Richard Carrier at SBL

Richard Carrier at SBL March 12, 2015

Simon Joseph has kindly blogged about Richard Carrier’s appearance at a regional SBL meeting. Here is an excerpt from towards the end of the post:

The fact that an SBL regional meeting was hosting a review and discussion of Carrier’s book was intriguing. Richard Carrier is one of the few exceptions among those who doubt the existence of Jesus in that he is a Ph.D. in Ancient History. His book, published by a respected university press, marks a milestone in the history of Mythicism. It is certainly the most vigorous effort yet to challenge the so-called “Historicist” position. To be honest, I didn’t expect to see much productive discussion between Carrier and his respondent, Kenneth L. Waters, Sr.. Waters, after all, is an Azusa Pacific University professor, ordained minister, and former pastor and Carrier is an avowed atheist. While I expected them to talk past each other, I was curious to see how the formal setting of an SBL meeting might influence the discussion on this controversial topic, especially since Carrier’s online critiques have been noted for their polemical tone. After all, if the Mythical Jesus theory reflects a dispassionate interest in the historicity of Jesus, then it is subject to the same academic rules of engagement: review, critique – and possible rejection – in whole or in part. A scholar’s arguments may not convince their colleagues, but it is this submission to the rules of engagement that makes scholarship a discipline.

Carrier was clearly aware that he was not preaching to the choir. He summarized his central thesis – that Jesus originated as a celestial myth about a crucified dying-and-rising savior god. According to Carrier, “Jesus” never existed except as an imaginary celestial being who telepathically communicated and appeared to hallucinating “disciples.” The figure of “Jesus” was then historicized via a process known as “Euhemerization.” Carrier assumes a formidable burden of proof in arguing against the consensus of scholarship on multiple fronts. He dismisses Josephus’ references to Jesus. He reads Paul’s Jesus as exclusively celestial. He denies that Jesus had a brother named James. He dismisses the Gospels as historically useless. He denies the existence of Q. He dismisses the criteria of authenticity as completely invalid. And he claims to have found evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish celestial Dying Messiah tradition. Any one of these contested claims – if established – would alone be a significant contribution to scholarship. But to combine them all at once while calling for a fundamental paradigm shift in Jesus Research and historical methodology is to court controversy and, well, rejection.

Unsurprisingly, Waters was unconvinced. He rejected Carrier’s argument about James as “untenable” and insisted that Paul’s reference to Jesus being “born of a woman” was a typical example of Pauline thought “habitually and typically” conflating history and allegory. Waters pointed out that there is simply no evidence of “a crucified Celestial Christ in any literature” and criticized Carrier’s use of “relatively obscure texts” (like the Ascension of Isaiah and Philo) to construct his celestial Christ myth. He dismissed the idea that various “Mediterranean fables” provide compelling similarities to Jesus and pointed out that we have no evidence of any Christian or non-Christian critique of a Mythical Jesus. Carrier responded by pointing out that we don’t have enough evidence to falsify this argument from silence, noted that Waters didn’t provide any evidence of Jesus’ historicity, and accused him of “ignoring” the scholarship on the Ascension of Isaiah and getting Philo “all wrong.” According to Carrier, Waters’s emphasis on the differences between Jesus and the savior gods of antiquity was simply “terrible methodology.”

In the end, the audience asked questions, nothing was resolved, and we all went home. This was not an attempt for two ideologically opposed world-views and thought-systems to engage the other and negotiate common ground. No, it was two ideologically opposed world-views holding their own ground in parallel universes with “Jesus” as the central site of discursive conflict, illuminating once again, that “Jesus” is cultural capital in ideological struggles for power. But that’s a post for another day.


Click through to read the rest.

Of related interest, CNN has an article about whether Jesus had a brother.

UPDATE: soon after posting this, I spotted some posts from earlier today on blogs I read, which are also relevant. Jonathan Bernier blogged about Carrier’s book, and Daniel Gulotta blogged about Bart Ehrman’s recent book about Christology. Here is an excerpt from Bernier’s review to whet your appetite:

Carrier’s got a bright idea, but that’s all. That bright is that there is a 2 in 3 chance that Jesus did not exist. That doesn’t tell me that Jesus did not exist. In fact, “Did Jesus exist?” is not even Carrier’s question but rather “Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?” And the answer to that is “Yes.” But that’s not enough. One must further ask “Is that world the one that best accounts for the totality of the relevant data?” Does it account for the most data whilst adopting the fewest suppositions? Does it resolve problems throughout the field of study, or does it in fact create new ones? And on those matters Carrier fails, as has been shown repeatedly by various NT scholars, professional and amateur, here on the interwebs (which, one should note, is just about the only place that this “debate” is taking place. It’s certainly not taking place in the academy. Kinda like what fundamentalist Christians euphemistically call the evolution “debate”; the debate, it turns out, exists primarily in their heads).

I can conceive of many things. I can conceive of a world that sprang into being fully-formed last Tuesday, with all our memories and the appearance of age prefabricated by a deity named Goozawana. But conceiving of such a world does not make it so. There is a reason that we distinguish between fiction and history. The objects are different. One aims to suggest what might be, the other to define what actually was. That’s a significant difference. I have yet to see Carrier move beyond the realm of the what might be into the realm of what is. I’ll check back when he does.

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  • Gary

    Glad you don’t use “Rules of Engagement” like the military… Defining when you can, or can’t, kill someone.

  • Herro

    >Kenneth L. Waters, Sr.. Waters, after all, is an Azusa Pacific University professor,

    Kenneth would presumably be fired from his position if he were to become a mythicist, right? Shame that SBL couldn’t have someone oppose him that would be free to openly change his position without fear of reprisals.

    • Ian

      IS that different to debates on creationism? Presumably it would be hard to stay in post as an evolutionary biologist if you changed your position to become a creationist.

      I get your point, I agree doctrinal tests are a big problem, but the constraints of academic consensus aren’t totally unreasonable.

      • I think that a statement of faith that must be signed as a condition of employment is a bit more than a constraint of academic consensus.

        • Ian

          I agree, but that wasn’t the point I was responding to. The point I was responding to was the implication that Waters couldn’t change his mind on mythicism and retain his role, and therefore was ideologically compromised in the discussion.

