Christina Petterson’s Review of Richard Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus

I am grateful to have had Christina Petterson’s review of Richard Carrier’s book, On The Historicity of Jesus, drawn to my attention. It appeared in the journal Relegere. Here are two excerpts, to help persuade you to click through and read the rest.

Carrier review quote 1

Carrier review quote 2

I am just sorry that sometime soon, if he hasn’t already done so, Richard Carrier will inevitably declare Petterson incompetent, ignorant, and/or insane.

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  • Dan McClellan

    Is it just me, or is “Bayes’ Theorem” misspelled “Bayle’s Theorem” on the second page?

    • myklc

      An easy enough typo. I’m learning to forgive them as I age and my own typing gets a little erratic.

      • Mark

        She also mis-transliterates “Epiphanios” as Epiphaneas

  • arcseconds

    I was a little disappointed in the review. There are a lot of negative judgements registered without any argument or explanation. She says the Rank-Raglan stuff is ‘tenuous’, for example, but why?

    The business about Epiphaneus is a good example of a not very good, very handwavey and entirely informal argument conducted by repeating ‘surely‘ a lot, which gets dressed up as a formal, quantitative argument with a number that Carrier pulls out of,um, his posterior (so hard to resist that pun). But it would be nice to see an actual counterargument.

    For example, this seems to be another case of a mythicist failing to recognise that a historical figure at some later time might come to seem in some (or even all) ways like a mythical figure, as mythic material is accumulated and historical information lost. It’s also of course another case of a rather late (and I would say idiosyncratic) source being treated on par with earlier sources.

    (It’s hard to be sure without seeing how this 2:1 figure is incorporated into his equations, but I wonder how relevant it really is. Sure, if you know nothing about some figure appearing in ancient sources except that there’s widely disparate ideas about when they actually lived, perhaps you might think they’re more likely to be a myth. But if you’ve already accumulated evidence that suggests they’re historical, discovering disparate estimates of when they lived might not actually be very persuasive at all. If you know nothing about who the murder is, then 2:1 odds aren’t unreasonable for it being a family member, but once you discover the fingerprints on the murder weapon, that 2:1 odds isn’t relevant anymore. If it turns out the suspect with the fingerprints isn’t a family member, it doesn’t mean they suddenly have 60% chance of being innocent)


    What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims of indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism…

    Seriously? Atheists have a vested interest in Jesus not existing? This is careless wording at best…

    • jh

      I’m confused by that as well.

      I have no problem with the existence of an itinerant human rabbi named Jesus (or Joshua) who wondered around and talked about the end of the world. That’s no different from the guy on the corner who screams that out to commuters as we walk by. In fact, I would argue that it would be highly improbable that such a person (or group of persons) didn’t exist at the time when the Romans governed the province of Judea.

      But that’s not what Christians are asserting. They are asserting a demigod who did extraordinary acts that were no different from the labors of Hercules or the actions of Krishna. Using their standard of evidence (namely belief), one wonders why they don’t believe in Hercules or Krishna or any of the other wondrous demigods found in myths and legends throughout human history.

      • James F. McGrath

        I am not sure what you are confused by. Could you clarify?

    • James F. McGrath

      A reminder about my own response to Carrier’s use of the Rank-Raglan hero typology:

      • Benjamin L. Corey

        Really enjoyed this other piece you linked to, James. I’d think this whole topic could be an interesting series.

        • James F. McGrath

          Do you mean a whole series about mythicism on Patheos? I know several bloggers have touched on it, including the two of us. It could be interesting, if you don’t think it’s already received more attention than it deserves…

      • arcseconds

        Yes, I recall discussing it.

        After a little digging I found the discussion I was thinking of here.

        I think I can sum up the main points a bit more succinctly than I did there:

        *) Carrier is right that as an arbitrary starting position, saying the historical Jesus has a probability of about 0.3 on the basis of seeming like a mythic figure in some sense shouldn’t matter much. That initial prior probability should ‘wash out’ as more evidence comes in.

        *) A Bayesian probability for a particular proposition does not represent the Bayesian agent’s entire attitude towards the proposition. There’s also how responsive the agent is going to be to various pieces of evidence. It would seem to be rational to be quite responsive to evidence initially, but as one becomes more certain about a case it might get more difficult to be swayed, particularly by ‘weak’ evidence.

        (I gave an example of two people’s attitudes to a coin-tossing machine tossing 10 heads in a row to try to exemplify this. Someone who knows nothing about the machine probably should be starting to think it doesn’t toss them fairly, but someone who designed the machine carefully to be fair might be totally unimpressed by the string of 10 heads (especially if they know this is the latest sequence of 10 in millions of tosses, during which runs of heads come up with pretty much the expected number of times)

        (And As I said a couple of days ago, the ‘classical’ Bayesian treatment has little to say about priors, which include how flexible the agent is going to be in the face of new evidence, but intuitively it seems irrational to be stubbornly resistant to evidence if one actually knows almost nothing about the situation.)

