Responding to Richard Carrier’s Response to Bart Ehrman

Responding to Richard Carrier’s Response to Bart Ehrman March 22, 2012

I linked previously to Bart Ehrman’s piece on whether Jesus existed in The Huffington Post. A response has been written by Richard Carrier (also discussed by Tom Verenna and Neil Godfrey), and I want here to point out some problems with that response.

Let me begin by emphasizing that when scholars write op-ed pieces for newspapers, what we write almost never ends up preserving the precise nuance that we consider important. I do not believe I have ever had such a piece published that did not end up having editorial changes made to the wording. Public scholarship of this sort involves a trade-off – we either allow others less concerned about nuance and accuracy be the only voices, or we participate despite the fact that we are unable to ensure that our precise wording will be what people get to hear. And so anyone who picks apart the wording of Ehrman’s recent piece in the Huffington Post, rather than interpreting it in light of what he says elsewhere and what mainstream scholarship concludes, is at best engaging editors rather than Ehrman himself, and at worst using quotes from a brief summary for a popular audience in order to assess a matter of mainstream scholarship.

And so before proceeding, let me offer this clip from PRWeb, a promotional video with Ehrman speaking in his own words:

Now, on to Richard Carrier’s response. It is called “Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism.” And it is a disappointing and ineffective response that will only carry weight with people who desperately want there not to have been a historical Jesus, so much so that they cease to care about historical methods and evidence. It is disappointing to find folks like P. Z. Myers, who works so hard to defend science from internet attackers, applauding a similar attack on mainstream history.

Carrier’s main points relate to the main points of Ehrman’s op-ed piece, and so let me address each one. But let me begin with the end, because Carrier engages in a common mythicist tactic also used by promoters of other forms of pseudoscholarship: begin with the less strong evidence and sow doubt, in the hope that when you get to the stronger evidence, your audience will be inclined to accept your implausible dismissal of it.

Carrier describes as “Ehrman’s only evidence” Paul’s reference in Galatians to having met “James the brother of the Lord.” He attempts to sow doubt about the meaning, but the phrase is clear. There is no evidence for any Jews in Paul’s time speaking of God having a brother, and so the most natural reference is to Jesus being the Lord here, as indeed Paul refers to him often with this title. Carrier then follows mythicists like Earl Doherty in trying to suggest that “brother(s) of” can mean the same thing as “brother(s) in.” But the two phrases are obviously distinct in meaning, and based on the evidence available, it was not the custom in this time to refer to Christians in general, or a specific subset of Christians, as “brothers of the Lord.” (I should add even using the term “Christians” is anachronistic). Carrier’s attempt to appeal to New Testament sources as evidence to the contrary, when those same sources provide evidence of a historical Jesus, is very strange indeed, and thoroughly unpersuasive.

Carrier also mentions other possibilities – that some part of the phrase could be an interpolation. But if one is willing to posit interpolations where the manuscript evidence does not show evidence of such interpolation, then one can draw any conclusion. The historian, however, seeks to draw the best conclusion possible based on the evidence we have. And so Carrier, at this point if not before, has moved from being a historian to being an apologist for mythicism. He is clearly and unambiguously trying to make a case for a predetermined conviction, not follow the evidence where it leads. The evidence we have available leads in a particular direction, and mythicist use denialist tactics to try to obscure this point.

Now let me return to some of Carrier’s other points, which he disingenuously lists as Ehrman’s “mistakes” as though these are errors, as opposed to either shorthand summary of conclusions Ehrman argues for at greater length, or simple facts that have not been articulated in the writing or editing process as precisely or clearly as they could have. That you do not accept what someone says does not make it a “mistake.” And even though Carrier acknowledges that they may not be mistakes on more than one occasion, that does not stop him from listing them as such over and over again.

The first “mistake” is surely not that. Ehrman points out that Roman sources do not mention Pontius Pilate. Presumably he does not mean writers of the Roman era, but Roman authors in the strict sense, since there is no way that Ehrman could possibly be unaware that Philo and Josephus made reference to Pilate. And so clearly his point is that, much as we do not find Roman authors in that same sense contemporary with Jesus referring to him, we do not find Roman authors contemporary with Pilate referring to him. We have authors who had some particular interest mentioning him, because they had motives to do so. Likewise with Jesus. If this is the case for a major provincial functionary in Roman government, why is anyone surprised that such authors do not mention Jesus? And as with the historical figure of Jesus, where Philo mentions correspondence between Agrippa and Augustus, what we have is the wording of Philo, but that does not mean that there was no such letter, nor that Philo fails to accurately indicate even the gist of the actual letter. Such comparisons are in fact a key reason why historians are universally confident that there was a historical Jesus, even while emphasizing that the material attributed to him by ancient sources regularly gives at best the gist and not the ipsissima verba of Jesus.

Carrier’s mention of inscriptions leaves off the obvious reason why we have no inscriptions referring to Jesus: prefects and procurators and governors and kings made inscriptions, as did other public functionaries. When, where, and why would a figure like Jesus have made an inscription, or had one made that referred to him? Mythicists regularly and frustratingly fail to compare like with like.