          That is a poor argument.

          Which is not to say that statements of faith are reasonable.

          • Herro

            How about being “economically compromised”?

            But sure, he might have an open mind and not be biased because of the potential job loss. But if he were ever to change his mind, we would probably never know.

            And this is of course not limited to mythicism, the guy probably can’t admit openly that the resurrection didn’t happen and keep his job.

          • Ian

            Hmm, can’t tell if you’re ignoring the point, or I failed to make it.

            My point was that you don’t need to go that far to find constraints on people. Those constraints occur on anyone responding to this kind of field-changing consensus-inverting position.

            And such constraints, in the context of a meeting like this, aren’t unreasonable.

            As such, I think he’s no more compromised than an evolutionary biologist would be listening to a creationist make their case. Even if the case would be convincing to them, if all their constraints were removed, that is not the venue for them to be. He was there to criticise the thesis. As far as I can tell, he did a fine job of that. If Carrier was expecting to be able to win him over, then he’s been to very very few of these things.

          • Even while criticizing creationism, I think we could expect any responsible evolutionary biologist to be equally likely to fairly acknowledge the questions that have yet to be answered and where genuine controversies remain. Can we expect a scholar who is contractually obligated to defend the inerrancy of scripture to honestly acknowledge the problems with the sources or areas of uncertainty?

          • Herro

            Yeah, isn’t academic freedom and free inquiry supposed to be an integral part of scholarship? This just reflects poorly on SBL and biblical scholarship.

            It’s like having a professor of oncology being employed by a tobacco company and in his contract it says that he can be fired for admitting that there’s a link between smoking and cancer.

          • Ian

            Aren’t you just begging the question there?

            Why is that the analogy. Why isn’t the analogy like having a professor of oncology who isn’t allowed to *deny* there’s a link between smoking and cancer?

            Do you think that the mainstream opinions of medical professors are inherently trustworthy because they are employed by academic institutions allied to teaching hospitals?

            I 100% agree, incidentally, that SBL’s lack of commitment to secular critical scholarship is a problem. They dropped the critical tag from their title, they have denominational tracks at meetings. I’m just not sure that, in the specific case you are talking about, that played any part. Given how such responses to controversial theses usually go at academic conferences.

          • I think the analogy is what it is because the Tobacco Institute employs doctors and scientists for the specific purpose of creating doubt about the health risks of smoking while no similarly purposed and funded institution exists on the other side.

          • Ian

            Can we expect a scholar who is contractually obligated to defend the inerrancy of scripture to honestly acknowledge the problems with the sources or areas of uncertainty?

            It strikes me that, in the case of finding someone to respond to an argument, you want someone who can directly challenge the weak points of the argument they are responding to. I’m not sure why the two are mutually exclusive somehow?

            Would you have expected an atheist tenured professor at a secular school to respond in a fundamentally different way?

          • In my experience, scholars from secular schools are much more likely to acknowledge the problems in building a case based on the sources we have than are scholars from confessional schools.

          • Herro

            Yeah, I’m not following. :S

      • Herro

        Yeah, like Vinny said, having to sign a document that says that you’ll be fired if you would e.g. embrace some sort of ID-creationism is a step up.

        And this isn’t a “constraint of academic consensus”, this university is a fundamentalist university, the constraints are just their dogmas. Radically different.

        • Ian

          Thanks. I responded to Vinny.

    • Kris Rhodes

      I would say his position at that school makes it less likely that he’s arguing for historicity because historicity is true, but this doesn’t mean it’s any less likely that historicity is true.

      • I agree. And as someone who teaches at a secular university, I don’t think I would lose my job if I were to embrace mythicism, provided that meant that I was trying to do research to make a persuasive case for this fringe viewpoint. Academics do that all the time. What might lead to issues would be if I didn’t teach students the consensus and misled them as to the state of academic thinking in the interest of promoting my own pet views.

        Religious institutions are a different kettle of fish, and personally I don’t think that schools which require people to sign their agreement to views in order to teach there should be called universities, or the diplomas they offer called degrees, precisely because there can be no genuine research or other intellectual inquiry if one is not allowed to draw non-approved conclusions.

        • Herro

          Yeah, and what should the interested amateur think of “mainstream biblical scholarship” when the SBL has a fundie from a “university” like that respond to Carrier?

          • An interested amateur will probably figure out that SBL is an organization which anyone can join and so, while it consists primarily of mainstream scholars, it has all sorts of other people in it too, and perhaps this conservative Christian was involved in extending Carrier the invitation. But if that simple option doesn’t satisfy, one can creatively think of others. Here are a few possibilities:

            – The SBL has been thoroughly infiltrated by religious people – in which case, there is no prestige in Carrier having spoken at one of their meetings.
            – The SBL is a serious scholarly organization, and having invited Carrier by mistake, they scraped the bottom of the barrel to find anyone willing to engage with him.
            – The session was on the last day in the last time slot, and by then all the serious scholars had gone home.

            I am sure I could come up with others, if you feel you need to consider still other options.

          • Herro

            I noticed that this regional conference was held at that professor’s “university”. A SBL conference held at a fundie university and a fundie scholar responds to Carrier.

          • While you’re driving home a point based on the legitimacy of the “university” to which Waters belongs, you seemed to have overlooked a much more salient point: Carrier doesn’t belong to ANY university.

          • Herro

            When it comes to free inquiry, I think that not being a professor is preferable to being a professor at a “university” that fires people who don’t adhere to the “university”‘s dogma.

          • Oh, I see. What about “not professors” like Carrier who choose to participate in conferences at such “universities”?

          • Herro

            What about that? :S

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death…(Hebrews 5:7)

            And Carrier’s interpretation:

            This is most likely another scripturally derived inference about what happened to Jesus in outer space when Satan and his demons abused and killed him…

            It probably is better for someone who wishes to promote such views not to be part of the establishment, as it is for Flood geologists. It makes you wonder whether Carrier is really interested in convincing the mainstream, or whether he is content with the adulation of his fans.

          • michael macrossan

            Carrier would probably do better to stop saying “outer space”, and instead say “lower heavens”, because people like you might treat the word “heaven” a little more seriously.

