The Criterion of Damage Control

The Criterion of Damage Control July 18, 2015

In a conversation about mythicism I had recently, some points came up that I want to share here.

In addressing the claims of mythicism, I think a key point is to get the criterion of embarrassment right. I do not think anyone has ever said, as mythicists sometimes claim, that the principle is “this makes me feel embarrassed, therefore it must be historical.” The point of the criterion is that people do not normally invent beliefs and practices which are at odds with (and thus embarrassing in relation to) the things they assert, and of which they try to persuade others.

And so (to give a modern example), if a supporter of Jeb Bush, who says Bush is an honest politician, acknowledges an instance of misappropriation of funds that Bush was involved in, we can reasonably deduce that the supporter in question is not simply making that detail up. They may be mistaken about the matter, but they did not invent it, and that is what the historian dealing with the source is trying to determine.

The other relevant element mythicists muddle is the suggestion that anything one chooses to write about therefore cannot have been embarrassing, which is obvious nonsense. We do not live and write in vacuums, and sometimes the supporter of a political candidate must talk about something they find embarrassing, because others are hearing about it from other sources.

And so perhaps we should rename the “criterion of embarrassment” and instead call it “the criterion of damage control”?

Paul and others explicitly state that they view Jesus as the Davidic anointed one – in other words the one expected to restore the line of David to the throne. And that person being crucified without accomplishing that would have been embarrassing to people who believed and affirmed and sought to persuade others that he was the Davidic Messiah, in the sense the criterion uses the word embarrassing. They would have engaged in damage control, in ways that scholars see reflected in our early Christian literature.

If we think about the counter-example that mythicists frequently appeal to – the Attis cult and the castration of Attis as well as his priests – then two points should be brought up. First, we ought to ask for evidence that the castration of priests of Attis was considered a reason for embarrassment in a cultural context in which eunuchs were not something unfamiliar. But the second point, building on the first, is to point out that the Attis stories, and the practice of devotees to Attis being castrated, were clearly not first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things. And so, if mythicists are correct about this practice being embarrassing (and not being an expert in this particular religious tradition, I am avoiding prejudging that matter one way or the other), the criterion of embarrassment as applied to Jesus fits perfectly. In both cases, we have good reason to conclude that the ideas and practices we encounter in the relevant texts were not invented by those authors.

For more on this topic, see Daniel Gullotta’s post “In Defence of the Criterion of Embarrassment.”

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  • Or perhaps the Criterion of Cognitive Dissonance?

    • Or perhaps just the “cog-diss-dam-cont-crit” for short?

      • louismoreaugottschalk

        huh?

      • Cognitive-Dissonance-Damage-Control-Criterion …

        I like it!

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      that’ll preach!
      thanks for the word! more and more I think what people are invested in they’re willing to die for. is it because their souls have been murdered & the ephemeral s**t
      that they’ve accepted as reality is terror management?

  • Ian

    “The Criterion of Damage Control”

    Excellent.

    I think the criteria of embarrassment gets used too broadly. It was taught to me as requiring the ‘common knowledge’ element. You don’t read embarrassment into just something that you think they wouldn’t have wanted to say, but into something where you can read the contortions being made to justify the unjustifiable in the face of common knowledge.

    So John the baptist fawning over Jesus, to justify why Jesus was known to be his disciple. Matt and Luke’s contradictory tellings of how the messiah born was in Bethlehem when everyone knows Jesus is from Nazareth. The criteria of embarrassment usually involves rejecting the prima facia claims of the text to recover the underlying historic event. As such it is very common in historical reasoning.

    One of the funniest conversations I’ve had was with an aggressive mythicist, who after excoriating and deriding the criteria of embarrassment, then used exactly that reasoning to try to convince me that Christian communion was derived from an earlier Mithras ritual.

    Sometimes things are called ‘the criteria of embarrassment’ when someone merely means that they would have been unlikely to have been invented, which is the much weaker ‘criteria of dissimilarity’.

    • The criterion of dissimilarity suggests that things which are not found or are atypical in either the broader Jewish context of Jesus, or in early Christianity subsequently, probably are authentic to Jesus.

      The “unlikely to have been invented” criterion sounds to me like the criterion of embarrassment, unless there is some reason other than the problematic character of a saying for early Christians that leads you to say something is unlikely to have been invented.

      • Ian

        Good point on dissimilarity. So perhaps there are things that are neither, or both weakly, that are more ‘the criteria of I’m surprised they wrote that’.

    • Can’t a fictional story become a matter of common knowledge as well? When Dr. Who hires a new screen writer, he is stuck with an established back story that is already extremely popular with the audience. He may have ideas for improving the character with new story elements, but he is constrained by what has come before.

      If Mark’s story of a Galilean peasant who turns out to be the long-awaited Messiah is very popular, Luke and Matthew are going to be constrained by things that are commonly known whether they are based on historical fact or not. They may want to beef up Jesus’ credentials by finding some more prophecies for him to fulfill, but if they can’t shift the entire story to Judea, they have to come with a convoluted story to get him born in Bethlehem.

      I have always thought that Jesus being from Nazareth is one of the best candidates for applying the criterion of embarrassment, but I don’t think that it’s a slam dunk by any means. Matthew and Luke’s contortions seem to be as much forced by Jesus’ ministry taking place in Galilee as by him being from Nazareth specifically.

      • I’m sure that writers working with fictional characters are constrained to some extent by what has gone before, but they also have a lot of freedom to change things up: e.g Sherlock Holmes has been British, American, male, female, clever, stupid, lived in 3 different centuries, and even battled the dark forces of Cthulhu! I guess you would have to point to examples where a detail about a character has been retained at time when it has become embarrassingly . Even that would just suggest that the current author may not have invented it, as in your example above.

        I’m more of a fan of James Bond fan than a Whovian, and its obvious that much of the sexism, racism, and elitism of Fleming’s character has been ditched in the most recent version, and they’ve also radically changed some of his backstory to make it more contemporary. I’m pretty sure that he stopped smoking at some point, though not sure when?

        That said, I wonder if the desire to revisit and play with the canon of a fictional character isn’t a modern thing?

        • Some of the Greek gods have more than one origin myth with contradictory elements, including different parents on occasion if I recall correctly.

          • Oh yes, and historical figures too – look at the various birth/death stories of Cyrus or Pythagoras. I still tend to think that playing with an audience’s expectations of a familiar story (rather than divergent versions of stories developing in isolation) is distinctively modern. Happy to be corrected on that by someone better informed though!

          • arcseconds

            I’m not better informed than you, but I’m not really sure this is correct.

            You don’t find quite the modern notion of just wholesale resetting and recasting narratives at will.

            (Which is one reason why I don’t buy Jesus mythicism: I just don’t think there’s any other example of a mythic character being given such a humdrum earthly biography. Turning Odin into an elderly man in a wheelchair in an old person’s home is something we do, and not what ancient peoples or oral cultures do, AFAICS)

            But you definitely find people deliberately adapting stories. The changes to narratives are not just random accumulation of transmission errors. Someone deliberately decided to add miracle birth narratives, for example. (Although it’s hard to know what they were actually thinking… did they suppose that such a great person must have had miracles attend their birth and it probably went something like this? Was it revealed to them in a vision? Was it simply made up because the masses need such things to edify them?).

            And as far as wholesale recasting goes, that appears to have happened in the case of a few of the saints. Some of them are pre-Christian myths, and there’s at least one case of a suspected historical pagan figure being turned into a Christian saint (St. Catherine is thought by some to be a christianized Hypatia, which is pretty awful as Hypatia was martyred in an unpleasant way by Christians).

            And while he doesn’t quite do what you’re referring to, Plato certainly plays around with myth and narrative form in a rather modern-looking way, telling embedded narratives, making up myths, the odd quote from Homer, etc.

          • It’s that modern idea of resetting and recasting I was thinking of. I can’t think of any ancient characters who have been through even half as many changes as Sherlock Holmes, for example (who hasn’t been around for that long). Partly I guess there are contemporary reasons for doing this that didn’t apply in the ancient world – royalties, copyright, actors getting old and podgy, production budgets, ratings…

            I’m not saying that people in the ancient world didn’t adapt or co-opt existing stories. Matthew and Luke clearly adapted and added to Mark, and the writers of (say) the non-canonical infancy stories were presumably keen to fill in some of the gaps in Matthew and Luke. I think there’s also a Christian retelling of the life of the Buddha (St Josophat). But I still think there is something distinctively modern in there way that characters and narratives are flipped around, and the way that audiences almost expect this. Early Christians might have invented stories about Jesus, but I don’t think it would ever have occurred to them to say “hey, let’s really shake this up, let’s have Jesus as a woman” 🙂

            Edit: PS: I’ve had very similar thoughts about mythicism. The way early Christians would have had to mash up the “real” story of Chrisitianity to produce the gospels and Acts just strikes me as far too modern.

        • arcseconds

          Are you a fan of some particular James Bond fan, or just James Bond fans in general? Or maybe the Jame Bond Fan, the platonic ideal of a james bond fan?

          • I like Sebastian Faulks and Raymond Chandler, who were/are both James Bond fans. So I am a James Bond fans fan?

            And in Tomorrow Never Dies, there was a cool weapon/gadget disguised as a Chinese fan, so it is equally true to say that I’m a fan of the fans in James Bond.

  • John MacDonald

    The gospel writers probably wouldn’t have preserved the tradition that Jesus was a glutton and a drunk if there wasn’t some truth to it:
    “…18″For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19″The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      still grinding away at it aren’t you John? when are you going to admit that Jesus is just lovable!?

      • Jim

        Hey, Jesus didn’t want to be known as a drunkard, but do you realize how many bottles of wine were left over from the Cana wedding? You can’t just let vintage miracle wine like that go to waste, even if it takes a few years to get through them.

        • louismoreaugottschalk

          *does spit take*!

      • So is Falstaff.

        • louismoreaugottschalk

          Falstaff is lovable? so are you Beau! *puckers up blows, him a kiss!*

    • I think the tradition of Jesus being accused of gluttony and drunkenness is an important plot point; it casts Jesus as willing to stick it to the man.

      And I honestly don’t think the Gospel writers would have included anything in their writings that they didn’t want.

  • Sheriff Liberty

    “But the second point, building on the first, is to point out that the Attis stories, and the practice of devotees to Attis being castrated, were clearly not first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things.”

    Jesus also wasn’t first invented with crucifixions and killed Jewish messiahs so there’s no clear difference here.

    • If you mean that kings and high priests had been killed in the past, of course they had. That is missing the point. Kings and high priests die. But when someone claims to be the rightful king and the one who will restore his ancestor’s dynasty to the throne, and is killed without accomplishing that, I presume you would agree that that would be an embarrassing state of affairs for his supporters, no?

