A Response to Dr. Witmer’s Article on the Evidence for the Figure of Jesus

Dr. Amanda Witmer recently wrote up a rather interesting response to the question of the historicity of Jesus; her conclusion, pointedly stated, “As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work” and “[The gospels-ed.]…reflect the impact the historical figure, Jesus, had on those who were marked by his life.”  These conclusions, stated with such conviction in most New Testament circles, betrays the confidence—perhaps misplaced—in the available evidence of the figure of Jesus.  This is quite problematic, as many of the arguments Dr. Witmer raises are quite dated and, with some critical eyes, seem rather superficial.

Dr. Witmer starts off muddying the water, categorizing the argument that Jesus did not exist as ‘fashionable’.  The type of denialism which is latent in some wings of the secular community is indeed problematic, and I would agree that some members of the mythicist camp fall prey to that “tendency to insist on absolutes”.[1]  But I would not call the position, as a whole, ‘fashionable’, as if it were some fad or trend, as none of these positions are necessarily new, nor have they ever fallen ‘out of style’.  Some of the earliest German critical scholars of the Bible that we learn about in our introductory New Testament classes—Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and David Strauss—all produced mythic figures of Jesus, arguing that the historical Jesus is simply unknowable.  As the minimalists of their day, they were more than capable of pointing out the fact that the Christian Jesus—that Jesus which wears the collar of a protestant or catholic—had been a product of their contemporary society.  On this latter point, I am certain Dr. Witmer would agree.[2]

Where we disagree, it seems, is on the level of certainty one can place on the available arguments for the historicity of the figure of Jesus and in the reliability of gospels themselves, especially as works of historiography. Dr. Witmer insists on using the argument that the gospels represent ancient biographies.  But she does not address, even in passing, the many studies which have raised issue with Charles Talbert’s conclusions, initially published in 1977. Michael Vines, Mary Ann Tolbert, Thomas L. Thompson, and Marianne Palmer Bonz have all voiced opposition to the concept that the gospels represent the genre of Greco-Roman biography;[3] the attempts by Richard A. Burridge, Craig Keener, and others to revive Talbert’s conclusions have not been successful—in this author’s opinion—towards producing any solid argument which might contradict the modern literary critical studies that suggest that the gospels fit more in line with ancient Jewish fictional literature (as Vines argues, contra Burridge and Aune specifically). Anyone with a strong Classics background can immediately see the flaws of comparing the gospels with Philostratus’ work on Apollonius.  That is to say, to put it bluntly, they are not at all comparable.[4]

Even under the presumption that the gospels do fit into the mould of Greco-Roman biography, that does not ipso facto mean that they are based on historical individuals.  Plutarch dedicates whole biographies to fictional figures like Romulus, Lycurgus, and so on.  Is the reader to presume that in the writing of Plutarch there exists the impact of a historical figure, Romulus?  His works are Greco-Roman biographies, after all; by the very logic of Dr. Witmer, we should expect to locate a historical kernel of figure of Lycurgus.  Though I highly doubt Dr. Witmer would be rushing to defend that conclusion!  And I don’t blame her as it is a silly conclusion.  Marianne Palmer Bonz was absolutely correct when she wrote that the genre of a text will ultimate influence how a text is interpreted. Leaning rather apologetically on Greco-Roman biography as if Vines, Tolbert, Thompson, Bonz, Brodie, and others haven’t challenged it since the publication of Talbert’s book in the late 70′s is rather unfortunate.

Still, Dr. Witmer does ask some good questions which should be taken seriously.  She remarks on the relationship between John and Jesus that, “Reading between the lines, or against the text, we learn from these two passages that John had perhaps initially been viewed as the more important of the two men, and that this perception gradually shifted. Again, why invent this issue?”  Indeed, why invent it? It’s a really fantastic question and one that deserves some serious consideration and study.  But one cannot just assume that there is no other viable answer than “because it happened” or “because it indicates a historical memory.” By what evidence does one judge one narrative event to another historically? Is this event any more or less authentic of an event than Mark’s portrayal of the disciples?  Of course not; that sort of thinking is narrowed and uncritical.

