On Carrier on Ehrman’s HuffPo piece

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).

Well yes, but some views are so crazy that the chances of someone reaching them through “sound and defensible methods” is basically nil. Of course Carrier doesn’t think that’s true of mythicism, but the fact that some views are like that means that it isn’t attacking academic freedom to say what Ehrman said about a view. Furthermore, by spinning baseless accusations of “persecution” (Carrier’s word), exactly as creationists do, Carrier encourages the impression that mythicists are creationist-like crackpots.

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.

  • mnb0

    “This is astonishingly misleading.”
    It’s not only misleading, it shows that we should leave Ancient History to professional scholars as much as we leave Quantum Mechanics to physicists. There are three independent sources: the New Testament (Acts is NOT independent if we take the point of view that it doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ life because the Gospels already dealt with it), Flavius Josephus and the account of Polycarpus.
    Ehrman either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know what the meaning and the importance of independent sources is.
    Fortunately the meaning of Ehrman’s misleading formulation was immediately clear to me – so clear that it disgusts me. If this is Biblical scholarship, then Biblical scholarship is pseudoscience.

    “by spinning baseless accusations of persecution”
    This IS exactly like creationism. It’s equally wrong. Dr. Hermann Detering from Germany no way has to fear prosecution.

    http://www.radikalkritik.de/

    And there is another similarity. Just like creationists pursue a political agenda so do Jesusmythologists. That’s álways wrong and bad, no matter if it’s meant to bash biology or christendom.
    This in addition; I completely agree with you.

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

      There are three independent sources: the New Testament (Acts is NOT independent if we take the point of view that it doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ life because the Gospels already dealt with it), Flavius Josephus and the account of Polycarpus.
      Ehrman either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know what the meaning and the importance of independent sources is.

      This is untrue. We have a lot of evidence (from manuscripts, and debates about which books should be considered canonical) that the books of the NT were originally circulated as separate documents. Though you are right that apparently Luke and Acts have the same author.

      • josh

        I seem to recall that there is some reason to think that Luke and Acts were not written by the same person because of contradictions in the accounts. Regardless, that wouldn’t make them independant any more than being seperately circulated would make them independant.

  • JamesM

    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.

    So do you think that being a mythicist is on intellectual par with being a creationist? That’s what you did in this sentence: “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.”

    Ehrman doesn’t restrict himself to religious departments as you claim here. Religious and classics departments are both a part of institutions of higher learning. If the only evidence for a historical Jesus is that there might have been some sources long ago that may have provided evidence if you wish really hard for it to be true, then this is the opposite of the kinds of scholarly standards that university departments hold themselves to when looking to hire or fire. Tell me again how mythicism is the same as creationism?

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

      No I don’t, and no I didn’t. A view doesn’t have to maximally crazy for it to be the kind of thing no competent scholar would ever arrive at. Not all views in the class “views no competent scholar would arrive at” are intellectually on par. And the point isn’t what I think about the status of mythicism – all that’s necessary for my point is that be plausible for Ehrman to think that mythicism is a view a competent scholar that no competent scholar could arrive at.

      • JamesM

        I think the problem you are having is one of not reading anything I wrote and not actually considering anything that you wrote. Your response doesn’t make any kind of sense. You spoke out of both sides of your mouth and responded with word salad.

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

          Let me try this again:

          No I don’t, and no I didn’t.

          A view doesn’t have to maximally crazy for it to be the kind of thing no competent scholar would ever arrive at. Not all views in the class “views no competent scholar would arrive at” are intellectually on par.

          Therefore, it’s possible that mythicism is a view that no competent scholar would arrive at, and also that creationism is crazier than mythicism. Therefore me saying mythicism is view that no competent scholar would arrive at does not entail me saying that mythicism is on par with creationism.

          And the point isn’t what I think about the status of mythicism – all that’s necessary for my point is that be plausible for Ehrman to think that mythicism is a view a competent scholar that no competent scholar could arrive at.

