At Least Be Humble

At Least Be Humble February 18, 2015

I have a high degree of tolerance for people who promote pseudoscience and pseudoscholarship. I’ve been there and done that myself. One of the reasons I keep blogging is to engage with those sorts of claims.

But if you are going to insist that the world’s scientists or historians or any other experts are all wrong, and you and a small group with a fringe viewpoint are the ones who have things right, then I must insist that you adopt an appropriate attitude of humility.

If you had any understanding of the difficulty of scientific and scholarly research, of the odds of your being right without having done such research, or of the odds of the world’s experts agreeing frivolously and foolishly despite the evidence allegedly being against them, you would make fringe claims with not just humility and caution, but with trepidation. You certainly wouldn’t be arrogant and dismissive.

So by all means fight your quixotic battles here. Take on the arguments of science, history, medicine, or whatever else takes your fancy. Try to respond to the claims of mainstream scholarship, and try to ask insightful questions of your own.

But at least do it with humility. At least show that you understand that you are making a case for a fringe viewpoint. At least show that you understand that the onus is on you to persuade not just me and other commenters on the blog, but the majority of scholarly experts in the field in question.

Adopt a fringe view if you must. And by all means defend it heroically. But the appropriate attitude while doing so is not one of dismissive arrogance. Because if you think that the world’s experts are just a bunch of fools, or conspirators, or deluded ideologues, then you must surely be a foolish, deluded, ideologically-driven conspiracy-theorist yourself to think that. And being one of those is nothing to be boastful about.

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  • ncovington89

    James,
    Since I lean towards mythicism, I think this is a good opportunity for me to explain my attitude on the subject. So, here goes: I don’t think historians who believe in a historical Jesus are idiots. In my eyes, the debate is like arguing over whether Mark originally ended at verse 8 or had a longer ending that was lost: the evidence we have is sketchy, and so differing opinions aren’t necessarily the result of blind stupidity or ideology.
    A certain amount of humility is required when you disagree with a consensus opinion, primarily because it is usually more likely that a large number of experts who agree on something agree on it because it is true. That said, with New Testament scholarship there are reasons for not taking the consensus at its word. I read a while back that one of the editors of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus had made very clear that he had no intention of even discussing mythicism, or allowing any mythicist to publish, in his journal. If you recall, this Journal had a whole issue dedicated to NT Wright’s book on the resurrection, and a whole issue dedicated to Richard Bauckham’s attempt to turn back the clock on critical scholarship to the time when the gospels were thought of as eyewitness testimony. Is there really any objective reason at all for thinking those two books are worse than Richard Carrier’s?
    This is why I think we ought to focus not so much on authority opinion but just on the evidence.

    • I don’t follow your reasoning. Mythicists keep saying that scholars ought to engage with their fringe viewpoint. But you object when a journal engages with a fringe viewpoint, and at the same time request the same?

      If there were a significant number of mythicists, who wrote books that actually contained things that were worth engaging with, there would be engagement.

      Until that happens, I see nothing inappropriate about an editor having standards for their journal, any more than a biology journal having standards. Perhaps the standards should be higher in relation to other topics, but they certainly should not be lowered just because they have been inappropriate low in relation to other things. I certainly think that Gary Habermas is a strange person to include in a journal issue like the one you refer to. But there were skeptical voices offering criticism of what Wright does, as well as some appreciative ones. And personally, I wouldn’t mind having an issue on mythicism, engaging the work of a scholar who represents that viewpoint in detail and consistently in their work.

      • ncovington89

        @ James, if you’ll reread my comment I did not “object” to the Journal doing an issue on Wright or Bauckham. I am fine with the journal doing an issue on them, especially with critical discussion. What I said was that if Wright and Bauckham were fair game, so is Carrier, Brodie, Price, Verenna, etc. It is an a fortiori argument: Even if mythicism was a really kooky belief, it is not kookier than wright and Bauckham, so if wright and Bauckham are covered in an issue, then mythicism is worthy of coverage too. I am glad to see that you would not mind having an issue on mythicism, and I would add that the very purpose of having such an issue (for me, at least) would be so that we could have criticisms from multiple people. You have to see how much weight a hypothesis can bear.