It is also speculative and it presumes the very case in dispute, while ignoring the broader categories of literary genres by Greco-Roman Jewish authors. Why would the authors of Matthew or Luke invent anything not found in Mark?  Why would John include elaborate scenes that don’t appear in any other gospel? Why do Jesus’ actions in Mark reflect so clearly the Elijah-Elisha narratives? Why does Mark portray Jesus as running off into the wilderness to be attended to by angels while being temped?  Why does he have John wearing the same outfit as Elijah?  Why does Matthew imitate various narrative elements from Exodus about Moses? Why would any author, at any given point in history, fabricate anything? With careful research, one might locate the answers to these questions. But one should not just make the leap in logic that “I don’t know, therefore it must be a historical kernel.” That requires a whole level of biased rationalizing from which one should just stay away. Reading “between the lines” is just as dangerous as looking down Schweitzer’s well; when the spaces between the lines are empty, a blank canvas is the only thing that exists.  Anybody can inscribe whatever they want there.  Most likely what comes from that exercise looks more like the Jesus we want, not the Jesus that was once.[5]

Dr. Witmer then follows with the same old argument that Jesus’ name occurs in extrabiblical source material, therefore she concludes that these references are useful in dating events in Jesus’ life.  The trouble with this claim is that it has been handled so often by scholars (not mythicists) that it should cease to be of any value to any discussion on historicity.  Case in point, Tacitus’ use of Jesus is so clearly modeled upon Christian interpretations that it cannot be considered independent. Some scholars (again, not mythicists) have even postulated the case that the passage is an interpolation, but as this author has not spent the time necessary to evaluate this argument, it won’t be used here.  It is more than likely this reference is authentic and comes from his friend Pliny who, as Dr. Witmer probably knows, was a great and dear friend to Tacitus,[6] who had come face to face with Christians and was at a complete loss for how to handle them. It seems probable that Tacitus and Pliny communicated about these strange Christians who followed a ‘superstition’ about a dying savior figure named Christus.  Another option is that Tacitus had access to a gospel.  Either way, this is dubious evidence at best, as it is not independent.

Dr. Witmer also utilizes Josephus’ reference, but it is also problematic. Aside from the fact that our earliest Josephan manuscripts comes from the middle of Medieval Period, more than one version has been highly interpolated with Christian references to Jesus which are quite specious. In this regard, Ken Olson has taken the Testimonium Flavianum to task quite recently, demonstrating definitively, in this author’s humble opinion, that it was an interpolation. This author’s opinion aside, the reader is encouraged to examine his arguments and judge for themselves their value.[7]  Even if one were to accept the authenticity of Josephus, it would not necessarily tip the scales in favor of historicity (though it couldn’t hurt).

The reference to the logically invalid criterion of embarrassment is something else. This is again where a strong Classics background helps one understand the social world of the Romans. It doesn’t get more embarrassing for a Roman than following a castrated deity. Yet somehow the Cult of Attis not only thrived, but continued to thrive for some time—despite the fact that many of the most elite in Roman society saw it as a bizarre religion and an embarrassing and emasculating one. Priests would castrate themselves in honor of Attis.  This doesn’t make Attis any more real, does it?  Should scholars start using the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historical Attis?  Neither should the embarrassment of crucifixion or that of the death of John somehow make Jesus any more historical.

Additionally, the criterion of embarrassment presumes that the crucifixion or the death of John the Baptist was embarrassing for everyone. Certainly early Christians did not find this embarrassing at all.  On the crucifixion, Paul even writes that this is a stumbling block for Jews, but interestingly he does not consider this an embarrassment.[8]  He saw Jesus’ death as a point of jubilation with his resurrection in the same way that followers of Attis saw the glory and appreciated the message of his castration.[9]  Likewise, the death of John seems to be a prime example of a righteous martyrdom, wherein his death—a necessary thing—occurs as an echo towards Jesus’ own fate.  Whether the elite found anything wrong with Christianity seems to have not bothered the Christian at all.  It certainly doesn’t bother many Christians today.[10]

