Myth and Memory

Myth and Memory February 24, 2015

On his blog Genealogy of Religion, Cris Campbell talks about reading Colin Calloway’s book One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. The crux of the post can be summed up by quoting Campbell:

I have no doubt that indigenous oral traditions are remarkable repositories of deep history and ancient knowledge. They are not just, and never were, “myths.”

In fields like Biblical studies, the polarization that we often see is detrimental to getting at the truth that lies somewhere in the middle.

Those who insist that the Bible is entirely factual are not being realistic or honest. But those who insist that, because it contains material that is legendary and mythological, it cannot have useful historical information embedded in those same traditions, are being every bit as unrealistic and dishonest, ignoring the evidence of analysis of oral traditions.

From the Americas to Australia, oral traditions include details that reflect different water levels and other weather and climate related details which reflect realities as they existed thousands of years ago. See the paper that sparked recent articles in The Conversation and The Daily Mailthe presentation is online on the University of New England website.

That doesn’t justify the conservative attempts to say “See, oral tradition preserves accurate information, therefore the Bible is entirely factual.” The same oral traditions include details that are patently unhistorical. But the other extreme of dismissiveness is also unjustified.

Accepting that there can be fiction and deep history in the same body of stories can be challenging for those who like all-or-nothing answers. But the reality is that the truth, when it comes to the stories that a people group tells, is regularly in between the extremes.

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  • arcseconds

    I’m sure I was taught or acquired somehow the ‘knowledge’ that oral traditions just couldn’t be trusted at all, and written stuff was obviously better.

    So it’s definitely been an eye-opening experience learning that written transmission is by no means necessarily superior. It’s easy for us to assume that a book is a permanent artifact, but of course in actual fact they’re not, and the texts are preserved by copying, which always has some probability of error. Plus of course people can deliberately introduce alterations, just as they can in oral transmission. And oral transmission can involve forms of error-correction that can be quite sophisticated.

    It also seems easy for us to make the assumption that people who write stuff down are trying to preserve the literal truth, whereas people who give verbal accounts are just trying to tell tall stories.

    I’m pretty sure this is tied up with assumptions of cultural superiority.

    Does this attitude, which seems pretty common, match an understanding scholars had at one point, or is this a bit like the ‘knowledge’ that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round, which (I hope) no serious historian ever thought?

    It certainly seems to me that oral histories are receiving much more interest and respect now than they have in the past by scholars, at any rate, whether or not scholars were ever that dismissive of oral histories.

    • Scholars have and continue to express a range of views, because demonstrating that oral tradition can sometimes be faithful over long periods of time may be demonstrating either the rule or the exception.

      • arcseconds

        Do any, or have any, subscribed to the extreme view you describe above: “it cannot have useful historical information embedded in those same traditions” or something close to it?

        (Dismissing oral histories as being pointless or of little value for studying for historical purposes would count as ‘something close’, even if there’s some kind of admission that there may be kernels of truth in there somewhere, it’s just not worth looking for them)

        • The group that are often referred to as the “Biblical minimalists” view the Bible as largely if not entirely a Persian-era fiction that bears little or no relationship to earlier realities in Israel and Judah.

      • Paul E.

        “Writing” does seem to have had a more privileged evidentiary position in historiography traditionally, for some obvious reasons. I wonder if part of an unobvious reason for that is the Bible’s influence itself, especially in the Protestant tradition where reliance on and loyalty to “text” is prioritized over tradition, group deliberation, etc.

        • arcseconds

          Perhaps we could also point to the individualism that the Reformation helped to foster, but had already started a little earlier in the Renaissance? The idea that an individual is making their own judgements about what is and isn’t true or rational or whatever seems a bit more applicable to the picture where they’re sitting in a library on their own, with some books, where the agency clearly can only lie with the reader. As opposed to than listening to stories, an activity which is inherently social and where we still normally think of the listener as having a more passive role, and the speaker being imbued with some sort of authority.

          I suspect that class (and maybe indeed profession) has something to do with it, too.