            Do you accepted completely Paul’s account (2 Cor 12:2) of a visit to the “third heaven”, by any chance?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Are you asking me whether I believe there actually was a visit to the third heaven, or whether the mention of such a visit lends support to Carrier’s theory? The answer is no in both cases.

          • Well, if you don’t like “universities” that require faith statements, do you like conferences that take place at universities that require faith statements and the scholars that participate in such conferences?

          • Herro

            Well, it depends. If it’s just a venue (like a conference hall) then I don’t see a problem. But sure, having it at a fundie “university” is bad.

            But if we’re talking about free inquiry, then I don’t think that participating in a conference hosted by fundies comes anywhere close to being fired for not being a fundie.

          • So fundies can host SBL conferences, they just can’t participate?

          • Herro

            I’m just saying that real scholars shouldn’t be under the thumbs of fundie institutions. To what extent fundie institutions should be able to host conferences for real scholars, I’m not sure, but if it’s just a venue, then I don’t see that much of a problem.

            But when the fundie “university” can fire a scholar for e.g. rejecting inerrancy, then we’ve clearly got a problem.

          • So you think that the real scholars of the SBL are under the thumbs of fundie institutions?

          • Herro


          • Because I agree that institutions requiring faith statements subvert academic freedom. But I’m still not sure if you mean to say that Waters is not a “real scholar” or that he is a “real scholar” who happens to be under the thumbs of a fundie institution? Do you think he would change his scholarly opinion on the historicity of Jesus if he worked for a secular university?

          • Herro

            >Do you think he would change his scholarly opinion on the historicity of Jesus if he worked for a secular university?


            >But I’m still not sure if you mean to say that Waters is not a “real scholar” or that he is a “real scholar” who happens to be under the thumbs of a fundie institution?

            I mean merely to say that he isn’t free to question fundie dogmas in his field of study that are blatantly absurd.

            Call that “fake scholar” or a “real scholar under the thumbs of a fundie institution” or whatever you like.

          • michael macrossan

            One of the most interesting lectures I heard in my professional field (not religious studies or anything like it) was given by a long-haired hippy-looking guy, not affiliated with any University or research organisation. I was completely ready to dismiss him off-hand just for the way he looked. After 30 minutes, I had changed my mind. He had something very interesting to say, and he knew how to say it and prove it.

          • ncovington89

            here is another possibility: mythicism is a serious scholarly position and one or more people in SBL managed to recognize it.

          • Jim

            Even another possibility here: given that a large volume of mythicists ideas from say the 17th century to the late 20th century have been shown to be bovine excrement based, what’s the Bayesian probability that the current status of mythicism will also likely be found to have a similar composition based when such high priors are involved?

          • Martin

            If the mainstream has evangelical and fundamentalist scholars in it, is it mainstream any longer? The irony of comparing mythicism to creationism is that Carrier’s opponent probably is one!
            It seems an overhaul of the system is in order.
            As for secular universities, even they have evangelical wingnuts working in them.

          • Actually, it isn’t ironic but expected. The mythicism “it is all fiction” combined with an apologetic approach to the evidence is the exact mirror image of the religious fundamentalist “none of it is fiction.” While mainstream historical methods require nuance and separate decisions about ever detail, both extremes of ideologues prefer to be able to make blanket statements.

          • Martin

            I await a reply to what I actually said. Thanks.

          • Was your point that you think the SBL should be more exclusive in its membership? Believe me, it has been talked about. But ultimately most of us feel that having Evangelical scholars exposed to what the rest of us are doing is worthwhile, and trying to come up with inevitably complex rules about who is in and who is out is not ultimately in anyone’s best interest. Moreover, unlike mythicists thus far, Evangelical scholars continue to produce some work which follows the rules of secular scholarship and which the rest of us can make use of and interact with.

          • Fisherofman

            are you saying that because someone is an evangelical, they are therefore a wingnut?

          • michael macrossan

            Am I right in thinking you seem peeved that Carrier was allowed to speak at the SBL?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If the organisers had known that Carrier would write such a disparaging blog post about the person who was chosen to respond to his presentation, I wonder whether they would still have invited him. Someone should have warned them that Carrier isn’t fully house-trained.

          • Not at all. My concern is that this would be used to suggest that somehow it indicates that his ideas are persuasive. Anyone who thinks that presenting at SBL means you are persuasive has never been to SBL.

  • domics

    What’s next at SBL? A discussion with someone mantaining the reality of the flood and Noah’s ark?

    • Tim Bos

      Mythicists agree with historicists that the Jesus of the Bible is largely a mythological figure. But historicists think that there is a real person behind the layers of myth-making, and that we can know things about it, whereas mythicists do not. If you believe that the flood described in the Bible is a myth, but that flood myths are based on real floods, does that make you a historicists or a mythicist regarding the Biblical flood? Think carefully about this…

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Apparently, Waters was guilty of “terrible methodology”. Accusations of insanity will have to wait until Carrier blogs about it.

  • Tim Bos

    ” One aims to suggest what might be, the other to define what actually was.” I don’t see how this is a relevant criticism. Agree or disagree with Carrier, he’s trying to establish probabilities. That’s all a historian can do. Carrier is arguing that it is more likely that Jesus did not exist. A historicists would have to argue that it is more likely that Jesus did exist. Whichever side you’re on, you’re dealing with probabilities, not certainties.

    • Of course, that goes without saying, at least for those familiar with how historical study works.

      • Tim Bos

        Right, but the guy you quoted created a false dilemma between “what really happened” and “what could conceivably have happened.” This makes it seem as though, since Carrier argues using probabilities, that he’s just arguing for “what could conceivably have happened.” But that’s not Carrier’s approach. His argument is that, given the evidence, mythicism is far more likely than historicism, not that mythicism conceivable and therefore true. Whether he’s correct about that is another question, but it’s wrong to accuse of him of a “possible so therefore true” line of reasoning.

        • Kris Rhodes

          Tim is correct.

  • Tim Bos

    “Carrier’s got a bright idea, but that’s all. That bright is that there
    is a 2 in 3 chance that Jesus did not exist. That doesn’t tell me that
    Jesus did not exist.” Correct, that just tells you that Jesus PROBABLY did not exist.

    • No, it tells you that one person claims that. And in the context of the book as a whole, it tells you that one person claims that because of a thoroughly unpersuasive reading of piece after piece of evidence.

