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. :)

  • 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.