      • Sheriff Liberty

        I mean killed Jewish messianic claimants like Judas Maccabeus, Simon of Peraea or Judas of Galilee (among others). The issue you brought up was Jesus’s dissimilarity as opposed to Attis, not just whether it’s inherently embarrassing. As you said:

        “the Attis stories, and the practice of devotees to Attis being castrated, were clearly not first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things.”

        The point is: Jesus’s damage control as a killed messiah was ALSO not first invented (i.e. not dissimilar).

        • Can you reword this so that it makes sense? It doesn’t as written.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            The point was that Attis’s embarrassment wasn’t uniquely related to ritual castration but that Jesus’s embarrassment was unique to a Jewish messiah being killed.

            That’s false: plenty of Jewish Messiahs were embarrassingly killed (Judas Maccabeus, Simon of Peraea or Judas of Galilee etc.) prior to Jesus.

          • And you think those figures were all invented by Jewish authors who mention them? I still do not see your point.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Am I being trolled right now? The point is the embarrassing things were not “first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things,” for Jesus because those Messianic Jews also died.

            And no they’re great examples of how historical figures would be remembered since no one mythologized their Messianic claims after they died.

          • Have you not understood how the criterion of embarrassment works, then? Are you suggesting that, because other messianic claimants had died and been failures, therefore it was less embarrassing when another one came along and did the same? That is like saying that, because other politicians had affairs prior to him, it can’t possibly have been embarrassing for supporters of Bill Clinton when he did. Do you really find that logic sound and compelling?

          • arcseconds

            I think the Sheriff is arguing this:

            You say that Attis’s castration was not invented in the context when we first encounter it, so it is not like Jesus’s crucifixion, so it is not an example of the criterion of embarrassment going awry by suggesting that we should think that Attis existed on the basis of the castration story.

            But messianic claimants did die embarrasingly prior to Jesus’s alleged crucifixion. So it (the notion of an embarrassing death for a messianic claimant) also wasn’t invented when we hear about it in Jesus’s case.

          • arcseconds

            … so he seems to think Attis and Jesus are still somehow parallel cases.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Yes exactly, although to repeat it does not follow that a Jesus death wouldn’t be embarrassing, only the case wasn’t invented from it’s context.

          • arcseconds

            What do you think James’s point was when he said “the Attis stories, and the practice of devotees to Attis being castrated, were clearly not first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things”?

            Because it seems to me you’ve missed the point.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            First of all, the intricacies of whatever point was being made is kind of irrelevant since it was factually wrong.

            To the point, unless James is saying “it wasn’t embarrassing for Attis because castration wasn’t uncommon” which would be absurd and he himself has said this isn’t the case, he’s saying the difference is the uniqueness of Jesus’s crucifixion which would make it especially difficult to do damage control (emphasis on “especially difficult,” not the same as “at all”).

          • arcseconds

            Ah, you have missed the point quite dramatically.

            What James is saying that at the point of our first evidence about the Greek cult of Attis and its castration practice, it’s clear that the cult and practice has been around for some time. That is what “the Attis stories, and the practice of devotees to Attis being castrated, were clearly not first invented in the context in which we first encounter these things” means.

            No-one thinks the criterion of embarrassment shows that the embarrassing thing is true, only that the people who attest to the embarrassing thing aren’t making it up.

            So, even on the assumption that castration of Attis is embarrassing to the Greek practitioners, there’s a big disanalogy with Jesus’s crucifixion. We’re pushed back into a period where we have no information. Whereas with the crucifixion we’re pushed back to an alleged event that occurred within living memory.

            That was James’s point. Nothing about the uniqueness of the crucifixion.

            So he hasn’t said anything that’s factually wrong. I’m assuming you agree that we do not know the origins of the Attis myth or the practice of castration.

            And moreover, the case you present about embarrassing deaths for messiahs not only is irrelevant to the point that James was making, doesn’t seem to analogous with the situation we are in with Attis anyway. Unless we have evidence that there were many messianic claimants prior to Judas Maccabeus who also met with embarassing deaths but we have no specific information on?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            It’s about the “uniqueness” of it first happening (a cult arising from the first time a Jewish messiah is killed) which is why the disanalogy fails because such messiahs were killed BEFORE Jesus just like Attis did not invent (was not a “unique” instance of) castration.

            Maccabeus is just a prior example, there’s no reason we have to go further to prove it wasn’t invented for Jesus.

          • Maccabeus is a prior example? Are you referring to Judas? If so, how is he a prior example?

            But at any rate, your overall claim here is self-evidently false. If it is problematic for a claimant to the throne to be killed by foreign rulers rather than ascending the throne, that doesn’t make the deaths of subsequent claimants successes!

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Judas Maccabeus is a prior example of a Jewish messiah being killed. No one is claiming Jesus or the prior claimants were successes, the issue is whether a cult formed around them.

          • You still seem to be confused. No one disputes that kings, priests, and military leaders die. You must not know enough about the Hasmoneans, and about Davidic messianism, to grasp the points being made here. Why not first inform yourself, and then rejoin the conversation?

          • arcseconds

            The Sheriff seems to think that your point about ‘things not being invented in the context we first encounter them’ is somehow about asserting that the crucifixion is a unique occurrence (and therefore can’t have been invented, or something).

            You’re not going to get very far with him when he’s having a completely different conversation to the one you’re thinking you’re having.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            No it’s about the first time a Jewish Messianic claimant was killed, not the first time someone was crucified or something.

          • You have completely misunderstood. Now will you finally go inform yourself enough to be able to understand a discussion of this topic?

          • arcseconds

            “so, which one is my hotel room again?”

          • Sheriff Liberty

            You and James can’t seriously be arguing that “killed Jewish Messiahs” is the same class as “priests/kings/military leaders who died in some way.” The former is Jesus’s class, the latter is not.

          • arcseconds

            As I have tried to establish already, this entire conversation with James is a complete muddle.

            You think his initial point was something to do with the uniqueness of the crucifixion. That was not his point: his point was that Attis is a red-herring when it comes to the criterion of embarrassment.

            Mythicists argue that the criterion entails that Attis must have existed, and as it entails things that no-one believes we should drop it as a criterion of anything.

            But it does not entail that. All it entails is that the Attis cult at the point we come familiar with it did not make it up. So it pushes the origin of the practice back before our first encounter with it to a time where we have no information. So in this particular case, the criterion only tells us what we already know.

            With the crucifixion, if we accept the use of the criterion, we accept that the earliest writers (like Paul) did not make it up. But in this case, it doesn’t push the story back to time immemorial, but to a putative event in living memory.
            If the earliest writers did not make up an event that happened to people they know within living memory, then the most likely explanation for that is that the event actually happened.

            (This is my second go at explaining this to you. Prior experience suggests you’re going to ignore it again, but I’m irrational and don’t learn from prior experience.

            I’d really encourage you to read it over carefully, and my other statement, and James’s original post, as he’s told you in no uncertain terms that you’ve misunderstood. )

            Anyway, James seems to have thought you were engaging with the argument that he thought he was making, and so thought you were drawing some kind of meaningful analogy between Judas Maccabeus et. al. and Jesus involving the criterion of embarrassment. As you weren’t doing that, but trying to establish that embarrassing deaths for messianic claimants isn’t unique, confusion ensued.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            This might seem like an overly specific question but do you mean the MEMORY pushed back (Attis being castrated a long time ago) or the PRACTICE pushed back (eunuchs and other religious figures being castrated).

            The former point isn’t accurate, the Attis cult had been around for centuries and the cult would have formed within “living memory” of Attis being castrated.

          • arcseconds

            Both the origin of the myth (I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘memory’) and the origin of the practice.

            But not the practice of castration in general, the specific practice of Attis followers castrating themselves. This I think is a major source of confusion here: no-one is saying that Attis followers invented castration or that Jesus followers invented crucifixion or nasty ways for messiah claimants to die.

            But the specific traditions of Attis cultists castration on the one hand and Jesus’s crucifixion on the other had to originate somewhere, right? Neither the Attis cult nor the Jesus one have been around literally forever. And it’s this origin that James refers to when he says ‘was invented’ in the case of Attis. They didn’t invent castration, but they did invent, at some point, the necessity of the cultist’s castration. Just because other people are castrating themselves doesn’t mean you have to, too!

            And if Jesus’s crucifixion is mythical, then that too, was invented at some point in this particular case. Not crucifixion in general or deaths in general, but that Jesus specifically was crucified. Clearly if this was a myth there were other options (he might have died in battle, or not died at all as some of his followers later claimed).

            So the novelty of these things is not at all relevant. They could be the most boring, non-novel things (Jesus buys a loaf of bread). The question is only when they enter the tradition, and what the criterion of embarrassment can tell us about them. If it were embarrassing for Jesus to have bought a loaf of bread, the criterion suggests that whoever said this didn’t make it up, which means either that Jesus actually did buy a loaf of bread, or the writer got this from some previous tradition (or possibly Jesus’s enemies perpetuated the scurrilous rumour he’s a bread-buyer).

            You seem to have picked up on the ‘uniqueness’ connotation of invention, are putting an enormous amount of weight on it, which seems to be part of the reason why you’re keen to prove that embarrassing deaths aren’t unique. Hopefully you can now see this is a complete red herring: no-one was discussing uniqueness apart from you.

            So coming back to Attis, my understanding is that we first know about the castration practice in the 4th century BC. But at that point it’s an apparently an already-existing practice that’s been around for some time. The cultic myth that goes with it doesn’t say “and so, last year, the High Priest of Cybele decided to castrate himself in imitation of Attis”, it treats the whole thing as coming from ‘mythic time’. You appear to agree with all of this.

            The only thing to note is that according to James, all the criterion of embarrassment tells us here (assuming the cultists are embarrassed by this, of course) is that they didn’t invent it in the 4th century when we first come to know about it — because it’s embarassing, and people don’t (ex hypothesi) invent things that embarrass them.

            So it just tells us what we already know. In fact less than we already know, because we don’t just know they didn’t invent it at this point in time, we know that they are following an existing tradition that had probably been around for centuries.

            The reason James mentions this is of course that some mythicists make the argument that the criterion of embarrassment entails that Attis existed.

            This is my third time going through all of this… is it working? I don’t know how clearer I can make this.

            The former point isn’t accurate, the Attis cult had been around for centuries and the cult would have formed within “living memory” of Attis being castrated.

            What do you mean by ‘the former point isn’t accurate’? You appear to agree with the fact that the Attis cult has been around for centuries, so I’m not sure what your criticism is here.

            the cult would have formed within “living memory” of Attis being castrated

            This sounds like you think that Attis actually existed. I suppose you don’t actually think this?

            As I mentioned before in reply to Enopeletus Harding, embarrassment doesn’t have magic truth-tracking qualities. It’s also not transitive: just because one generation find something embarrassing doesn’t mean the following generation (or for that matter the preceding generation) does. Obviously Christians don’t find the crucifixion embarrassing now: the damage-control has been amazingly successful.

            So all we can say in the Attis case on the basis of the criterion (and a bit of common sense) that the cultists in the fourth century got the practice and the story from an earlier generation.