There is the additional problem, one found in many studies from the past few decades on the figure of Jesus, with the many bizarre claims that run through her article.  The conclusion that the sources we have for Jesus’s life “were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great” is just wrong and echoes of E.P. Sanders own thoughts on the figure of Jesus which, even at the time when they were written, were tiringly old.[11]   For the sake of argument alone, if one takes into account all the evidence for Alexander the Great, actually a very well-documented and attested figure in history, Dr. Witmer’s case falls apart.   Take any one gospel (or all four, if one would prefer) and examine it next to Arrian’s history of Alexander’s campaigns.  Even as late as he is, Arrian uses methods that surpass those (if any at all) used by the gospel authors.  Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (actual contemporary written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight.[12]  These sources (primarily the eyewitness accounts of Ptolemy, a general in Alexander’s army, and Aristoboulos who traveled with him as an engineer) are also attested to elsewhere as well, which indicate that Arrian didn’t simply invent them ex nihilo.[13]   In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts,[14] artwork (busts), coins, and inscriptions.[15]  If we had this sort of evidence for Jesus’ life and ministry, there would be no need to write this paper, and that is precisely the point.[16]

Now, one may make the argument that we cannot expect this sort of evidence for a historical Jesus, as he’d be relatively insignificant compared to a figure such as Alexander the Great—indeed, this is precisely the argument that Dr. Witmer seems to be making.  That’s very astute, assuming a historical, itinerant, impoverished Jesus as laid out by some historical Jesus scholars.  Granting this objection’s validity, there is an obvious contradiction: Why would any scholar so desire to suggest, erroneously, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is somehow greater than that of Alexander when the fact is, quite clearly (and demonstrably), the evidence for Alexander is so superior to that of any provided for Jesus?  Not only is it superior, but it is improbable—near impossible perhaps—that a historian should expect anything similar between Alexander and an insignificant historical Jesus as far as evidence goes.  This is just an example of how false confidence in the state of evidence can lead good scholars to make claims that overestimate the value of said evidence.

This author wholeheartedly disagrees with Dr. Witmer when she writes that, “To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history.”  No, Dr. Witmer, the evidence should be examined in the manner that it exists—to the extent that it is not examined to prove preconceived notions, whether by secularists or fundamentalists.  To start from a balanced approach is to make presumptions about the text that are simply unknown and possibly unknowable.  After all, “Jesus existed” and “Jesus didn’t exist” are both conclusions that do not follow from the evidence—they are both is simply taken for granted by two opposing parties, and then the evidence is examined in light of this presumption.  Instead, one needs to first follow the evidence and see where it leads.

To be clear, one should not discount the biblical narratives; the bible can provide a lot of inspiration, but it can also be very dangerous when used as an instrument to reinforce an individual’s own prejudices against others.  Because of this, the bible is far from worthless.  In fact, it should be respected. But one should not just accept the biblical narratives as evidence.  Evidence is the raw data—it holds no notion of one conclusion or another.  One draws conclusions from the evidence, one should never use the evidence to support a conclusion.

This last bit is quite important.  The biblical narratives are, in and of themselves, making certain historical claims that require validation.  One does not simply accept the historicity of the Telemachia based upon the narratives in the Odyssey. The historical claims made in the biblical narrative—and all ancient texts—need to be evaluated for their accuracy prior to the point when one puts their trust in them.  If none exists, where does that leave us?  One should not simply draw a conclusion that Jesus didn’t exist.  There is no evidence to that fact.  But neither is there any solid evidence that such a figure lived.  The available data is not conclusive nor does it portray any sense of probability.  Maybe using dated arguments, like those used here by Dr. Witmer, is enough to convince those reading this paper.  This author prefers to follow the words of Stephen Prothero in his review of Reza Aslan’s recent book:

But the real problem is that Aslan, like thousands of “historical Jesus” experts before him, refuses to say “I don’t know” with anything near the frequency required for the task. He, too, purports to be an intrepid archaeologist for historical truth, excavating the “real” Jesus out of the “propagandistic legend” that has grown up around him. But he, too, remakes Jesus in his own image.

