To Engage or Not to Engage

To Engage or Not to Engage March 9, 2015

I had been meaning to blog for a while about the question of whether it is worthwhile engaging with fringe views, whether those that are just barely represented within the academy, or those beyond its pale. It seems appropriate to return to the topic now, since Richard Carrier has offered two blog posts which react to my articles about his book in The Bible and Interpretation. The first one says, in summary, “You didn’t mention everything I said in my book about Gnosticism, and I hope my readers are gullible enough to believe that means you must be wrong about the things you did discuss.” The second is even more laughable, because Carrier writes:

You have to use my numbers. Because those are the numbers borne out by the facts. If you want to use different numbers, you’d better go find some different facts. Until you do, there is nothing left to discuss. The numbers are what they are. Cope.

Carrier, as anyone familiar with what he has written will know, is guilty of badly distorting the facts – whether about Jesus’ brother, or about what Paul writes about his descent from David, or anything else that doesn’t suit the “conclusion” that he has decided in advance he wants to reach.

In both blog posts, Carrier complains that I discussed the matter in mainstream historical terms, and not in the mathematical terms which he prefers. But since he is currently the only one who suggests that all historical arguments must be laid out in Bayesian terms, and since Carrier claims that any historical argument can be presented in Bayesian terms, he is free to rework arguments and interact with them in that way, but until such time as he persuades the field of history to adopt his preferred approach, it is unfair to complain that scholars aren’t doing it. In fact, it is interesting that the only people who seem to think that historical or pseudohistorical matters should be assessed in Bayesian terms are apologists: Richard Carrier, and William Lane Craig.

I think these blog posts of his provide evidence that engaging with fringe views is indeed useful – not, in many instances, those who dogmatically adhere to such views, but at least in showing that the holders of fringe views, while they often attempt to get things published in scholarly venues in order to make themselves and their views seem more plausible to the general public, in fact have no sincere interest in the kind of scholarly engagement that the academy demands.

Since some readers of this blog complain when I make comparisons between mythicism and other fringe viewpoints, I should point out that one can see the same exact approach Carrier uses on Intelligent Design blogs like Uncommon Descent. There’s the accusation that critics have not even read the works they discuss. And there’s the attempt to use formal logic not to make the argument more sound, but to make it seem more impressive to a public that doesn’t grasp the evidence and issues.

Of related interest, Paul Braterman and Jerry Coyne blogged about not engaging with creationism, and Daniel Gullotta blogged about whether or not to engage the Christ myth viewpoint. BoingBoing and Rebecca Trotter had pieces about creationism as well. An article also appeared about whether climate scientists should present their views to lawmakers. The Washington Post suggested that science teachers inadvertently undermine acceptance of evolution through the way they present things. Age of Rocks offered a wonderful analogy of how denialists use doubt.

Ken Perrott blogged about debating with anti-science activists, and the problems of getting accurate scientific information out via social media, because of the insularity of networking among people and groups that reject science.

What are blog readers’ thoughts on this topic? Obviously one can try to address all the major claims of fringe views, but one cannot try to answer every blog post that seeks to do damage control or spin things. Is there a happy medium, and if so, what is it? How have you seen fringe views about science, history, or other subjects addressed effectively and ineffectively on the internet?


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  • Kris Rhodes

    //Carrier, as anyone familiar with what he has written will know, is guilty of badly distorting the facts – whether about Jesus’ brother, or about what Paul writes about his descent from David, //

    A serious problem here is a fundamental difference in the vocabulary you’re using as compared to the one Richard is using. When Richard refers to a “fact” in the passage you just quoted, he is not talking about matters that reasonable people could disagree about (like the meaning of the Jesus’s brother passage, for example). Rather, he’s talking about very basic acts of simply, literally, counting. No thinking involved–just count the number of instances. These are the kinds of things he’s referring to in that passage and calling “facts.”

    This makes your remark here out of place. Even supposing Richard has badly distorted matters which reasonable people can disagree about, this has no implication at all for the strength of his point in the passage you quoted, since in that passage he’s not talking about things reasonable people can disagree about, but instead, the kind of thing that just takes a simple act of counting.

    • He hasn’t distorted only things that reasonable people can disagree about. He has distorted things which are clear by positing anything ad hoc that seems necessary in order to try to spin clear statements – such as descent from David and birth under Torah from a woman as are all humans – and try to twist them into something else.

      • Kris Rhodes

        //He hasn’t distorted only things that reasonable people can disagree about. //

        Relevance unclear. I didn’t claim otherwise in the post you’re responding to, nor is it relevant to either your point or mine whether it’s true or not.

        He was making a very specific point about particular, unarguable facts, and you responded by pointing out that he is wrong about other, arguable matters. Despite the irrelevance of your remark, you were able to craft it as responsive by seizing on the word “facts,” but, as I said, you’re using the term in a different way than he was, which means your response was not on point, and this brings to mind the larger problem of you and he not using words the same way.

