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.

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