In conclusion, Dr. Witmer makes a lot of claims in her article. Unfortunately, most of these claims have either been dealt with by more recent scholarship or fail a secunda facie analysis of the arguments.  This does not mean Jesus was not a historical person.  Maybe he was!  I just don’t know.  That is what Dr. Witmer’s article was missing: some acceptance, some humility, that the evidence we have is generally just too inconclusive for any sort of certainty.  Dr. Witmer may believe the evidence situates Jesus in a historical setting, a Sitz im Leben, but she has not made a case for it here.  I recognize that old arguments die hard. It is difficult for rebuttals to make the rounds in academia, especially when most scholars don’t have the time, due to faculty commitments and publishing requirements; but that doesn’t mean that scholarship can continue to move forward as if rebuttals to our most sacred arguments don’t exist.  These arguments, and other arguments from many historical Jesus scholars, need to be revised.  They need to be reexamined in a new way that takes into account rebuttals, new scholarship. It is always possible that the rebuttals are wrong, but one cannot simply continue to proceed in confidence that they just are wrong without ever taking the time to deal with them.[17]


[1] I would note that the real false dichotomy here isn’t between fundamentalists and mythicists, but between historicists and mythicists.  In fact, both have tendencies to insist on absolutes; the mythicist would say, “Jesus never existed” and the historicity would say “Jesus definitely existed.”  The conclusions drawn by Dr. Witmer here are in the latter category.

[2] On this subject, the reader is directed to read Roland Boer’s very fine treatment of the so-called ‘German Pestilence’; “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer” in T.L. Thompson and T.S. Verenna, eds, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (CIS; London/Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013), 33-56.

[3] M.E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002); M.A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989); T.L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005); M.P. Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000); but also by T.L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (NTM 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2004).

[4] It helps that we in fact have additional attestation to both Philostratus and Apollonius; e.g., the inscriptions at Athens and Olympia to Philostratus and the Adana inscription to Apollonius. Philostratus’ work is also very different from the work produced by the gospel authors.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus using multiple known sources.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not just telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.  The same could not be said for the gospels. The gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.  The gospels do not belong to this genre; they are the antithesis of it.  All that is needed is a critical eye and careful evaluation of the two sources to see that.

[5] Dr. Witmer places strong emphasis on the Johanine tradition, specifically that from the Gospel of John.  She would want to consider James Crossley’s recent discussion on the value (or lack thereof) of John’s gospel on the reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus in his contribution to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, entitled “Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View?”, 163-184.

[6] This friendship is well established in their correspondence (i.e., Letters 1.6, 20; 4.13; 7.20; 8.7; 9.10; and so on).

[7] While valiantly defended by Lester Grabbe in his “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside Christian Sources” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, 57-70, the authenticity of the TF has been taken to task.  G.J. Goldberg argues that the TF is a mish-mosh of Lukan-style passages in his “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (Vol. 13, 1995), 59-77 and more recently Ken Olson, “Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999) 305-322, and “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” in Aaron Johnson & Jeremy Schott, eds., Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations  (Hellenic Studies 60; Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013), 97-114.  Also, his guest post on Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith’s blog, “The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus (Guest Post) – Olson” (Accessed Online 8/16/2013).   He concludes, “In summary, the six arguments against Christian authorship of some elements of the Testimonium that Van Voorst has culled from the scholarly literature do not hold with respect to Eusebius. At the very least, this should remind us to be wary of arguments from authority. The fact that one or more scholars has endorsed a particular argument does not mean it is sound.”  Richard Carrier takes down the Minor TF in his paper, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012): 489-514.

[8] 1 Cor. 1.23-5.

[9] 1 Cor. 1.27.

[10] This criterion has been dealt with more recently by Rafael Rodriguez, “Truth about Jesus: The Demise of the Criterion of Embarrassment” in, C. Keith & A. Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (New York: Blumsbury, 2012), 132-151.

[11] E.P. Sanders wrote, for example, that “we know more about Jesus than about Alexander [the Great]” and “The sources for Jesus are better…than those that deal with Alexander.” The Historical Figure of Jesus (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 3-4.  These claims are made often and are absolutely not true.  Not in the slightest bit.  Ironically, I see these claims made by historical Jesus scholars when, instead, I expect this sort of line to follow from a Christian apologist like Josh McDowell.  That troubles me greatly.  If I, an undergrad, can point out the error in logic and content in such an argument, what does that say about the argument?

[12] He also compares conflicting accounts for the reader; e.g. Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6.

[13] Pseudo-Lucian and Plutarch both appear to have access to Aristoboulos and Ptolemy, for example.

[14] The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

[15] Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias.  See B.F. Cook, Greek Inscriptions (Berkeley: UCP, 1987), 21-22.

[16] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards.  Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect.  He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.”  (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality—especially the anonymous ones.