      • Tim Bos

        I read Bernier as stating a conditional: “Even if there’s a 2/3 chance that Jesus did not exist, then that would still not tell me that Jesus did not exist.” Is that not a fair way of understanding what he wrote?

        • Perhaps. I thought in context that his point was that Carrier thinking that there is a 2/3 chance does not mean he is correct. But I may have been revising his meaning to make a better point than what he actually wrote. 🙂

          • Tim Bos

            Fair enough. 🙂

          • ncovington89

            Were it the case that you agree with Carrier’s premise that there is a 2/3 chance jesus was mythical, then you should be a mythicist. Historical enquiry is always based on finding the most probable conclusion, so if Carrier gets that far, he has won the debate. Pointing out that “gee it’s still possible” is Conspiracy theory style nonsense, which is why it is so surprising that someone with a PhD thought it was worth re blogging. I guess that just tells us something about you, James. For you the historical Jesus is your creationism: whatever it takes to defend the faith, right?

          • Carrier’s argument for that 2/3 number is based on shoddy arguments and thoroughly unpersuasive interpretations of evidence.

            You can pretend that mainstream scholarship is like creationism to make yourself feel better about your own embrace of denialism, but that doesn’t make it so.

          • Tim Bos

            Just to be clear: My point was not that Carrier is right about the 2/3 probability. My point was just that Bernier is wrong to suggest that establishing such a probability is somehow equivalent to conceiving “of a world that sprang into being fully-formed last Tuesday.” That’s a false equivalence. Carrier does not argue that mythicism is conceivable and therefore true. He simply argues that it is more likely to be true than historicism, given the state of the evidence. That’s all it takes to be a mythicist.

          • Jim

            Even if RC’s probability estimate is reasonable, it’s just a probability calculation. For me, it’s a bit similar to if you have one in a thousand chance of having a particular disease, for 999 people it’s just a probability. But for the person who is diagnosed with the illness, it’s a 100% probability irrespective of any priors and posts in the probability calc.

          • ncovington89

            Unless and until you step your game up, I don’t think you should say anyone else’s work is shoddy. That said, what I was saying was that *if you accept his premise* Bernier did, and stupidly attempted to respond by saying, basically, “but there is still a chance.” I won’t spare you’re feelings here: you should be ashamed for reposting that with approval.

            And no, I don’t think all scholars are like creationists. You are like a creationist.

          • This trolling of yours is beginning to grow tiresome. Have you ever told a biologist that she or he needs to “step up their game” when they have been tenured, promoted, and evaluated well at a secular university, and publish regularly with respectable academic presses, but they have the shortcoming that young-earth creationists do not accept what they say on their blog?

          • ncovington89

            From Bernier:
            “One must further ask ‘Is that world the one that best accounts for the totality of the relevant data?’ Does it account for the most data whilst adopting the fewest suppositions? Does it resolve problems throughout the field of study, or does it in fact create new ones?”

            All of which questions are addressed in the book.

            “And on those matters Carrier fails, as has been shown repeatedly by various NT scholars, professional and amateur, here on the interwebs”

            Bull. There have been few published reviews from ANYBODY in the academic community. James’ review has been an exception, but it is loaded with so many fallacies and other errors that, if anything, it supports mythicism (if an academic has to sink to such levels to defend the historical Jesus, what does tell us?)

            (which, one should note, is just about the only place that this “debate” is taking place. It’s certainly not taking place in the academy.

            John Dominic Crossan addressed it in his most recent book, and SBLs most recent meeting included a discussion, and Thomas Verenna published a volume with various scholars contributing viewpoints about mythicism.


          • This is the standard problem with pseudoscholarship. Engage and they claim it shows it is worthy of engagement. Don’t engage, and they complain that their work is being ignored, perhaps because scholars are scared. It is so sad that you can’t hear how much you sound like the standard damage control of creationists when science bloggers tackle their work.

          • Tim Bos

            Prof. McGrath, are you sure you want to keep pushing this analogy between mythicism and creationism and other wacky ideas? I can read creationism literature and other wingnut ideas and pretty quickly spot the fallacious reasoning going on there. On the other hand, when I read works by credentialed mythicists, there is nothing so obviously askew going on. I have no training in Biblical scholarship, but I have an MA in philosophy and I teach critical thinking. I know how to spot shoddy argumentation. Mythicists and historicists both draw on the same data to come to their conclusions, so once I know what the relevant evidence for Christian origins is, it becomes just a matter of sussing out individual arguments. At no point does it seem to me that scholars like Carrier and Price do ANYTHING like what creationists do. I am not writing this as an evangelist for mythicism. It only matters to me as a question of history whether or not Jesus existed – I have nothing riding on it personally one way or the other. This does not mean that I think you should just agree with whatever, say, Carrier argues. But the mere fact that you (and apparently most Biblical scholars) disagree with his particular conclusions does not mean that his views are on par with the views of evangelicals who want to deny basic scientific knowledge.

          • I would encourage you to read some mainstream secular scholarship on any topic Carrier touches on – the character of Docetism, the references to Jesus’ family, the Rank-Raglan mythotype, “mystery cults,” or anything else. Inform yourself as you have about biology, or as you would expect a biology-denialist to do so in order to not be ignorant of the basic evidence and arguments in the field. While clearly the nature of evidence and conclusions are very different between any of the natural sciences and ancient history, I think you would begin to see that Carrier is offering unpersuasive claim after unpersuasive claim about the evidence, and as his own mathematical model emphasizes, lumping together lots of implausible things makes your overall case less persuasive, not more so.

          • Tim Bos

            Right, I am not saying that you shouldn’t criticize bad arguments. What I am suggesting is that scholars who ascribe to some version of mythicism should not be compared to science-deniers. That seems like an unfair analogy. What’s especially weird about this whole “debate” is that mainstream scholars pretty much agree with mythicists about the mythical nature of the Biblical Jesus. Apart from a few ‘facts’ (he had a brother named James, was baptized by John, had some followers, and was crucified under Pilate), secular scholars seem to agree that the Jesus handed down to us through tradition is the result of a long process of mythmaking (and of course those mythemes had to come from somewhere). Mythicist are only suggesting that those few ‘facts’ can be explained in the same way all the other Biblical fabrications can be explained. So the difference between (non-religious) historicists and mythicists is really pretty small, whereas the gap between modern science and creationists is a gaping chasm.