            On the assumption that Attis existed and castrated himself, one can of course propose that the myth formed within living memory of the man and the act, yes. But is there any reason to think this happened? Embarrassment does not give a reason, and I can’t see any other reason to think that Attis was any more real than any other mythic figure.

            If we knew for sure that the cultists were embarrassed by the castration and were saying things like ‘Attis, who lived 10 years ago in this very city, castrated himself, and by the way I’m friends with his nephew’ then the case for Attis would more closely parallel the case for Jesus, and we’d have much better basis for thinking he was a real person.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Obviously I don’t think he existed, my point is based on when the cult began and how Attis was euhemerized as an Antolian royal servant, it shows the cult didn’t think he existed an exceeding long time ago, so it is analogous to the Jesus cult forming only a few decades after his death. James and you seem to be saying Attis is much more far removed in the past from when the cult formed, hence the disanalogy.

          • arcseconds

            OK, so you at least understand the position now? Embarrassment just pushes back the origin of the account one step. It might be to an actual event, but it may also be to a previous generation, or something that’s ‘generally known’ by the wider community, or something invented by the enemies of the writer or their community.

            I had not heard that Attis was euhemerized. I briefly googled, and find some reference to him being euhemerized in De Dea Syria, in the 2nd century A.D., i.e. 500 years after the cult was first known in Greece. The work was traditionally thought to be by Lucian, who’s known for being satirical.

            Obviously if we had a work that was written in the 5th century BC (paralleling our earliest knowledge of the Greek Attis cult) which contained the Jesus myth complete with a crucifixion, we’d have to conclude the Gospels and Paul have transposed a pre-existing myth into the 1st century, and mythicism would be a much more reasonable position.

            Do you have a reference that places this euhemerization during the earliest period known about the cult, and clearly establishes this event as occurring within living memory of the writer?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            I get the argument but outside of directly asking I still suspect Mcgrath’s point was about practice (invention of messiah crucifixion dissimilar to invention of castration) otherwise he would have simply said something like “embarrassment pushes the time of origin back” so that the damage control is something like “yes that happened but it was a long time ago.”

            A euherermization which focuses on Attis is much later, but those which include the Attis legend (Cybele etc.) were euhermerized a lot earlier, probably the earliest being Strabo while the earliest Attis appearance we can be sure of is around 2nd century BC (based on Roller 1999).

            This of course leaves around a century of history but that’s a far cry from the kind of (lack of) difficulty being suggested.

          • arcseconds

            Well, one of us has been told that they’ve ‘completely misunderstood’ McGrath’s point, and the other has had their attempts at clarification ‘liked’ by the good professor.

            That would be you, and me, respectively.

            So I’m not sure whence your confidence about what he would say under one circumstance or another.

            Admittedly I’m probably aided somewhat by having seen him argue something similar before.

            Although it seems it would clarify things if he would explicitly agree with me (or correct me) (James!)

          • I’ve found “Sheriff Liberty” to be confused about the subject we are discussing, and unclear in his articulation of his own position and the arguments for it. And so I’ve liked very much your patient attempts to make sense of what he is writing. And I’ve been waiting to see if he, with your help, can articulate his viewpoint and the reason he holds it clearly enough that I might then interact with it, assuming it is a view worth interacting with.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Not even arcseconds is entirely clear on your point is, are you saying:

            1) The Attis/Jesus comparison is flawed because the practice of castration had a long history while crucified messiahs did not?
            2) The comparison is flawed because the cult believed Attis existed a long time ago while it didn’t think so for Jesus?
            3) The comparison is flawed because “killed Jewish messiahs” is the same thing as “preists/kings/military leaders who died”?
            4) Some combination of the others.
            5) None of those things.

          • #2 seems to almost get the point. Paul was so close in time to the events that we can get a sense of embarrassment which supports historicity. But isn’t this moot if there are ancient sources which themselves suggested that Attis the divine figure might have been a euhemerized human one? For mythicism to make even a semi-convincing point by way of comparison, it needs to do so with a figure who could not have been a historical one who was later divinized and covered in legend, since that is precisely how the mainstream historians mythicist reject view Jesus. Mythicists need a figure who is unambiguously like Jesus, and unambiguously mythical, for the point to have a chance of working, do they not?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            It’s become pretty mainstream even in NT studies to say Jesus was thought celestial prior to his birth, so no, he still belongs in a class of people who are all mythical without much evidence proving otherwise.

          • Pointing to what many scholars think when it suits you, and rejecting what pretty much all scholars think when it doesn’t suit you, is never going to be persuasive. If historians and scholars are untrustworthy when they say that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about the imminent dawn of the kingdom of God, why should we trust a smaller number of them when they argue that Paul, our earliest source, viewed Jesus in a way that resembles later doctrinal formulations? Why reject scholars when they are challenging historic Christian assumptions, and yet embrace them when they confirm those assumptions?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Because:
            a) It’s not based on faith assumptions since no church is only based around Paul’s interpretations or ancient Greek ideas of Logos. And
            b) It explains why Jesus would be the ONLY cult mythological historical person in the ancient world. There is no other historical ancient person whom a cult followed and was mythologized.

          • (A) makes no sense and suggests you are still struggling both to understand and to express yourself intelligibly.

            (B) I take it you have never heard of Siddharta Gautama? Or Muhammad? I really do think it would benefit you if you read about the history of religions before formulating opinions. Opinions formed in ignorance of most of the data are doomed to fit the whole of the data poorly.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            A) It makes perfect sense: faith assumptions come from church doctrine, there is no known “Pauline” church, based only on his ideas. If I said something like virgin birth that’s a faith assumption, NT scholars views on pre-existance is not.

            B) Asian religions are radically different and Muhammed was not pre-Jesus, nor are we ignorant since we know of dozens of comparable religions in the Roman world.

            Again it’s extremely suspect that of the dozens of comparable examples this is the only one we consider historical.

          • You cannot simply assert that you make sense. What follows the preface “It makes perfect sense” has to make sense. It isn’t clear why you treat pre-existence, which may be in Paul and is in John but is not in the Synoptics, differently from the virginal conception which is in Matthew and Luke but not Paul, Mark, or John.

            Which dozens of comparable examples are you thinking of? And what led you to conclude that they are comparable?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            You’re using ideas as they evolved, I’m talking about exclusively Paul’s ideas of pre-existance (not John’s), no doctrine is based on that.

            The mystery cults and Judaism, and they’re comparable because they were within the same Roman culture. Also, I want to clarify I’m NOT saying that prior probability is the only reason Jesus is unlikely, it’s also the lack of enough posterior evidence to offset the low prior.

          • What do you mean when you claim that no doctrines of later Christianity are based on what Paul wrote?

            The whole category of “mystery cult” is problematic, and treating Judaism as though it had no distinctives in the Roman era is to ride roughshod over the evidence.

            Once again, I would suggest that you might want to not merely clarify how you express yourself, but actually inform yourself about the subjects you purport to be interested in, such as ancient Judaism. You seem to know astonishingly little about them.

          • Jim

            Hi Sheriff,

            I popped out of a previous discussion on the James as Jesus’ brother priors stuff.

            I don’t mean to detract from your ongoing dialogue with Dr. McGrath, but when you get a chance, could you comment on what you perceive was Paul’s idea of Jesus’ pre-existence and possibly how you think it paralleled or diverged from both 2nd temple Judaism views and Greco-Roman views of that day on exalted mythical heroes.

            I ask this because I think Paul held a subordinationist view of Jesus and am wondering about the extent of overlap with what would seem to be two quite different viewpoints (Jewish and Gentile) on what we would now classify as a being a mythical hero.

          • arcseconds

            The ‘low prior’ is a bit of a red herring.

            Given a murder and some arbitrary person, perhaps a reasonable prior probability for that person being the murderer is 1 in 6 billion. But if you come to know that the person knew the victim, that very low prior should be washed out immediately: the posterior probability on coming to know this evidence should be something more in the realm of ~1/100, as roughly 50% of murders are committed by someone who knows the victim (I’m assuming one knows hundreds of people).

            And that’s the way it should be: what contributes the most to a case should be the evidence, not some abstract prior assessment about how likely some member of an artificial reference class is.

            But you don’t seem to really want to examine the evidence. Instead you appeal to obscure principles and categories you seem to have invented yourself, in ways that look like they’re aimed at a foregone conclusion, or at least miring any contention to the contrary in endless digressions.

            When James tries to discuss with you the fact that Paul says that Jesus was born of a woman, you appeal to some bizarre alternative interpretation of the word Paul uses. When I argue that the natural reading of ‘the brother of the lord’ is that James is actually the brother of Jesus, you wander off into an irrelevancy about what Jesus did or didn’t ask James. When discussing the criterion of embarassment, you take us down a long digression about ehumerization and Attis, the point of which is still very unclear to me.

            Now you are deciding to make Jesus a Roman figure without any justification, apparently just to make a further case for non-historicity, as it allows you to group him with mythic figures and avoid discussing similarities with non-mythic figures like Mohammed. You rule out comparison with ‘asian’ figures simply by fiat.

            You’re also appealing to some vague virtue of a pre-existing Jesus in Paul not being the basis of any Church doctrine. Once again it’s difficult to see your point here, but once again it seems like a made-up rule designed to come to a certain conclusion.

            Plus you’re inclined to make authoritative-sounding pronouncements about Bayes’s theorem, which again just seem to be whatever you need to pronounce at the time!

            It seems that you do have some vague understanding of most of these matters, but when you reach for that understanding, it manifests itself to you not as vagueness, but as certainty: every time you need some principle to negate what someone else says you can find it there, crystalizing out of a noemic soup on requirement, as though it was there all along.

            And each time James or I looks like we might be making some headway with you, you make some vague assertions and veer off on some different tangent, or drop the line of discussion altogether!

          • arcseconds

            The ‘low prior’ is a bit of a red herring.

            Given a murder and some arbitrary person, perhaps a reasonable prior probability for that person being the murderer is 1 in 6 billion. But if you come to know that the person knew the victim, that very low prior should be washed out immediately: the posterior probability on coming to know this evidence should be something more in the realm of ~1/100, as roughly 50% of murders are committed by someone who knows the victim (I’m assuming one knows hundreds of people).

            And that’s the way it should be: what contributes the most to a case should be the evidence, not some abstract prior assessment about how likely some member of an artificial reference class is.

            But you don’t seem to really want to examine the evidence. Instead you appeal to obscure principles and categories you seem to have invented yourself, in ways that look like they’re aimed at a foregone conclusion, or at least miring any contention to the contrary in endless digressions.

            When James tries to discuss with you the fact that Paul says that Jesus was born of a woman, you appeal to some bizarre alternative interpretation of the word Paul uses. When I argue that the natural reading of ‘the brother of the lord’ is that James is actually the brother of Jesus, you wander off into an irrelevancy about what Jesus did or didn’t ask James. When discussing the criterion of embarassment, you take us down a long digression about ehumerization and Attis, the point of which is still very unclear to me. and so on.