[17] For a fuller treatment of the common fallacies of historical Jesus scholarship, of which many pertain to Dr. Witmer’s article, see my review of Bart Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist; “Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship”, Bible and Interpretation, May 2012.

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth

I received this book in the mail a few days ago courtesy of Frank Zindler:

Yeah…

Frank Zindler even signed it:

zindler

As much as I appreciate the gracious sentiment from Frank, I am not sure I deserve such an accolade.  He may feel differently after he reads this review.

Let me say that Frank and Bob Price did a decent job as editors.  The book, published through the American Atheist Press (2013) is, at 567 pages, a collection of 21 essays compiled into four sections and  a concluding chapter. The 21 essays are divided, rather unevenly, between seven contributors: Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, D.M. Murdock (Acharya S), Rene Salm, and Earl Doherty (Zindler has the most with nine essays, Earl Doherty comes in next with five essays).

My only gripe as far as editing goes is that there are no indices.  Having an author index, at least a select bibliography, would have been valuable to the volume and at least added some gloss of academia to the volume.  Instead, the lack of an index of any kind only adds to this book’s woes.  More on this in a moment.

At a stock price of over $30 for a paperback that isn’t published through an academic press, I found it wanting for more (or to use Zindler’s words, ‘left…in a state of stunned perplexity’). While I was not a fan of Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist? (I even wrote a paper which was published last year in the online journal Bible and Interpretation), he is still a scholar–a professional, in fact–who has produced some extremely valuable resources for students and textual critics.  Even if he is misguided, even if he is wrong (his arguments are flawed, but whether or not his conclusions are wrong has yet to be proven in any respect), he earned the right to be treated in a manner that befits his position in the academy.

Some may disagree; that’s fine.  There are ways to attack an argument with passion without resorting to a personal attack.  Instead this volume is, essentially, nearly 600 pages of polemics and rhetoric.   This book should have been a collection worth taking seriously; the last thing mythicism needs is yet another self-published volume full of venom and disgust.  Even if those emotions are justified (and I’m not saying they are), if the mythicist wants to be taken seriously–should they not approach this polarizing and controversial subject in a manner different than the way Ehrman had?  If Ehrman had done nothing else in his volume but demean and belittle every mythicist, does that mean that the mythicist should do the same?  I don’t think so; especially if one wants to have their arguments considered.

The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.  Price makes no secret of this; he states in the introduction that this book represents a ‘counter-polemical’ because Ehrman started it (seriously).  And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.  While I do argue that I am a sort of ‘New Testament minimalist’, the difference in all of this is that I’ve not made any anti-academic claims or any statement of certainty.  While Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies may be called minimalists, they don’t agree on everything (from dating texts to who may or may not have been historical); the analogy is flawed as what Bob and others are arguing in this volume is that Jesus is a myth, as in lacking any historical function.  And one cannot simply combine Thompson and Davies (or Lemche and Pfoh, etc…, into a comparable ‘David Myth Theory’, now can we?  To my knowledge there exists no volume published by minimalists arguing against Bill Dever or Gary Rendsburg (as much as they might deserve it).

Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit.  He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting.  He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.  In fact, her ignorance of modern historical methodologies and current studies in various fields is painfully obvious to any of her readers.  She makes mistakes for which she rarely apologizes and continues to argue in the same flawed manner regardless of whether or not she is wrong.  When she feels threatened, she directs her horde of minions (devoted followers–many who have been spammed or trolled by these minions will know what I mean) against the target in an attempt to dissuade (bully) him/her from arguing against her again.  It is distasteful and unwarranted; I am quite surprised that Ehrman was able to keep his composure while speaking of her work as well as he did–a testament to his professionalism (even if the arguments he makes in the book are not).

Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence.  Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself.  This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical.  Certainly Ehrman is busy, as he has actual scholarly work to do (at a prestigious academic institution no less), like teaching students, chairing committees, being a department head, reviewing grad work from students, appearing on doctoral panels, and so on.   When I respond to emails, I am vague and type quickly, especially when I have a lot of them and other pressing matters on my mind.  I can not imagine what Ehrman’s inbox looks like and I cannot begrudge him for being curt or limited or even appearing confused or disgruntled!  The man has a lot to do.  In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.