          • Let me make a comparison to Alexander the Great, not because he is a comparable figure to Jesus, but just because he is one of many examples that could be used but is more widely known than some lf the others that come to mind. Historians are persuaded that the impregnation of his mother by a god is legend, not history. It might be possible to say that an Alexander-denialist therefore is simply someone who does what other historians do, merely going further. But hopefully there you see the problem. Taking something that applies to some stories about Alexander, and insisting that it must apply everywhere, means not taking seriously that not all the evidence suggests that all the information we have is mythological. Doing history means distinguishing between the different kinds of material and seeing what evidence seems historical despite skeptical investigation, and what seems non-historical. Denialism means taking the latter and insisting that the former conform to it, no matter how much the evidence suggests otherwise.

          • Tim Bos

            I agree with everything you just said. But the problem is that there are educated people who can think critically and who have no personal stake in the historicity of Jesus to whom it does not seem that Carrier is engaging in what you’re accusing him of engaging in. We read his arguments and do not think that the type of historical reasoning he engages in is very different from what most historians do. So when you state, publicly, that scholars who defend mythicism are at the same level of kookiness as your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, then you are also saying that educated laypersons (like Kris and myself, and many others) are incapable of seeing through obviously crazy lines of reasoning.

          • I think you are both capable of seeing through the kookiness. I suspect that the obviousness to me is due to my familiarity with the relevant evidence. If one’s first encounter with Philo – or Galatians, for that matter – is mediated through Carrier’s discussion thereof, I do not doubt that what he proposes might seem entirely plausible. But, to be fair, the same is often true of other kinds of denialism. Every form has intelligent subscribers. Accepting fringe history, science, or anything else is not indicative of lack of education. In some cases it reflects significant education, and may seem to the one engaging in it to be simply the application of critical thinking. The key, I think, is to inform oneself really well about mainstream scholarship, and to recognize that anyone who claims that the majority of scientists or historians or whatever are not merely wrong but incompetent fools is unlikely to be trustworthy. And then, to apply the same serious skepticism and high level of demanded evidence from the denialist scenario as from the one it is attacking.

          • Tim Bos

            Thanks for responding, Prof. McGrath. I’m glad you think even intelligent people can take fringe theories seriously. 😉 Now, as for thinking that the majority of historians are incompetent fools, that is no requisite for a mythicist view. Carrier and Price both rely on the results of other historians, and they use these results to argue for a paradigm that is different from what we are used to. For me, it’s pretty easy to switch back and forth from both paradigms. I can organize the first-hand evidence evidence (I mean the actual Biblical and relevant extra-Biblical texts) from a mainstream perspective as easily as from a mythicist perspective. Apart from a disagreement about the existence of a person about whom we would know very little if he existed, there is hardly any difference between the two perspectives when it comes to how the mythemes, theologies, soteriologies, etc. of Christianity developed over time. So mythicism just isn’t the “denialism” that you argue it is. It is not denying the years of scholarship that show how Christianity probably developed over time. It is just suggesting that possibly (or probably) the figure that we expected to find beneath the onion layers of myth is actually just another layer of myth. Mythicism is just not subversive enough to be a form of “denialism.” I don’t even think the question of historicity is that important, in the long run. An adequate theory of Christian origins can be had without even answering that question, as far as I can tell.

          • Mark

            Rejection of ‘historicity’ is rejection of the only hope for secular comprehension of the data, namely – no doubt putting it ineptly — as arising from a case of Jewish messianic agitation that survived, in a new form, the inevitable fate of messianic agitations. It cannot comprehend Paul as a typical if inevitably somewhat ‘heretical’ 1st century Jewish intellectual; it thus also impedes Jewish studies by depriving us of one of the few points of direct access to a fevered individual Jewish religious mind of that unusually fevered period. It replaces the hope of real historical comprehension with a sort of free play of ‘mythological’ associations. The structure of that game was already in place in Reformation critiques of Catholicism as a sort of paganism; these of course had plenty of truth in them, but were basically polemical in orientation, not focused on comprehension of the phenomena and historical truth.

          • Kris Rhodes

            I don’t see how rejecting historicity is rejecting the _only_ hope for secular comprehension of the data. You seem to be saying the only model we have for comprehending the events we do know about is “survival of the inevitable fate of messianic agitations.” But, for example, Carrier gives seemingly plausible alternative models, for example, cargo cults and other reactions by colonized people to complete defeat. (This is just an example–I don’t mean to imply his entire argument rests on this model.)

            And to a broader point–it should be noted that even if rejecting historicity somehow left us with no way to understand what happened on a secular basis, this would not by any means imply that we have a good reason to affirm historicity! It could be that our information is such that we just have to say we just don’t know what happened.

          • Mark

            The bit where Carrier is discussing ‘cargo’ cults, 159-65 or so, he can at best be explaining the general atmosphere of Jewish messianism, apocalyptic, resurrectionist eschatology, etc. that had arisen in the previous few centuries under Greek and Roman rule (no doubt intensified under the Romans by the intervening period of freedom). There are many ways of sorting these wild religious phenomena, and many ways of explaining them; and parallel movements of ideas are indeed found all over the place. The study of these aspects of the Jewish thought of the period is a whole academic field, basically, which Carrier hasn’t looked into, preferring to read about Inanna.

            Jesus messianism does indeed clearly emerge from such a milieu of ‘apocalyptic millenarian expectation’ etc etc. That’s why when we read Paul writing about his anointed we know what range of things he might be talking about, and why we understand him when he demands the obedience of ‘the nations’ to the anointed one in political and military terms, and what he means in speaking of the resurrection of the dead, and so on. And when we read him attaching an Aramaic corruption of the name of Joshua to him, and saying he was crucified (which his readers can only understand to mean: executed by the Romans) we know exactly what happened. It is very rare that historical cognition is so direct and immediate.