            Now you are deciding to make Jesus a Roman figure without any justification, apparently just to make a further case for non-historicity, as it allows you to group him with mythic figures and avoid discussing similarities with non-mythic figures like Mohammed. You rule out comparison with ‘asian’ figures simply by fiat.

            You’re also appealing to some vague virtue of a pre-existing Jesus in Paul not being the basis of any Church doctrine. Once again it’s difficult to see your point here, but once again it seems like a made-up rule designed to come to a certain conclusion.

            Plus you’re inclined to make authoritative-sounding pronouncements about Bayes’s theorem, which again just seem to be whatever you need to pronounce at the time!

            It seems that you do have some vague understanding of most of these matters, but when you reach for that understanding, it manifests itself to you not as vagueness, but as certainty: every time you need some principle to negate what someone else says you can find it there, crystalizing out of a noemic soup at need, as though it was there all along.

            And each time James or I looks like we might be making some headway with you, you make some vague assertions and veer off on some different tangent, or drop the line of discussion altogether!

            Perhaps it isn’t clear to you, but it is pretty clear to us that you’re just manœuvring to get the result you’ve settled on independently of any consideration of the evidence.

          • arcseconds

            I’m sure you can delimit some area of time and space where Jesus is the only putatively historical figure who started a cult, but this seems a rather dubious line of argument to me.

            To start with, we could use the same sort of argument to argue against the historical existence of every cult founder. After dispensing with Jesus, we could move on to Mohammed and say “that would make him the first and only pre-modern putatively historical figure that started a cult! What are the chances? So he can’t be historical either!”. Then we could move on to Adi Shankara, make the same argument, then you know, march onwards to John Smith and Sun Myung Moon.

            And you can run a similar argument the other way and say “well, Jesus would be the only putatively mythical figure to have started a world religion in the Western hemisphere! All the other mythic figures started local cults. So the chances of a world religion coming out of a mythic figure seems remote! What are the chances?”

            The problem with all of these arguments is that they ignore the evidence in order to focus on something like prior probability. Every event in history is intrinsically unlikely, and Christianity on the whole is more unlikely than most. No-one in AD 1. could have predicted that a world religion would emerge out of the Jews, of all people.

            Any reasonable approach to history is going to have to allow that the unlikely happens rather a lot, and be swayed by the evidence to the most likely hypothesis rather than sticking heels in the ground and going “it’s all so unlikely!”.

            And when you look at things a little closer, I’m not sure that Jesus looks utterly unique. Pythagoras had a cultic following… admittedly the evidence for his existence is a lot less sure, but the stories look a lot like an ordinary person. Plato was considered to be divine by some, and Plotinus apparently had magical powers (including turning into a snake), and neoplatonism ended up being a quasi-religious movement. Had pagan neoplatonism survived and flourished, you might now be running the same argument to deny the existence of Plato!

          • Sheriff Liberty

            You’re confusing prior with posterior probability, all the “counter” examples (some of which are comparable, some not) have overwhelming historical evidence which Jesus does not.

          • arcseconds

            You assert that I’m confusing prior with posterior probability, but give no backing for this assertion. I don’t think I am confusing prior probability with posterior probability, obviously, as if I did think I was confusing them I wouldn’t have written what I wrote. You’ve given me no reason for thinking any differently.

            Last time you charged me with a confusion over bayesian epistemology, it turned out that you didn’t know what you were talking about, or at the very least are very sloppy with your terminology and are inclined to complain about me using terms as they are actually defined and not as whatever you feel they mean at the time.

            This doesn’t give me any confidence that you somehow understand the topic better than I do, and that I should pay any attention to this unsupported assertion of yours.

          • arcseconds

            I’m pretty clear on what James is saying.

            The only reason I asked for him to explicitly condone my explanation is that you were still insisting that he’s saying something about the uniqueness of Jesus’s mode of death, or something, even after he’s explicitly told you you misunderstood and upvoted my explanations.

          • Jim

            Hey, this might be the place that I can throw in my confused red herring.

            How reasonable is it to group Jesus into the category of other executed (failed) Jewish Messiah’s anyway? The label failed Messiah and death were certainly common to all in this group, however Jesus seems to significantly differ on important fronts.

            Most of the other Messiah’s faced execution as a direct consequence of their violent rebellions having failed. If you attack the state, death is the natural expected outcome of being caught.

            Secondly whether just metaphorically or not, Jesus is presented as a Messiah early on by way of a heavenly vision (descending dove) in the presence of a known prophet (John the Baptists) – a sort of subliminal low key inauguration. The other Jewish Messiah’s were skilled military leaders driven by a sense of national responsibility. And it’s the old live by the sword die by the sword-type employment hazard.

            There was also a two-Messiah notion (kingly and priestly), at least in some circles back in the day. One can get a sense that some NT writers were trying to justify Jesus’ execution in a priestly Messiah context.

            So granted that while there are similarities there are also very significant differences. I wonder if Jesus would fit better into an ancient Martin Luther King Jr- type (priestly?) category if there was such a one, rather that a kingly/military Messiah category? Though I suppose there is the INRI to deal with.

            Feel free to fry a red herring.

          • Great question! I’m not sure that we have clear evidence of the extent to which other first century messianic pretenders of the sort Josephus lists were fostering violent rebellions. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12416-pseudo-messiahs

            They may have – but according to Mark et. al., it may be the use of a sword by one of Jesus’ followers that convinced the Jewish authorities that just locking Jesus and his followers up until after Passover would be enough to prevent trouble. Given the emphasis on Jesus’ non-violence, that incident seems a good candidate for the application of the criterion of damage control.

            I would put MLK into the category of prophet more than priest, not that one can straightforwardly move figures from ancient times to now or the reverse and have things match up. But I think the reasons for Jesus being placed in that category are the characteristic ones: Jesus warned about coming judgment, but in relation to matters of social justice in his own time, according to the Q material.

          • arcseconds

            So, a century after the earliest evidence of Attis, according to you (there seems to be earlier evidence than that, but no matter), an ancient historian who is not a member of the cult and almost certainly doesn’t have any evidence for the historicity of Cybele, suggests that Cybele (and not Attis) was a historical figure.

            I’m really not sure of what your point is here. What can we conclude from that? Do you see any real parallels with Jesus (because I can’t)? What difficulty do you see being alleviated here?

            Are we still talking about the criterion of embarrassment, or have we moved on to ehumerization?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Strabo mentions a euhermerized Attis since he was a royal servant to Cybele, he just wasn’t the focus of that particular euhermization.

            The point is it wasn’t that long ago for embarrassment to be alleviated; castration (and the Attis cult specifically) was written about as disgraceful by the Roman elite so we at least know with some certainty that it was actually embarrassing to do.

          • arcseconds

            I still don’t understand what your point is about Strabo.

            I’ve searched for Cybele and Attis in the Geography, and I cannot find anything that looks like euhermerization. In 10.3 §16 he identifies Cybele with Rhea.

            Can you give me a precise reference? Without that I’m afraid given the proclivity for mythicists to misreport and misinterpret things, and your own tendency to misunderstand things, I can’t be at all certain that such a thing occurs.

            But even if it does, I don’t see what bearing it has on anything. So what if a later (but still ancient) historian opines that a demigod may have been an ordinary man? Are you still trying to show something about Jesus with this, or are we just noting things for interests’ sake?

            And I’m still not sure where you’re going with this embarrassment thing either. It is not clear that because other people thought it was embarrassing, that the cultists themselves did. It’s often the case that a cult is proud of things the wider society damns.

            But even if they did think it was embarrassing (and both James and myself have allowed this assumption for the sake of the argument) all it shows is that they didn’t invent it. So we might conclude that they got it from a pre-Roman period of the cult. Which while we have good reasons to think existed (as Cybele is much older, and comes from Phrygia), we don’t know much about.

            This allows us neither to conclude that Attis or Cybele actually existed, nor anything about the criterion of embarrassment. All the criterion suggests is something that we’d suspect anyway: that the Roman version of the cult neither invented the practice of castration nor the story of castration.

            But this is about the fourth time I’ve gone over the same ground with you. As I’ve said, I’ve already assumed for the sake of the argument that the cult felt the rite and the myth were embarrassing, so telling me that the Romans definitely felt this adds little to the discussion, as far as I can see.

            I’m not really sure what you mean by ‘it wasn’t that long ago for embarrassment to be alleviated’. That sounds like you think that at some point castration stopped being embarrassing for the cult? At what stage did this happen? and why do you think this? Doesn’t this just muddy the waters still further? And what, if anything, has it got to do with Jesus?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            You do seem to be disputing (or at least not acknowledging) that Jewish Messianic claimants (that is, people in same class as Jesus) were killed before him.

          • You have completely misunderstood.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Dying does not necessarily mean killing, and “kings, priests, and military leaders” are not necessarily messianic claiments. We’re talking about _killed_ _messiahs_ prior to Jesus not random priests or kings who may or may not have been killed, the specific class which is being addressed.

          • arcseconds

            Perhaps you might read this comment of mine and reply either agreeing with me or correcting me in the event that I have also misunderstood?

            I’m not expecting this to be a miracle cure for confusion, but it’s low-cost and might help illustrate that Sherriff has got the wrong end of the stick here. At any rate, it would at least remove a potential third interpretation of your point from the mix 🙂

          • Sheriff Liberty

            I can see how I “misunderstood” the point if James is arguing that my Jesus class is the same as his “priests/kings/military leaders who died” class but that would be James mistaking subsets (like saying all squares are rectangles) Or there’s some other radically different thing I’m not grasping…

          • arcseconds

            Honestly, having a discussion with you is like pulling teeth! You really want to think James is talking about the uniqueness of the, even though he never said anything like that, and you really want to think my argument about Moses is ‘we just don’t know, so it could be true!’ even though I never said anything like that, and despite the fact I’ve tried to correct your misapprehension.

            Is this how you normally conduct your conversations? Insist that your initial take on what is being said is right no matter what other people say about it?

            I can only assume that you must constantly get into trouble that must seem quite mysterious to you:

            “I had booked a room at this hotel! How can there be no rooms available!?”
            “No, sir, as I explained to you on the phone, we couldn’t give you a room as there weren’t any available for you to book”
            “No, you said there were rooms available!”
            “No, sir, that is not what I said. ”
            “So you’re saying there are rooms available now! Excellent, I’ll get my bags”

            “…”

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Invention means it’s temporally unique at that point, and I never argued the latter (only about the methodology being used).

            I laughed at the example and agree that sometimes phrases can be misworded but I’d like to hope I didn’t do something like literally take the opposite meaning.

          • arcseconds

            Well, not take the opposite meaning, but apparently put the stress on something that was not being stressed. James has never been arguing that the crucifixion is unique.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            First of all, my argument isn’t about the criterion as whole it’s about a specific point you made about the uniqueness of embarrassment (“being invented from the context”) and whether it applies for Jesus like it did for Attis (it does).