          In other words, there’s no reason to interpret Ehrman as attacking academic freedom. He could just be saying that mythicism is a view no competent scholar could arrive at. In fact, he doesn’t even have to be saying that, just that it’s a view that competent scholars are highly unlikely to arrive at.

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

    Even if someone realized that we don’t really have ancient copies of Q, I would think he would take Ehrman to mean that scholars consider their hypothetical reconstructions of the sources behind the gospels to provide evidence comparable to having the actual copies. This too is so far over the top as to be outrageous.

    I thought Carrier’s digression on academic freedom sounded slightly paranoid.

    I thought Ehrman’s slicing and dicing of the pool of experts whose opinions were worthy of consideration was rather contrived although Carrier’s counter was not terribly well framed.

  • josh

    “all kinds of bizarre features and exaggerated claims that make me wonder if Carrier can be trusted”

    Replace Carrier with Ehrman and you have my impressions after reading their exchanges. Carrier sometimes states things in a binary fashion that could really use a little more nuance, but GOOD LORD Ehrman does the same thing turned up to eleven. Ehrman’s entire HuffPo piece reads like one long attempt to bluster the uninformed and Carrier certainly makes his book sound like a slightly more detailed attempt at same.

    I think it’s quibbling to criticize Carrier for calling ‘false’ or a ‘mistake’ what he considers to be technically true but completely misleading. He’s pretty explicit about what he thinks is wrong with Ehrman’s statements and why. In fact, he goes out of his way to allow that maybe Ehrman is just writing really badly.

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

      Carrier’s use of the words “false” and “mistake” would be more forgivable if he didn’t go on to accuse Ehrman of being “incompetent,” a “crank,” etc. And any arguments Carrier might have had for Ehrman’s statements to be seriously misleading get lost in the silly rhetoric.

      • josh

        You can criticize Carrier’s style, and I agree that claims of academic censorship are over the top, at least as far as Ehrman’s statements go. But Carrier’s arguments (on why Ehrman is either wrong or egregiously misleading) are clear and valid from what I can see. Given that, it is entirely fair to call Ehrman incompetent and crank-like in these instances. Carrier repeatedly emphasizes that he has found Ehrman’s previous work to be of high quality, but that these latest offerings are slapdash and sloppy. He backs that opinion up with extensive examples.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current), OM

    Ehrman says:

    [T]here 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.

    Saying this is suggesting a couple of things: first, that the (presumably sole) reason mythicists aren’t in the positions he specifies is that the sum of the scholarship that supports their arguments is creationist-level; second, that the sum of the scholarship supporting the historicist case is equivalent to the science supporting the ToE. But neither of these appears to be remotely correct if the scholarship is taken as a whole. Furthermore, a plausible explanation for the marginalization of mythicists in these fields is that their arguments challenge a foundational religious belief of the cultures in which they’re working. It would be very surprising indeed if religious bias hasn’t worked historically to push out scholars making such arguments or to discourage them from even taking up the question critically, regardless of the quality of their scholarship.

    Well yes, but some views are so crazy that the chances of someone reaching them through “sound and defensible methods” is basically nil. Of course Carrier doesn’t think that’s true of mythicism, but the fact that some views are like that means that it isn’t attacking academic freedom to say what Ehrman said about a view.

    What kind of argument is that? “This is true of some arguments so you can validly say it about any of them”? Obviously not. It’s making a serious charge to say that a specific argument and its proponents are rightly marginalized in their fields in the same way that creationism is in biology, and it shouldn’t be made lightly. Asserting specifically that all mythicist arguments (and it has to be all) are on par with creationism and suggesting that their proponents are not accepted by the mainstream in the field for solely this reason certainly does appear to be trying to marginalize the people making them by baseless ridicule, and should – especially in a context of religious privilege – make those who value academic freedom uneasy.

    Furthermore, by spinning baseless accusations of “persecution” (Carrier’s word), exactly as creationists do, Carrier encourages the impression that mythicists are creationist-like crackpots.

    He most certainly does not. He states several times that the evaluation of the scholarship of both mythicists and historicists should be based on the quality of the evidence marshalled in its support. He argues convincingly that Ehrman’s comparison of mythicism with creationism is invalid on this basis. And that’s the only basis that matters.

    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.

    You’ve simply dodged the main point of what you quote. Ehrman’s statements are misleading and based on straw men.

    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.

    Is this a joke? He left out evidence and structured his argument in the HuffPo piece in a way that was transparently misleading and intellectually dishonest. It’s shameful behavior from a scholar.

    All you’ve done here is point to a couple of extremely minor (semi-)errors, ignoring both the issues of claims by Ehrman that might be technically true but irrelevant, silly, or misrepresentational and the huge failures of Ehrman’s piece. For you to focus on this picayune stuff, ignoring not only the immediate context but the central points, makes little sense.

    I hope you do a better job responding to his long review of Ehrman’s book.

  • Steven Carr

    So Ehrman thinks people who study Judaism are just not qualified to speak on early Christianity?

    So who did he get his ‘knowledge’ from that no Jews expected a Messiah to die?

    Clearly not people knowledgeable in Judaism as , frankly, Ehrman does not think they are at all suitable to speak about Early Christianity, to say nothing of them ever becoming suitable to teach it.

    I guess there is nothing wrong with Ehrman leaving out the fact that there is a mythicist who teaches Judaism.

    Anything else Ehrman may not have told his readers? Or qualified his statements so much that his readers don’t know there are things which meet 9 out of his 10 qualifications, but , hey look, they don’t meet all 10.

    It reminds me a bit of NT Wright saying there are no parallels to the story of a crucified Jew, born in Judea of a virgin, raised on the third day, and ascending to Heaven after 40 days.

    After all, which parallels meet all *those* criteria?

    • Zak

      I imagine Ehrman would say they are not qualified to speak on early Christianity if the person is an expert on the Pentateuch and the history of Israel (like Tom Thopmson). How would knowing about that give him any expertise into the NT?

      However, if the person was an expert in Jewish thought, focusing around say, 100bc to 100ad, then yeah, I would imagine Ehrman would agree that their views would be quite relevant.

      Anyway, your comment seems high oh rhetoric and low on argument. Chill, guy.

      • Steven Carr

        No, Ehrman would say, and has said, that the person would have to teach Early Christianity or New Testament (or possibly Classics).

        I guess somebody who did teach Early Christianity would not make such basic errors of fact as saying that Pliny’s Letter about Christians was letter number 10.

        Oh, did Bart did that? I thought he taught this stuff? How come he didn’t know that? How come he got that wrong, when the lowliest hack on Freeratio.org soon learns such basic stuff as that.

        He didn’t even know that Luke/Acts never mentioned a brother of Jesus called James, until I asked him why it didn’t.

        How come he couldn’t even get the name of Doherty’s book right in the text of ‘Did Jesus Exist?’

        • Sarah

          Ha! Forgot to chill guy? I don’t even know what your complaint is here. Relax.

          • http://stateofmyignorance.blogspot.com/ Zachary Kroger

            Sarah,
            The complaint is everything and anything. Just like creationists will stop at nothing to try and discredit a biologist, it seems the same goes for the mythicists with Ehrman.

            Carr,
            Ehrman said the stuff about teaching NT history and whatnot in regards to discussing Jesus, not in regards to discussing Jewish thought regarding the expecting messiah.

            Yes, saying “book 10″ instead of “letter in book 10″ is just sooooooo unforgivable. How could anyone make such a mistake???

            With that sort of stuff, I tend to do as Carrier says (but not as he does) and grant people some intellectual charity. If a geneticist said “DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick” instead of “the structure of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick”, would I freak out, assuming the geneticist was incompetent? No. I would think “clearly he mis-spoke.” Then again, I am not looking for any possible excuse to try and make Ehrman look bad.

            Where does Ehrman say that Luke-Acts mentions James?

            And on page 17, Ehrman correctly names both of Doherty’s books. Though, I do agree… if Ehrman HAD gotten the names wrong, it would totally discount his entire argument. *rolls eyes*

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

    Isn’t it just possible, if not perfectly clear, that a historian of ancient Rome or an Old Testament scholar might have relevant insights and knowledge that the professor of New Testament studies lacks? Might they not be the ones who recognize the outside influences that the New Testament scholars don’t see?

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

      Well it’s possible. But to a specialist in the field, it’s gotta be somewhat like seeing Michael Behe (a biochemist, not an evolutionary biologist) attacking evolution.

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

        The difference is that the existence of a historical person in the ancient world is a question that requires the skills of someone who is trained in ancient history. How many of the specialists in historical Jesus studies are actually trained in history rather than theology or New Testament studies? How many of them took courses in historical methodology anywhere besides a seminary? How much of their research has been peer reviewed by scholars trained in history? I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I think I would want to know before I conclude that Ehrman is justified in being so territorial.

  • JSC_ltd

    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.

    Ehrman said “have” when the fact is “not have.” That’s not a mistake, that’s a lie. Lies are often misleading. That’s why we don’t like lies or the lying liars who tell them, and tend not to believe much of what they say.

    • Steven Carr

      EHRMAN
      Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

      CARR
      Come on, who wasn’t pretty astounded to hear that we had those historical sources?

      I was astounded. Carrier was astounded. Cris H. was astounded.

      If only these sources existed on this planet, and not on whatever planet Ehrman was on when he wrote that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/coreyalanrobey coreyrobey

    I love the insinuation that mythicism should be treated or viewed in a similar way to creationism. lol, really?! Carrier’s reasoning and evidence are much more resistant to scrutiny than that of “doctor” Hovind or of some idiot creationist who deplores method, evidence, and reasoning as some trick of the devil. Seriously, remove head from anus now. Thanks.

    It should also be pointed out that BOTH Ehrman and Carrier agree that jesus-as-described-in-the-bible never existed. Ehrman’s version is not the same guy, by any stretch of the imagination, that is described by Paul/Saul, debated for by William Craig, and pushed by anti-social fundies.

  • Dennis

    I am not a historian or a biblical expert. I can’t quote scripture or talk christian history and haven’t read any of the primary or secondary sources. I require good historians to inform me. Frankly this whole kerfufle leaves me feeling like I am stupider than when I might have been if the conversation hadn’t happened. Why are all of you spending so much effort to confuse me? U guys suck! Someone give me facts. I don’t believe any evidence exists to prove a historical Jesus. He didn’t read or write, nobody documented him outside those few followers that could read and write. Some of those possibly long after he was dead. Constantine wanted to convert Peagans to Chritianity. That is why we have witches, ghosts, wherewolves, vampires, and all kinds of faeries, trolls, and other stuff in our supertitions. Those are pegan in origin. Constantine wanted to convert pegans, not Jews, Jews were not seen positive in his time. Jesus was a Jew, moreover a conservative Jew. Why don’t Christians follow his religion? Because Constantine knew if you want to convert someone you tell them things they already believe. Please historians talk about what we have evidence for stop yelling about things we don’t have evidence for.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Good post Chris.

  • Zak

    Spot on, Chris. It has been VERY disheartening to see how so many fellow atheists have been going nuts over Ehrman’s new book, going so far to even accuse him of not being a real historian.

    For a few years, I have thought that the mythicists arguments exactly paralleled those of creationists. I am glad I am not the only person who has noticed it. I even feel that their behavior is somewhat like creationists: never trying to get their ideas into peer review, never presenting at conferences to have their ideas vetted, claiming that the experts have deep biases, etc.

    In the end, like creationism, it seems like it is mostly amateurs convincing amateurs. And anyone from the mainstream academic sphere who disagrees has to be filtered through Carrier (or the Discovery Institute for the creationists).

