What Happens When You Review Richard Carrier

A lot more has been blogged that relates to the topic of mythicism. I should begin by highlighting the article by Daniel Gullotta which is now available in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. It provoked the kind of response that one would expect from Richard Carrier, who depicted Gullotta as incompetent, but not as bad as me.

Deane Galbraith tackled the way Carrier responds to critics by using his own tools against him. First, he asked whether Carrier calculated the probability that a negative reviewer was an Evangelical using Bayes’ Theorem. He then followed up by sharing Carrier’s reply, which said – hysterically – that Christina Petterson (the reviewer in question) could be identified as an Evangelical because, among other things, she agrees with James McGrath!

As it happens, Petterson is an atheist. This isn’t just a mistake on Carrier’s part, however. It shows his strong ideological bias, and his inability to evaluate those who disagree with him either clearly or honestly. As Galbraith writes:

Petterson…is not a Christian, and not religious, and never has been. She is an atheist.

This provides a good test, however, of Carrier’s inability to interpret his sources, and his ability to draw inferences from them that are simply not there. Carrier consistently assumes that anyone who disagrees with him must have an evangelical “agenda”. Sadly, this is conspiracy-theory thinking, not scholarly thinking.

Carrier has completely failed to interpret his source, taking inferences from it that simply were not there, and which were quite incorrect.

None of this, of course, is news to those who’ve interacted with Carrier at length in the past.

Of related interest, Larry Hurtado quoted from a recent National Geographic article, which says (pp. 41-42):

Might it be possible that Jesus Christ never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention?  It’s an assertion that’s championed by some outspoken skeptics–but not, I discovered, by scholars, particularly archaeologists, whose work tends to bring flights of fancy down to earth.

See also his discussion of Galatians 1:11-12, and Philo’s reading of Zechariah, both of which also relate to mythicist claims.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    “It shows his strong ideological bias, and his inability to evaluate those who disagree with him either clearly or honestly.”

    To me, this pretty much sums up the entire enterprise of using Bayes’ Theorem to evaluate ancient historical claims.

    • John MacDonald

      I find Carrier to be a very Black and White thinker: There is only one way to do things, his way. Any other way is illogical. Even someone arguing for historicity has to do it his way. See https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13352 . He likes Bayes theorem math, so that is the only way to model and evaluate probability claims. The ironic thing is that contemporary mathematics, like the kind children are now being taught in schools, emphasizes exploring multiple and creative paths to get to the answer.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        The thing I’ve appreciated about Carrier’s attempts to use a (modified) form of Bayes’ theorem is to bring out into the open that historians have their biases (which we knew) and force a certain amount of articulation around them. If I put a number next to my assumption, you can clearly see how much weight that assumption carries in my conclusions. I appreciate this, actually, as the humanities are notorious fields for being able to say things like, “It is most likely that…” and not show your work. That statement of probability covers up a lot of assumptions and weights that are no longer visible to the reader.

        Obviously, you don’t need Bayes’ theorem for that, but it at least forces the issue. Carrier, to his credit, makes a pretty big deal out of this aspect of using the theorem, which is good, because he uses a modified version and has been critiqued for that, but really, the theorem doesn’t matter for this purpose. He could have just as easily made a table with all of his assumptions and some kind of numeric scale attached and accomplished something similar.

        I think the problems start arising when we start thinking that using Bayes’ theorem as a mechanism for making our biases transparent somehow makes our conclusions more legitimate. I’m a Lean operations consultant, and we have a running joke: “I must be right. I used actual math.” When people read Carrier, they don’t go, “Oh, great, I can now see clearly mapped where Carrier’s biases are and how they effect his reasoning and conclusions,” they go, “See? Bayes’ theorem proves Jesus didn’t exist.”

        No, what Bayes’ theorem proves is, if you start with Carrier’s assumptions and weights, Bayes’ theorem will support Carrier’s conclusions. And this is where things start going off the rails and where your critique starts to kick in. BT is no longer a format for making my biases and weights visible, it is now a simulation for the likelihood of Jesus existing and – surprise, surprise – the simulation says it’s unlikely. Given how the formula was fed, this conclusion is basically tautological, but that’s not how it’s treated – certainly not by the Carrierites and, debatably, not by Richard himself. It’s as if using the theorem makes his conclusions more secure in some way, and historians ignore this “powerful tool” to their peril.