            Carrier thinks that these remarks about cargo cults are going to help explain something that he calls ‘Christianity’, which he frequently represents even in this period as, e.g. ‘stealing’ things from the other thing, which he calls ‘Judaism’. But, no: they explain features of the going forms of Jewish religious enthusiasm. It is already a catastrophic violence against the material to speak of ‘Christianity’ in Paul — almost as bad as bringing Isis and Inanna into a picture which is already saturated with quite different forms of religious excess. For Paul, it is clear that there is no new ‘religion’ in view: the only ‘cult’ in town is the cult of the God of the temple of Jerusalem. It’s just that its cultists — hoi iudaiou — have been secreting messianic eschatological chiliastic resurrectionist – if you like ‘cargo cult’-ish – ideology for ages; and his letters are leading documents of some of its late 2nd temple religious forms.

            What he thinks is: the blurry accumulation of messianic ideas characteristic of this milieu, and derived from Hebrew prophecy etc. – and no doubt rendered especially feverish by ‘imperial domination’ – has found the concrete historical bearer it indisputably was ‘looking’ for. The Romans killed him, of course, but, etc. Just read it! This is not for him a new religion but a concrete historical development he understands in the light of certain aspects his ‘religion’; time is clearly too short for him to envisage anything like a new religion or cult.

          • Kris Rhodes

            I am not sure how to respond. In this post you’re asserting that a historical Jesus is the best explanation for some things Paul said, but I do not discern an argument for this claim, and this claim is the very one under dispute.

            I’ll note that it appears odd to me to take Carrier to task for characterizing these early phenomena as constituting early “Christianity,” as in my reading this has seemed to have been the convention among NT scholars more generally, if not completely universal, at least common enough to be passed over without notice.

          • Mark

            The claim is, Paul is saying that there was a ‘historical’ Jesus.

            On the other point, I do of course agree that Carrier is much, much more under the influence of old-school Protestant seminaries than he has yet recognized. For example he makes the distinction between ‘biblical and ‘non-biblical’ evidence for ‘historicity’. To characterize Paul’s letters as ‘biblical’ is already total anachronism and the beginning of the end. There is no difference is status between Paul and Josephus, they are just two 1st century Jewish writers. Of course Josephus is writing mostly history and Paul quasi-military messianic communiques.

          • Mark

            That is, I was not there making an inference from the text to the circumstances (i.e. to Carrier’s ‘h’) but from the (apocalyptic, messianic, etc.) circumstances to a rendering of text. –Totally enthymematically, of course.

            Of course, ‘maybe Paul was lying’ is a possible mental posture.

            Note by the way that Carrier only spends about 15 or 20 of his 700 pages dealing directly with the genuine letters of Paul. This is in a chapter where he discusses them alongside pseudo-Pauline and other documents, some of them perhaps from the second century, all given the title ‘Epistles’ by the church later. This assimilation is a typical case of anachronism and chronic incapacity to formulate the right, historically significant classification. He wastes almost all of this brief space noting they do not contain material akin to that found in e.g. Matthew – which surely ‘Christians’ would want if Paul was presupposing that his ‘Jesus’ was historical. His evidence for what ‘Christians’ would want is presumably derived from the Church around the corner. Again, total anachronism. No labor is expended giving a systematic or sustained account of the meaning of exactly these texts – the words of a definite historical individual in a surprisingly definite period of time, making statements in his own person – a religious fanatic to be sure, and a visionary – and its relation to the febrile surrounding Jewish intellectual milieu.

          • Kris Rhodes

            I’m surprised if you think Carrier makes that distinction as anything other than a way to organize the work and accommodate the sensibilities of part of his audience. I don’t have chapter and verse to cite here, but Carrier is explicitly aware that there’s nothing special about the biblical texts as compared to other texts, when it comes to considering them as historical evidence.

          • Mark

            No, actually, in historical work on this material it is incredibly hard to sort out the strata, and to keep later ideas from intruding onto the interpretation of Paul. If we are attempting to represent the actual historical development the rendering of these documents is on almost any conceivable account decisive. A notable, and especially readable scholar – non-Christian fwiw! – who labors on Paul, inter alia, and the danger of anachronism would be, e.g. Fredricksen, see maybe from her webpage. I mention her just as a typical very-high-quality scholar who also writes well.

          • Mark

            Damn, threw a ‘c’ into “Fredriksen”

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Carrier’s own presentation of the background to the emergence of Christianity seems to imply the need for a real founding figure.

            Palestine in the early first century was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce that they had found the messiah.

            He then gives an account of some of the candidates, including the following:

            Theudas gathered followers and said he would part the Jordan – another act with obviously messianic meaning: Joshua (the original Jesus) had also miraculously parted the Jordan…

            Another (unnamed) “impostor” mentioned by Josephus … gathered followers and promised them salvation if they followed him into the wilderness – an obvious reference to Moses…

            That [Christianity] among [the cults] would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection.. odds are one of them would by chance be successful…

            The existence of a real Jesus in this context makes perfect sense. Moreover, these figures are seen as modern versions of biblical heroes such as Moses. If the followers of any of these figures were able to convince themselves that the mission had been a success, you would expect them to tell stories about their leader which would cast him in the mould of someone like Moses – in other words, you would expect the leader to be portrayed as a Rank-Raglan hero.

          • Mark

            Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it? In his disorienting confetti of ‘Elements’ Carrier occasionally bumps into reality. Here, rather than sticking with the messianic material, his ADD-style history has him pass quickly to the ‘mystery religions’ (‘Elements’ 11-14) and then a bit on the psychology of visionary experience (Element 15), before returning to Paul briefly. The procedure is always to completely confuse the question of origin, which is all that should interest him, with the question of the success and propagation of the ‘Gentile mission’ and some of its later characteristics. In comprehending the latter, especially in the 2nd c and following, a comparison with ‘mystery’ movements – and any other ‘religious movement’ – in that period, or any other, is likely to be helpful. In comprehending the former, the origin, the psychology of visionary experience is likely to be helpful. But the two problems have almost nothing in common. A polemical obsession with the familiar item ‘Christianity’ flattens everything; he does not see that ‘Christianity’ is completely irrelevant to his question, which, not to put fine a point on it, is: who or what is Paul talking about? That Paul is palpably just the kind of guy who, if he had been born a bit later, and deprived of his peculiar ‘vision’, would have been on top of the Temple wall involved in some wild sectarian dispute while everything was crashing around him, has somehow not occurred to him. Paul’s quasi-military communiqués are irrelevant to ‘historicity’ since … they don’t read like Matthew and don’t talk about the baby Jesus.

