The Carrier Train Wreck Continues

The Carrier Train Wreck Continues August 29, 2014

Richard Carrier is continuing to respond at great length to every review of his book, whether largely favorable or not. In his most recent post, about a review by Nick Covington (who has also been commenting here on Exploring Our Matrix about the topic), Carrier wrote the following:

The reason Romans cannot be, in any relevant way, using high context discourse (discourse that presupposes the readers have already been fully briefed) is because Paul is there writing to people he has never communicated with before, even some of whom have not yet heard the gospel (Rom. 1:15). And accordingly, much of the text from chapter one on is an elaborate summary of the gospel and how it works salvation, refuting the notion that Paul would not repeat basic things already understood—for Romans is specifically about many of those basic things! (And, I would add, our Romans appears to be an interwoven stitch of at least three separate letters [OHJ, p. 511, n. 4], such that the original letter beginning with Rom. 1 may have contained a lot of really fundamental material that has been cut from our copy.)

Covington’s own blog post (which Carrier is interacting with) makes the following claim, based ultimately on something Earl Doherty wrote:

When you compare the 200 silent passages with the handful of debatable passages that might refer to a historical Jesus (or just as easily might not) and the lone reference to James the brother of the Lord (which can be plausibly explained by mythicism) things begin to look pretty bad for the historicists…The argument from silence here is extremely compelling. The Pauline letters are certainly what we should have if the mythicist thesis is correct, and but apparently very improbable under historicism. 

I really find it very hard to believe that even Covington (who describes himself as an “armchair philosopher”), to say nothing of Carrier, who has a PhD in history, cannot see the problems with this reasoning. There is no serious doubt that Augustine thought that Jesus had lived as a real human being. And yet if you read his letters, you will find far more places where Augustine doesn’t refer to Jesus/Christ at all, much less in a way that makes unambiguous that he viewed him as a historical figure, than places where he does. One can make the same point with most ancient correspondence. But if one is willing to presume that a particular figure who is mentioned is mythical, then no references to details of their life need stand in the way of that interpretation. Crucifixion, burial, and even descent from David can all conveniently be situated in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm. It would be an interesting thought experiment to see whether there is any epistolary reference by Pliny the younger to his uncle that a determined “Pliny the elder mythicist” could not interpret as referring to events that transpired in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm.

Returning to Romans, I would point out that Paul indicates that he wanted to proclaim the Gospel to “you who are in Rome.” There are any number of things that that could mean, and there is substantial scholarship on the question, which needs to be interacted with. Does it hint that Paul considered the Gospel that others proclaimed to be inadequate? Is it just treating the residents of Rome together, and referring to his desire to preach to those outside of the community to which he was writing? It is not sufficient to merely assert without argument that what Paul meant was that the congregation that he was writing to was one that included those we would call non-Christians. Mythicism seems prone to what we also encounter regularly in Christian fundamentalism: insistence that the author of the text must have meant precisely what is written in one particularly literalistic interpretation, except when a rigidly literalistic interpretation doesn’t support the “conclusion” that you are trying to reach.

Neither Carrier nor Covington seems aware that a substantial body of scholarship has called into question the notion that Romans represents Paul’s proclamation, as opposed to a presentation of his views on matters that were deemed controversial in Rome, in order to try to secure their support for his planned mission to Spain.

But be that as it may, it is clearly not going to make a coherent argument if one says, on the one hand, that Romans as we now have it is a composite pastiche of multiple letters from which basic Christian teachings have been omitted, and then to claim that the absence of details about a historical Jesus (which most interpreters consider to be the kind of basic Christian teaching Paul didn’t bother to recap) somehow supports mythicism.

These sorts of attempts at sleight of hand are typical for Carrier. Judging by his recent piece in The Bible and Interpretation, he seems to think that he has made a profound point in a discussion about 1 Corinthians 15 when he observes that it does not contain the phrase “in Christ before me.” That phrase is one that Paul uses in Romans 16:7. But is Carrier really going to suggest that Paul was “in Christ” while he was persecuting the church, and that the gist of 1 Corinthians 15’s list is not that there were others who were what we would call “Christians” before he was? Indeed, that is the overall impression one gets from things that Paul writes in many places. And Carrier doesn’t seem to really want to dispute that. So what is the point of beginning the piece in that way?

Carrier seems to believe that, by splitting hairs, and pointing out where someone has been imprecise or even wrong about their wording or some other minor detail, this will somehow distract from the fact that his interpretation of early Christian literature is at odds, not merely with the precise wording of this or that passage, but with the overall impression that literature has given to pretty much every other historian who is intimately acquainted with the literature. And what Carrier has yet to show is that these occasional blurring of phrases that sometimes happens in our minds and speech is because all of us scholars in the relevant fields have distorted the evidence, and not because we have not merely understandably but appropriately allowed the entirety of our overall acquaintance with the range of what Paul writes to inform how we interpret specific passages.

Carrier’s Bible and Interpretation article sounds for the most part like something that one might have read a hundred years ago, before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and in a period when the academy was rife with antisemitism, when interpreting Jesus as patterned on a non-Jewish deity was a view that had a certain popularity. He seems to have no sense that anything done in the relevant fields in the decades since World War II might invalidate those earlier viewpoints, which many scholars found problematic even in the time when they had a measure of popularity.

What Carrier says after summarizing his view of things is nothing short of remarkable. He writes: “Such is the theory. Why might we conclude it’s the more likely explanation? Because the sequence of evidence aligns with it. As Bart Ehrman himself has recently confessed, the earliest documentation we have shows Christians regarded Jesus to be a pre-existent celestial angelic being.”

This is such utter nonsense, and thoroughly hypocritical, that it makes me doubt that Carrier has any interest in engaging in serious discussion. He has elsewhere argued that Ehrman’s work is so full of errors that he is incompetent and completely untrustworthy, even when defending the consensus view that all work on the historical evidence in recent years points to, and not just Ehrman’s own. Yet when Ehrman makes an idiosyncratic case for his own atypical view, it is called a “confession” and accepted without question, and no mention of the details of Ehrman’s book which show that “angel” and “human” were not viewed as mutually exclusive categories in this period, and so the point does nothing to support his mythicism.

What Carrier offers in these recent online posts isn’t scholarship. It is apologetics, of the sort we regularly see conservative Christians engage in – the denigration of scholars, and then the favorable quotation of them when it suits one’s purposes. You’ll find that he treats early Christian literature in much the same way – it is utterly untrustworthy, except in those rare places where he believes he can quote it to support his viewpoint.

 

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