        • John MacDonald

          Carrier also imports traditional deductive reasoning language into his arguments, suggesting “certainty” of his arguments, employing such words like “prove.” For instance, in OHJ, Carrier says “And they often simply mishandle the evidence, such as assuming the Gospels are historical narratives rather then symbolic myths … despite conclusive evidence of the latter, as I’ll prove in chapter 10” (Carrier, OHJ, 12).

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Oh, epistemic hyperbole is basically the English language as far as Carrier’s concerned.

          • John MacDonald

            It’s only hyperbole if he doesn’t take his extravagant claims literally, lol.

    • Jim

      Well possibly you (and Gullotta) just don’t completely understand Bayes’ Theorem. So for a primer, see Godfrey’s December 13, 2017 post on vridar. :) :)

      But to paraphrase and to economize on space, people just don’t understand Carrier because they don’t understand that BT is based on impressions, and Carriers “impressions” are just as valid as any historical Jesus scholar’s impressions, since we all have impressions. And Godfrey’s impression is that you need to buy both PH and OHJ; just any stats textbook won’t cut it for understanding BT.

      • John MacDonald

        What I find is that for Bayes theorem to work, Carrier still needs to plug in the right numbers based on qualitative assessments. Above I quoted Carrier when he said:

        “And they often simply mishandle the evidence, such as assuming the Gospels are historical narratives rather then symbolic myths … despite conclusive evidence of the latter, as I’ll prove in chapter 10″ (Carrier, OHJ, 12).”

        The problem is that no expert agrees that Carrier “proves” that the Gospels are symbolic myths rather than historical narratives, and so the numbers he plugs in on this point really just reflect his subjective bias.

        • Jim

          Yeah agree. I don’t think that it’s wrong to publish a study that gives the results of a BT analysis of a historical event/figure using a specified list of input parameters that were used to generate the result. But imo, a study author has to be realistic in reporting the significance of the results obtained based on their single study alone … and then tell everyone else that they are all biased.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I guess that’s possible, although in all those simulations I ran in the military, nobody told me I misunderstood the theorem.

        I would say that, if you think BT is based on “impressions,” then you probably grossly misunderstand Bayes’ theorem, because it’s not based on impressions; it’s based on knowing the possible ranges of your sets. This is why we can use BT for estimating the number of tanks in a location or the projected scope of damage to Seoul in an invasion of North Korea, but we don’t use BT for determining the probability of a wife loving her husband.

        • John MacDonald

          I think he was joking with you. He put two smiley faces after his comment about you not understanding Bayes, lol.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            You’re right. I’m an idiot. These conversations breed in me a hermeneutic of suspicion. Thanks for bailing me out!

          • Jim

            A mythicist stole your teddy bear when you were a child? :)

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I’m continually beset by sky demons.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        OH, sorry, I didn’t realize you were joking at first. :)

        • Jim

          :) :) :)

      • Matt Cavanaugh

        Here’s all you need to know about Bayes’: GIGO.

  • Jerry Arias

    Carrier liked the Raphael Lataster review.

  • Mark

    The Gullotta is pretty good, I thought. He should have spent more time belaboring the unrelenting evidence that Paul thinks Jesus was a human being – it becomes tedious after a while but in this context can never be tedious enough. Similarly he could have belabored more the total absurdity of thinking that a doctrine like the one Carrier imagines could have had any currency in Jerusalem. The long discussion of MacDonald and Homer, for example, is a waste of time, since it pertains mostly to the credibility of Mark’s stories about Jesus, not the existence of their subject. I had not heard before about Carrier’s counterfeiting the Rank-Raglan scale and his scale-shopping in general; that discussion is pretty devastating. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZwMR0IWQSKRAJYJ1m8dPzp09mqRDfZGC

  • John MacDonald

    This is interesting: Carrier, along with Reality Revolutions (whoever they are), have just released a Mobile App for debating the Historicity of Jesus. See https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13632

    Carrier describes the App as:

    “A mobile application that would assist in quickly investigating every argument for and against the historical existence of Jesus … By the end of the next year it should contain every argument and item of evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus, easily located and briefed, with web links for further research. It will be the ultimate tool for exploring and debating the subject.”

    • Neko

      “It’s currently in a rough launch version. It has a lot of typos and needs more content and better organization, but those things are all being worked on as we speak. A wonderful update will load by the end of January.”