Another issue I have is the obvious anti-Christian (pro-Atheist) theme that runs through most of the articles.  I get it: published through the American Atheist Press; Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Acharya S, and so on, are atheists; but the whole point–I would imagine–is to not burn the bridges between you and your potential readers.  Additionally, painting Ehrman has someone who wags his finger while, incidentally, allowing ones polemical paper to include finger-wagging against Christians seems to me to be counter-productive.  Especially since one of Ehrman’s arguments is that mythicists are merely angry atheists hellbent on destroying Christianity.

For those interested in owning this volume, I suppose it has one or two redeeming qualities that make it worth owning.

First, Richard Carrier’s online content has been reedited and is as devastating as ever.  But Carrier makes sure to include the caveat that he disagrees with many of the claims made by the rest of the contributors of the volume–so the one of only two individuals in the lot (Bob Price is the other) who has credibility (according to academic standards) has essentially already buried the hatchet in most of the volume.   Obviously, read it and judge for yourself whether his caveat is appropriate (I think it is).  That said, Carrier’s is one of the best that this collection of essays has to offer–but if you’ve read his blog then you really don’t need to buy this book.

Second, I do appreciate Price’s explanation that mythicism is not so easily definable.  But he is also wrong in some respects.  While ten people may have the same conclusion, it does not mean they all reached that conclusion the same way.  Some may have reached the conclusion based on academic curiosity, but some may just have been curious (and also ignorant), others may be conspiracists, others still educated laypeople who have an interest but no real academic discipline or proficiency with the languages.  So what one has are a few people with legitimate work in the field, and most with zero credible work in the field but with lots of speculation and (dis)organized arguments that don’t always show signs of being self-aware of their own limitations.

Third, Doherty has some rather cleverly-written articles in this volume.  But if you want to read Doherty–read him.

In conclusion, I was disappointed.  This book represents the very thing you should never do, not even if you feel it is justified.  This book lacked everything and what it had in abundance was unnecessary polemics.  It was published through a house owned by (or at least in part) one of the coeditors, most of the articles would not make it into an academic publication (e.g., none would pass peer review) due to the careless language or lack of verifiable claims, and what good was said throughout is lost on the flippancy of the rest of the content.  This book actually makes me want to openly apologize to Bart Ehrman on behalf of the contributors–even though I do not count myself among them.

But these criticisms of mine, while they are harsh, can be corrected.  This is the bright side.  If Frank Zindler, et al, felt slighted by Ehrman, why didn’t they do what I did (or Thomas Thompson)?  One need only write a paper and submit it to a journal.  The goal should be to circulate criticisms of the book, respectfully written with valuable contributions to the institution, to the people who need it–scholars.  This has been my biggest complaint about mythicists: they demand to be taken seriously but refuse to do what is necessary to earn that respect.  Alas, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is just the most recent example of such a blatant refusal.

UPDATE:

For those looking for a thorough and more academic treatment of Ehrman’s Did Jesus exist?, see my published article Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship found at the online journal Bible and Interpretation.

Also Philip Davies excellent treatment here: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml

Steven Ramey asks ‘Can an Atheist Believe in God?’: How Labels Can Impact the Answer

A few days ago, Steve Ramey asked an interesting question.  It is an important question with lots of implications.  He writes:

Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.

Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.

via Can an Atheist Believe in God? | Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

A valid question with a compelling answer.  Also quite a relevant topic given the state of things; especially since this relates so perfectly with what has been going on lately with conversations about mythicism as well as how it relates to James Crossley’s new book.  But more on this in a moment.

It is no surprise that my epistemological views stem from nontheism.  I used to call myself an atheist and at one time that title fit who I was.  But now it does not. I have accepted the label ‘Possibilian’ because I feel that it more suits my position about lots of subjects, not just about the existence of a god. Why and how this happened isn’t really relevant, but it is pertinent to recognize that when I felt my views differed from that of mainstream atheism, I left that community.  That ‘atheism’ can be defined as a ‘community’ is an interested phenomenon in itself, since for so long the motto was ‘all you need to do to be an atheist is lack belief in gods’. It is telling that this motto is shallow now, moreso because there is a certain underlining dogmatism to the community which has become unfortunate.  In fact, just for saying that, I will no doubt be scrutinized by that community–partially held together by this ‘anti-dogma’ dogmatism (ironically enough).