To give credit where credit is due, however, Carrier in the process of his response offers what is in fact a statement that defends rather than discredits mainstream historical scholarship about Jesus and early Christianity:

The only explanation for why Philo never mentions Christianity is that it was not as important to Jews as Acts depicts, but was a tiny fringe cult of no significant interest to the Jewish elite. And that is an important conclusion. Mythicists will say he doesn’t mention Jesus because there was no Jesus, but that does not explain why he doesn’t mention Christianity. Certainly, if Jesus was as famous and controversial as the Gospels and Acts depict, then Philo’s lack of interest in either the man or the threatening and grandiose claims made about him becomes improbable, but if we accept that the Gospels and Acts hugely exaggerate his fame and importance, then Philo’s disinterest goes back to being probable again. The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.

This is (apart from the very last clause, perhaps) a wonderful statement of the very point Ehrman is seeking to make, as Carrier seems to realize. Yet for some reason, Carrier aligns himself against Ehrman and mainstream scholarship even when articulating the evidence in favor of its conclusions.

The second “mistake” Carrier refers to is in reference to the following statement by 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. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Carrier makes much of the statement “we have” but once again there is no sense in which Ehrman could reasonably be thought to be claiming that he has a copy of Q, for instance. His meaning is not ambiguous, nor is it mistaken. There are good, solid reasons for discerning behind our New Testament sources earlier ones, both written and oral, which reflect a specifically Jewish setting in an Aramaic-speaking linguistic environment. One of the many problematic aspects of mythicism is that it makes much of vague parallels to non-Jewish religions, while failing to do justice to the unambiguous evidence that what we now refer to as Christianity arose in a Jewish context that was committed to monotheism, observant of the Jewish Law, and unlikely to create a fictional Messiah based on pagan myths. And while mythicists either try to cast doubt with respect to the evidence or ignore it, it remains the case that there are points of contact between the letters of Paul and the Gospels which point clearly to material which later got embedded in the Gospels existing in Paul’s time and being known to him. His use of the Aramaic Abba meaning “father” and his reference to teaching about divorce that comes from “not I but the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 7 can be interpreted in all sorts of creative ways, but not more persuasively than is done in mainstream historical scholarship, i.e. in terms of knowledge of Jesus tradition that later was recorded in the Gospels.

Since this post is getting long, and Carrier says that “mistake #3” is technically not a mistake at all, let me skip to #4. Perhaps Ehrman ought to have said explicitly “Davidic Messiah” to avoid ambiguity. But Ehrman is clearly correct that there was no expectation prior to the rise of Christianity that a Davidic Messiah – i.e. the one who would restore the kingdom to the line of David – would be executed by the foreign empire ruling over the Jewish people. And Ehrman’s point about this being unlikely to have been made up still stands. In theory, anything can be invented. But if we are asking what is likely, as historians are supposed to, then the evidence fits more naturally a scenario in which a historical figure was crucified and those who believed him to be the Davidic Messiah found ways of maintaining their beliefs in spite of the cognitive dissonance caused by his crucifixion.

Carrier’s discussion of probabilities (using Bayes’ theorem) regarding what sort of Messiah people would or would not invent misses the point, in my opinion. People discussed “Messiahs” – i.e. anointed ones – they expected to appear in human history. For the most part, the focus was on the expected descendants of David and Aaron who would restore the kingship and high priesthood to the rightful lines. To suggest that someone invented a Messiah whom they claimed already came, or would never come in history, is to suggest a sort of “creativity” that seems unlikely and ill-fitting with the evidence. The earliest Christians whose writings we have believed that a figure with the ordinary human name Joshua which we render into English “Jesus” was the Davidic anointed one. No mythicist account I have yet encountered makes sense of this most basic piece of evidence.

I won’t extend this post even longer, even though some might feel that I ought to have gone into even more detail on some points. For instance, more could be said about Carrier’s reference to Thomas Thompson’s mythicism which downplays that Thompson’s expertise is in a different area. When people who are scientists but not biologists sign a “dissent from Darwin” document, it is rightly pointed out that this should not obscure the true picture, i.e. the confidence that almost all biologists have in the conclusions of mainstream biological sciences.  And Carrier’s attempt to bring academic freedom into the discussion likewise parallels the tactics used by evolution-deniers. One will ruin one’s career in most contexts not by pursuing an unconventional approach, but by pursuing junk scholarship. Ehrman rightly puts it this way:

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.

Carrier doesn’t address whether he thinks people ought to be allowed to pursue young-earth creationist or intelligent design research in mainstream academic contexts. But his argument is one that proponents of those views have used to argue precisely that. And his point, that people ought to be able to pursue controversial theories if a credible academic case can be made for them is precisely what one finds in the academy, apart from in religiously affiliated contexts which require one to sign a statement of faith and interfere with academic freedom. One can pursue any idea if one can make a credible case for it. Mythicists have not done that yet.

In conclusion, the main thing that has to be said can be said briefly: Ehrman did not make mistakes in his piece, and if there is infelicitous or ambiguous wording, one should not try to use that against him any more than one should accept the use of ambiguous statements by scientists in an attempt to undermine their credibility. It remains the case, Carrier’s lengthy blog post notwithstanding, that the evidence available leads most naturally to the conclusion that a historical Jesus more likely existed than not. The attempt to manufacture controversy about this is one of the reasons why mythicists are rightly compared to creationists and other denialists.

 


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