          Writing is what literate people who dwell at the top of the social hierarchy do, so it’s obviously a superior kind of knowledge-activity than telling stories, which is what those lower-class know-nothing superstitious yobs do (they also can’t speak properly).

          People who we might broadly call ‘knowledge-workers’ have been heavily involved with written texts for many centuries, too, and it wouldn’t be the only area where if all you have is a hammer, you end up valuing hammers extremely highly.

  • Bethany

    I’m thinking of something I read recently about the battle of Jericho. The story in Joshua is that God stopped the flow of the Jordan so that the Israelites could cross dry-shod, then they ended up walking around Jericho for seven days until the walls collapsed.

    Current archeological evidence suggests that there was no walled city at Jericho at what would have been the time of the battle had the battle actually occurred. However, there had been walled cities there in the past, up to maybe 150-odd years before what would have been the time of Joshua — and those walls were indeed quite prone to falling, in earthquakes. Moreover, apparently there have been several incidents in historical times of earthquakes that hit Jericho also causing parts of cliff faces to fall into the Jordan upstream, temporarily damming it and causing it to go dry near Jericho.

    So the evidence suggests the story isn’t true, but that it may very well be preserving an oral tradition of the city of Jericho that was destroyed when the Jordan stopped flowing and the walls fell.

    • Yes, the fact that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down (more than once) as a result of earthquakes would have been well known and informed the tradition. In some other cases, such as with Ai, we may be dealing with aetiology – the attempt to explain a ruin that existed for longer than anyone remembered.

  • John MacDonald

    Suppose I gave you two newspaper articles I wrote about crime in New York City, one factual and one fictional, and then asked you to tell me which one was the invented one. Would you be able to? Would a set of criteria help you to answer that question? The problem with hermeneutics and the bible when it comes to determining which parts are historically accurate reports is that the historical fiction in the bible is written to look just like the parts that are historical fact. Even if a particular story is true, how would you be able to know that? When it comes to understanding, the question isn’t the ontological one of whether there is truth in the bible, but rather the epistemological question of how to separate truth from fiction in bible study when the historical fiction looks just like the historical fact.

    • And as you would know if you read mainstream historical scholarship about the Bible, in many instances we simply cannot determine what the relationship of a story is to history. When we can, it is sometimes due to internal considerations, such as the unlikelihood of something embarrassing being invented, while in others, we have confirmation from archaeology or from other sources (e.g. Moabite and Assyrian inscriptions).

      • John MacDonald

        In the Mahabharata [Hindu scripture written around the same time as the Tanakh], the stories of the heroes are full of their foibles, mistakes, wrong doings and more. It is the same with the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek) — written close enough to a similar time. So the historical data shows ancient fiction and religious scripture is often written with imperfections and such to make the story believable, more interesting, relatable and more.

        • How is that relevant? I suspect that you may be under the mistaken impression that the so-called “criterion of embarrassment” says that people do not make up stories in which people have negative characteristics. It is a good rule of thumb that, if you think that scholars hold views that are obviously silly nonsense, you have probably misunderstood what they are saying.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, take the example of Jesus’ baptism by John The Baptist in the gospel of Mark. This is generally taken as historically sound material about Jesus because it passes the criteria of embarrassment, in that the early church would not want to make up a story about John baptizing the son of God, which is why later gospel writers changed the story.

            Now, just to take this example, there is no reason to think the story was embarrassing to Mark at all, even if later writers found it so. Mark may have just thought he was writing a beautiful story about the beginning of Jesus ministry where John The Baptist is passing the torch to Jesus, in the same way as in 2 Kings 2 where Elijah gives a double portion of his miracle working power to Elisha, making Elisha his successor and superior. Mark certainly seems to interpret John The Baptist in terms of Elijah. Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wildernes in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

            Also, Mark probably didn’t have the high Christology of later writers, so there would be nothing embarrassing for Mark in John baptizing Jesus.

            For this example, then, there is no reason to think that the criteria of embarrassment does anything to contribute to the historicity of John The Baptist’s baptizing of Jesus in Mark.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            As you say, it is difficult to prove the veracity of any particular story about Jesus, but I’m not sure what the significance of that is supposed to be. I hope it doesn’t lead you to the conclusion that Jesus never existed.