            As a separate issue, I’m saying those past failures are good examples of why (historical) killed Jewish messiahs DON’T lead to cult followings. I’m not saying it’s any less embarrassing (if anything its the opposite) and I’m not linking the two arguments, again, they’re two separate arguments.

          • If your method says that a belief system cannot exist that we have evidence existed, then something is wrong with your method.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            I’m not saying it COULDN’T exist, only that because it repeatedly didn’t happen, it means it probably didn’t for a Jesus figure as well. The real fallacy is to say because something could happen it probably did as well.

          • So you are saying that Paul’s letters – in which he says that a man named Jesus who was crucified is the anointed one descended from David – probably don’t exist? Would seeing the actual manuscripts convince you otherwise? Or is the problem that you believe they exist, but concoct nonsensically implausible hypotheses concerning them because you do not know what they say?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            No I’m saying he’s describing a celestial figure (in the heavens): all the faith assumptions about the “brother” James, “rulers of the age,” birth etc. have been thoroughly debunked.

          • A celestial figure who nonetheless born like other humans, under the Law like other Jews, with a common Jewish name, descended from David, and so on? Can you explain why on earth anyone should find that remotely plausible, much less more likely than the way historians and other scholars understand the meaning of these texts?

            The faith-based stance on James – that he was not Jesus’ brother in the normal sense, since Mary should be viewed as a perpetual virgin – has indeed been thoroughly debunked. And yet mythicists embrace it, because it suits their ideologically-driven nonsense to do so.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Again no because of the actual language used to describe Jesus’s celestial circumstances, (Greek for “manufacture” rather than birth, Paul saying women are a metaphor etc.)

            It seems obvious you haven’t read the evidence or you would responding to the Greek interpretations rather than pretending like it’s 2010 and most mythicists haven’t heard of Gal 4:4.

          • I would encourage you to look up the word used in Liddell and Scott or any other Greek lexicon, and see what one of the most common uses thereof it. Then see if you think your point here still stands.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Ok, the word is γίγνομαι or genomenos which means “come into a state of being,” never used for non-celestial births. Along with the metaphorical women in Gal 4:2, and Jewish ideas of Lilith stealing David’s semen, it’s pretty clear we’re talking about God manufacturing Jesus from David’s seed (similar to the creation of Adam). These are the issues not being discussed.

            Combined with nothing remotely like this described for historical killed Messiahs and we it’s pretty obvious we’re dealing with a celestial myth.

          • Are you lying, or could you just not be bothered to look it up even in a reliable online source?

            http://perseus.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/cgi-bin///lexindex?lang=greek&display=&lookup=gi/gnomai

          • Sheriff Liberty

            In Paul’s TEXT non-celestial births are never referred to in that way, which, when using textual analysis is important. “Com[ing] into a new state of being” is more likely artificial here.

            Plus with everything else it makes more sense: unless Paul went from talking about the allegorical women in Gal 4:2 to all of a sudden say something absurdly obvious and irrelevant for a normal person (that a women gave birth to him), then it’s clearly symbolic to the “law” women.

          • So you read the text in a problematic way, and then pretend that your problematic interpretation is proof that Paul only used a word in the way that you are merely assuming, and not demonstrating, that he did.

            Instead of being dogmatic about a view that is found persuasive by fewer professional scholars and historians, than there are professional scientists who find some sort of creationism plausible, why not spend your time actually learning about first-century Jewish messianism? Then you might understand why views that you think are plausible do not seem that way to those well-acquainted with the texts and their historical setting.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Are you unaware of how textual analysis works? You look at the context within the same author and compare that to the dictionary meanings. If you want more evidence take a look at 1 Cor 15:45 which almost explicitly makes this point.

          • OK, I will give you a warning to stop now with the inappropriate troll rhetoric. Would you comment on a doctor’s blog and ask if they know how diagnosis works? Being rude wins you no points, when you quite obviously don’t understand how languages work. A word as common as “to become” is used in lots of different ways, and insisting that it should always have the same meaning when used by a particular author is quite obvious nonsensical, the sort of thing that only religious fundamentalists and mythicists could find plausible. That you think this is “how textual analysis works” suggests that you had your imtroduction to what you mistakenly consider “textual analysis” in one of the two ideologically-driven schools of quackery just mentioned.

          • arcseconds

            (*chuckle*)

            No-one here who regularly comments on these matters has ‘faith assumptions’.

            I believe even Richard Carrier thinks that the ‘brother of the Lord’ counts in favour of historicity. Do you think he’s got a ‘faith assumption’ here?

          • Sheriff Liberty

            He puts it at 50/50, if it favored historicity there wouldn’t be a debate right now.

          • arcseconds

            Seriously? You think Carrier would give up on a single piece of evidence that favoured historicity?

            I’m glad he’s not my defence lawyer…

          • Sheriff Liberty

            It’s probably worth mentioning that others put the brother evidence at significantly less, and actually saw Carrier as being somewhat generous.

          • arcseconds

            Mention of ‘brother of the Lord’ in a humdrum context falls naturally out of the historicity hypothesis, whereas extra assumptions are needed to explain it on the mythicism one.

            Extra assumptions always make a view less probable than one that doesn’t need those assumptions (unless, of course, those assumptions can be used to explain more things, but the extra assumptions about James having a particular moniker etc. have no other use than to explain this one phrase).

            Anyone who can’t see that or won’t admit to that has a serious problem assessing the evidence.

            This doesn’t, of course, mean that this piece of evidence taken on its own is a slam-dunk for historicity. You’ve just wisely (although irrelevantly) pointed out that you need to consider all the evidence in the other discussion we’re having, so it’s a bit surprising that you think the discussion would be over if just one piece of evidence supported historicity.

            If there were other severe problems with historicity which weren’t problems for mythicism, we might well have to say “this phrase can’t mean what it means prima facie” and resort to an ad hoc additional assumption to explain it.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            You would also need prior assumptions for why Paul doesn’t ask James more about THE messiah (or barely give any details at all) so it’s not inherently favoring one or the other.

          • How do you know what Paul did or did not ask James? Seriously, do you not know what the relevant sources do and do not say?!

          • arcseconds

            That’s another, different point to consider. If this were genuinely a problem, then that might be something that supports mythicism.

            But that’s no argument against the idea that the phrase itself, in the context it is written, supporting historicism.

          • Jim

            An abscess in your comment for me, is your implication that “all faith assumptions about the “brother” James … have been thoroughly debunked.” Horus Manure usually comes to mind when I hear “thoroughly debunked” on this issue.

            Has Carrier touched on, say for example, Classics Professor (U Reading) Eleanor Dickey’s data-rich publication in Mnemosyne (2004) on the “Literal and Extended Use of Kinship Terms in Documentary Papyri”. I’m suspecting … hmm … maybe not.

            Maybe RC’s idea of thorough is not so thorough for people who aren’t members of his cult? Or maybe it’s just my hyperactive antibodies over responding – I seem to have a low immune tolerance for Horus excrement.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            He has cited her before from what I can find, did she argue that it would been rare for early Christians or people of the time to use those terms?

          • Jim

            Sorry for being long and boring but …

            Professor Dickey’s paper analyzes the use of kinship terms (father, brother etc.) in papyrus letters over the period 3 BCE – 3 CE (data from 4738 letters from which there are 3343 uses of kinship terms). Of this pool, 425 letters span the relevant period (1st century and early part of 2nd century). Her aim is to identify conventions underlying the usage of kinship terms in the letters. The situation is understandably complex, and she carefully analyzes how and when these terms were used “literally” (to actual family members) and when they were applied in an “extended” (metaphorical) sense.

            One pattern she observes is that when kinship terms are used in letters referring to the relationship of one person to another person *other than sender or recipient*, the kinship term usually seems to indicate a familial relationship.

            Application of her observation to Gal 1.19, where Paul refers to two “third-party” people (James and “the Lord”) as “brothers” suggests he is referencing a biological (family) relationship. In contrast, Paul’s usage of brother in Philemon suggests he is not using the kinship term in a “literal” sense in this letter. [L Hurtado] See Dickey’s Appendix Table under the use of adelphos.

            Now admittedly this is not absolute, nor standalone, proof that Paul meant biological family in Gal 1.19, but my main earlier point was that the situation is not so one dimensional as to be encapsulated by a phrase like “totally debunked”.

            Btw, E. Dickey does not appear in the author index of OHJ, at least from my quick scan.

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Actually that’s a good intro, her study could be given as a kind of prior probability and Carrier already puts the brother interpretations at 50/50.

          • Jim

            Nothing wrong (in my opinion) of setting a initial prior on this brother situation at 50/50 (half way between minimal mythicism and historical).

          • Sheriff Liberty

            Actually my bad, the “prior” would be the total historicity/myth estimate, individual evidence like the brother passage would be the posterior. Yo could use Dickey’s analysis analysis or Paul’s total usage (if she didn’t do that already) or average the two.

  • They may be mistaken about the matter, but they did not invent it, and
    that is what the historian dealing with the source is trying to
    determine.

    -Pretty much.
    The criterion of embarrassment, even if properly used, tells us only that early Christians believed something that many others would have found embarrassing. Understanding how they arrived at that belief is something that requires further investigation.

    • arcseconds

      It certainly has to be emphasized that embarrassment isn’t truth-tracking.

      That a writer includes something that they find embarrassing at most means that they think it’s true. Their embarrassment doesn’t magically allow them to peer through time to discover the embarrassment is fact!

      • Ian

        at most means that they think it’s true

        I’m not sure I agree.

        Jesus being born in Bethlehem, for example, in a convoluted narrative, seems to suggest that Matt and Luke were aware of accusations that a) Jesus came from Nazareth, and b) wasn’t therefore the messiah. So in this case, the thing that is embarrassing isn’t what they write (the grand birth narratives), but the inference that those narratives are written in response to the ‘common knowledge’ that was embarrassing.

        Similarly with Jesus being a disciple of John. That is something the gospel writers deny in stories that appear to protest too much (and contradict one another in timing).

        So it isn’t the criteria of embarrassment, again, but of damage control.

        • arcseconds

          I’m not sure what it is that you disagree with?

          I did write ‘at most it means they think it’s true’ (new emphasis), meaning that in the best case scenario, the person has admitted some embarrassing thing that they think is true. Now, they may well have good reasons for thinking it’s true (they could even have been eyewitnesses) but that has to be assessed on other grounds other than the embarrassment.

          ‘at most’ was supposed to cover cases where the author doesn’t believe it, but feels they have to respond to the embarrassing account anyway. My supposition was that this would normally just muddy the waters, as someone reporting some embarrassing charge that they don’t believe means that the claim is now second hand and is being disputed, which ceteris paribus seems worse evidence than a first-hand claim that isn’t disputed. But I suppose in some happy cases we might have reasons to think, contra the author we’re reading, that the second-hand account actually is more likely to be true.

          But again, it’s not the embarrassment itself that allows us to say this.

          • Ian

            Then I only disagree with my misunderstanding of what you wrote! 🙂 Yes. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Other than the fact that an “honest politician” may be no less mythical than a “Davidic Messiah,” I don’t think that the Jeb Bush analogy works at all. The problem is that Jeb’s malfeasance is not part of a larger narrative being related two decades after the fact wherein it serves as a vital element in a divine plan of salvation wherein Jeb is eventually exalted to heaven as God’s anointed one. If it were, I would be much less confident of its non-invention.

    If an officer reports immediately after a battle that the troops under his command broke and ran under attack, I would tend to credit the report as it would be an embarrassing thing to admit. However, if the story ends with the officer delivering an inspirational speech to rally those troops in a counter-attack that turns the tide of the battle, the incident is not embarrassing at all. Moreover, if instead of appearing in his initial report, the officer has been telling and retelling the story for twenty years, I would have even less confidence that the initial failure hadn’t been magnified to make the eventual success more impressive. Paul might have been the virulent persecutor of Christians that he makes himself out to be, or he might have embellished the story over time as he discovered that his conversion story was became more effective the worse he portrayed himself prior to his encounter on the road to Damascus.

    No matter how humiliating death by crucifixion might have been when viewed in isolation, in the tale Paul tells it is clearly a feature rather than a bug. To the downtrodden and disenfranchised of the Roman Empire, that their wretched circumstances were actually part of a divine plan in which they would ultimately be vindicated was the very thing that made Paul’s story so effective. Their suffering was no longer a sign that they had displeased the gods, because even God’s anointed one needed to suffer.

    Even if Jesus was a real historical person, I think that I have to allow for the possibility that the manner and circumstances of his death were shaped over time by his followers based on how effectively the story worked in winning converts, just as I have to allow for the possibility that the story of Paul the persecutor grew in the telling.

    I have no conceptual problem with the criteria of embarrassment in the case of a timely report by a known individual whose propensity towards embarrassment under the circumstances can be assessed with some confidence, but where stories are being told and retold by unknown people with unknown motives over years or decades, I am much less sanguine.

    • I think that dogmatic agnosticism in the face of evidence works less well than my analogy.

      We can still tell that the message of Paul is focused on a crucified Davidic anointed one, however much damage control has been done in the interim. That is the point. We can see how the bug has been turned into a feature.

      • No. We can see how it might have happened. Paul’s message is focused on a crucified Davidic anointed one whose suffering and subsequent vindication and exaltation were an organic part of God’s eschatological plan. The only way to justify isolating one element of the message is by assuming it’s independence. That’s not evidence; it’s question begging.

        • Well everyone knows that you will say this same sort of thing in every discussion of this topic. But that isn’t how it looks to historians and other scholars, and if you had a clearer understanding of Jewish messianism, you might understand why historians and other scholars consistently view the evidence differently than you do.

          • I suppose they do know that, but they may also know that every response to my comments from you will include a charge of unregenerate agnosticism flavored with some condescension. Nonetheless, as important as it is may be to get the criterion of embarrassment right, it is equally important to the critiques of it right.

  • Hrafn

    I find the crucifixion=embarrassment argument uncompelling because it is one of the very few parts of Jesus’ story that Paul does include (little or nothing about his family, preaching etc). It is therefore at the the core of Paul’s preaching of Jesus, not an embarrassing incidental anecdote. This means that, in Paul’s eyes at least, the crucifixion was not an embarrassment! What his reasons were for thinking this, I will leave to scholars of ancient religious thought (far too many religious beliefs of the time seem absurd to me, for me to make common sense out of what would or would not have been a credible belief at the time).

    • This misunderstands the nature of the argument, and seems to have been written without reading the blog post. Paul himself explicitly says that the message about a crucified messiah of the sort he proclaims is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. It is a common strategy of damage control to try to turn a liability into a strength.

      • Hrafn

        That was a very inadequate response:

        1) Paul preached to Gentiles (and wrote in Greek), so the “stumbling block to Jews” claim is largely irrelevant (even if true), the more so as the Jewish Christian church (e.g. the Ebionites) appears to have been marginal and short-lived.

        2) That Paul states that it was “foolishness to Gentiles” does not make this claim true as a matter of historical fact. In fact the whole verse sounds like more of a rhetorical flourish than a statement of cold hard fact — Paul patting himself and his followers on the back for successfully preaching this ‘impossible’ doctrine.

        3) It was not an embarrassment, because Paul himself does not (one single rhetorical flourish notwithstanding) treat it as an embarrassment, but rather as the core of his message. What is, or is not, an embarrassment is entirely contextual. In the context of Paul’s ministry, Jesus’ crucifixion is clearly not an embarrassment, or he would not have made it the centerpiece of his ministry. This is not a matter of “turn[ing] a liability into a strength”, it is the whole foundation of the message. If Jesus had not died (either mythically or historically), then there would have been no message and no ministry.

        4) Given that the context of this discussion is “mythicism”, using Paul’s statements as a attempted clincher appears to border on begging the question. If Paul was in fact myth-making (as mythicists contend), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he might also attempt to mythologise his ministry with heroic achievements. In addressing a mythicist argument, you cannot use the writings of Paul as evidence of anything other than Paul’s theology, if you wish your counter-argument to be taken seriously.

        I would therefore conclude that, unless you can present actual mainstream scholarly historical opinion that Jesus’ crucifixion would have been an “embarrassment” to Paul’s audience, that your attempted counter-argument to the mythicist position fails.

        • The biggest problem with mythicism is that it is unfalsifiable – the answer “people have made up all kinds of crazy stuff” is felt to be a sufficient answer to any historical argument. But historians must deal with probabilities, and sometimes “people just made it up” – while ALWAYS possible – is not going to be the most likely scenario.

          Pretending that the beliefs which eventually came to be known as Christianity did not emerge in a Jewish context is not going to lead to persuasive historical reasoning. Nor is the claim (addressed in the blog post) that anything anyone ever mentions is by definition not embarrassing to them, in the sense of something awkward that they need to engage in extra effort to explain and account for.

          I gather from your last paragraph that you have never even once consulted a mainstream scholarly historical treatment of the life of Jesus.

          • Hrafn

            The biggest problem with mythicism is that it is unfalsifiable

            There are a number of problems with making this claim, particularly at this stage in the argument:

            1) It is not the “problem” you were initially arguing.

            2) Mythicism is no more “unfalsifiable” than historicism.

            3) What does Paul (by several decades, the first Christian writer) tell us about the ‘historical’ Jesus, beyond that he died and returned from the dead? What does Paul tell us about his birth, childhood, family, ministry, teachings, etc? What evidence can you present that Paul himself considered Jesus to be a historical rather than mythical figure?

            Pretending that … Christianity did not emerge in a Jewish context…

            An apostate Jew writing to Gentiles in Greek is hardly “a Jewish context” — it is a Greek/Gentile context with some Jewish trappings.

            Nor is the claim (addressed in the blog post) that anything anyone ever mentions is by definition not embarrassing to them, in the sense of something awkward that they need to engage in extra effort to explain and account for.

            NOT simply “anything anyone ever mentions” but rather the absolute core of Paul’s message (conflating the two collapses both your argument and your credibility). Can you present any corroborating evidence that a religion/ideology/belief-system has viewed its core message as an “embarrassment” to it?

            You have presented no credible evidence that the crucifixion was an embarrassment, so I am under not obligation to accept it as such.

          • What makes you characterize Paul as an “apostate Jew”? But even if he was, would that fit the Jerusalem apostles and others who were in the movement before him?

            Can you provide reasons – other than really wanting the simplicity of having Jesus be completely mythical rather than a historical figure overlaid with legend and dogma – for not considering “born of a woman [like all humans], born under the Law [like all Jews]” and “of the seed of David according to the flesh” to be statements about celestial rather than terrestrial realities?

            What “credible evidence that the crucifixion was an embarrassment” do you need beyond what is clear about what the Davidic anointed one was expected to do in the Judaism of that time, and how Jesus failed to do it?

          • Hrafn

            What makes you characterize Paul as an “apostate Jew”?

            Because this is a widely held view of him, especially in Jewish circles.

            But even if he was, would that fit the Jerusalem apostles and others who were in the movement before him?

            Except that according to Paul’s own writings, he was (i) in conflict with your “Jerusalem apostles and others who were in the movement before him”, and (ii) was opposed to a more heavily Jewish form of Christianity.

            Can you provide reasons – other than really wanting the simplicity of having Jesus be completely mythical rather than a historical figure overlaid with legend and dogma – for not considering “born of a woman [like all humans], born under the Law [like all Jews]” and “of the seed of David according to the flesh” to be statements about celestial rather than terrestrial realities?

            Yes:

            1) “born of a woman, born under the Law”, is not specific historical detail, but merely vague rhetorical flourish. The former is told of numerous semi-divine heroes, the latter is necessary to place Jesus (albeit superficially) in the Jewish tradition.

            2) “of the seed of David according to the flesh” is fairly standard mythic ‘of the line of a legendary hero’ boilerplate.

            3) Where does Paul say when Jesus was born? Where does Paul say where Jesus was born? Where does Paul say who his parents was? That James was his brother? Where he died? When he died? Who ordered his execution? Where does Paul mention any of Jesus’ specific miracles? Any of his specific teachings?

            What “credible evidence that the crucifixion was an embarrassment” do you need beyond what is clear about what the Davidic anointed one was expected to do in the Judaism of that time, and how Jesus failed to do it?

            Some evidence that Paul’s audience, who were not Jewish, either knew or cared what you believe was “clear about what the Davidic anointed one was expected to do”, as they were not “in Judaism”, of that, or any other time. Did Paul actually explicitly mention these ‘expectations’, and draw attention to the fact that Jesus failed to meet them?

            I would also point out that the meaning of words change, especially when you transplant them out of their original context (e.g. out of Judaism into Greek thought). English is full of foreign words that have completely lost, or heavily distorted, their original meaning (‘mufti’ immediately comes to mind). Do we have any basis for claiming that Paul’s Greek audience knew what Jews meant by “Messiah”, or cared? Did Paul ever explain the term, or its significance within Judaism?

          • This is quite frankly bizarre – that you need to try to exclude the original Jewish context of what later came to be known as Christianity in order to try to make your point, renders it completely implausible.

            How modern Jews view Paul is irrelevant, historically speaking, to how he understood himself in his own context.

            On James the brother of Jesus, I will link to earlier posts to avoid repeating myself:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/11/james-the-lords-brother.html

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/03/mythicism-and-james-the-brother-of-the-lord-a-reply-to-richard-carrier.html

            Where does Paul refer to when he was born? Where does Paul refer to who his parents were? If you look for things that it is unreasonable to expect from ancient authors, and then draw conclusions based on their absence, you are going to end up with a viewpoint that looks laughable to historians and scholars.

            Do you deny the historicity of Hillel and Rashi because they were purported to have been descendants of David? http://www.jewishgen.org/rabbinic/journal/descent_part2.htm

          • Hrafn

            This is quite frankly bizarre – that you need to try to exclude the original Jewish context of what later came to be known as Christianity in order to try to make your point, renders it completely implausible.

            No James McGrath, “this is quite frankly” you clutching at straws in an attempt to salvage a trainwreck of an argument. Nothing in Paul’s writings suggest a particularly deep or intimate relationship with Judaism — quite the opposite in fact, more ‘trappings of Judaism’ along the lines of references to the Messiah (a Judaic term, but apparently largely divorced from its Judaic context in Paul’s usage) and Old Testament quotes.

            How modern Jews view Paul is irrelevant, historically speaking, to how he understood himself in his own context.

            Did you hear me use the term “modern”? No, you did not. I was talking about Jews and Jewish Christians of the period. The Ebionites, for example, appear to have rejected Paul in toto.

            On James the brother of Jesus, I will link to earlier posts to avoid repeating myself

            It would have been far better to have linked to Galatians 1:19, as your “earlier posts” appear to merely assert, not substantiate, this point.

            I will however grant you this this one lonely and isolated point among the veritable sea of ‘historical’ detail of Jesus that Paul appears blithely unaware of. Paul may have meant it literally, but then again, words like “brother” and “son” are frequently used metaphorically as well.

            Where does Paul refer to when he was born? Where does Paul refer to who his parents were? If you look for things that it is unreasonable to expect from ancient authors, and then draw conclusions based on their absence, you are going to end up with a viewpoint that looks laughable to historians and scholars.

            My point was, that the writings of Paul contain almost nothing to lead us to place Jesus as a historical figure. It is therefore not unreasonable to suspect that the ‘historical’ details (birth, minstry, teachings, etc) were a later ‘fleshing out’ or embellishment of Paul’s less-even-than-skeletal sketch, by later storytellers, who felt the need for an actual narrative as well as the core theology.

            Do you deny the historicity of Hillel and Rashi because they were purported to have been descendants of David?

            What an appallingly bad argument. You have taken an introductory logic course haven’t you, Professor McGrath?

            If all that we knew about them was (i) that they were purported to have been descendents of David & (ii) a bunch of supernatural stuff, then I probably would doubt their existence as well.

            Putting my rebuttal more formally, rejecting “purported to have been descendants of David” as grossly insufficient evidence of historicity does not oblige me to reject the historicity of all other purported descendents.

            This argument is not helped by the fact that (i) the historicity of David himself rests on the sketchiest of evidence (a stele alluding to the House of David, I believe), and (ii) his son, Solomon, having been purported to have had a very large number of wives and concubines, it is likely that a very large proportion of Jews might purport to being their descendents.

            ADDENDUM: I would also note that you appear to have abandoned the failure-to-meet-the-expectations-of-a-David-annotated-one-as-embarrassment-to-a-Greek-audience argument.

          • I have no recollection of making an argument that fits your odd addendum.

            The world’s professional historians and scholars are not “clutching at straws.” But fans of pseudoscholarship regularly prefer to interact with summaries of scholarship on blogs rather than the real thing, since a summary never contains the full weight of convincing detail, by definition.

            If you think that all we know about Jesus is radically different from, or worse than, what we know about Hillel, then you really must acquaint yourself with the critical secular study of the relevant ancient sources – their content, but also their dates relative to the figures in question – before continuing this conversation.

          • Hrafn

            I have no recollection of making an argument that fits your odd addendum.

            Then you might want to see a neurologist about your memory-loss problem:

            What “credible evidence that the crucifixion was an embarrassment” do you need beyond what is clear about what the Davidic anointed one was expected to do in the Judaism of that time, and how Jesus failed to do it?

            The world’s professional historians and scholars are not “clutching at straws.”

            Then it’s probably just as well that I did not say that they were, only that you were. I would also point out that an unsubstantiated accusation of “pseudoscholarship” from the pseudologician who made your ‘it was an embarrassment because Paul said so’ and “deny the historicity of Hillel and Rashi” arguments, is more than a little rich.

            I would further point out that your sudden invocation of “the world’s professional historians and scholars” is nothing more than a vague Argument from Authority.

            If you think that all we know about Jesus is radically different from, or worse than, what we know about Hillel, then you really must acquaint yourself with the critical secular study of the relevant ancient sources – their content, but also their dates relative to the figures in question – before continuing this conversation.

            Assuming that all that we know about Hillel is what is referenced in your link above, then we can clearly distinguish Hillel from Jesus: supernatural claims are made about Jesus but not Hillel. This means that, while there is always the possibility that Hillel’s presence in the source documents was due to a scribal error or other mischance, we can state with certainty that he was not “mythical”, as he possesses no mythic qualities. We don’t create myths about characters who didn’t do anything wondrous. There is no ‘myth of Joe the scribe who lived a quiet life, and died at a fairly typical age’.

          • It is no more an argument from authority to point out the overwhelming consensus of historians, than it is an argument from authority to point out the overwhelming consensus of biologists. Promoters of pseudoscience regularly misunderstand the argument from authority, which they themselves commit when they say “Look, Richard Carrier/Michael Behe” has a PhD.

            That Jesus has some characteristics which make him more like Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa than Hillel isn’t news.

          • Hrafn

            It is no more an argument from authority to point out the overwhelming consensus of historians, than it is an argument from authority to point out the overwhelming consensus of biologists.

            When you baldly bring them up as defense against an accusation that you’re clutching at straws? Yes, it most certainly is an Argument from Authority! Which does this suddenly-popped-up-in-this-thread “consensus” support? Your woeful ‘Paul says’ argument or your awful ‘Hillel is the same as Jesus’ argument? That the scholarly consensus supports your conclusion (which may be true, but at this stage has just been asserted, not proven), is no evidence that they support your malformed arguments in support of this conclusion.

            Promoters of pseudoscience regularly misunderstand the argument from authority, which they themselves commit when they say “Look, Richard Carrier/Michael Behe” has a PhD.

            Michael Behe “has a PhD” in a field only peripherally related to evolution, and has done no scientific research to give him expertise in that area. Richard Carrier’s PhD is in Ancient History, which would appear directly relevant. Behe’s argument against evolution is both logically fallacious (an Argument from Personal Incredulity), and contradicted by whole libraries of scientific research and evidence. I have yet to hear anybody claim that Carrier’s thesis is based upon a logical fallacy, and although the weight of scholarly opinion is against him, the evidence is very limited and ambiguous. Having read Behe’s testimony at Dover, I would suggest that he, like you, cannot argue his way out of a wet paper bag. That in itself does not mean that either of you is wrong, but it does make both of you a less-than-optimal standard-bearer for your respective positions.

            That Jesus has some characteristics which make him more like Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa than Hillel isn’t news.

            That you based your argument on a particularly less-than-apt analogy is likewise not a surprise.

            And seeing as you are intruding the “overwhelming consensus of historians” into this discussion, perhaps you will enlighten us on whether there is any consensus as to what the strongest evidence for Jesus’ historicity might be?

          • It would be far better for you to read a book on the subject. I have seen far too many creationists ask what the strongest argument for evolution is – probably knowing that no scholarly viewpoint stands or falls on the basis of one point of evidence, but that any piece of evidence, considered in isolation, may be disputed using standard denialist tactics.

            That a figure is not wholly like one figure, and in some ways is more like another, does not make an analogy less than apt. Historical figures are never compared with, or comparable to, only one other figure in their time.

            If Carrier’s work seems better to you than Behe’s, then you must not have read them both.

          • Hrafn

            It would be far better for you to read a book on the subject.

            Given that you have completely failed, both in your OP and your later comments, to make a coherent argument against mythicism, this would seem obvious.

            If somebody could point me to “a book” that summarised the majority position (rather than having to read each scholar’s, potentially idiosyncratic, position), I would probably make the effort.

            I have seen far too many creationists ask what the strongest argument for evolution is…

            I am getting more than a little tired of your lame attempts to manufacture a false equivalence between creationism and mythicism:

            1) I asked for evidence not arguments! I know you are a Professor of Religion, not a scientist, but I would have thought you would know the difference — for one thing arguments tend to predominate where there is a lack of evidence (and/or where the evidence is ambiguous).

            2) As I stated before, there is a mountain of evidence supporting evolution. It’s strength lies in the size of the mountain not just in the strength of any individual piece. The evidence pertaining to the historicity of Jesus on the other hand is several orders of magnitude smaller. You probably have just the Epistles of Paul, the Gospels, and Josephus, before you get to the really marginal stuff — and even those three each have their problems. Therefore asking which of these three (or any other piece they consider to be even more compelling) the consensus considers to be the strongest evidence is not unreasonable.

            3) Given the dearth of evidence, and the problematical nature of that evidence, it would seem to be unreasonable to label taking a minority position on the matter as “pseudoscholarship”. It certainly suggest that the factual basis for the consensus may be softer than the weight of numbers suggests.

            That a figure is not wholly like one figure, and in some ways is more like another, does not make an analogy less than apt.

            In arguing about mythicism, introducing a figure who is completely lacking in any qualities that might reasonably be labelled as “mythic”, is about as in-apt an analogy as you can get. It is like when arguing whether a squirrel is or is not a bird, bringing up a deep sea squid as an analogy.

            If Carrier’s work seems better to you than Behe’s, then you must not have read them both.

            Last I looked Carrier hadn’t had his claims explicitly disavowed by his own department, or had his testimony cited by judges (in two separate cases) in judgements against the side for which he testified, nor a central claim based upon a logical fallacy.

            Beyond that, I would suggest that a more detailed comparison of the relative strength of their work would require a background in the respective fields, to be able to detect any contrary evidence they have failed to address.

            Carrier and Behe do have one thing in common however: both were brought up by you. I do not base my skepticism of the historicity of Jesus on Carrier’s work, but rather the lack of solid or substantial evidence supporting it.

            Lacking contrary solid or substantial evidence, it is not pseudoscholarship to be unconvinced by the majority position.

          • Why is “a book” in scare quotes? Is it because you know
            just how many books there are on this topic? Or because you know that a subject on which so much has been written really requires multiple books to really begin to become acquainted with it?

            If you are interested in a recent work which discusses problems with a traditional atomistic approach, Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus is one I’d recommend. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2010/09/review-of-dale-allison-constructing-jesus.html

            If you want a detailed academic textbook for an advanced course, then Theissen and Merz is a good choice.

            http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0800631226/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0800631226&linkCode=as2&tag=jamefmcgrshom-20&linkId=RZPVLPB6JVQ4CWQX

            And of course, E. P. Sanders’ book The Historical Figure of Jesus remains a classic overview for a general audience.

            http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002RI9L7G/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B002RI9L7G&linkCode=as2&tag=jamefmcgrshom-20&linkId=74NXVJEFXCS77TCI

            But if you want discussions of specific points, then journal articles and scholarly monographs will be more helpful.
            You seemed to be aware of the sources, and just interested in disputing their significance, hence my offering arguments about the evidence. Are you now saying that you were unaware of Paul’s letters and what they say, not to mention other sources of information that we have?