        • The evangelical Christian individuals you mention are people who participate regularly in the publication of scholarship and in conferences, and the issue with them is that they write things outside of secular academic publications which could not be published in such venues and which are not justified by the methods of mainstream scholarship. Mythicism hasn’t come close to that level of doing scholarship. Surely you can see that, can’t you? There is one book which, approaches Christian sources in a manner that is precisely what one sees in conservative Christian apologetics – looking through the Jewish scriptures and finding alleged prefigurement after prefigurement of Jesus in them. Except Carrier, instead of making the Christian apologists’ implausible claims is making the implausible claim that the early Christians invented Jesus by piecing together detail after detail in texts which Carrier acknowledges that most of the earliest Christians probably could not read. And so even merely in the kinds of ways he imagines ancient people supposedly being able to flip through books, and not even showing awareness of how the cumbersome task of consulting scrolls is problematic to this scenario, what Carrier offers is implausible. And so it is not clear why you think he has offered something that is a serious piece of scholarship, never mind why you thnk it is persuasive. It takes more than an occasional foray into scholarship, writing work that barely passes muster in that context, to have people feel they need to dedicate a journal issue to assessing your work. Mythicists are not even doing the kinds of scholarship laced with apologetics that the evangelicals are doing. And you spend your time complaining about the fact that someone like me finds your work disappointing, rather than actually doing scholarship and doing it in a serious way.

    • Paul E.

      I saw your comment in the other thread as well and have a question coming from mere curiosity, without any hostility at all. I should say, laying my cards on the table, that I am a firm historicist, but I am fascinated by mythicism for what it might bring to the table methodologically (shake up previous assumptions, bring fresh perspectives, etc.) and because it seems fun to think about – so I’m not hostile to the idea in the ether and I’m glad some scholars are starting respectfully to engage it.

      But a big problem I see for a layperson (and I assume you are – please correct me if I’m wrong) is that mythicist “scholarship,” such as it is, is such a tiny, tiny (almost non-existent) minority and so uncontrolled and untested. It’s one thing to have a lark on some blogs about what Paul meant by “brother of the Lord” or something, and it’s quite another to decide a near-unanimous scholarly consensus is just plain wrong.

      So – this is getting long-winded – I guess my question is this: How as a layperson do you control for your own biases in assessing the state of the scholarly consensus on the sole issue of Jesus’ minimal historical existence (e.g., he lived, had some followers, got executed, and people had some visions/hallucinations about him)?

      • ncovington89

        This is a good question. What does somebody do when they see good arguments for a position that contradicts the consensus view of some field? I think the Jesus mythicism should do the same thing that I always recommend to creationists: 1) read the books and articles of experts on why their position is correct, 2) take pains to examine the logic of and factuality of the premises of your own arguments, 3) Ask the experts questions. I have done all 3 and I still think mythicism is probable than the alternative. Although I recognize that a majority opinion against mythicism still cautions for some humility, I do not know where to go from here except to conclude in favor of mythicism.

        • Paul E.

          Fair enough. I agree we should all read, analyze and be interactive. I just don’t see a personal bias control mechanism there in the context of a lay assessment of a near-unanimous historical consensus even before getting the issues involved in arguments “against” or “contradictory” thereto. It’s all very interesting, though! Thanks for the comment.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Paul, you raise an interesting point about methodology. I think Carrier’s methodology can be summed up like this:

        In order to prove that Jesus existed, you must prove that Carrier’s theory is wrong. In other words, It is not enough to provide evidence that you would expect to have if Jesus existed; it is necessary to provide evidence that you would NOT expect to have if the myth theory was true. This would be evidence that would lower the consequent probability of mythicism.

        This is a tall order because as far as Carrier is concerned, there seems to be nothing that could lower the consequent probability of mythicism. Everything can be made to fit his theory. This is suspicious. What makes it more suspicious is that a lot of evidence will only fit Carrier’s theory if it is interpreted in an exotic way, but this never diminishes the probability of the theory.

        For example, birth is supposedly used as a metaphor for what happens when a god descends from the heavens to take human form. This is an unusual, if not unique, idea but it shouldn’t make us doubt Carrier’s theory.

        I don’t think the language of Davidic descent has ever been applied to a purely celestial being, but the uniqueness of the idea shouldn’t make us doubt Carrier’s theory.

        According to Carrier, it is entirely natural that those who believed in a purely celestial Jesus would think of themselves as his brothers, but are there any analogies to this? Did people in the ancient world ever call each other “brother of Mithras” or “brother of Attis”? Even if there are no such parallels, it shouldn’t make us doubt Carrier’s theory.