          • There are details in the evidence which simply do not fit the mythicist view. One can eliminate any evidence one finds inconvenient by saying “that was thought to have occurred in the celestial realm” but that approach simply isn’t going to be persuasive, especially when applied to things like purported Davidic descent and merely being human, which more naturally refer to the mundane sphere.

          • ncovington89

            What about the evidence that Christians definitely believed in a non literal notion of descent (eg Romans 9:8, Galatians 3:29)?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The fact that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh” argues against a metaphorical interpretation, but this is no problem for Carrier, who invokes the idea of a celestial sperm bank. And there lies the problem. Carrier’s theory transfers events from the real world to an alternate universe which is indistinguishable from ours. Someone in that universe can be descended from someone in ours. People in our world can be the brothers of someone in the alternate universe, etc.

            Bernier made a comparison with the notion that the world was created with a false appearance of age, and it was an apt one. The only thing we can do with theories like that is to reject them at the outset.

          • ncovington89

            Kata Sarka has a broad range of meanings, it often means “according to human understanding.”

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Your undestanding of their “understanding” is that a being from another world is descended from someone in this world.

            My understanding is that we have not been offered a persuasive theory.

          • ncovington89

            No. Aside from the fact that the heavens were part of this world, not some alternate dimension as you imply, I think a symbolic meaning is perfectly concievable for descent, ie that Jesus ‘came’ because of God’s promise to David.

          • It wouldn’t bother me so much that mythicists simply really want to believe something, and thus will clutch at less likely options in order to bolster their predetermined “conclusions” – if they didn’t at the same time mock others for doing precisely that.

            Do you by any chance know what “God’s promise to David” was, and what it led people in that time to expect?

          • Mark

            ncovington98 , are you advancing a new theory of Paul’s intended readership? — i.e. that Paul is *writing* to beings in a celestial realm, telling them that they are children of Abraham ‘according to the spirit’? Like “Wait … I get it … *maybe Paul’s ethnē are actually the fallen angels.*” He is working for a sort of tikkun strictly within in the angelic order, but was mistakenly understood to be talking to the nations. The fallen angels were then (de)euhemerized and taken to be the ordinary human ethnē . — This is what it’s like, ncovington98

          • Jim

            “I am not interested in the descendance of the citizens or their racial origins. I classify them using one criterion: their virtue. For me every virtuous foreigner is a Greek and every evil Greek worse than a Barbarian.”

            See Alexander the Great believed in a non literal Greece located somewhere just under the moon.

          • jjramsey

            Here’s the verse in Romans (1:3) referring to Jesus’s supposed Davidic descent:

            the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

            Now here’s Romans 9:8, which you cite as an example of Christians believing in the notion of non-literal descent:

            This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

            It’s clear from Romans 9:8 that not only did Paul have a way of describing a “spiritual” sort of descent, but he also had a way of distinguishing that from normal, literal descent, e.g. with a clause referring to being “of the flesh.” In Romans 1:3, Jesus’ descent from David is described with a similar clause, “according to the flesh,” which indicates that Paul was referring to the normal, literal kind of descent, rather than a “spiritual one.”

            It’s perhaps telling that the verses that you tried to cite in your favor worked against you.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Oh my gosh Tim, exactly, exactly all of what you just said. Sorry, it is just so good to hear this coming from someone else’s brain.

            Okay I should stop. 😀

          • Mark Erickson

            I’d like to say “me three” to Kris and Tim. It is now officially a party. Whoo whoo.

          • Mark

            I’m not sure the creationist-mythicist analogy is so great; at least it doesn’t give any insight into what is going on with ‘mythicism’; it is their relations to supposed mainstream ‘knowledge’ that are sort of parallel. Carrier is putting a rational, better-plated form on arguments of writers like Doherty. If you read Doherty you will see immediately what is going wrong; you feel as if you were using hashish or something. Basically an atmosphere of paranoia and quasi-Cartesian doubt is characteristic of the whole literature, which destabilizes all possibilities of rational historical judgment. “Wait, wait … *maybe Paul was a Greek pretending to be Jew*!” “Wait, wait … maybe his Christ cult is really a sort of ‘Hellenistic mystery cult’ !” “Notice, Paul doesn’t say much about this ‘Jesus’!” “Wait, maybe Paul is thinking that crucifixion, death and resurrection can *happen in a non-terrestrial order*, compare Innani.” Once you start granting this sort of stuff, even in the quasi-numerical form of ‘Well, anyway, the possibility that Paul was advancing a new mystery cult of a dying-and-rising divinity like Innani, must be greater than *zero*”, all sorts of rational connections in the material start to vanish, as when I say, “Well the probability that I am dreaming, as I (apparently) type this, can hardly be zero, I mean once I woke up and …” This entails “Maybe I’m dreaming”. Once this is seriously affirmed by someone all sorts of connections are broken and it’s clear that one will never get anywhere. I don’t totally understand what is up with these people or how to describe the irrationality they are trapped in. Occasionally people will try to impute a ‘motive’ to them, but this situation is stranger than that. It is a sort of contagious state of derealization, once it’s in place the question of motive becomes irrelevant; it’s not clear it can be cured by rational means. Once a writer like Doherty starts mentioning e.g. Science and Reason, and opposing it to Religion and Priestcraft, you feel like you are inside old communist Albania or something.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The surrealism to which you refer is particularly apparent in Carrier’s treatment of the epistle to the Hebrews. Here is a quote:

            Further evidence lies in the fact that Jesus in this gospel [i.e., Hebrews] sprinkles his blood on objects in outer space, not on earth. Though he does not die in the celestial temple, he nevertheless must carry his blood there.

            So Jesus sprinkles some of his blood in outer space, but then he carries the rest in a bucket up to heaven. Do people really believe this?

          • Mark Erickson

            McGrath: “as his own mathematical model emphasizes, lumping together lots of implausible things makes your overall case less persuasive”

            This is another misunderstanding of yours.

            Lumping conditions, assumptions, and special cases, etc. together in one argument lowers the probability of it being true. Mathematically, you are multiplying probabilities (numbers between 0 and 1) together, so the more terms, the lower the result.