        *) Nevertheless, the choice of the Rank-Raglan analysis as the starting point seems like a strange place to start. Carrier should have known this would be controversial among anyone who is inclined towards the mainstream not just with New Testament history, but with ancient history and myth in general. As the starting point isn’t all that important, why opt for something that belongs in another era of scholarship altogether?

        The passage Petterson quotes about Epiphaneus does put me in mind of something one of the mathematically-informed criticisms of Carrier said about him: he’s not actually a Bayesian at all, in the sense of understanding probabilities as the ‘degree of belief’ (also understood as ‘inclination to bet’) of an idealized agent, but a weird sort of frequentist. Maybe that helps us make sense of these passages: he appears to not just think that 7 out of 10 times someone with a high R-R scale is mythical and so that will do as a starting probability (and if you know nothing else about the matter, this seems fine) but that half the time a figure with disparate dates is mythical, and this is still relevant despite the fact that more information about the figure in question has been acquired by then because that 2:1 ratio is somehow the probability of being mythical when there are disparate dates.

        • Scott P.

          “Carrier is right that as an arbitrary starting position, saying the
          historical Jesus has a probability of about 0.3 on the basis of seeming
          like a mythic figure in some sense shouldn’t matter much. That initial
          prior probability should ‘wash out’ as more evidence comes in.”

          But the problem is that by choosing a starting position that favors his case, Carrier is able to plant the seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind, so that when at the end he argues Jesus is mythical, the reader will say (perhaps subconsciously) “ah, yes, we’ve seen that coming since that Rank-Raglan business.” It’s a rhetorical strategy masquerading as a rigorous mathematical one.

          • arcseconds

            Good point.

    • Neko

      Remember this one?

      Meanwhile, would somebody please point me to the post where Prof. McGrath explains the name change? Thanks.

      • James F. McGrath

        Which name change?

      • arcseconds

        No, I have no recollection of ever seeing that before. Thanks!

        Taking 0.3 as the prior probability shouldn’t (if the subsequent treatment is done correctly) be a problem. So in a sense complaining about the R-R stuff is splitting hairs.

        But the fact that the strategy is dubious in the first place and that he’s even tweaking the criteria to get a better fit for Jesus does say something about his handling of the material.

        Welcome back, btw!

        • Neko

          Sure, you’re welcome! I was pretty impressed with this analysis at the time, but as I’ve often pointed out, I can barely add.

          Thank you for the welcome back. :)

    • Been Benuane

      Excuse me “arcseconds”:
      I am an Atheist and have been for over 25 years (since i was 10-11 years old).

      I’m pretty certain that I speak for most other Atheists when I declare that I am NOT also a “Jesus Mythicist”. And for the exact same reasons why I am an atheist to begin with.

      And thus I am also pretty certain that Richard Carrier and (anyone who believes him – which can only include not doing much deeper investigation) does NOT speak on the behalf of Atheists but merely on the behalf of this fringe that are “Jesus Mythicists” (many of whom are not Atheist either).

      So please: Can you replace the word “atheist” in your final line with: “Jesus Mythicist”.

      Oh and yes reading between he lines: It appears to this atheist (at least) that Carrier (and his ilk) have a prior conclusion of Jesus not existing to try and make the pieces fit into.

      • Beau Quilter

        I think you have misread arcseconds. he is making the same point that you are trying to make. His last line is sarcastically questioning the notion that atheists prefer mythicism, not asserting it:

        “Seriously? Atheists have a vested interest in Jesus not existing? This is careless wording at best…”

        He is quoting the Carrier reviewer and make the same complaint about her assumptions of atheists that you are assuming about arcseconds.

        • Been Benuane

          I think you’ve misread my post.

          The Reviewer of Carrier’s bollocks: Christian Petterson, is only critiquing Richard Carrier (and his nonsense)! Nobody else beyond that.

          She is no way saying anything about anyone else whether they happen to be atheist or not. I’m pretty certain that she’s the same Danish woman Christian Petterson who is active in Australian Atheist circles!
          And Richard Carrier certainly does not speak for atheists! He only speaks for himself (and anyone who buys into he’s pseudo-history).

          So why (on earth) would “arcseconds” above type the question:
          “Atheists have a vested interest in Jesus not existing?”
          He would only type that if he imagines that Jesus Mythicism is somehow a part of Atheism (which it most certainly is not).