    • Jon H

      Exactly, I couldn’t have said it any better myself. “Amateurs convincing amateurs,” while at the same time accusing academics of some sort of conspiracy.

      The weirdest thing is that when I’ve heard Richard talk about this in the past he seemed to understand this concern.

    • Steven Carr

      The comparison with creationists is evident.

      Evolutionists ‘literature bomb’ creationists with evidence, citing huge numbers of papers which outline all the evidence for evolution.

      Ehrman did exactly the same thing. He literature bombed mythicists. H literature bombed them big time.

      EHRMAN
      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.

      CARR
      The trouble is… Ehrman literature bombed mythicists with invisible documents.

      Using invisible documents just isn’t as effective as using real documents.

      • http://stateofmyignorance.blogspot.com/ Zachary Kroger

        I agree, theoretical documents are not as good as real documents. Good thing his argument didn’t rest on them. That was just one of a number of likes of evidence.

    • josh

      Here’s the thing. Mythicists (or, more to the point in this case, critics of historicists) are kind of like creationists in that they are outsiders to the dominant academic culture and there are many enthusiastic amatures. They are also kind of like atheist critics of professional philosophers of religion (cf. Ed Feser and his ilk). Sometimes an established collection of experts repudiates a view en masse because they have expert, rational reasons to do so, and sometimes they reject an outside view because they are protecting turf and they are affronted by the idea that some amature could show their life’s work and orthodoxies to be a house of cards.

      If you regard the critics as tactically similar to a loony fringe, you should also consider that the historicists look tactically similar to a turf-defending old guard, hiding behind credentials and ‘the way things have always been done’. I don’t think you can decide just by observing rhetoric on either side, that’s why we should focus on arguments and evidence. As an amature I’m not nearly familiar enough with the evidence compared to an expert, but I can judge the arguments that are put forth. I’ve yet to see a complete, compelling argument for mythicism (Carrier apparently aims to do this in his book), but I’ve also seen a lot of bad arguments from the historical defenders.

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

        As an amateur I’m not nearly familiar enough with the evidence compared to an expert, but I can judge the arguments that are put forth. I’ve yet to see a complete, compelling argument for mythicism (Carrier apparently aims to do this in his book), but I’ve also seen a lot of bad arguments from the historical defenders.

        Amen to that!

        Historicists and mythicists have the same problem: the sources are highly problematic and we are missing too many pieces of the puzzle. Although I look forward to reading Carrier’s book, I’m doubtful that mythicism is ever going to be much more than an intriguing possibility. On the other hand, when I see the best scholar I know on the other side claiming that we can be certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt,” I wonder what he’s smoking.

    • Gingerbaker

      “…going so far to even accuse him of not being a real historian.”

      Refresh my memory – what degree does Ehrman have from a history department from a secular university again?

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

    Here’s my problem with the historical Jesus.

    If you scrape away the supernatural stories surrounding Alexander the Great, you still have a significant mark in the historical record as a result of his military accomplishments.

    If you scrape away the supernatural aspects of Jesus of Nazareth, you scrape away the very reason that anyone ever told stories about him in the first place. But for the fact that the resurrection of Christ was thought to usher in the coming kingdom of God, it is highly unlikely that the earthly Jesus would have left the slightest mark in the historical record.

    Historicists like to argue that they are just applying the historical methods that are routinely applied to other figures in the ancient world about whom supernatural tales were told. I’m not sure that this is true. I don’t think that there is anyone else about whose existence historians are confident who didn’t leave some sort of mark that was independent of supernatural stories about their post-mortem activities.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      If you scrape away the supernatural aspects of Jesus of Nazareth, you scrape away the very reason that anyone ever told stories about him in the first place.

      I disagree. At least from one set of viewpoints, what’s left after the scraping away is an apocalyptic preacher. Arguably, such a person is a mad man, but a mad man can be charismatic and gather followers, even followers who delude themselves into believing made-up stories that purport to vindicate the failures of the man.

      • anat

        I disagree. At least from one set of viewpoints, what’s left after the scraping away is an apocalyptic preacher.

