As readers of this blog probably know, I wrote a short and focused review of one aspect of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus for The Bible and Interpretation. I am planning to follow up with another such focused review, probably focused on the use of the Rank-Raglan scale in assessing historicity. But there are lots of other points that deserve to be made about specific details in the book, and so in addition to writing review articles, I also plan on blogging through the book in shorter chunks.
In this post, I mainly want to make clear that, while the book is most definitely a work that can be considered scholarly, Carrier’s book is also a work of apologetics. People sometimes ask me why mainstream scholars interact with sectarian religious works about Jesus which do not limit themselves to what historical methods can say. The answer, as I have said before, is that no one seems to be unbiased when it comes to Jesus, and Carrier is no exception. Rather than make a list, I want to focus in here on one example of the kinds of things Carrier writes, which reveal an attitude that is clearly not about trying to be unbiased or even fair.
In no other scholarly work have I encountered the vast majority of human beings alive in ancient times – and then also the rare literate exceptions to them – characterized the way Carrier does on p.293. He says that the two options for explaining the paucity of mention of Jesus by his contemporaries are (1) widespread suppression or destruction of evidence, or (2) “Christianity was so small, insignificant and pervasively illiterate that such evidence never existed (and Paul was a lone educated freak in a sea of illiterate country hicks spinning yarns far and wide).”
There is obviously the issue of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” here – having someone literate provide information about Jesus makes that individual a freak, while people who were illiterate (like almost everyone else then alive) are spoken of disparagingly.
There is also the issue that this very plausible option is considered last and treated dismissively, whereas it is both the most widely held view, and the one most consonant with the evidence. Summed up in more conventional language, Paul was unusual in the early Christian movement in terms of his education. Paul even says as much explicitly in his letters.But I think the biggest issue is that Carrier seems to have fallen into a trap that no historian of antiquity ought to fall into, namely viewing ancient from the perspective of an inappropriate chronological snobbery. The literate were a tiny percentage of people in antiquity, but that does not mean that they were not intelligent, nor even talented at stringing words together or writing music or doing other such things. It means that literacy was rare. This might lead us to appreciate the higher literacy rates in our own time, but it should not lead us to view ancient human beings with disdain, or us as automatically not just better educated but inherently smarter.
If anyone feels that Carrier’s language is appropriate, then it must be pointed out that what Carrier says here about Christians can be said about ancient people more generally. Carrier considers the comparative example of Socrates, who was more highly educated and more connected to people of influence in an urban hub than Jesus was, in a manner that doesn’t just pretend that the evidence for the two ought to nonetheless be the same, but also in a manner that is disrespectful to ancient people in general, to country people in particular, and to Christians. And it is not merely insulting, but insulting about things which these ancient people had little or no control over in their time and place in history.
I don’t think Carrier would say that most people in ancient times were “illiterate country hicks” or that most educated people were therefore “freaks.” He seems to reserve such insulting language specifically for Christians, and perhaps others whom he dislikes with equal vehemence.
That doesn’t mean that Carrier’s book should not be interacted with by historians and other scholars. But it does show that Carrier is not even pretending to offer an impartial, mathematical weighing of evidence – or if he is pretending, then he fails to do so consistently.
Carrier’s book is a discussion of history, but it is also anti-Christian atheist apologetics. And just as we take that into account when interacting with sectarian religious scholarship, it is an aspect of Carrier’s work that cannot be ignored, since it clearly permeates and influences what he writes and how he writes about it.