I’m not sure what to make of Richard Carrier’s rebuttals to Bart Ehrman on the existence of Jesus (both the reply to Ehrman’s HuffPo article last month, and the review of Ehrman’s book itself). If you cut out about half of what Carrier has written, the remaining half would look like a pretty damning critique of Ehrman. The other half, unfortunately, has all kinds of bizarre features and exaggerated claims that make me wonder if Carrier can be trusted.
In this post, I’ll deal with Carrier’s response to the HuffPo article. Later this week, I’ll address Carrier’s review of Ehrman’s book. On the HuffPo article, there is one point where I absolutely do agree with Carrier. In his article Ehrman says:
With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.
This is astonishingly misleading. So much so that I’m struggling with how to convey how awful it is. We don’t “have” these sources; their existence is a matter of scholarly guesswork. Ehrman may think the arguments that they once existed are strong (and in some cases I think he does a decent job of arguing that in the book), but that’s not the same as having them, in the sense of “have” that every reader of Ehrman’s article without a solid background in Biblical scholarship will understand.
And I suspect even readers with a basic knowledge of Biblical scholarship will be mislead. Instead of thinking “he can’t possibly mean that,” they’ll think, “oh, I didn’t know that.” The possibility that by “have” Ehrman meant “we’re guessing they existed once” rather than “the manuscripts are in a library somewhere” probably won’t even cross their mind for a split second.
For Ehrman to say we “have” these sources is idiotic even from the point of view of Ehrman’s own goals, since I think Ehrman really does care about educating people about Biblical scholarship, and this is now one more misconception that he, and others in his line of work, will have to correct. And very likely, fundamentalist propagandists like William Lane Craig will take this as a license to make many equally misleading claims.
Unfortunately, so much else in Carrier’s reply is completely ridiculous. For one, Carrier baselessly accuses Ehrman of “attacking academic freedom” because Ehrman said:
Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology.
I can understand Carrier not liking the comparison to young earth creationism (there’s certainly far more evidence that the Earth is old than that Jesus existed), but it’s relevant. In fact, it gives a ready-made rebuttal to Carrier’s accusations. Pointing out that mythicists are unlikely to get teaching jobs at a religion department, and not having a problem with that fact, is no more an attack on academic freedom than doing the same in reference to creationists and biology departments. Carrier writes:
The only people who should be in danger of losing their careers in the field, and who should be criticized as such, are those who persistently fail to follow sound and defensible methods, or persistently demonstrate dishonesty or incompetence (James Tabor I fear might be going down that road; time will tell).
Another bizarre thing about Carrier’s reply here is that in a couple places where he accuses Ehrman of having said something false or mistaken, the actual complain turns out to be that Ehrman meant exactly what he said. For example, Carrier says of Ehrman’s statement that, “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world” that “it’s false.” Except it’s true, as Ehrman pointed out in his reply to Carrier (behind a paywall, sadly).
The reason Carrier said Ehrman’s statement was false is that Ehrman failed to mention Thomas Thompson, an expert in Judaism. If Carrier had merely said it was misleading to omit Thompson, he could have made that argument (though I think the existence of a mythicist expert in Judaism is clearly less relevant than a mythicist expert in early Christianity or New Testament studies would be). But for Carrier to say “it’s false” referring to a statement that’s actually true, when Carrier apparently knew it was true, just makes Carrier look ridiculous.
Similarly, here’s what Carrier calls “Mistake #3”:
Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim.
It looks pretty silly to list a true statement in a list of “mistakes.” On top of that, the fact that no competent mythicist makes the claim Ehrman says is wrong doesn’t mean it’s not worth saying the claim is wrong. This is because there are plenty if incompetent mythicists out there, as Carrier himself acknowledges.
This brings me to a final issue. Carrier doesn’t just say Ehrman should have mentioned certain points which he fails to mention, he says Ehrman’s failure to mention these things is “disingenuous,” “fallacious and thus logically incompetent,” “makes him look like the slipshod crank,” “crank behavior, not reasoned scholarship,” and “acting exactly like the worst of those he denounces.”
All of these accusations are completely unfair, because there’s only so much you can mention in a short piece like Ehrman’s HuffPo piece. Hell, there’s only so much you can mention in a full-length book. That means that even when you disagree with someone’s decisions about what to say and what to omit, such omissions are not usually grounds for accusing someone of being “incompetent,” a “crank,” etc.
It’s troubling to see Carrier arguing this way, because it’s reminiscent of a brand of apologetics that’s become very popular post-God Delusion: point out that your target fails to discuss the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope and then conclude he is as bad as “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is theBook of British Birds.” (Really. See also Ed Feser.) I can’t see any difference between that and what’s Carrier’s doing.