        But how unique would that be? Were there others? I recall the Talmud mentioning a guy named Tzadok who warned of the impending fall of Jerusalem and its temple for decades – he supposedly fasted a lot and called for repentance. Not that I’m claiming this guy definitely existed, for all I know he may have been a post-hoc reconstruction. But those were times of unrest and you get preachers of all sorts in such times. How do you tell the preacher who was the claimed source of the scriptural character from all the others? How can one differentiate between the claim ‘there was a specific person on whom the character known as Jesus was based, though the story of the events of his life was much embellished’ and the claim ‘the story of the life of Jesus, as we know it from scripture, bears some resemblance to the lives of a category of people from that time and place, but is not based on one particular person’?

        As an outsider to this debate, the attempts to reconstruct the ‘real’ Jesus, considering the poverty of sources, reminds me of the kind of speculation that takes place in various fandom sites.

        • J. J. Ramsey

          How can one differentiate between the claim ‘there was a specific person on whom the character known as Jesus was based, though the story of the events of his life was much embellished’ and the claim ‘the story of the life of Jesus, as we know it from scripture, bears some resemblance to the lives of a category of people from that time and place, but is not based on one particular person’?

          Occam’s Razor, IMHO, is probably the best answer to that question. There’s simply nothing in the evidence that is more simply explained by a composite character than a single man.

          • Anat

            But the more elements one needs to remove from the story for it to match the extra-biblical evidence the less one can say that the character Jesus is based in a meaningful way on some Yeshua ben-Yosef rather than any of the other bazillion 1st century preachers.

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

        But would you have expected that apocalyptic preacher to have left any mark in the historical? If not, how does the historian know what to look for and what might support the inference of his existence?

        • J. J. Ramsey

          But would you have expected that apocalyptic preacher to have left any mark in the historical? If not, how does the historian know what to look for and what might support the inference of his existence?

          Look for things that are trivial to explain if he exists but are more difficult to explain otherwise. We’ve gone over the examples of such things ad nauseum. Indeed, Carrier and other mythicists illustrate my point. How many times have we seen “brother of the Lord” explained away as just another way of saying “Christian,” context be damned? How many times have mythicists presented lousy arguments for how the “brother of Jesus called Christ” reference is interpolated? Historicists just don’t have to go through the same contortions as mythicists.

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

            Here’s my hypothesis for “brother of the Lord”:

            It was known to the Galatians that there were two men named James among the Jerusalem Christians at the time of Paul’s first visit, one of whom subsequently had a falling out with the community and left to form a rival cult. When Paul writes “the brother of the Lord,” he is simply indicating which of the two Jameses he met, i.e., James the Christian rather than James the Apostate. Does that not make perfect sense of the passage without any interpolations of convenience, secret societies of “Brothers of the Lord,” or ignorance from Paul concerning use of the word “the”?

            My other thought on that passage is that our confidence in any interpretation of any passage in Galatians cannot be any stronger than our confidence in the transmission of the text. Here’s what Ehrman had to say on that topic in 2008:

            Can we trust that the copies of Galatians we have are the original copies. No. We don’t know. How could we possibly know? Our earliest copy of Galatians is p46 which dates from the year 200. Paul wrote this letter in the 50’s. The first copy that we have is 150 years later. Changes were made all along the line before this first copy was made. How can we possibly know that in fact it is exactly as Paul wrote it. Is it possible that somebody along the line inserted a verse? Yes. Is it possible that someone took out a verse? Yes. Is it possible that somebody changed a lot of the words? Yes. Is it possible that the later copies were made from one of the worst of the early copies? Yes. It’s possible. We don’t know.

            I just don’t think that reed can bear the weight that historicists want it to carry.

          • J. J. Ramsey

            It was [according to vinnyjh57] known to the Galatians that there were two men named James among the Jerusalem Christians at the time of Paul’s first visit, one of whom subsequently had a falling out with the community and left to form a rival cult. When Paul writes “the brother of the Lord,” he is simply indicating which of the two Jameses he met, i.e., James the Christian rather than James the Apostate. Does that not make perfect sense of the passage …

            First, it’s a hypothesis based on no evidence. Second, it means that by coincidence, we have a James who is clearly referred to as a brother in both the Gospel of Mark and Josephus’ Antiquities and a James who is described with a phrase that just happens to look like it could refer to a literal brother of Jesus. So, no, your hypothesis doesn’t pass the parsimony test.

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

            The parsimony test? That sounds a tad ad hoc to me.

            We do have a James that is referred to as a brother of Jesus in both Josephus and Mark. But neither writer indicates that the James in question ever became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, nor do they indicate that he was ever a follower of Jesus.

            On the other hand, we have a James in Acts who seems to be a leader of the Christians in Jerusalem and a follower of Jesus. However, Luke never identifies him as Jesus’ brother and in fact drops Mark’s reference to Jesus having a brother named James altogether. Indeed, the most natural reading of Acts is that this James was the son of Alpheaus. I would call that a lack of corroboration at the point we should most expect to find it.

            I’m not suggesting that we could ever declare my hypothesis to be the most likely explanation, but it is a perfectly natural reading and we know that James was a common name. I just find Ehrman’s claim that we can be certain “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt” rather absurd.

          • J. J. Ramsey

            “The parsimony test? That sounds a tad ad hoc to me.”

            Um, you do realize that parsimony is another way to refer to Occam’s Razor, right? If you think judging a hypothesis by its parsimony is ad hoc, then we really don’t have much to talk about.

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

            Oh I’ve heard of it, but I just thought that it was being pulled out in a rather ad hoc fashion to dismiss the hypothesis while avoiding any discussion of its substantive merits or weaknesses. Even if we prefer the less complex or more parsimonious hypothesis, all other things being equal, we know that all other things aren’t always equal and even when they are, sometimes the more complex hypothesis turns out to be the right one anyway. I think it is also appropriate to look at the relative parsimoniousness.

            It seems to me that we are assuming that Paul used the phrase “the brother of the Lord” to distinguish the James he met on his first visit from some other James who was known to the Galatians. Otherwise, why would it be there at all? So the question becomes what might be the characteristic of the other James that made “the brother of the Lord” a useful identifier. One characteristic would be that he was not biologically related to Jesus. Another perfectly plausible characteristic would be that he was not a Christian at the time Paul was writing the Galatians.

            I will agree that it is more complex in that it posits a James who left the Jerusalem community, but I think it is less complex in that we need not find some other explanation for Acts failure to identify James as the biological brother of Jesus.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      I will agree that it is more complex in that it posits a James who left the Jerusalem community, but I think it is less complex in that we need not find some other explanation for Acts failure to identify James as the biological brother of Jesus.

      Notice that the one place in the Gospel of Mark that mentions James as Jesus’ brother is contained in the passage where Jesus was rejected in Nazareth and “could do no [almost] deed of power there,” verses 6:1-6. Now the parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew, 13:54-58, pretty much copies from Mark. However, the author of the Gospel of Luke gets, ahem, “creative” (i.e. he makes stuff up) and heavily reworks his version, 4:16-30, such that it eliminates any hint of failure on Jesus’ part, and the offhand reference to James that was in the Markan and Matthean version happens to have gotten lost in the reworking.

      Now could he have added a reference to James being Jesus’ brother in some other place that was relevant? Sure, but that presumes that he really cared about the matter or that it came to mind, and he was writing for his own audience, not to we moderns arguing over what “brother of the Lord” means. IMHO, “Luke just didn’t care that much” is far simpler than multiplying entities beyond necessity by introducing some new James who left the Jerusalem community.