        • Michael

          Frankly, the quotation does seem apt to bring out Carrier’s elementary arithmetical incompetence, though. The number of sets ‘Jesus’ belongs to is absolutely infinite in Cantor’s sense. The Rank-Raglan class is one of the more unpromising. The class of ‘apparent people ostensibly named ‘Jesus’ or some equivalent in some language’ is a bit more promising, except of course that apart from a few characters named ‘Jesus’ in contemporary fiction, almost all such people actually existed; probably most of them are still alive even …. More interestingly, the class of ‘apparent people that a lot of people insisted were actual realizations of Jewish messianic prophecy’ is fairly small, and the fact is, they pretty much all actually existed, e.g. Sabbatai, Schneerson, etc etc etc. Of course, not too many of them can actually have realized Jewish messianic prophesy. I would think none myself, not that I have anything against Christians, Sabbateans or Chabad; to the contrary, they are all extremely interesting.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Not sure what you mean when you refer to arithmetical incompetence–it would be extremely, extremely surprising if Carrier were arithmetically incompetent, and I am not sure why anyone who knows how to be careful about such strong claims would upvote your post–but the fact is that in using the Bayes formula it does not matter what you pick for your prior probability. If you use something else, throwing the former selection into the posterior calculations instead, the math will come out to exactly the same number. The choice of prior probability is at most a rhetorical one, not a logical one. And while it’s fun to argue about a person’s rhetoric, more to the point would be arguing about a person’s logic. It’s best to keep those two separate in one’s mind.

          • Michael

            Yes it is exactly this point at which he exhibits his incompetence, though; he thinks it makes his procedure unexceptionable, as it were on arithmetical grounds. It is quite plain of course that he can also recover if he begins with e.g. Z = the union of R-R figures with {Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, 17, Abraham Lincoln}; but your remarks are not a defense of starting with that class, and thus not of his actual starting point. His approach is incapable of registering any distinction between them and is dogmatically innoculated against reflecting on any such distinction and whether it might be better to begin with e.g. the predicate that generates {Schneerson, Sabbatai…}

          • Kris Rhodes

            Carrier’s approach is explicitly designed to invite others such as yourself to throw in all that stuff into the mix. You are free to shuffle the rank raglan stuff into the posterior, and use one of your proposed partitioned classes for computing a prior, and make whatever argument you like that that that proposed class and partition (and resulting probability) should be considered.

            Far from excluding such stuff out of hand, his approach explicitly invites it. Of course, it being a dialogue, you’d want to make an argument for adding in that probability, and that’s how discussion proceeds and progress happens.

            And again–it won’t actually matter whether you use it as a prior or throw it into the posterior calculations. The actual question can never be “what’s the right prior,” because ANY OF THE PROBABILITIES BEING LOOKED AT can be used as the prior. The question is just “what is the right set of probabilities to consider.” Once you’ve nailed that, just throw a die to figure out which one to use as the prior.

          • Michael

            Yes, you keep repeating the self-innoculating mantra. It doesn’t matter whether we begin with R-R or Jewish-Messiah, this can’t possibly affect the rationality of the procedure, it’s a mathematical fact.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Well, my repeating it does not bear on its validity so I’m not sure what your argument is here.

            But I think you’ve misconstrued my point in any case–I haven’t said anything about whether Carrier’s use of Bayes turns out rational or not. Instead, what I’ve said is completely compatible with Carrier being off his rocker. You could show that he’s completely off his rocker, by making a good argument for throwing some more probabilities into the mix (pick whichever you like for the prior) and demonstrating they swamp Carrier’s own chosen probabilities.

          • Michael

            No, the book would have to be completely reorganized around ‘apparent people understood to be the realization of Jewish messianic prophecy’. If I replace chapter 6 with that, I realize that it never happens that non-existent people or small birds or numbers are accounted as the realization of specifically Jewish messianic prophecy. When I do the ‘grand calculation’ in ch 12, I get it that Jesus of course existed like the rest of them, with the customary fatuous blather about how this is really 0.999 or 0.99 or 0.9 probability and not 1. Consciousness of the ambient absurdity only surfaces in the all-important chapter 6 sec. 5, ‘the alternative class objection’, which he considers as an exotic curiosity, a strange, speculative intervention into his reasoning, devoting one page to it. Here he briefly contemplates exactly one alternative class. It is interestingly related to the natural class which, as everyone knows, is the one I described above, though the association is irrelevant to the completely trivial and obvious point I am making. His one, single, speculative, curious, possible, might-be ‘alternative class’ is: apparent people *named ‘Jesus’* and *mentioned in Josephus* and *mentioned in Josephus as thought by some to realize Jewish messianic prophecy*. In my imaginary mirror re-write I might arbitrarily choose something like ‘RR figures who aren’t non-historical people some people found to be the realization of Hebrew messianic prophecy’ — it barely matters, do not be distracted by the mention of R-R, we have absolutely infinitely many classes to work through here — and note, as Carrier does, that it isn’t actually clear that ‘Jesus’ belongs to that class, while it is certain that ‘Jesus’ is an apparent person who was thought by many to be the realization of Hebrew messianic prophecy, and carry on. Basically all the ‘evidence’ remains as it was and I am just as rational as Carrier. Then, if someone complains that I wind up with ‘something between 0.999 and 1’, I repeat the mantras and say it’s up to them to figure it out, they can freely adjust and tune the numbers as they please.