          • Beau Quilter

            No, you don’t type something you actually imagine to be true as a question preceded by a sarcastic “seriously?”

            Christina Petterson stated that Carrier’s “claims of indifference as to the historicity of Jesus”… “rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism”…

            To which Arcseconds responded:

            “Seriously? Atheists have a vested interest in Jesus not existing? This is careless wording at best…”

            It’s obvious sarcasm. How can you not see it?

            (I’m also familiar with years of Arcseconds commenting, and I know he doesn’t equate atheism with mythicism.)

          • Been Benuane

            Well yeah.
            It’s not likely that an atheist who’s written an entire book on the topic wouldn’t be indifferent.

            And that’s not the same as saying that atheists all have any vested interest in Jesus not existing.

            I’m sure arcseconds knows the difference between atheism and mythicism. But sometimes mythicists (which I know I shouldn’t assume he is one of) act as though they speak for all atheists, especially when they declare anyone who refutes any claim of theirs as a “Christian apologist”.
            They clearly mistake this for a religious issue instead of an historical issue.

          • Beau Quilter

            It’s not likely that ANYONE who’s written an entire book on the topic would be indifferent. The person’s atheism is not what makes their indifference suspect.

            At any rate, arcseconds certainly wasn’t arguing that mythicism is a part of atheism (whatever you think of his suggestions that Petterson used “careless wording”). And arcseconds is most certainly not a mythicist.

      • arcseconds

        Sorry it’s taken me a little while to respond. I’ve been quite busy of late.

        Beau is quite correct, although I would describe my wording as incredulous rather than sarcastic. Pettersen writes:

        What did surprise me is Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests uneasily with his confessed atheism…

        This implies that atheism somehow entails or at least tends towards a vested interest in Jesus not existing.

        There’s certainly no logical connection between atheistm and any particular view on the historicity of Jesus, and as a matter of fact most atheists I’ve ever talked to about the matter are pretty indifferent about the whole question. They often think there’s more doubt than their actually is, but on the other hand they don’t have much difficulty in saying “Oh, OK, seems the evidence is better than I thought! Guess he probably existed then.”

        So Pettersen’s statement is incorrect on the face of it. The best I can do in terms of interpretative generosity is to suppose she’s talking about Carrier’s atheism, i.e. atheism in general doesn’t lead to a particular leaning on the question of the historicity of Jesus, but Carrier’s own particular brand does. But if that’s what she meant, she phrased it rather carelessly.

        It’s interesting that you say she’s active in Australian atheist circles (the Christina Pettersen that works at the University of Newcastle did emigrate from Denmark, so it seems likely you’re right about this), which gives weight to the idea that it’s just bad wording. But it’s not impossible for someone to think one’s own community has an unfortunate bias.

        If that is her point, I am inclined to agree that movement atheism, that is, the loose community of people who attend conferences with ‘atheism’ in the title and read books by people who are termed ‘atheist author’, does tend to have a bias in this direction, at least to a far greater extent than the general population. Carrier and Fitzgerald do manage to sell books, after all.

        But if that is her point she’s done very little to make it clear.

  • David Marshall

    Hi, James. We are on no account allies — I have been arguing strenuously, and perhaps you might think dubiously, for the much stronger historicity of the gospels than you would obviously allow. But you might like to know that your name came up in a recent debate between myself and Richard on Unbelievable. Actually I brought it up, as evidence that his book had been “panned’ by other scholars. (He had been dissing my scholarly creds, so I returned the favor.) Aside from calling you a liar (welcome to the club), Richard also denied that any other negative scholarly review of his book had appeared. I was thinking of Petterson’s as well, though I don’t find it particularly viral stuff! I also cited one of your points in rebuttal to one of his points — don’t know if you’ll feel happy about that or not, but as they say, “All truth is God’s truth.” All the best.

    • James F. McGrath

      If we are not allies, I hope that won’t mean we need to be enemies, but that (unlike in the case of Richard Carrier) we can agree about some things, disagree about others, and still have meaningful and respectful conversations.

      In view of your comment, you might appreciate this “supercut” that another blog commenter made of how Richard Carrier responds (or better, reacts) to critics:

  • John Cullimore

    This review doesn’t cut it for me. Her rebuttals don’t really seem like rebuttals, but rather that she really doesn’t like the conclusions.

    I’ve read the book, and though I’m no scholar, it’s quite convincing.

    • James F. McGrath

      Out of curiosity, what if anything have you read by mainstream professional academics addressing the evidence that there was a historical Jesus? The sheer size and verbosity of Carrier’s books and blog posts can often disguise how obviously problematic his claims often are, from the perspective of those with expertise in relevant areas.