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

        I don’t think that I’m introducing a new James. The most logical reason for Paul writing that he met “James the brother of the Lord” rather than simply writing that he met “James” is that there were one or more other Jameses around and Paul wanted the Galatians to know which one he met. So the possibility of other men named James is already there. The complexity arises from the fact that I need him to be a non-Christian and I need there only to be one of them. “Brother of the Lord” in the biological sense is more robust in that it works just as well if there are two Jameses or ten.

        On the other hand, your hypothesis introduces a new James into Acts. The author tells us about James the son of Zebedee and James the Son of Alphaeus and then kills of one of them off in Acts 12. If we are going to make the James in Acts 15 and 21 (I think these are the right chapters) the brother of Jesus rather than the son of Aphaeus, we are introducing a third James into Acts.

        At worst, I would argue that my hypothesis is only slightly more complex, and that the principle of parsimony only slightly favors biological brother.

        • J. J. Ramsey

          “On the other hand, your hypothesis introduces a new James into Acts.”

          However, this James is one that is already attested in other sources, namely the Gospel of Mark (and, FWIW, it’s a source that Luke obviously was aware of). By contrast, when you propose a James who was an apostate to be contrasted with James the Christian, you are positing something unattested in our sources, and thus are adding an unknown entity without necessity.

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

            Don’t you think that the logical implication of Galatians 1:19 is that there is some other James floating around with whom the “brother of the Lord” might be confused if Paul failed to identify him so?

            In any case, there is no evidence that it’s the same James in Acts and Mark. The author of Luke/Acts tells us nothing about the James in Acts 15 & 21 that would lead us to believe that he was related biologically to Jesus and Mark tells us nothing that would lead us to believe that his James ever became a follower of his brother. The natural reading would be that the James in Acts is the son of Alphaeus.

        • J. J. Ramsey

          Don’t you think that the logical implication of Galatians 1:19 is that there is some other James floating around with whom the “brother of the Lord” might be confused if Paul failed to identify him so?

          I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say “logical implication,” but if Paul didn’t identify James as “brother of the Lord,” he might very well have been confused for James, brother of John. Notice, though, that I don’t have to hypothesize some new James, because James, brother of John, is already attested in our sources. Also, if Paul is using “brother of the Lord” to distinguish one James who is a Christian from another James who is also a Christian, then it makes no sense to interpret “brother of the Lord” as just meaning “Christian.”

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

            I think that all we can logically infer from Paul is that there is some other James who was known to the Galatians and that Paul adequately distinguishes the James he met by identifying him as “the brother of the Lord.” I agree that it is somewhat less complex to posit that the other James is someone attested elsewhere in the New Testament. On the other hand, the fact that James the brother of John does not seem to be otherwise known to Paul despite being such an important figure in other writings seems to me to create another source of complexity. I don’t think that there is any scheme that satisfactorily solves all the James conundrums.

  • Jon H

    I am hesitant to compare mythicism to creationism because we all know there’s infinitely more evidence for an old earth than for a historical Jesus, but still I can’t help but worry when I look around the atheist blogosphere and notice that it seems the people who know the least about Biblical criticism are the most vehement defenders of Carrier. I mean, I like Carrier and I’m excited to read his book, but I’m worried that like atheists are succumbing to the same trick Christians fall for when they accept creationist arguments because they appeal to their intuitions and provide ammunition for their currently held views.

    Frankly I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Carrier’s arguments win out in the end, but I think the current state of the debate is unbecoming. We’ve got atheists acting like James McGrath and Erhman are raving fundies or something!

    • http://stateofmyignorance.blogspot.com/ Zachary Kroger

      I agree that there is WAY more evidence for evolution than Jesus. But it is the types of arguments that are the same (for which there are plenty, and a number of people have pointed it out).

      Whatever the case, I find the way the atheists are acting to be super embarrassing. I read a bunch of comments over at Why Evolution Is True, and it truly took my breath away… people trying to make the case that Ehrman isn’t even a historian, etc. Of course, a year ago, these same people would have FREAKED (and rightly so) if some fundy had suggested that Ehrman was a hack.

      It’s just all very disappointing to see so many supposedly rational people acting like crazies.

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