Carrier and other Mythicists Reacting to Ehrman

Carrier and other Mythicists Reacting to Ehrman April 20, 2012

In responding to Bart Ehrman’s book about mythicism, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Richard Carrier points out some genuine errors (e.g. that Carrier’s degree is in Classics – although that would not at any rate be an insult) and alleged errors in a lengthy review, which approaches the matter in a fashion I am quickly coming to associate with Carrier. He exclaims that the book is rubbish and error-laden loudly at the start, and then when discussing the details, notes that some errors are minor, some may not be errors at all, and most or all of them do not affect his main point.

For instance, Carrier claims that Ehrman is wrong to say that “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” and yet acknowledges that there is no such depiction of Peter, only of the god Priapus, which to everyone but Acharya S is not the same thing. Why is Carrier disputing Ehrman’s claim at all, when Ehrman did not say that there are no such figures, but only that the claim that there is a depiction of Peter in this way is a figment of mythicist imagination?

Carrier also writes, “Ehrman almost made me fall out of my chair when he discusses the letters of Pliny the Younger. He made two astonishing errors here that are indicative of his incompetence with ancient source materials.” One of them is that Ehrman referred to Letter 10 when the appropriate reference is to Book 10 of Pliny’s letters. This indicates something that I would have guessed to be true of Ehrman, as it is true of myself – we do not spend most of our time working in the letters of Pliny. Not only are references to books, chapters, letters, and other sections not standard across ancient works, but many ancient authors are referred to using older and more recent systems of dividing up their work. Anyone who has read much in the way of scholarly publications will know that when we move outside our area of expertise, such errors occur. To make much of it as though it were more than something that is par for the course in such circumstances is disingenuous. By all means, offer a warning and encourage scholars to pay more attention to determining the correct way of referring to passages. But don’t make it more than that. If someone who is not an Islamicist refers to a section in the Qur’an as a “chapter” rather than a “sura” it has no bearing on whether what they say about the passage is correct. And since Pliny’s testimony is only evidence of early Christianity, not directly of Jesus, Carrier’s focus on this and hyperbole about it comes across as an attempt to distract from the substantive criticisms Ehrman offers.

Carrier also spends a significant amount of time alleging that Ehrman is wrong about dying and rising gods even though Carrier himself has in the past said that such deities are unlikely to have been the prototype for Jesus. The main passage Carrier appeals to as evidence can be read online, as do others, and the ones I looked at illustrate rather than counter Ehrman’s point, namely that scholars today consider the idea of a dying and rising god to be read into such texts rather than found in them.

He also fails to address what the expectation of Jews regarding a Davidic anointed one was, and so does nothing to counter the widely-accepted fact that it is profoundly unlikely that someone invented a story about such a figure being crucified, and then tried to persuade their Jewish contemporaries that the figure in question is the long-awaited Davidic anointed one.

I won’t go into more detail, lest I likewise lose sight of the big picture in focusing on details. Even if Carrier were correct in all of his criticism (which even my own incredibly brief and admittedly superficial fact-checking suggests he is not), none of that would support the contention of mythicists that Jesus was originally thought of by Christians as a purely celestial figure, and thus more likely invented rather than an actual historical figure about whom myths and legends arose.

Elsewhere online, Ken Humphreys also offers an apologetics-style response, somehow believing that the fact that Christians were referred to as brothers makes it less rather than more likely that when “James the brother of the Lord” is distinguished from other Christians by that title, it still means that he was just another Christian and not Jesus’ brother in some sense that distinguished him from other Christians Paul mentions.

I just don’t get how such posts are supposed to represent a defense of mythicism, as opposed to a rhetorical ploy that will only work on those already mythicists themselves. (UPDATE: See too Jerry Coyne’s discussion of Carrier’s post).

While Carrier’s treatment lacks nuance and seeks to distract from the force of the book as a whole by quibbling over details (whether fairly in some cases or not so much in others), The Uncredible Hallq, also at Freethought Blogs, has a short review that sums up the heart of the matter clearly and effectively in far fewer words. Which of the two bloggers is closer to the spirit of the name of the site, I leave it to readers to decide.

NOTE: I have removed a section about Carrier’s mention of Mark Goodacre’s arguments against Q, in which I had showed the limitations of my vocabulary by understanding a refutation in only one of the two possible senses of the word, for which I apologize.

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