            That conclusion can only be plausible if there is a convincing myth theory, and so far we don’t have one. Carrier certainly hasn’t offered one. What Carrier has done is to gather a hundred jigsaw-puzzles and grab a few pieces from each of them. His attempt to create a picture out of these pieces is nothing but a mess.

            This isn’t surprising. You can’t create a coherent picture out of randomly chosen pieces from boxes marked “Old Testament Prophecies”, “Mystery Religions”, “Greek Mythology”, “Cargo Cults”, “Revelations from Angels”, “Schizo-type Personalities”, “Dying-and-Rising Gods”, etc.

          • I don’t think you’ve grasped the point. The later authors felt free at times to rewrite Mark. Why not on this point? Presumably because this was something that was well-known as having happened and so could not simply be ignored and swept under the carpet.

            Mythicists often treat these texts as though we had no idea where they came from, and as though there were no wider context that included people who could object to the rewriting of history when that history was already widely known.

          • John MacDonald

            Speaking of the criteria of embarrassment and mythicists, what do you think of Carrier’s claim that some Jews expected a dying messiah?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Carrier includes the claim that Jews were expecting a dying messiah as part of the background knowledge of his analysis. By definition, background knowledge must be what is generally agreed on. It *cannot* include disputed claims. After making the claim, Carrier admits that people don’t agree with it. In that case, the claim cannot be part of our background knowledge.

            Since Carrier’s theory depends on this disputed claim, the prior probability of his theory should be reduced accordingly.

          • I think it is ironic that he uses an argument in relation to Jewish sources – that this detail, although recorded in a late source, is unlikely to have been made up then – which is dismisses when historians use it in relation to Jesus.

            He has dealt unsatisfactorily with the early Targumic material, noting the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 but not acknowledging that the targum accomplishes this by making it the enemies of the Servant who suffer.

            He also doesn’t deal in a satisfactory way with the fact that messiah was not just some broad category in ancient Judaism. It was about the expectation of the restoration of the two roles of king and high priest (in the ceremony of appointment for which anointing was literally used) to their rightful bearers. The question of whether some such figure could suffer is obviously to be answered in the affirmative. Kings and priests had met all sorts of ignoble ends. But that is not the question relevant to consideration of early Christianity. The question is whether anyone expected the Davidic anointed one, i.e. the one who was expected to restore the kingship to the line of David, to be killed by the foreign overlords without literally accomplishing the restoration of the dynasty. The answer to that question is quite obviously no, and the multiplication of words by Carrier is an unsuccessful attempt to distract from that basic historical datum.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, Jesus doesn’t create a “physical” kingdom, but he does inaugurate a “spiritual” kingdom. The nations of the earth are to be conquered by the gospel. In that way Jesus didn’t fail to establish a kingdom. For instance, there is:

            (1) Sending out Emissaries (Luke 10:1-3, 17-30)

            Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be conquered, so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).

            Matching the image of the spies returning with samples of the fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 1:25), Luke has placed here the Q saying (Luke 10:2//Matthew 9:37-38), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.”

            And Jesus’ emissaries return with a glowing report, just as Moses’ did.

            (2) The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)

            16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

          • Or to put it another way, one has to accept the apologetic attempts of Christians ancient and modern to claim that Jesus did not fail, he just succeeded in an unsuspecting way, in order to be a mythicist. That is one of the biggest problems with mythicism. It embraces claims and approaches of Christian apologetics uncritically.

          • John MacDonald

            Even when Jesus’ death was imminent, he still didn’t see his death as effecting the fact that he was the messiah. On trial before the high priest, the question is put directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers “I am” and then couples his affirmation with the added declaration: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (presumably based on a combined reading of Dan 7:13-14, Psalm 110 and possibly Psalm 2).

          • Assuming that is an accurate depiction of what happened (and that is historically problematic), what it shows is that Jesus expected God to intervene and enthrone him, not that he expected to die first. But even if Jesus did expect to die, would that make him non-historical?!