            If each argument is considered independently of each other, then you are adding terms, not multiplying. Thus, if many separate arguments favor one conclusion, the case for that conclusion gets better.

          • You misunderstood me. His many separate implausible arguments do not upon examination favor his conclusion, and so the case for that conclusion does not get better.

          • Mark Erickson

            No, actually you misspoke. I completely understand what you are trying to say and could have written your response here before I read it.

            This latest statement is true only because you disagree with each separate evidential argument. You have misunderstood what RC has said about his mathematical model (Bayes’ Theorem).

          • No, you misunderstood me to be saying that, if Carrier had made persuasive case after persuasive case on individual details, his view would still be less probable. My point was, as you seem to have understood and yet still want to argue about for some reason, that his treatment of individual details in unpersuasive, and that an overall persuasive case cannot be cobbled together from a treatment of details which consistently fails to persuade.

          • Mark Erickson

            No, I didn’t think you said that. That is trivially wrong and I actually give you more credit than that. And I do understand and agree with your point as restated here. It is trivially correct. Maybe I’m giving you too much credit, but when you say “his own mathematical model”, I assume you are talking about Bayes’ Theorem, not just a sum of individual arguments.

          • Kris Rhodes

            I am not sure I’ve correctly understood what you and Mark are saying here, but on my reading, what you’re saying here about persuasive cases and treatment of details isn’t right. I think you _can_ provide an overall persuasive case from a set of details which in themselves consistently fail to persuade. I mean, it’s pretty common, isn’t it, that no single part of an argument is convincing in itself, but taken as a whole, the argument is persuasive?

            As I typed the above, it occurred to me maybe what I should understand you to mean is, you can’t put together a persuasive argument out of premises where none of the premises is itself particularly likely to be _true_. Is that right?

          • Yes. It is very common for a theoretical model to be based on data no individual piece of which would suffice to show the model to be correct. What I am talking about is a cumulative case based on interpretations of data, each of which interpretations seems less likely than one or more alternatives.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The evidence from radiometric dating, continental drift and light from distant galaxies all supports the conclusion that the world was created with a false appearance of age, but I wouldn’t get too excited about it.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Tim! Hi! I have a PhD in philosophy and teach critical thinking and my experience has been much like yours! I’m not alone!

            I haven’t posted ina long time, out of frustration with the tone of the conversation, and I’ve just been poking in a bit here and there over the last few days, but now I’m thinking I may just let you do the work. 😀 (kidding)

          • Tim Bos

            Ha! That’s great! The tone is bad on both sides. I wish Carrier would take a different approach and dispense with the polemics. The more he does that, the more the critics will pounce on his antics rather than his arguments, which he does have, and can’t be dismissed so easily.

          • ncovington89

            No, I was addressing the FALSE claim that the debate isn’t taking place. It is. Now that there is a debate doesn’t mean mythicism is true, but it does mean that Bernier’s argument from authority has a false premise. That’s the point being made.

            It’s revealing that neither you nor anybody else has actually devoted the kind of care and attention in responding to mythicism, that, say, the writers of have given to creationism. Your writings on this subject are uniformly shallow and blasé. I could draw up a list of the many fallacies, misrepresentations, etc. that you have made of Carrier and Doherty’s work, but I think Neil Godfrey has done a good enough job of that (and in any case, I have written comments on your last bible interp. article that leave you in ruins).

          • The fact that you think your comments have “left me in ruins” is pretty funny. I wonder whether you can see just what an overestimation of not just your own understanding of the relevant fields in the study of ancient religion, but also of the significance of online comments, this sort of statement entails.

            I think that perhaps this is the biggest challenge online apologists like yourself face if you want to start interacting with scholars. Apologetics is quick to proclaim its victory over all competing ideologies, on the basis of what may be a clever argument but may not on closer examination be a decisive one. Creationists have been proclaiming that they have left “Darwinists” in ruin eversince Darwin – and have been saying that about evolution since even before Darwin’s time.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Yes, I believe this is what occurred.

      • michael macrossan

        Actually, the quoted guy was not saying only Carrier thinks this (although that is true) he was saying that a 2 in 3 chance is nothing much. And that is a big error, don’t you think?

    • SLB

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  • Tim Bos

    ” In fact, “Did Jesus exist?” is not even Carrier’s question but rather ‘Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?'” No, that is not correct. The question, “Is it more probable that Jesus existed, or that he did not exist?” Nowhere does he argue that Jesus didn’t exist because it’s merely “conceivable” that he might not have existed. Again, agree or disagree with the man, but don’t strawman him.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Bernier says:

      That bright is that there is a 2 in 3 chance that Jesus did not exist. That doesn’t tell me that Jesus did not exist. In fact, “Did Jesus exist?” is not even Carrier’s question but rather “Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?”

      You could say that Jesus never existed in two out of every three conceivable worlds in which we have the same relevant evidence. Personally, I think we are living in the third one.

      • Tim Bos

        If you were to agree, hypothetically, that Jesus is a myth in 2/3 of possible worlds in which we have the same relevant evidence, then it follows that it is more probable that we live in a non-Jesus world than a Jesus-world. It’s still possible, in this scenario, that we happen to live in a Jesus-world despite the odds against that, but the probabilities would still favor a non-Jesus world. That would just be how the probabilities work out, and the epistemically responsible thing would be to conclude “It’s more likely that we live in a non-Jesus world.”

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          That would just be how the probabilities work out, and the epistemically responsible thing would be to conclude “It’s more likely that we live in a non-Jesus world.”

          But where’s the fun in that?

          • Tim Bos

            Epistemic responsibility is a safe way to have fun!

  • John MacDonald

    I feel bad for Carrier. He worked so hard on his book.

  • michael macrossan

    Jonathan Bernier thinks that a 2 out of 3 chance that Jesus didn’t exist is no big deal? That’s amazing! When I first heard of Jesus myth theory, I assumed it was a 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000 chance or 1 in a million that Jesus didn’t exist. Compared to which 2 out of 3 is enormous. Civil lawsuits are decided on less than that.

    • Bernier doesn’t think that is a big deal, I presume, because Carrier’s case is so poorly made. If his case were plausible, to say nothing of persuasive, then such numbers would take on a different significance.

      • michael macrossan

        Yes, Bernier may well have expressed himself very badly.