        The question is this: do genuine scholars want to play this game? As James has said, they probably have better things to do.

        • Everything can be made to fit his theory. This is suspicious.

          I don’t find it suspicious. I think that it is simply a function of the problematic nature of our sources.

          The problem is that almost anything about Jesus could have been invented because it was useful to propagate the gospel. That is I think why we have so many different reconstructions of the historical Jesus. Any particular permutation of elements can be posited as authentic in order to create a unique picture and it is impossible to declare any one of them most probable.

          I think Carrier may be overlooking the fact that this is just as much a problem for his pet theory as for any other, but I don’t think that there is anything suspicious about it.

        • Paul E.

          Interesting comment, thanks. One of these days, I may actually get around to reading Carrier and have more to say about this!

    • Mark

      Aren’t Wright and Bauckham a bit of a distraction? I’m an unbeliever too, and, sure, Wright drives me up the wall. What do you expect? He’s a preacher. But do the statistics for Jesus ‘mythicism’ vs. Jesus ‘non-mythicism’ appreciably alter when you exclude from the calculation all the pious Christian experts on the period? For example, does ‘mythicism’ make many inroads among secular Jewish experts on the period? I would think that, if anything, ‘mythicist’ claims, or claims of that sort, are more common among people who think of themselves as Christian — as a sort of modern docetism or something. As a secular teaching it really does belong to the 19th century, akin to the ether theory or Lamarkianism; in particular it belongs to the period when secular knowledge of specifically Jewish phenomena of the period was basically nil. This is just a fact; there’s no secret, no cover up, no heavy leaden institutional weight on the shoulders of secular thinkers.

      • But do the statistics for Jesus ‘mythicism’ vs. Jesus ‘non-mythicism’ appreciably alter when you exclude from the calculation all the pious Christian experts on the period?

        I have often wondered about this. I tend to think that mythicism would still be a decidedly minority position, but not one that was considered patently absurd. Perhaps it would be akin to the theory that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays; an intriguing possibility, but little more.

  • Martin

    I have to agree with Mr Covington, when you have the likes of NT Wright writing a massive apologetic on the resurrection as a historical event AND being taken seriously, plus the likes of Richard Bauckham attempting to show that the gospels are eyewitness accounts, it seems rather ironic to accuse Richard Carrier of being a fringe lunatic. What is basically being said is that to question the historicity of a highly mythological figure is madness, whilst affirming that a man walked out of a grave in a magical new body is scholarship worthy of a top UK university.

    I think this is why the consensus of the guild is open to question.

    FWIW I am not a mythicist (yet), but as the arguments for historicity seem to consist largely of ad hom, circular appeals to the majority and a disputed passage in Josephus, I am not holding my breath in regards to a comprehensive rebuttal of the arguments..

    I agree that the consensus is that there was a historical Jesus, but there’s no consensus on who he was and it ranges from Wright to Bultmann

    • The statement about the arguments for historicity baffles me. The disputed passage in Josephus is not irrelevant, and the consensus on that question is not to be ignored. But the arguments for historicity are, above all else, the assumption of Jesus’ historicity by the earliest author to mention him, who had met Jesus’ brother, and also the fact that scholars have gone through the Gospels with maximum skepticism and a fine-toothed comb, and some information in them is agreed to be best accounted for in terms of Jesus’ historicity.

      The range of views does not at all mean that there is no consensus. There is, and it is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and messianic claimant. But in a field in which so many are interested, there will need to be lots of attempts to offer alternatives, since otherwise no one could get any further PhDs or publish anything.

      • Martin

        Thank you. So, the twin pillars are essentially Josephus and Galatians 2?

        • No. Are you honestly going to try to tell me that that is what you understood from my comment?

          • Martin

            Those are not the foundations upon which a historical Jesus is reconstructed? I agree with you that if the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic in its redacted form and Paul met a brother of the deceased Jesus, then mythicism a la Carrier is never going to take of. After that it’s a question of using unprovenanced secondary sources to tease out details which, I think, is the general M.O.

          • Mark

            Martin, no rational secular person believes there was a ‘historical Jesus’ because of one or two sentences. A rational person will think there must have been some actual person because it’s part of the best explanation of the diverse phenomena. The mutilated Jesus passage in Josephus and the other (not obviously mutilated) passage about James are just two of indefinitely many things to be explained. In many, many passages Paul speaks of his ‘lord’ as having been *crucified*; in many passages he speaks in anticipation of his lord’s spectacular ‘return’; he is forever calling him a ‘messiah’; he is forever speaking of the material constitution of the person in question as having undergone some strange transformation in connection with his ‘resurrection’ — a material transformation he imagines as strictly parallel to one that we (who are historical) will also undergo. He has caught a wild religious fever of recent vintage, sure, but what is the best explanation of the origin and inner constitution of this fever? It goes on an on basically infinitely. ‘Mythicism’ is not a skeptical position, it is an extremely draining quasi-theological commitment, at least as much a strain on the intelligence as orthodox Christianity. Why not read up on Jewish messianic enthusiasms, e.g. check out Scholem on Sabbatai Sevi, and see how wild things can get? Even if we had no evidence but the sacred songs of the Dönmeh and a few screeds of Nathan of Gaza, still ‘Sabbatai Sevi never existed’ would not be the rational explanation. Or read up on the latest fantasies of the disciples of Menacham Schneerson who, I can assure you, is quite dead; he is no more; he is not in occultation awaiting anointment for planetary rule. There is no need to hold that ‘Menachem Schneerson never existed’ as a prophylaxis against extravagant Lubavitchism; on the contrary, it would be a crazy hypothesis even if we only had Lubavitch documents to go by, as could well have happened if it had been the fourth not the seventh Rebbe who excited this fever. Jesus mythicism really doesn’t merit any more scholarly credibility than Sabbatai or Schneerson mythicism. It’s just not how things work.

          • Martin

            I know plenty of “rational secular” people who either fully believe in mythicism or are very interested in it. I find it strange that these people are labeled as conspiracy theorists and creationists when the field itself is awash with apologists. Surely that is a more pressing matter? Perhaps I am missing the blogs about Wright and Bauckham being fringe lunatics and everyone to their right, therefore, being off the map.

            The passages in Paul are problematic and not very good evidence of a historical Jesus, IMHO. I am sure I don’t need to point out the lack of biographical details in them, or the mythicist reading of them: as a mythicist skeptic, I trust you are familiar with their arguments.

            I see myself remaining as a Jesus minimalist for the time being: Jesus existed, but virtually everything about him is mythological, roughly along the lines of Strauss and Bultmann.

          • Relatively few scholars in this field or any other blog. And when we blog, we sometimes write about things that we might not publish scholarly books or articles about. And so blogs cannot be relied on to get a sense of what a field of scholarly inquiry is like, If you want to get a true sense of the extent to which people like Wright are criticized or ignored in mainstream secular scholarship, then you will need to read books and articles, just as you would need to in any field.

          • Mark

            The epistles of Paul are immediate and direct evidence of the ‘existence of a historical Jesus’. Mythicists and other cultists will argue ad naus. about e.g. a reference to James, but fail to take in the forest surrounding it. Carrier suggests, following a perverse reading of the Ascension of Isaiah, that Paul must think this happened in the lower heavens. But crucifixion is a specifically Roman punishment. To say that Jesus was crucified in the heavens, is to say that Jesus was killed by the Romans in the heavens. But the Roman empire isn’t operating in the lower heavens, only in the territory around the Mediterranean. The mythicists are, to put it bluntly, too Christian to the notice this obvious fact. Exposure to Christianity makes one think crucifixion is ‘something religious’ and might be an apt element in a typically Jewish apocalyptic representation of inter-angelical rivalries. But it isn’t like that for Paul. It is as if mythicists were to think it a matter of course for an apocalyptic vision to posit lethal injection, the electric chair, water-boarding, CIA offices and the American flag *in the heavens.*

            It goes on an on like this.

            The expectation that ‘surely he would have talked about Jesus’ biography’ is unusually absurd. Paul thinks that the universe is cracking in half and that ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ is about to reveal himself as the ruler of the world. He’s like Mad Max wandering around a Roman empire that is collapsing before his eyes; read the text! For Paul all the interesting Jesus-biography is coming up starting … next week or something. Details about exorcisms in the Galil are of no importance in Paul or indeed in later Christianity; the important actual biographical data for him are: crucifixion and ‘resurrection’ and … whatever is coming next. It is like thinking it ‘odd’ that someone talking about their new baby doesn’t add in details about its embryonic and fetal stages. Even the Mark gospel basically agrees with this point: its details are merely intended to decorate a sacred procession from the Galil to Jerusalem that will end in … crucifixion and ‘resurrection’ … and … whatever is going to happen next week when ‘the son of man comes on clouds of heaven’ to claim his status as ‘the anointed one, the son of the most high’, which is the only really interesting part.

            These texts do not understand themselves to be founding a new religion based on the wisdom of some teacher; they are tracts of an apocalyptic catastrophe that is thought of as under way. It is the collapse of this expectation that led to later gospels padding the story with ethical uplift, mystical discourses, etc.

            The apparently ‘secular rational’ mythicists you know really are like creationists, Birthers, vaccination cranks, 9-11 truthers, etc. ad inf. It is a *deeply* irrationalist movement which impedes genuine historical comprehension. They are basically a gift to religious obscurantism.

          • Martin

            Regardless of a historical Jesus, you appear to be reading the epistles though the lens of the gospels and making post hoc rationalizations about Paul’s motives in not mentioning biographical information about Jesus. Pe rhaps he didn’t know? He only met briefly with James, John andPeter. It’s perfectly plausible that he had only a minimum of knowledge. Also, unless Paul is a total liar, he received his gospel via revelation. If we don’t accept that testimony, then we are assuming he got information from his brief interactions with The Pillars, again with the gospels in our minds (not his).

            As for Paul being too preoccupied with the imminent end of time, his letters, the longest in Antiquity, don’t really support the idea that he was too rushed to mention nuggets of his presumed vast biographical knowledge of Jesus.

          • The mainstream historical approach avoids reading the Gospels back into Paul’s letters, but is also not committed to driving a wedge between them when they naturally converge, which is what mythicists are determined to do. The suggestion that he got not just his Torah-free Gospel, but all his knowledge about Christianity and Jesus, from revelation, is at odds with what Paul says. Mythicists really need to stop proof-texting and actually read and understand the texts that they are trying to crowbar into their ideological framework.

          • Martin

            You seem to be addressing points I didn’t make.

          • Mark

            Martin,

            Paul says again and again that he persecuted the Jesus crowd. Of course he could be lying about all this, but why bother thinking that? He was apparently very agitated by their thoughts and actions, whatever they were; they went beyond what he considered legitimate practice of the cultus of the Jewish people. Now, in order to ‘persecute’ any one of these people — whatever ‘persecute’ means here — he would need to identify them on the basis of … their thought and action. So he knew their teaching and practice. In fact there is no reason to think that his comprehension of the ideas of the Jesus-is-coming-back crowd was not completely perfect (even if from his later point of view it was ‘spiritually blind’); how much was there to ‘know’ or do?

            With his wild visionary experience he simply adopted the belief and practice that prevailed among the Jerusalem crowd of Jesus-believers he had formerly detested … on the basis of their belief and practice. He constantly identifies the ‘church’ he persecuted as the very one to which he now belongs.

            I don’t know anything about the relevant psychology of religious experience, but it seems obvious, viewing the matter from a secular point of view, that among the conditions of his visionary experience was an extended period of thinking *a little too much* about the matter, and arguing *a little too much* against its exponents. He got a little too close to the flame, as we say. Soon enough, ‘Christ Jesus’ was talking to him too. Note also that the whole structure presupposes that Paul already knew about the special status of ‘experiences’ of the risen Messiah, and also something about who had had them.

            There is no difficulty about Paul’s emphasis on knowing from direct revelation. He affirms that *the same direct revelation* came to others *from the same source*. And in fact his words constantly entail that *he already knew the principal content of this supposed revelation* before it was directly revealed to him. There is nothing even slightly confusing about this. It is one thing to know that someone has told other people something, and another to be told it oneself. The only interesting novelty in what Paul thinks he got from messiah-vision was his deputation to a special political, diplomatic or ministerial role in preparing ‘the nations’ for the coming new world order.

            Such ‘conversions’ happen every day with Schneerson, and parallel things happened every day with Sabbatai: sons and daughters prophesy, old men dream dreams, young men see visions. What do you expect?

          • Jesus’ biography may not have been important to Paul, but it would have been very important to many other Christians so it is hard for me to see how he avoided it as much as he did. In any controversy in which Paul was involved, someone would have cited (or invented) something Jesus said or did in support of his position. I think it very unlikely that Paul could have avoided discussing the authenticity and meaning of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. Of course Paul’s silence can also be explained by a historical Jesus who was very different than the one in the gospels rather than a completely mythical Jesus.