          • No. All one has to accept is the possibility that some ancient Jew came up with the idea of a messiah who succeeded in an unexpected way, which seems to be an undeniable fact.

          • John MacDonald

            Exactly. After all, it wasn’t really rational to think a Jewish leader was going to rise up and successfully lead the Jews to a military victory over the powerful Romans. If the messiah was to come, it would probably be in a different way than usually expected.

          • That doesn’t make sense. We know from a number of sources that there were people who expected the restoration of the Davidic line to the throne. And you aren’t going to really suggest that people only hold to hopes for their nation or people group which are realistic, are you?

          • John MacDonald

            I know. I was making a joke. lol. Of course some people were expecting the restoration of the Davidic line to the throne.

          • John MacDonald

            But I assume you would agree that some Jews must have thought overthrowing Roman power was never going to happen, so they might have interpreted the messiah as being connected to a “spiritual kingdom” instead of a “physical kingdom.”

          • We only have an instance of people claiming it had happened in the case of a crucified man. We have no instance of someone indicating they expect it to happen. Does that not tell you something?

          • John MacDonald

            There may have been an expectation that Jesus would die, but that death could not hold him. Expectation of Jesus’ resurrection may be based on a creative reading of Psalm 16. Peter stressed the significance of the resurrection and cited the prophecy predicting it in Psalm 16: “God raised him up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it … Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 29-32).

          • It’s possible, given the evidence. But skeptical historians also consider the possibility that such a view of what Jesus expected was a response to what happened, combined with the assumption that he must have known what would happen.

          • John MacDonald

            And, given what we’ve said, I guess a mythicist would say that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is just a fictional rewrite of Psalm 16. I this way a dying messiah would not be contrary to the Christ Myth Theory.

          • John MacDonald

            That last sentence should have started as “In this way.”
            Terrible grammar and spelling

          • Unfortunately a mythicist will probably make no attempt to assess whether that fictional rewriting of Psalm 16 is more likely, either based on the specific evidence we have or based on general contextual evidence, than there having been a historical Jesus. Mythicists claim otherwise, but mythicism simply does not embrace the commitment to evidence-based probabilistic reasoning that historical study in its present form requires. Anything is possible, but not everything is probable, and not everything fits equally well with the evidence.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, a mythicist might point to Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15 that:
            “1 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)”
            When Paul says Christ died and was raised “according to scriptures,” maybe the scriptures Christ died according to were Psalm 22, Isaiah 53 and Wisdom of Solomon, and the scripture Christ was raised according to was Psalm 16.
            I think Carrier would says such a use of old testament scriptures seem equally likely if the gospel writers were just using scriptures to interpret historical facts about Jesus’ death, as it would be if the gospel writers were inventing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection out of whole cloth

          • Yes, mythicists are typically content with such maybes, and seem not just credulous but downright gullible when it comes to their acceptance as plausible of the creative ways that Christians have read Jesus into the Jewish Scriptures. Critical historians and others who adopt a more skeptical outlook, on the other hand, are aware that the two are not at all equally likely.

          • I don’t know what that instance tells us about its antecedents. Are new religious movements more likely to arise from the synthesis of previously known concepts or the invention of new and unique ideas? If it is the former, that may be some reason to think that the ideas were already out there even if we do not have direct evidence of them.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If the claim is that the invention of a dying messiah is not impossible, I see no objection. If the claim is that we have good reason to think that first-century Jews were expecting a dying messiah, I do see an objection.

            If the claim is that this expectation is established fact, and can, therefore, be treated as part of the background against which a particular theory of Christian origins is judged, I see an overwhelming objection.

          • I suspect that most religious movements arise from a synthesis of existing ideas rather than ideas that are completely new and unique. I think that falls far short of establishing any facts, but it may make it hard to express much in the way of certainty about the issue.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I suspect that most religious movements arise from a synthesis of existing ideas rather than ideas that are completely new and unique.

            Sure. And as long as our knowledge of those existing ideas is not misrepresented, there is no problem.