      • Been Benuane

        Yes this is another thing that bothers me.

        Carrier seems to bank on the fact that he is the only Jesus mythicist with any actual academic credentials in history.
        And sadly many of his fans (I can’t think of a better word) accept this as complete credentials at face value, completely unaware of his complete non-standing in the historical community and the fact that only his most recent work (after many previously self-published) has even been peer-reviewed (and by only two scholars).

        Some of them harbour this idea (perhaps delusion) that he’s somehow caused a revolution or cause a lot of red-faces. And they also mimic his utter disrespect to accepted an established historical scholarship.

    • Been Benuane

      Well John perhaps you need to read the book again and be a bit more critical.

      Or perhaps also read a secondary school text on statistics to begin with? Where are Carrier’s error calculations?

      • John Cullimore

        Perhaps you could be less condescending??

        Either way, it wasn’t the statistics or probabilities that got my attention. It was much of the other content. Personally I don’t Gove a shit about the numbers as much as thinking through a lot of it.

        I found David Fitzgerald to be much more accessible.

        • Been Benuane

          I really wasn’t intending to be condescending.

          I’m not familiar with David Fitzgerald. Do you know what his credentials as a historian are?

        • Neko

          You wrote:

          Personally I don’t Gove a shit about the numbers as much as thinking through a lot of it.

          One of Carrier’s major points is that HJ methodology is dubious and that he offers a superior approach based on the numbers you don’t give a shit about.

  • Been Benuane

    What a fraud and nasty little charlatan that Richard Carrier really is.

    It seems to me that he is desperate to try and make money out of many “new atheists” who have also (uncritically) bought-into “Jesus Mythicism”(many with an axe to grind towards Christianity and who aren’t too informed of how historical study is conducted) and their emotional desires for there to have been no historical Jesus.

    This nonsense about a new “statistical-based analysis” is not only amateur but also outright arrogant. Suddenly we’re to abandon the same analysis which has served historical research for over a century all because it reaches a conclusion people do not like?! And in any case his statistical analysis is deeply flawed. Not only does he completely ignore error margins but many of the base probabilities are merely fabricated out of thin air.
    It’s really no different to how many religious adherents reject parts of accepted science they don’t like (most notably: Cosmology and Evolution) because they don’t like how it contradicts their mythology-inspired beliefs and instead accept religious creationism. In both cases: They’re decided on a sought conclusion and then tried to cherry pick the evidence and analysis to suit that conclusion rather than follow the proper peer-reviewed scientific method.

    Really when I think about it: Richard Carrier is for Atheists with a layman’s knowledge of history (and how historical research is conducted) what Creationists such as Kent Hovind are for Christians with a layman’s knowledge of science (and how scientific research is conducted).

    • Seadog

      Just a question for everyone really, but what evidence is there that the Jesus mentioned in the bible did exist? I mean evidence other than the bible saying he did, evidence that proves that he wasn’t a hero figure created out of myth, like other mythical figures mentioned in the Rank-Raglan hero analogy. Please note my question asked for ‘evidence’, not an argument for his existence.

  • Seadog

    A quick question for everyone, but what evidence is there that the Jesus mentioned in the bible did exist? I mean evidence other than the bible saying he did, evidence that proves that he wasn’t a hero figure created out of myth, like other mythical figures mentioned in the Rank-Raglan hero analogy. Please note my question asked for ‘evidence’, not an argument for his existence. Arguments without evidence are just opinions. Arguments about Jesus as historical or mythical using the bible as your source for the basis of the argument is just differs of opinion. I like the idea of an historian using probability theory to try and see which opinion is more correct about a text and would be good to know where this method has been used by others to enrich the discussion which Carrier seems to have started. And back to my point, so any evidence that puts the existence of Jesus in to history then this discussion of opinions would be put to rest. And until there is evidence to put the historicity of Jesus beyond doubt then the mythical possibility has to be entertained to some degree and to what degree is the mute question!

    • James F. McGrath

      Please do not post the same comment in two places.

      Kindly start with the extensive treatment of this topic in earlier blog posts

      Or better still, get a book on the subject. You will find that the first thing to adjust is the idea of a “Bible,” something that did not yet exist at this point if you are referring to Christian scriptures. And so the appropriate historical question is about sources such as the letters of Paul, who had met Jesus’ brother within a few years of the crucifixion.

  • John MacDonald

    People may be interested to know that Ehrman says that he has read Carrier’s “On The Historicity Of Jesus” and that he didn’t like it. Ehrman says “it would take three books as long as his to explain all the problems!” Here are Ehrman’s remarks on Carrier in the comment section of his blog post here: