Of Scholars and Things: Bart Ehrman, Pride, and Credibility

καλεῖ δ᾽ ἀκούοντας οὐδὲν ἐν μέσᾳ 
δυσπαλεῖ τε δίνᾳ: 
γελᾷ δὲ δαίμων ἐπ᾽ ἀνδρὶ θερμῷ, 
τὸν οὔποτ᾽ αὐχοῦντ᾽ ἰδὼν ἀμαχάνοις 
δύαις λαπαδνὸν οὐδ᾽ ὑπερθέοντ᾽ ἄκραν: 
δι᾽ αἰῶνος δὲ τὸν πρὶν ὄλβον 
ἕρματι προσβαλὼν δίκας 
ὤλετ᾽ ἄκλαυτος, αἶστος. 
(Aeschylus, Eumenides 558-565)

In Ehrman’s recent response to Carrier’s criticisms of his book, Ehrman writes the following (rather shocking) statement:

As many readers know, Richard Carrier has written a hard-hitting, one might even say vicious, response to Did Jesus Exist.  I said nothing nasty about Carrier in my book – just the contrary, I indicated that he was a smart fellow with whom I disagree on fundamental issues, including some for which he really does not seem to know what he is talking about.  But I never attacked him personally.  He on the other hand, appears to be showing his true colors.

And:

So what is the point?  Carrier appears to want to show that he is very much a better historian than I am.  This is a repeated theme throughout his scathing critique.   I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us, and am not interested in the question of who wins.

After reading the response I mainly wanted to focus on his excuses for why such glaring and egregious problems existed in his book.  But now, after I have had a day to reflect, I wanted to come back to this because, frankly, Ehrman seems to have completely forgotten what he wrote in his book and in various articles about his book over the past few months.

First, I want to stress that Ehrman is a professional scholar–he is a very well established academic with many, many publications.  Not only has he published dozens of books but he has two Loeb texts (on the Apostolic fathers, quite the accomplishment) and many smaller articles in journals and such that should hammer home his credentials.  He is an excellent textual critic and knows a lot about the ins and outs of manuscripts, of scribal practices, of copyist errors.  Indeed his best work is, in my opinion, on these very subjects.  He studied under the late Bruce Metzger and co-authored with him on occasion and that only goes more to his credit.

I say this because there is a great difference between his extremely well-researched book Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperCollins, 2011) and his recent book Did Jesus Exist.  This is primarily due to the subject matter of his work.  Of the former, Ehrman’s expertise, there is no doubt-it is a superb book.  Of the latter, well, clearly there is a disconnect somewhere between what Ehrman knows and what he doesn’t.  And that is really what surprised me so much about his recent articles hyping his book.

He spends a lot of time challenging the credentials of Carrier (who has three graduate degrees in Christian origins, Classics, and ancient science), Price (who has relevant degrees in NT), and Thompson (who has worked in the field of Biblical Studies for over four decades).  In his book, in fact, he writes only that Carrier has a PhD ‘in classics’ (which is simply inaccurate–he holds three graduate degrees: an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D.) and in his article he hints that even with degrees, mythicists like Carrier are unhireable.

In fact Ehrman consistently drives home the point that mythicists–even credentialed ones–are simply weaker historians, like a creation scientist is not really a scientist, or like the way a chiropractor isn’t really a doctor.  That is his whole point; and throughout his book he strives to prove that (a) mythicists are wrong because (b) they aren’t doing history correctly.  So when Ehrman writes, “Carrier appears to want to show that he is very much a better historian than I am…. I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us, and am not interested in the question of who wins.” those of us who have been paying attention cannot help but fall out of our chairs.  Did he really just say that?

His whole point is about proving he is a better historian–because he is a historicist and not a mythicist–than Carrier, Price, Thompson, etc….  That is the point!  His whole book, Did Jesus Exist, is nothing if not one giant attempt to say ‘This is what real historians do; this is why real historians accept a historical Jesus.’

So when Carrier (and I–forthcoming academic article due out on the subject in early May) show that Ehrman has utterly and completely failed at his task, that he has been exposed as unreliable in this particular area (i.e., historical Jesus studies–not his work in textual criticism which is still top notch), what is it that he does?  He seems to forget precisely what it was his goals were in writing the book to begin with.  And that is seriously troubling.

Indeed, Carrier has shown his true colors–his true colors are that of an actual credible scholar who takes pride in their research and tries, with due diligence, to publish work that is solid and sound and reasonable.  And he is not afraid to confront scholarship that is anything but sound and reasonable.  And while that may not win him friends, it is an admirable quality as so many scholars tend to handle these matters with kid gloves when, in fact, sometimes bad arguments just need a swift kick in the pants.  It isn’t my style, but it certainly is Carrier’s.  That is okay with me.

But more than this, Carrier has undermined Ehrman’s point that all mythicists are unreliable.  Certainly MANY mythicists are unreliable (Acharya S, Freke and Gandy, Atwill, etc…) but not all mythicists are in the same boat (just as not all historical Jesus scholars are the same).  And this is a point Ehrman fails to make and as a result he has suffered a blow.  For all his boasting and credential-toting he has not shown himself to be as competent a scholar in the area of historical Jesus studies as Carrier, a mythicist, has.

Still, and I want to be clear, I don’t think this means that Ehrman is an unreliable scholar.  To the contrary, he is quite reliable and should be respected, even though he has not produced a very well argued book on this particular subject.  And if I may use his own words, “[h]e is one smart fellow.  But I’m afraid he falls down on this one.  Even smart people make mistakes.” (p. 167)

Indeed.

Reading Ehrman Charitably

I have been criticized for my latest assessment of Ehrman’s response to Carrier; apparently I am not reading Ehrman with a grain of generosity towards his meaning.  But let’s be clear, here.  What we’re actually saying is, yes, Ehrman was not at all clear (so the initial criticism is not at all wrong), but since he has clarified his position after the fact, we should let this one slide.

But that isn’t what Ehrman is saying.  He is saying that he was clear–very clear–in his book on the statue and that Carrier misunderstood him.  But I am not convinced this is the case.  Reading the book without reading his response would not permit one to know what he meant.  And it seems as though Ehrman is suggesting we should criticize Carrier for not being able to read Ehrman’s mind.

That said, I would be willing to let this go as a misunderstanding if Ehrman admits some error here.  I do believe this is one of Carrie’s weaker points of contention (which is why I believe he listed it towards the top–not because it was the strongest, as Ehrman believes to be the case) and it is possible that Ehrman just got sloppy with his point on Acharya.  And in truth there is no real disagreement here between Ehrman, Carrier, and myself (as it goes).  Acharya S is wrong and she does make a lot of things up–so Ehrman isn’t necessarily wrong in his final conclusion, but he is wrong about the statue (or how he worded his argument about the statue).

The Rest is Lost to Antiquity…

H/T to Chris Rollston on FB for finding this great little comic:

Ehrman Responds to Carrier: An Assessment

Bart Ehrman has responded to Carrier’s partial review.  You can read the full response here.  Overall my impression of Ehrman’s response was that it was weak.  But he does make one or two interesting points.  More on that in a moment.

First, let me stress that I think Carrier can at times be very blunt in his expression of opinions.  He does not agree with the ‘kid gloves’ approach to academics.  In fact he believes that things that are stated in a manner he feels is irresponsible, in spite of evidence to the contrary, or downright silly, need to be addressed appropriately and called out as such.  So Carrier’s sometimes crass manner can be interpreted as ‘rude’ or ‘aggressive’ but really he is just not beating around the bush.  He is just being direct and I believe that it can be interpreted as ‘rude’ by academics who are used to be treated with more even-handed respect.

That said, I do not think Carrier was rude to Ehrman at all, nor did he engage in any sort of personal attack; his intention was to show that Ehrman’s book, and his case, were weak and full of factual errors, misstatements, and egregious logical fallacies.  To this end, Carrier succeeded.  And it is here that I believe Ehrman has failed to show otherwise and his tone, throughout the reply to Carrier, has been anything if not that of one who has felt persecuted or attacked.  That his primary criticism is Carrier’s attitude towards him bespeaks how little he can defend his position.

He writes that he will take on Carrier’s objectives in categories, rather than individually.  Of the first, he writes:

The problem in a number of cases is that Carrier has taken my comments out of context, and in some (related) cases that he simply has not read my account very carefully.

As someone who has read the book and read Carrier’s response, I don’t believe this to be true.  If anything, the fault is on Ehrman for not being more clear.  Let us examine the issue here.  To the real meat of his response: the Priapus case.

Ehrman writes:

My comment on this entire discussion was simple and direct:  “There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up.”
Carrier attacks my comments with a rather vicious set of comments: “Ehrman evidently did no research on this and did not check this claim at all….  Indicative of the carelessness and arrogance Ehrman exhibits in his book.”    But alas, I am unrepentant and will say it again: “There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican.”
What Carrier wants us to know is that in fact this statue does exist and that it is in the Vatican.   It does not take much research to dig out this juicy bit of museum lore.  Acharya S herself gives the references in her footnotes.   And yes, they are both right.  The statue does appear to exist.   But it has nothing to do with Peter, as any sophomore in college with one semester of Greek under his belt and a course or two in religious studies could tell you.

And so my offhand statement about this particular one was that the Vatican does not have a statue of Peter as rooster with a hard cock for his nose.   Carrier’s response was that the statue does exist.  Let me put the question to him bluntly: Does he think that the Vatican has “a penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock” in its collection?  I think we can say with some assurance that the answer is no.  As I said, unlike a lot of other mythicists Carrier is both trained and smart.   But sometimes he doesn’t read very well.

Overall, his point is sound.  But Ehrman seems to not read so well either, since he did not read this rather important point by Carrier:

At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it, before arrogantly declaring no such object existed and implying Murdock made this up. I do not assume Murdock’s interpretation of the object is correct (there is no clear evidence it has anything to do with Christianity, much less Peter). But it’s existence appears to be beyond dispute.

So, no, Carrier is not at all suggesting that the object represents Peter, and in fact is quite clear about his impression.  And Carrier is not misreading anything either.  The context of his criticism is plain.  Here is the paragraph containing the offending statement from Ehrman (its in a bulleted list containing several errors in arguments of Acharya S):

“Peter is not only ‘the rock’ but also ‘the cock,’ or penis, as the word is used as slang to this day.” Here Acharya shows (her own?) hand drawing of a man with a rooster head but with a large erect penis instead of a nose, with this description: “Bronze sculpture hidden in the Vatican treasure of the Cock, symbol of St. Peter” (295). [There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up.]

Now, nowhere in this entire paragraph is there any reference to a statue, itself, existing, sans translation.  In fact, the discussion is NOT of an interpretation of a real statue, but the statue itself, which Ehrman plainly states does not exist.  The context that Ehrman now gives should have been incorporated into his book, not given in an apologetic-style blog post after a rather scathing review.  Ehrman is wrong: Carrier did not misread him nor did he take anything out of context.  Ehrman just didn’t say what he meant to say. presuming that he isn’t just backpedaling now after recognizing his own mistake (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here).

And as for Ehrman’s claim about Carrier taking his comments out of context, I’ll let the reader decide that for themselves.

Ehrman also states that he feels Carrier chose this for his first point “because he thinks it’s a real killer.”  Frankly, this is Carrier’s weakest point (in my opinion).  But more on this in a moment.

Ehrman’s next point in his response is:

So what is the point?  Carrier appears to want to show that he is very much a better historian than I am.  This is a repeated theme throughout his scathing critique.   I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us, and am not interested in the question of who wins.

It is interesting that he says this; it says something about Ehrman’s manner of response.  He is playing the ‘hurt’ and ‘persecuted’ card, in my opinion, and frankly it is not warranted.  Carrier is not trying to prove he is a better historian, but his response shows that when it comes to fact-checking, his dozen or so page response is far superior to Ehrman’s 361 page book.  That is quite damning.  And I think it interesting that Ehrman doesn’t once apologize or admit he was wrong about the false attribution to an ancient source (Pliny), or his gross overstatements of the evidence (like his statement about ancient messianic beliefs) or any of the other rather problematic issues that I or Carrier or others have raised.  That is telling.  It is telling because he would rather spend his whole response doing nothing but trying to guilt Carrier rather than address the issues.  Maybe his next round of responses will be better.  I hold out hope they will be.

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