            If you have read Carrier’s book you may have been struck by Element 4 of the Background. First-century Palestine was rife with messianic pretenders. Since none of them stood a chance against the Romans, the solution was to repackage the role of messiah so that he would defeat a spiritual enemy by dying. Ironically, this fits historicism better than it fits Carrier’s own scenario – according to which a heavenly Jesus who defeats a heavenly enemy is repackaged as one of those earthly messiahs who stood no chance against the Romans!

          • I have a hard time identifying any criteria that would enable me to determine that it fits either scenario better than the other.

            I have no doubt that there were any number of devout Jews praying for God to send a champion to deliver his people from their oppressors. These Jews would have bounced between hope and despair as potential messiahs arose and were crushed. At some point, someone realized (or decided) that it was actually according to God’s plan that his anointed one suffer for his people’s sins. While it is perfectly plausible to me that this realization occurred to a follower of a particular failed claimant, I am not sure that there is any basis other than familiarity to say that it is any less plausible that the reinterpretation of the messiah’s mission came as a result of the general situation at the time to someone who was unaffiliated with any specific claimant.

            I haven’t read Carrier’s book yet and I am not sure when I will get around to it. I generally agree with him about the methodological shortcomings of the mainstream consensus, although I tend to think that he overestimates the extent to which the evidence actually tilts in the other direction.

          • Paul E.

            I can understand the complaints about the traditional criteria and methodology in terms of coming to a consensus about a particular “kind” of historical Jesus, but I’d be interested to hear what you think are the particular methodological shortcomings with respect to the near-universal consensus on minimal historicity (something like: Jesus existed, had some followers, was executed and some people had visions about him). I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that articulated with any particularity.

          • My problem with the notion of a “near-universal consensus on minimal historicity” is that almost no one is trying to make a case for “minimal historicity.” What you have are a lot of scholars like Dr. McGrath who make a case for a historical Jesus about whose teachings and activities, much can be known with a reasonably high degree of certainty. There are a small number of elements upon which most of the cases overlap, but there is hardly anyone who is trying to make a case that is limited to those elements.

            There seem to be a few scholars who advocate a historical Jesus about whose life and teachings nothing can be known with any certainty, but they are a tiny part of the overall consensus. I don’t think that these scholars are nearly as hostile towards mythicism as scholars like McGrath and I would love to see one of them make a true case for minimal historicity.

            One of the big problems I see with most historicists is their reliance on arguments like “No first century Jew could have invented the idea of a crucified messiah.” (This was one of Ehrman’s big two.) In the first place, I don’t think we have any criteria upon which to determine which theological ideas can or cannot be invented. In the second place, clearly some first century Jew did invent it (unless you are willing to concede that the idea predated Christianity). So the question becomes whether we can declare it most probable that such an idea would come about through the response of a follower of a specific failed messianic claimant rather than as a generalized attempt to make sense of God’s failure to deliver his people from the Roman yoke.

          • Paul E.

            I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying that in your opinion the basic question of minimal historicity simply hasn’t been properly considered?

          • I would say that fairly characterizes my opinion. I thought Ehrman’s case for historicity was pretty poor and I haven’t seen any mainstream scholars trying to strengthen his arguments or offer better arguments. Ehrman himself seemed to believe that no one had directly undertaken to demonstrate historicity before he took up the challenge. While I don’t think that is completely true, the fact that a specialist like him thinks so indicates to me that it hasn’t been addressed in the way it needs to be addressed.

          • Paul E.

            Fair enough. So it’s more about general approach/assumptions than particularized methodological failings (although I note your concern with the “no first century Jew” aspect). I just wonder if the situation isn’t more complex than that where you are dealing with an area where the near-unanimous consensus may not have written a ton of books on that particular issue, but also doesn’t seem to think a ton of books is necessary.

          • I’m not sure how useful the distinction between generalized approach and particular methodologies really is. I haven’t really thought about it in those terms, but I will go ahead with some other things that I have thought about.

            Historians reason by analogy. To do this, they need analogous situations. If the question concerns a poorly documented ancient general or politician the historian can reason based on other ancient generals and politicians, some of whom will be better documented. Unfortunately, there are no well documented obscure itinerant preachers who went unnoticed during their lives beyond a small group of peasant followers. I think that makes it difficult to impossible to say what kind of facts about such a person are likely to be accurately preserved by oral tradition. We have little to go on beyond conjecture.

            Historical Jesus scholars are fond of pointing out that supernatural tales arose concerning many figures in the ancient who we believe to be historical figures, such as Alexander the Great. The difference is that the tall tales about Alexander arose as a result of the things he accomplished during his natural life. With Jesus, the only reason any stories are preserved about his natural life is because of supernatural events that are believed to have taken place after his death. If you scrape away the supernatural stories about Alexander, you are still left with a significant historical footprint. If you scrape away the supernatural stories about Jesus, you scrape away the only reason he was remembered in the first place.

            This does not of course prove ahistoricity, but I do think that it is problem that has not been adequately addressed.

            As I understand it, in the last few years or couple decades, as the evidence has been considered more carefully, scholars have been coming around to the view that many Old Testament figures, such as David and Solomon, may not have been real people. You may be right that more is going on with Jesus than I recognize, but it may also be that the evidence has not been examined sufficiently.

          • Paul E.

            I guess the “generalized approach” and “particularized methodology” distinction I was trying to make related to the criticisms of the criteria. In other words, I understood you to be saying something like “the existence of a minimally historical Jesus has always been simply assumed rather than a methological case having been made for it,” so faulty criteria or faulty application of criteria methodologically was less the issue than no criteria at all (with the possible exception of the Davidic Messiahship claim – guess that depends on just how “minimal” your minimal Jesus is). But maybe I’m making a distinction without a difference. Either way, I get your point, I think.

            I think you make a significant and interesting point about the supernatural stories arising from mundane “greatness” in the case of someone like Alexander, whereas the supernatural stories about Jesus arise in circumstances that are more difficult to explain. The cause(s) of visions/dreams or whatever of Jesus is really puzzling, as is the apparent attractiveness of their message among people who had no personal connection to Jesus (assuming he existed!) or his followers and where his mundane “greatness” was not only not apparent (as would be the case for a conqueror, e.g.) but where he was deemed under the most common understanding of a Davidic Messiah claimant to be a failure. I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with a firm invocation of cognitive dissonance because, although it is a decent explanation, it somewhat assumes what it attempts to prove.

            Here’s what it comes down to for me. The experts have a near-unanimous consensus on minimal historicity, even if there are only a couple of books that attempt to make that type of case explicitly. I would assume there is a wealth of material that deals with the evidence for minimal historicity in other ways. Regardless, the experts are near-unanimous in thinking Jesus most likely existed. (I would love it if the experts, especially when dealing with the public, would temper their language more. I completely agree with you about the “almost certain”, etc. type of language.) More than that, when I look at this stuff as an interested lay person, the better explanation of the evidence seems to me to be a minimally historical Jesus. And unless and until some better stuff comes along that convinces a significant number of experts to the contrary, I simply think I’m not in a firm position to be informedly agnostic on the topic

            I will say, however, that you have excellent and thoughtful takes on this stuff. I always think about things a little differently when I read your takes and I appreciate that.

          • What makes one seem more likely than the other to historians is that one is what the evidence consistently points to, while the other rides roughshod over what the evidence says. We have been over this, and I have no objection to you dogmatic agnosticism, but please, please do not pretend that there is evidence for both sides which might justify “teaching both sides of the controversy.” The impression that there is a controversy is fabricated.

          • My position is not there is evidence on both sides but that there is a lack of evidence on either side.

            Evidence is the effect from which we infer a cause. If we find a body lying on the ground with a knife sticking out of its back and the handle of knife has little swirly patterns on the handle that match the patterns on a particular person’s fingertips, we say we have evidence of who put the knife there. We can say we have evidence because we understand the processes of cause and effect that produce fingerprint patterns on objects other than fingers. It is our knowledge of those processes that allows us to announce that it was Professor Plum in the library with the knife.

            When it comes to the processes of cause and effect that produce a new religious movement or a new religious concept, we are not nearly as well informed as we are when it comes to fingerprints. So while I concede the plausibility of the idea of a dying messiah arising as the result to a specific failed messianic claimant, I don’t think that we have anywhere near enough data on such phenomena to say that this is the most likely cause. In fact, I would suspect that an idea like that is just as likely to arise over a period of time by a process of synthesis and syncretism.

            With all due respect “one is what is the evidence consistently points to” is empty rhetoric, which becomes no stronger by virtue of repetition.

          • There is no respect shown when one uses the anti-scholarship “both sides of the controversy” stance over against a scholarly consensus, and even less respect when you call a summary of the conclusion “empty rhetoric,” when it is supported by countless articles and monographs which survey the primary evidence skeptically and in detail. As I said, you are free to think as you like, but if you are pretending that mainstream historical scholarship is “empty rhetoric,” you certainly will not be doing so here without my objecting. And it is astonishing that you can’t see the irony of you saying to someone else that their point becomes no stronger by virtue of repetition, when all you ever do here is offer variations on “I don’t see that the evidence supports any conclusion at all.”

          • “All the evidence points in that direction” is not a “summary” of anything. It is a bare assertion. It may be true, but it is still nothing more than a bare assertion. Moreover, I made no claim that mainstream scholarship consists of empty rhetoric. My criticism was limited to your use of “all the evidence points in that direction” as a response to my comment. It is no more persuasive than “Because I said so.”

          • That is precisely what young-earth creationists and other such people say when a biologist tells them “all the evidence points in the direction of evolution.” When specialists make such claims, it is a summary of an entire field of scholarship. You are free to pretend otherwise, but if you claim otherwise here, I will point out that you are disagreeing with what all professional historians who’ve looked into the matter have concluded, and will remind you that the evidence has been presented to you more than once, and if you are not persuaded by blog summaries, then the appropriate response is not to reject scholarship but to read the more detailed published works that make the case.

          • I wasn’t aware that the definition of “summary” changed depending on who is doing the summarizing. Personally, I would expect to see greater precision from the specialist.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You agree with Carrier about the methodology of biblical scholars, but what about his own methodological failings? You don’t invent your own background knowledge. Suppose that James Crossley carried out a Bayesian analysis of the historical Jesus and one of his background “facts” was that Mark was written in AD 40. I’m sure mythicists would have something to say about that.

            One of the most revealing parts of Carrier’s book was where he examined the question of Paul’s silence. As you would expect, Carrier milked the absence of details about an earthly Jesus for all it was worth. Then he addressed the fact that Paul tells us equally little about a celestial Jesus. Apparently, this is no problem because details about the celestial Jesus were kept secret!

            With a methodology like that you can decide your results in advance.

          • John MacDonald

            This sounds exciting – Carrier posted this on his blog today: “The big news is that I’ve been asked by the Society of Biblical Literature (the largest academic society representing the field, of which I am a member) to present and defend the thesis of On the Historicity of Jesus at their Western Regional Conference at Azusa Pacific University next Monday (program here). Notably, Dennis MacDonald’s fascinating Homeric emulation thesis will get the same treatment the morning of Monday March 9, and then mine that afternoon.”

          • Wow, Carrier really is the mirror image of the Intelligent Design folks. Getting invited by someone who oversees a section at a regional meeting, and then claiming that the organization as a whole somehow invited you. I’ll bet this will fool a lot of people who don’t know enough about the structure of this scholarly organization to understand what is actually going on. 🙁

          • John MacDonald

            “Begun, the Christ Wars have” – Yoda

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Thanks. I see James is on to it.

          • I think the Carrier is right about thinking about the issues in terms of Bayes Theorem and conditional probability.Since I haven’t read his latest book I cannot comment on how he justifies the elements you mention as background facts. However, I have disagreed with him about such issues on other occasions.

            I am skeptical about the robustness of his probability estimates. I think the margin of error may simply be too large for them to be useful in the way he wants them to be useful.