That Ehrman mis-cited them was only the very tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that what Ehrman cites as one letter are actually two letters, rather distant from each other (although both in Book 10), and that the relation between those two letters, which Ehrman treats as being manifest within a single letter, is actually a modern scholarly conclusion and not something present in Pliny at all.

    Ehrman does not respond to that at all. The only thing he responds to is the citation issue. He still seems to regard it as a single letter.

    You can’t just accept what Ehrman says at face value. He’s being disingenious and he’s throwing up enough smoke that you can be distracted by the fire. Actually read what Carrier says and you’ll notice Ehrman doesn’t even try to answer most of it.

    I’m not a specialist in ancient history, I’ve never read Pliny personally, but I can read critically, and just from the Carrier and Ehrman dialog I managed to extract that substance. You are doing a disservice by just blandly accepting everything Ehrman says and taking it as a full rebuttal of Carrier.

    And if you misunderstood the nature of the criticism in this place, I really can’t trust you to have read any of the rest of this dialog critically either.

  • Nathanael Hoernlé

    Carrier has a remarkable ability, remarkable in someone so intelligent, to let his personal need that Christianity be untrue get in the way of his judgement. He doesn’t so much disagree with Bart Ehrman as demonstrate a desperation to make him go away. Ehrman being an agnostic, he can’t denounce him as a propagandist for religion, so he tries on something out of his depth: trash the methodology of a genuine scholar. This isn’t the first time Ehrman has shown Carrier up for incompetent (read Did Jesus Exist?) and I get the impression it won’t be the last.

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