Of course I am speaking of the American ‘atheist community’ here; a community which has otherwise been disavowed and hated in this country–that hate shed onto them has no doubt left many feeling like second-class citizens and, out of necessity it seems, social groups will develop defense mechanisms to protect themselves (and it seems that one of these mechanisms is the development of a group of qualifications for becoming a ‘real atheist’–believe it or not).  Sort of the same mechanism that has triggered the development of what it means to be a ‘real Christian’ in evangelical communities who have been shunned by the same population who despises atheists.

So it may be in European countries, where most of the population (at least 60%) are nontheists, or designate themselves as atheists, someone who would label themselves an atheist but still believes in a nonpersonal deistic god would likely be accepted (in fact, I believe this is the case).  But in American communities, such a person would likely not find a home in an atheist community, but perhaps a humanist community (which is more broad) or a freethinking community (which is broader still).  That isn’t to say there are people who don’t fit into the ‘deistic’ and ‘atheist’ mentality who are active participants, but I cannot imagine this being a standard practice in the United States.

However there is a reception history involved with the word ‘atheist’; it was a derogatory name for those who did not believe in local deities, and then in the second and third centuries, Christians were called ‘atheists’ for not believing in certain gods under the Roman empire.  Even more recently, ‘atheist’ was a derogatory term that has ugly connotations.  It has only been within the last decade that ‘atheist’ has become more acceptable as a label.  But this does raise a mind-boggling point: At one time it was completely normal for a god(s)-believer to be an atheist.

Interestingly this touches on a more pertinent question which I raised some time ago–the question of labeling and how it can directly impact scholarship (or ones portrayal of scholarship, or how other scholars view you based on labels you take, etc…).  At the time, the question raised was over terms like ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, ‘atheist’ or ‘theist’ or ‘evangelical’ or ‘secular’ and how those terms apply to ones reception of those terms within academia.  Lately this sort of conversation has been focused on venues like ‘Mythicism’ and ‘historicism’, ‘agnosticism’ and ‘gnostics’ (pertaining to historicity issues).  I think this conversation has some relevance to the points raised by Steven Ramey.

It is such a simple concept that I am surprised that it is so generally ignored, particularly by people with an otherwise sound understanding of linguistics.  That is to say, the function of language, conceptualizing, the function of reception, cultural memory, and so forth—and how this all impacts our mental processes, in that we fabricate these mythos about others.  This is all quite relevant to what I have been saying over the past week about mythicism and especially when dealing with Thomas Thompson and myself, and those of us who toe the line.  An example I used last year in the article cited above is Jim West.

Jim West, though a Baptist and seminarian, and pastor (who, admittedly, puts people to sleep), still recognizes that:

In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.

In other words Jim, like his portrayal of the authors of the Biblical narratives, has little interest (if any) in the historiographical background of the narratives.  So it may be shocking to see him putting the contradictions on display as he does, because he, like other scholars, knows full well that “contradiction” is just as anachronistic a phrase for an ancient author as was “historiography”.  Does one really believe that the author of 1 Kings was any more interested in history than the Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Josephus or Livy?  Does anyone believe they were less interested?

I think this is important, which is why I blockquoted it above.  Jim West also has the following to say:

Most ‘histories’ of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many ‘historians’ use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a ‘history’ which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as ‘historical’ because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life’. That ‘history of Jesus’ life’ is then utilized prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s History of Israel or Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available), but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

And you know what?  Jim West is right, but he certainly believes in a historical Jesus.  But his perspective is thus: historical reconstructions will ultimately fail because the authors were not concerned with ‘what happened’ but something else entirely.  But his view is not that dissimilar from some mythicists.  And thus if no one knew of Jim West’s background, read just what I quoted, some might assume (falsely) that Jim West doesn’t accept the historicity of Jesus.

The danger inherent in the question of labeling is that we are too quick to post up labels to people which, for all purposes, have these ugly connotations that we give them; this mythos we attach to it which is fictive—a creation of our own minds, the result of our own bias and environmental influences.  And by that, I don’t mean to say that some people aren’t deserving of such labeling (more on this in a moment), but ‘mythicism’ has become what the term ‘minimalism’ was a few decades ago: a word with these negative connotations that has, for worse it seems, been used inappropriately.  That is to say, it has been used broadly, as an encompassing force overshadowing everything.