            As I said before, it is not pseudoscholarship to not be convinced by the consensus. Indeed, scholarship involves constant re-examination and challenge to consensus. What characterizes pseudoscholarship is the attempt to convince the public of things that you cannot persuade your academic peers of.

            I have said time and time again, that the comparison between historical and scientific denialism is not intended to suggest that the methods are the same, or that the things being disputed have comparable levels of certainty. The point of the comparison is that the same tactics are used in both domains to deny the relative certainties offered by the conclusions of experts in these respective fields.

            Since Carrier does not even have a department to disavow him, Behe still seems to be doing slightly better than he is…

          • Hrafn

            Why is “a book” in scare quotes?

            It is in quotes because IT IS A QUOTE!

            It would be far better for you to read a book on the subject.

            I picked out those two words to emphasise that I wanted a book, singular, that surveyed the scholarly consensus (rather than having to read a bunch of scholars’ individual opinions) on the basis for considering Jesus to be historical.

            Let us now turn to your suggestions:
            1) Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (which I was able to make a quick skim of in Google Books):
            i) It appears to be far more (the last stage in) a journey of personal scholarly exploration than an impersonal survey.
            ii) Only the last chapter, ‘Memory and Invention’ appeared remotely applicable to the question at hand. This chapter largely disclaims the ability to determine whether a particular event or saying of Jesus was historical. It does not appear to address mythicism, but rather the stronger (and thus more difficult to defend) proposition that the gospels may have been an intentional forgery.

            2) Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide covers the second point slightly better (specifically in the chapter ‘The Evaluation of the Sources’), but is far too brief to make any strong case. It again lacks any impression of being a survey of the consensus.

            3) The Historical Figure of Jesus appears to assume the (core) historicity of Jesus, rather than attempt to present a case for it.

            What characterizes pseudoscholarship is the attempt to convince the public of things that you cannot persuade your academic peers of.

            Then please point to me where you have accused inerrantist Bibilical scholars of “pseudoscholarship”? Have you read Stephen L. Young’s article ‘Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the “Academic”’?

            “Denialsm” is denial of evidence (specifically overwhelming contrary evidence) not rejection of opinion, even consensus opinion. And you have made no case that Carrier denies evidence, but rather it would seem that he, along with other mythicists, consider the evidence too thin and too problematical, to establish a case for historicity. This is not denialism.

            Since Carrier does not even have a department to disavow him, Behe still seems to be doing slightly better than he is…

            What an ignorant remark, “Professor” McGrath (and yes, those were ‘scare quotes’, indicating that I was snearing at you). Einstein did some of his most important work whilst working as a humble patent clerk (and his work was controversial for many years to come), your bedfellow-in-tenure Professor Behe on the other hand has produced no scientific research to speak of in the two decades since he took up with ID. More an argument against tenure than an argument in favour of Behe, I would suggest. Given a choice between him and Carrier, I rather suspect I know who Lehigh University would prefer to have on staff knowing what they know now.

          • Jim

            Now I really don’t belong in this conversation, but every once in a while when I see a comment that seems a bit wtf-ish, it leads me to ponder. So I wondered, regarding your comment that Constructing Jesus (even in its last chapter), does not appear to address mythicism, if the reason for this might be similar to why Lehninger and coauthors don’t devote a chapter to ID in their Principles of Biochemistry.

            I suspect that if you decide to go through just the Allison book (including at least some of over 1000 references and footnotes therein) that Dr. McGrath recommended, you will at least get a clearer idea of the weight/spectrum of the historicist’s argument even if you don’t agree with it. Now maybe you don’t want to invest that much time into it, but then I’m pondering why argue that the historicist position is vague and unsupported?

          • Hrafn

            So I wondered, regarding your comment that Constructing Jesus (even in its last chapter), does not appear to address mythicism, if the reason for this might be similar to why Lehninger and coauthors don’t devote a chapter to ID in their Principles of Biochemistry.

            Given that Constructing Jesus does devote time (a whole section within that chapter, from memory), to what (by your false analogy) would be “similar to”, not just ID, but Young Earth Creationism (the proposition that the gospels may have been an intentional forgery I mentioned above), your argument falls apart.

            Further ripping your argument to shreds, I would point out that, unlike creationism, mythicism has a couple of centuries of track-record within relatively mainstream scholarship: de Chassebœuf, Dupuis, Bauer, among others.

            As I have already stated, “the Allison book ” does not offer a survey of the scholarly consensus, and does not address the historicity of the core of the Jesus account (and in fact only mentions historicity versus embellishment to the extent that it disavows the ability to differentiate) — so it cannot give “a clearer idea of the weight/spectrum of the historicist’s argument”.

            “I suspect that” you would have been better off reading the relevant chapter, rather than counting the number of references. The number of references never renders a work relevant and, not uncommonly, it does not even demonstrate that the work is rigorous.

          • When you characterize a book of more than 600 pages as “far too brief,” it makes it hard to take what you say seriously, because it makes it hard to believe that you take the subject under discussion seriously.

            We had a discussion on another thread of what to call this sort of behavior. If not “trolling” then what term would be appropriate? I am open to suggestions. But since you have begun to focus on lobbing insults, and have not even looked up information about the books you are mischaracterizing, much less read them, I think the time has come to say goodbye to you, and to preserve this blog as a place of serious discussion. If you are happy to change your approach and to not only behave civilly, but inform yourself adequately about topics under discussion, please contact me and I will very gladly lift the ban.

          • Jim

            I need to apologize to you for being a manure disturber by putting in my comment where it didn’t belong.

            But two things had irked me;
            1. Allison’s Constructing Jesus was a great recommendation that you made as it does provide background for a lot of what was being asked, but it takes some work if one is seriously looking for answers (i.e. no for Dummies book on this question) and,
            2. Because you’ve kept your blog open (even RC’s freethoughts requires a login as a filter), I get the impression that some from both extremes (inerrantists and YEC-ers on one side and mythicists on the other) take this as a place to vent their frustrations.
            I appreciate your patience for continuing to keep your blog as an open forum for discussion, even though it has probably given you a lot of headaches.

          • I noticed no disturbance of manure!

          • Jim

            I don’t typically count references, but A SURVEY is usually anticipated to be a bit reference laden (in case you weren’t familiar with that type of publication). Maybe I’m wrong, but I get the distinct impression that you have not read either a Lehninger biochem textbook nor Allison’s Constructing Jesus, and that’s probably why you missed the bigger point.

            There are relatively few working at the scholarly level on Jesus mythicism, so
            it’s much easier to summarize their efforts in one volume. In contrast, the “historicity” side is much larger so the term consensus requires further descriptors (evangelical, orthodox, non secular, etc), and thus it’s unlikely that you’ll find a survey entitled “An Acceptable Consensus Summary on the Historical Jesus Especially For Hrafn”. You’ll just have to do the work. In fact one of the reasons that Carrier claims to have written OHJ was to begin a dialogue on defining even the more simple concept of minimal historicity.

            So sure you may have ripped my argument to shreds … but only in your head dude.

  • David Hillman

    Surely whether or not it embarrasses us is irrelevant. The criterion is that the thing that we reasonably think is likely to be embarrassing to THE AUTHOR is likely to be historically true. I think there is general agreement that this is the criterion. One critic of Carrier has used the phrase “to us” but he is talking about it seeming to us embarrassing to the author. The criterion has been attacked on two grounds : (1) even though it might be embarrassing to a later author it might not have been to the author he is following (why do you call me good, take way this cup, baptism by John etc) who could have made it up himself since he had a different point of view. (2) (By a minority of critics , I think) It might be bad judgement on our part to think it was embarrassing to the later author, as if it realy was he could have just left it out.

    • Yes, the notion that it has anything to do with what embarrasses us represents a terrible misunderstanding of what historians are talking about.
      The possibility that something may have been embarrassing to a later author but not an earlier one definitely needs to be considered – although when there is a relatively short distance in time between the two sources, the likelihood of a radical change of perspective or cultural context is less.
      It is not always possible simply to ignore things that caused difficulties, because it was not just one’s internal sources that offered such information – critics and opponents would likewise keep the memory of such things alive. If something that Donald Trump said – for instance – proved embarrassing to his supporters, they might well prefer to pretend he never said it. But their opponents are likely to keep bringing it up, and so damage control then becomes necessary. That’s why this criterion works in real life in a way that it might not in a hypothetical vacuum.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Matthew’s account of the empty tomb provides an interesting test case for the criterion of embarrassment. Matthew reports the embarrassing accusation that the disciples stole the body. Since Matthew is unlikely to have invented this accusation, it may have some historical value. Some people have seized on this detail as confirmation that the tomb really must have been empty. However, that is too much of a jump. It is possible that Matthew’s contemporaries were hearing the story of the empty tomb for the first time, and were therefore in no position to confirm whether it was true or not. If they were looking for a sceptical response but were unable simply to deny the story, they may have speculated about the possibility of theft.

    But there may still be some historical value in this reported exchange. It is interesting to see how this evidence fits a mythicist scenario. Suppose that the gospel of a celestial Christ had been widely preached for several decades. Around AD 70 Mark writes a purely fictional allegory about an earthly Jesus. Just a few years after this, there is a debate between Christians and their critics about the historical details of Jesus’ biography. Surely not! This is not the kind of evidence we would expect to have if the mythicist scenario was true. Such debates could not realistically have been happening between the writing of Mark and the writing of Matthew.

    • Not at all! The disciples may have come across a very dumb and gullible inhabitant of Jerusalem who just took their whole predication at face value and accepted the existence of a historical Jesus having risen from the dead leaving an empty grave behind. Instead of questioning the historicity of the humanised archangel, they tried to explain away the alleged emptiness of the tomb.

      I know that such things happen. As a kid, I experienced that with some people to whom I told tall tales completely made up.

      Therefore, Bayes’ theorem allows me to conclude that the mention of a guard in Mattew’s gospel is as likely under mythicism as it is under historicism”
      I do hope this has convinced you.

      I think that my reasoning cannot be found in peer-reviewed journals because they’re still under the sway of a strong Christian bias.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Ha ha, very good! But I think I can top that. How about this: Paul tells us that Jesus was “of the seed of David” (Rom. 1:3). What is the probability that Paul would say this if he believed that Jesus was a purely celestial being? The answer is obviously 100%. This is the case, as I am sure you would agree, because Paul believed that the celestial Jesus was manufactured in the lower heavens from a “cosmic sperm bank”. However, I am going to stack the odds against mythicism and say that the probability is “only” 50%. That is my a fortiori estimate.

        Now, I hate to risk spoiling a joke by explaining it, but that really is what Carrier says in his book.