          • Kris Rhodes

            Unfortunately my copy of Carrier’s book is packed in a box right now, but suffice to say if your objection worked, then it would be impossible to use Bayes’ Theorem to reason accurately about the probabilities of actual events, which is, of course, absurd.

          • Michael

            The irrationality the sensible reader will find isn’t the sort you are anticipating. It is clear enough where I am supposed to be registering my complaint, since, as he would force me to put it, I think P(EPISTLES| ~h) = 0, and that only hashish could make one write even P(EPISTLES| ~h) = 0.999 — the hashish is here the surrounding material in the book about Innana and so on. But the reader has no room to recover in a structure arranged this way and is lost contemplating basically arbitrary propositions. When you find the book, just read p 245-6 again and again and see how surreal it is. Basically find a formula F that generates {Sherlock Holmes, … , Don Quixote, Jesus}, then start writing “But even if we used the Josephan Christ class we would still have to explain (!!) the fact that Jesus is *also* in F”, and you will start to see how destabilized the reader is by this approach. Of course, one can recover even from F at the suitable point, but why have I entered a space in which such nonsense arises at all? The procedure of course has nothing to do with explanation, understanding, etc. which in the present context would be historical in character.

          • Ian

            As someone who’s used BT professionally on messy data, I can assure you, in most cases of Bayesian reasoning the reference class problem does indeed make it impossible to use BT to reason *accurately* about real events.

            In cases where the reasoning is basically frequentist, it does work, but for Bayesian interpretations of probability, not so much.

            It is no coincidence that in none of his work does he ever derive any probability distribution that he can actually check independently. He relies rhetorically on the fact that BT is proven mathematically, and hides the fact that his use of it most definitely has not, and in fact its problems are well known in the considerable literature that he does not cite.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Michael, there is a lot that Jesus’ membership of the Rank-Raglan class can tell us. For example, the prior probability that Jesus was believed to have lived before 500 BC would be very high.

          • Michael

            There is nothing that ‘Jesus’ s membership in the Rank-Raglan class can tell us, and moreover this is obvious.

  • Martin

    I think your continued ad hominem of Carrier shows the weakness of your own position. If his thesis is so far fetched, it should be child’s play to debunk it. It’s kinda ironic that his thesis is compared to Creationism and ID when there are probably many creationists and ID proponents in the Academy. Is Carrier’s thesis really more wacky than NT Wright’s?

    • John MacDonald

      The idea that any hermeneutic could lead to the miraculous defies common sense, since the miraculous is ridiculously improbable by definition. One can only hope that one day NT Wright’s “work” will be consigned to the circular file once and for all.

      • guest

        Your objection seems to be on philosophical grounds and not historical

    • Andrew Dowling

      McGrath wouldn’t agree with Wright either.

      Carrier’s theory is such crap because it basically enables all people to be probable fiction in ancient history beyond some heads of state/royalty (and even many of those would be highly subjective). He basically invented his own methodology to suit his aims. BT doesn’t work for history and was never intended to.

      • This is a crap argument.

        The fact that we can have little, if any, certainty about a first century itinerant preacher who had little impact during his life outside a small group of illiterate peasant followers doesn’t mean that we can’t have a reasonable degree of certainty about emperors and generals and politicians and anyone else whose activities were sufficiently known during their lives that they were chronicled by their contemporaries. The notion that questioning the existence of a historical Jesus necessitates tossing out all ancient history is nonsense.

        • Andrew Dowling

          You appear to be unaware of Carrier’s BS use of BT. Yes if used consistently it would toss out much of ancient history.

    • It is easily debunked. But as with creationism, ID, and the claim that history demonstrates the resurrection, those who adhere to mythicism rarely accept that their claims have been debunked.

      • Martin

        Perhaps you should put your energies into debunking and criticizing the likes of Wright and his cohorts as mythicists are a minority, whilst apologetics masquerading as scholarship is a very big problem.

        • If you read this blog regularly, or read my published books and articles, then you would know that I do precisely that.

      • doonrayjay

        Can you suggest where Carrier’s Mythicism claims are debunked so I can read it?

  • Bethany

    It seems to be the problem is that fringe views are nearly always views for which a reasonable argument cannot be made: if there was a reasonable argument in its favor, it probably wouldn’t be a fringe view.

    So you’re left arguing with people who make UNreasonable arguments, which is nearly always nothing but an exercise in frustration. You can make reasonable counters to their arguments out the wazoo, and they’ll keep coming back with unreasonable responses.

  • KTPC

    Dr. McGrath, there’s one things the Mythicists have said that has at least troubled me, which boils down to this point on the Vridar blog :

    I began this post with a claim that these methods are unlike those
    used by historians of other ancient peoples and topics. I will need to
    address that more specifically in a future post again, too, though I
    have posted several times on it already. In brief, the first thing historians generally establish is the nature of the evidence they are working with to determine the most appropriate way to understand its contents. This means literary and textual criticism of some sort must be applied first before assuming any historical intent at all in its contents or any core historical event
    at its base. It also means the importance of external (independent)
    attestation for the provenance, nature and/or contents of the text.
    These concerns are generally taken for granted in studies of, say,
    Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Justinian, even Socrates. Casey follows pretty
    much most historical Jesus scholars in overlooking these practices that
    are standard in scholarly studies of ancient persons outside the Bible.

    Of all the things that these people have said, this sort of line of questioning is the one that troubles me the most. Particularly when, upon reading references the Wikipedia page of the Chirst Myth Theory, I realized that it was quite true, as most of them had asserted, that the field of NT scholars was in fact dominated by believers of different stripes, or at least people who were trained in divinity schools rather than as historians, which I think includes those like Ehrman and Hoffman. I don’t think this is as much of a defeater as they think, but I admit, it gave me pause, and I really wish the consensus of NT scholars would address this accusation that their historiography is somehow different from that of mainstream history and explain how it shouldn’t be regarded as less credible if this is the case.

    • Thanks for your comment, KTPC. I think that mythicists exaggerate greatly the differences of method. The texts I have read which set forth principles of historical study seem to be what most of us apply (although those who work in seminaries are often less rigorous or consistent in doing so). And the collaborations and interactions that we have between historical Jesus scholarship, scholars of Jewish history, and scholars of Roman history, likewise confirm that the methods we are using are not at odds with those being used in these other historical fields.

      There are certainly things that we wish we knew but do not. But matters such as the provenance of early Christian writings are not radically different than similar questions asked in relation to the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance.

      Have you taken a look at some recent works from New Testament scholars about historical methods, and compared them to what one finds in a general introduction to history, or ideally more specifically to ancient history?

      • KTPC

        //Have you taken a look at some recent works from New Testament scholars
        about historical methods, and compared them to what one finds in a
        general introduction to history, or ideally more specifically to ancient

        I have not, but I don’t know how profitable that would be, given how complex some of it seems.

        Anyway, if you were going to address these people, I would have it be on something like this – I think Neil Godrey is…I should not say what I think of the man, for Christian charity, but I do not think highly of him and don’t wish to imply by using this as an example of fine thought. But he does summarize a bunch of objections to NT historiography. Though I had time understanding a lot of it, it seems at least pretty comprehensive.

        • Gakusei Don

          I totally agree, KTPC. Whatever we think of Richard Carrier and Neil Godfrey as people, they have certainly brought up good questions around historicity and how we should examine history. Not just their questions either, but also questions raised by other scholars in NT studies. I think the way they respond to critics and the mythicism debate unfortunately takes the focus from this.

          • And I would point out that I tried for a very long time to interact with Neil Godfrey, but his rancor, insults, and misrepresentations led me to stop. KTPC, I would encourage you to explore the blog’s archives to see some of that past blogging about mythicism.

            Perhaps it is time for another round-up of such blogging?

            Here is a link to a search of “Neil Godfrey” on this blog:

          • KTPC

            No, I’m perfectly aware of that man’s tendencies. I simply pointed that out as an example of the sort of questions I think are worthwhile. I think these sorts of questions are more important than trying to convince Earl Doherty that Galatians 1:19 doesn’t mean something it almost certainly doesn’t.

        • Paul E.

          Thanks for posting the link. I have previously read Hooker’s stuff and think the blog post misconstrues her point to some extent. I think her overall point is to remember that history is not a hard science, and using the criteria did not make it so. I agree with her on that.

          History involves human thought and behavior, and therefore comes with all the unpredictability and, at times, irrationality that comes with it. It’s “messy.” Therefore, the study of history and the conclusions to which we come can be as humanly problematic as humanity is.

          Maybe that is where NT historiography has been a bit different – i.e., having a false confidence not occurring in other fields of historical inquiry that we can come to a high level of certainty about particular sayings or deeds that then leads to a particular historical Jesus. But maybe that’s overstating it a bit.

          My opinion, for what little it’s worth, is that the traditional criteria of authenticity may have their greatest uses pedagogically, especially where someone is transitioning from a reading of the NT from a purely faith-based perspective to a historical-critical perspective. In that sense, the field of NT studies basically has to be different from other fields of history simply because of the practicalities, I think.

          • I think as well that the strong feelings people have about Jesus, and the tendency to excesses of both credulity and skepticism, led to the attempt to formulate criteria and principles of evidence as explicitly and precisely as possible.

  • Gakusei Don

    // Obviously one can try to address all the major claims of fringe views,
    but one cannot try to answer every blog post that seeks to do damage
    control or spin things. Is there a happy medium, and if so, what is it? //

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. It’s good to address fringe views, but perhaps not their responses. If the fringe view holder starts claiming everyone who disagrees is reading them “hostilely” or that you have a “personal vendetta” against them, then that’s a sign that any responses won’t be received fairly. If they really believe that you have some kind of personal hostility against them, then best to leave them alone — they have issues. And if they don’t believe it but use it as a debating tactic, then that’s despicable, and they don’t deserve a response.

    I like the views that Richard Carrier presents (in the sense they are challenging), but he does come across as arrogant and an uncharitable reader in his responses. I’ve listed a few examples of his unfair responses to your BibInterp article here:

    Finally, I think Bart Ehrman says it best on his blog here:

    Ehrman writes:

    “I am absolutely positive that Carrier and his supporters will write
    response after response to my comments here, digging deeper and deeper
    to show that I am incompetent. They will expect replies, so that then
    they can write yet more comments, to which they will expect more
    replies, so that they can write more comments. I am finding, now that I
    am becoming active on the Internet, that engaging in discussion here
    can mean entering into a black hole: there is no way out once you hit
    the event horizon. Many critics of my work have boundless energy and,
    seemingly, endless time. I myself have lots of energy, but not lots of
    time. I have had my say now, in an attempt to show my scholarly
    competence. I do not plan on pursuing the matter time and time again in
    this medium. My main energies – and my limited time – need to be
    devoted to the two ultimate goals of my career: to advance scholarship
    among scholars and to explain scholarship to popular audiences. That
    requires me to write books, and that takes massive amounts of time.
    That is where I will be putting the bulk of my energies, not to writing
    lengthy responses defending myself against unfounded charges of

  • Landon Hedrick

    Your two articles responding to Carrier’s book are a good start. Do you think anything you said in those articles is damaged by anything Carrier wrote in the two blog posts? A single thing? If so, what?

    • It didn’t seem so to me, although it is entirely possible that I missed something. Was there anything that you felt was truly substantive?

  • WeldonScott

    If Carrier’s theory becomes popular enough, a whole industry will become obsolete, and you and Ken Ham both will be out of a job.

    • You have things mixed up again. If Ken Ham becomes popular enough, will it put university biology professors out of a job? My experience says no. And if not, then why would Carrier’s popularity put religion or history professors out of their jobs?

      • WeldonScott

        NT Studies and the like are founded on the notion that they are historically accurate to some degree. There would be no NT Studies department if people realized Jesus was the fictional equivalent of Santa Claus.

        And to answer your question, yes, if Ken Ham’s
        supernatural notions become popular enough, society’s progress of knowledge can regress; we’ve seen that happen before in history.

        • You clearly have no sense of how the historical study of Jesus developed, or the history of development of institutions such as universities or of fields like history and religious studies.

          Questions such as whether there was a historical Jesus, or a historical Nicholas of Myra, are only answerable through historical investigation, and through a historically-informed skeptical examination of the relationship between the earliest sources and later dogmas and legends that grew up later but with some connection with earlier figures.

          • WeldonScott

            You clearly don’t know me well.

            Questions such as whether there was a historical Jesus stem from a supernatural belief system that makes this character important to believers. If there was no supernatural belief system about Jesus, there would be as much “historical inquiry” about Jesus as there is about the wandering Jew.

          • No, the supernatural is excluded from the outset in historical investigation, and that is why people like N. T. Wright are viewed with frustration by secular scholars, and why folks like him do most if not all of their publishing through religious presses rather than more mainstream journals or secular publishers.

            You sound like someone whose impression of the university in our time has been shaped by reading mythicists, with no actual contact with what goes on in secular history and religious studies today.

          • WeldonScott

            > the supernatural is excluded from the outset in historical investigation

            Jesus is a supernatural figure. And there would be no interest in historical investigation if he wasn’t a supernatural figure with a whole industry built around supernatural claims about him.

          • Most ancient figures of any importance would be supernatural figures by this standard, given the conception and miracle stories that grew up around them.

          • Straw Man

            You’re pretty hilarious, WeldonScott. You realize that if everyone in the world agreed that all religion–and Christianity in particular–were pure hooey, there would still be considerable interest in the history of the movement that brought to you the Holy Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages, and the Spanish Inquisition?

            “If people realized the truth of Carrier’s position, they’d throw all their religious paraphernalia to the moles and bats, and wake up the next morning as if Christianity had never existed!” Yeah, that’s a pipe dream. Your statements above are at best hyperbolic.

          • Jack Collins

            You don’t know many historians, do you? Even if Jesus weren’t the founder of a historically-important movement, historians would be ecstatic to have the level of detail that we have about him about any figure from antiquity. People devote their careers to studying ancient grocery receipts and shipping contracts, for crying out loud.

          • Kris Rhodes

            There would remain a great deal of historical inquiry about the origins of Christianity. And in truth, even in the field today, where the consensus is that Jesus existed, actual scholarship about the man Jesus himself is far from a central phenomenon. It’s mostly about the early history of the movement, not so much about the founder himself.

          • WeldonScott

            What if the “Paul” character was the founder?

          • If Paul were the founder, why would he invent stories about others who preceded him who disagreed with him, and presumably also plant in the church he founded in Corinth people who claimed to be associated with one such authority figure?

          • Kris Rhodes

            I don’t understand the thrust of the question. I’ll answer it as follows: I don’t know what would follow from Paul being the founder. Can you elucidate?

            To be sure my point was heard: You are wrong to think that disproving Jesus’s existence would put an end to NT studies. It would in fact be a great boon to the field. It would be an incredible development that would keep scholars busy for decades.

          • WeldonScott

            You declared Christianity to have a “founder.” The idea that Paul was that founder isn’t new; e.g. Hyam McCoby’s “The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.”

            Proving Phrenology and Humorism wasn’t an incredible development for Phrenologist.

          • Straw Man

            MacCoby’s thesis is that Paul was neither a Roman citizen, nor a Pharisee, nor even, quite possibly, a Jew at all, and that he met and came into conflict with the Jewish followers of the historical Jesus; after Jerusalem fell, the Jewish sect became extinct and Paul fabricated a new religion with cobbled-together bits of Judaism, Jesus’ teachings, and gentile mystery cults.

            Your point, of course, is that others have suggested that Paul is *the* founder of Christianity, but I note that even MacCoby’s rather extreme theory doesn’t quite fit the bill. MacCoby’s theory is that the Nazarene sect did exist, and was founded by Jesus’ disciples, but that its exportation was entirely Paul’s doing and the Jewish sect became extinct. It makes Paul a sort of neo-Nazarene, not the founder of a sect de novo.

        • Kris Rhodes

          //NT Studies and the like are founded on the notion that they are historically accurate to some degree. There would be no NT Studies department if people realized Jesus was the fictional equivalent of Santa Claus.//

          This is badly mistaken. If it were somehow suddenly proven one day that there was no Jesus, this would be a boon for NT history studies and its practitioners. It would be a huge forward development in the field and probably budget allocations would even go up. Hell the miraculous might even occur–some departments might even *expand*.

          When Moses et al were basically proven to be fictional, this didn’t lead to the destruction of biblical studies as a field. The field changed, and didn’t go away.

        • Ignatz

          Nothing demonstrates Scientific Rigor like a graph with no numbers on its y-axis.

          By the way, there is no period that actual historians recognize as “The Dark Ages.” Much less “The Christian Dark Ages.” (It shows empirical depth to add an adjective that you just made up yourself, and pretend that it’s an Official Title.)

          The period I assume you’re talking about – AD 467 to AD 800 – was caused by the fall of the Roman Empire. You’ve heard of it? There was NO loss of learning in the Christian East (Were you aware that there was one?) which was a theocracy, but also still had an Emperor.

          By the way, that Scientific Method that you pretend to know a great deal about was actually built on Theological Scholasticism. They were all theists, That’s WHY they wanted to investigated the natural order.

    • Kris Rhodes

      This is not how it works.

      • WeldonScott

        It is how it works. Ken Ham and McGrath are both promoting supernatural belief systems, one trying to piggyback rational science, the other trying to piggyback rational history.

        • I do not adhere to, much less promote, a supernatural belief system.

          • WeldonScott

            The New Testament is a supernatural belief system, and you teach that.

          • The New Testament is a collection of texts reflecting a variety of variations of belief system. And when I teach about those texts in the context of the religious studies program at the secular university where I teach, I explain why historical study cannot be used to validate claims to the supernatural, and also try to provide a comparative literary context that may help students understand why similar kinds of stories were told about a wide array of figures.

          • WeldonScott

            >historical study cannot be used to validate claims to the supernatural

            Then why include Craig Evans on your list of scholarly secular consensus? That is exactly what he is doing: using historical claims to validate supernatural claims. (I understand if you’re trying to play both sides.)

          • To ilustrate the consensus transcends sectarian divides, I included scholars and historians who happen to include among them moderate and liberal Christians, Jews, atheists, and agnostics, among others. If a view weere held only by one particular group, there would be reason to suspect that it might be driven by ideology, not evidence. Evans is a great example, in his treatment of the dishonorable burial of Jesus, of a scholar drawing a conclusion which I am sure that his belief system motivated him to resist. And so on a point like that, he illustrates that secular methods, when applied by religious believers, can result in the drawing of conclusions that conflict with that belief system in at least some of its details. Isn’t that what good sound methods ought to do? Isn’t that why almost all Christian biologists accept evolution, including some who were indoctrinated against it in their upbringing?

          • WeldonScott

            If you’re going to characterize your “consensus” as “secular,” then list secular scholars, not apologist believers. Or redefine the parameters of your consensus; which, well, you’ve done, now that I’ve called you on it.

          • You’re behaving like a troll, despite repeated warnings. The consensus includes every historian and scholar of ancient religion with the exception of a few fringe figures, just as is the case with scientists on evolution. If you want a list with just atheists in either case, all you need to do is eliminate anyone who is not from the comprehensive list of just about everyone working at a university in a relevant field – except that, in the case of anti-science forms of creationism, there are indeed some people who’ve lied their way through PhD programs in order to get credentials for themselves that will now allow them to undermine the very things they studied. Mythicists have not done even that.

          • Jim

            Since I don’t have a Disqus account, I can’t up-vote and have to do this as a comment. You display a tremendous amount of patience in regards to commentor’s comments. What’s your secret .. lots of Prozac? 🙂

          • No Prozac, and I don’t think it is anything to do with medication unless my antihistamine has patience as an unlisted side-effect. 🙂

          • Kris Rhodes

            Do you think that professors in history departments teaching about the Vedas are promoting supernatural belief systems?

          • WeldonScott

            Do you think Craig Evans is a secularist not promoting the supernatural?

          • Kris Rhodes

            My understanding is that Craig Evans explicitly promotes the supernatural, though I am not really that familiar with him so take that with a grain of salt.

            I welcome you to make any point you’d like to make on the basis of your question which I’ve now answered. But it’s also important, now, for you to answer my question.

            Do you think that professors in history departments teaching about the Vedas are promoting supernatural belief systems?

          • WeldonScott

            Thanks fort admitting that McGrath’s “secular consensus” which includes Craig Evans, is a sham. That’s what is important.

          • You’ve been warned about your trollish behavior several times now. Goodbye.

          • Nick G


            at its deepest level, reality is not matter but love*

            is a supernatual belief. I admit that you don’t assert this to be definitely true, but you actually seem pretty wedded to it.

            * See this recent thread.

          • I think that love can seem “miraculous” but I don’t see it as something supernatural in any literal sense. Love is about connecting in meaningful ways that cause new life and new depth to emerge from the connection. There is some reason to think that events and connections may be a better way of thinking about what is fundamental than “bits of stuff.” But unless you are going to say that just because quantum mechanics includes things that are spooky and mysterious, it is supernatural, then I am not sure why you would apply that term to love.

  • TomS

    One important thing about creationism, especially ID, is the lack of a substantive alternative account for what does happen, if it isn’t evolution.

    On the other hand, anti-Stratfordians do typically offer alternative authorship to the plays “commonly attributed to Shakespeare”.

    ISTM that simple denial is a useless position. It is rare that a progress is made by “something is wrong with the standard account”, without supplying an alternative. I can see the point of cutting off debate with denialism.

    I know nothing about mythicism. Does it provide an alternative account, or does it amount to nothing more than denial?

    • This is a great point. While there is in some minimal sense a speculative attempt to offer an alternative account – for instance, in saying that some Jews looked in their Scriptures and drew connections between disperate passages in creative ways in order to create a story about a celestial savior who saves through crucifixion – it is extremely vague. And, what I think is more crucial, it has less explanatory power in relation to the evidence than the scholarly consensus does.

      • Mark Erickson

        No, it is not a great point. It is possible that the data is lacking to figure out what happened 2,000 years ago.

        • It is possible to imagine a scenario in which we might not have had the data that we do. But we do have data, and mythicism is incompatible with it. And what is more, mythicism does not claim that the data is lacking to figure out what happened, bu instead it claims to be able to read the “truth” into sources which in fact depict something very different than what mythicists claim.

    • Mark Erickson

      While better than the creationism comparison, Shakespeare still isn’t a good one. Or at least not a good comparison for the historical Jesus side of the argument. Consider the data available: the complete works and extant contemporaneous primary evidence related to both the complete works and the most likely candidates. Consider the question being asked of the data: which one of the most likely candidates actually wrote the complete works?

      How is that remotely comparable to the data about the historical Jesus or the question of how Christianity started?

  • John MacDonald

    You would think that if the first Christians were mythicists some of them would have been mentioned later as a surviving heresy, or else there would be some mention of them from the historical record of that time.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Good point. We have ample record of the heresy that Jesus only appeared
      to be human (docetism), but nothing about the heresy of a celestial

      BTW, regarding Carrier’s idea that “brother” is short for “brother of the Lord”, has anyone mentioned Philemon 16?

      • What do you think one could show from that text that one cannot from others? Is it the fact that he uses “in the Lord” and not “of the Lord,” combined with the fact that he shows that he is capable of using the word in both ways, and is aware of the need to distinguish its metaphorical use from its literal one in instances in which confusion is possible?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking. Carrier’s idea seems utterly implausible anyway, but the reference to a brother IN the Lord seems to be the clincher.

      • Paul E.

        You seem to have read Carrier (correct me if I’m wrong), so maybe you can clarify something for me since I haven’t read him and his argument has been presented in a couple of different ways in comments here.

        It has been represented that he is saying that “brother of the Lord” can mean all Christians, so if Paul meant a biological brother when referring to James, he would have been specific. Is this correct from your reading? And if so, how does he deal with 1 Cor. 9:5, which seems, to me at least, to be using the term more specifically to indicate a particular status? Is he saying it can mean both? And if so, does he distinguish the two usages by context or what?

        Any thoughts (if so, thanks for doing the research for me :))?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Yes, he thinks Paul would have had to say brother according to the flesh to distinguish a biological brother. I’m just going to reread that section and I shall report back.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          On 1 Cor. 9:5, Carrier thinks that Paul is referring to apostles and other Christians (brothers of the Lord) – i.e., brothers of the Lord aren’t a select group. A bit later he says that brothers of the Lord might have been a select group after all, in the sense that although all Christians were brothers of the Lord, only some of them were allowed to call themselves that. Sounds confusing, doesn’t it?

          • Paul E.

            Very confusing. The usage of “Lord’s brothers” in 1 Cor. 9:5 seems more likely to be a status usage than not. The context indicates Paul is claiming the particular status of apostle, and then claiming rights as a result of having that status – rights which others of the same or similar status have (right to payment for himself and an accompanying wife). There may even be some sort of ascending order to the statuses he mentions: apostles, to Lord’s brothers, to Cephas.

            If the status usage applies (and I think the Galatians usage indicates status as well; otherwise its usage is surplusage), then where is the evidence of what that status was? If you throw the gospels into the evidentiary mix, then there is evidence for a status based on biology. If you don’t use the gospels, then what is there? Is there evidence from other religious groups at the time that could apply? E.g., did Mithras devotees or whatever have both “brothers” and “Brothers,” i.e. the same metaphorical term that could have different meanings in different contexts? Very confusing.

  • John Thomas

    I totally agree with you here. I don’t know how one can assign probabilities to historical events that occurred 2 millennium ago and why the specific probability that they assign is the correct one. So I totally don’t support the use of Bayesian method to make conclusions about historicity of an event.

  • Dhay

    I am amused that Carrier criticises McGrath for “committing the fundamental error of using the prior probability as the posterior probability. Which I very explicitly don’t do”.

    Luke A Barnes has criticised Carrier for Carrier’s incompetence in confusing prior and posterior probabilities: “The reason why Carrier’s confusion between prior and posterior in the previous paragraph is more than a notational blunder is that he now tries to change the posterior.”

    • Kris Rhodes

      I just read Luke A Barnes’s blog post you linked to. He has badly analyzed Carrier’s arguments, ascribing fallacies to him that he did not commit. For example, he characterizes Carrier as arguing (in Barnes’ words)

      “if we are in randomly generated universe, then we observe a life-permitting universe. We observe a life-permitting universe. Thus, we are in a randomly generated universe.”

      This would be a fallacious line of reasoning, just as Barnes says. But it is most pointedly not Carrier’s line of reasoning. Incredibly, Barnes doesn’t even have the conclusion right. He’s making a basic error (which, to be a bit pointed, I’ll note I count off for on tests) of separating out a conditional statement as two separate complete statements.

      Carrier’s reasoning (see the quote provided by Barnes himself) is this:

      Our experience is identical to that of agents in certain randomly generated universes.

      Suppose those agents would be wrong to conclude their universe was designed.

      From this supposition it would follow that we also would be wrong to conclude our universe was designed.

      Therefore (i.e., here’s Carrier’s conclusion): If those agents would be wrong to conclude their universe was designed, then we also would be wrong to conclude our universe was designed.

      The rest of Barnes’ post is full of errors like this, some as basic as this one. You should not trust him on this topic.

      Edited to add:

      Okay I just can’t stop myself. Barnes insists against Carrier that getting 20 royal flushes in a row is evidence of cheating. I’d agree that getting 20 royal flushes in a row is evidence of cheating, but not for Barnes’s reason. Barnes gives a very bad reason. His reason is that the probability of getting those particular 20 hands is so low.

      But ***the probability of any and every combination of 20 hands in a row is exactly as low.***

      Just the low probability is not, in itself, evidence of anything. The probability of getting 20 straight flushes in a row is identical to the probability of [insert absolutely any random sequence of 20 hands here]. Probabilities don’t distinguish these scenarios from each other, so probabilities cannot be what makes some evidence for something and others not.

      This is Carrier’s point, it’s a fairly ahem basic point, and Barnes has missed it, and militated incorrectly against it.