Like the ‘red scare’ in the 1950′s, scholars are turning up ‘commies’ in the guise of Jesus doubters and nailing them to Jesus’ cross.   Some, like myself, who are caught in the crossfire (people still label me a mythicist even though I have blatantly said that I am not, nor do any of my views espouse mythicism) are disgusted; there is a mile long line of red tape that has to be cut to ‘clear our names’ of this terrible form of McCarthyism.  But it is much worse than that, in my opinion.  And I can’t help but feel empathy for the mythicist community in the same way I feel empathy for the atheist community.

What we have here is a danger of associating reasonable arguments with ‘mythicism’–the umbrella effect which takes everyone associated with mythicism and bags them up under the same easy-to-use label.  How easy it is to say, “Well that is what mythicists believe, so don’t bother listening to them” without ever once engaging a person, an argument, or even raising the question as to whether or not such a person really belongs to that label.

In the sake of fairness, it is prudent to point out that it is not just some mainstream academics that are at fault here; no, there are mythicists who are just as at fault.  Valid academic positions like syncretism, intertextuality and linguistics, avenues in myth-making, research into socio-cultural interchanges, have been hijacked by individuals like Dorothy Murdock and the Zeitgeist to fit their own agendas.

In James Crossley’s book, he does a rather extensive (indeed, excellent) job of showing the fluidity of Jesus constructs, how they change over time and depending upon ones socio-political and socio-economic position.  So it is easy to presume that everyone who accepts a single conclusion (i.e., that Jesus does or does not exist) must therefore agree with all those premises leading up to this conclusion, and this just isn’t the case.  It can’t be, or everyone would agree with one another.  There would be no dissenting views on which Jesus is the correct one.  The same can be said of mythicists as easily as it could be said for historicists (and for that matter, people like me who remain agnostic).

In my humble opinion, it all comes down to how we define the questions.  For me, the question of historicity is irrelevant.  It is inconsequential because whether or not there existed a historical Jesus changes nothing about our texts, since I don’t believe the texts tell us ‘what happened’, but were written for some other purpose (sociopolitical, theological, philosophical, exoterical/esoterical, or a combination of those)—what are the texts if they are not histories?  That is the question that interests me.  I am saddened that this perspective however is often associated with mythicism.  I must stress this: recognizing the limitations of our texts is not the same as denying a historical Jesus existed.  They are two separate discussions about two separate questions (or groups of questions) and they only relate to one another in the way that the Hebrew Bible relates to Ugarit.

But this is what makes my point so vital; by casting a sheet over everything that hints at the possibility that Jesus’ historicity is in doubt—even questions that don’t directly interact with historicity—we limit sound critical inquiry.  As scholars should try to prevent this from happening, I request that instead of using these umbrella-definitions where they may not apply, scholars instead directly engage the arguments, using terms like ‘mythicism’ only when and where they directly apply, wherein the terms are clearly laid out and defined and there is no confusion.

For example, I would argue that many scholars would define ‘mythicism’—within a secular/atheistic construct—as the direct denial of historicity of the figure of Jesus.  That is to say, that someone flat-out suggests that Jesus didn’t exist.  I’m sure there is no disagreement with this definition (or maybe there is, but that might be symptomatic of precisely what I’m talking about).  This definition suggests a form of denialism latent within mythicism and I would even support this definition given some minor caveats.

But if we accept that, then we must also accept that there may be people out there who either doubt historicity to an extent (i.e., they have good reason to not be certain of the historicity of Jesus) or they simply don’t care either way.  Or maybe they feel that our evidence is so constricting that it cannot give us an adequate answer.  Or maybe they are reception theorists who feel that whether or not a historical jesus existed is completely irrelevant because the reception of our texts is different based upon the reader, and thus no definitive answer can be given—and is also irrelevant.  These individuals wouldn’t fall under that category of ‘mythicism’.  They’re just scholars who are not persuaded by the assertion ‘Jesus certainly existed’—which in my humble opinion is about as dogmatic an assertion as ‘Jesus never existed.’

To bring this around, I believe that what Crossley is getting at in his book and what Steven Ramey is talking about comes down to defining our terms and, more importantly, understanding them in their socio-political climates.  Jesus is a figure that has always existed within sociopolitical climates since the first century CE (which, aside from our textual data supporting this, are best shown through artistic portrayals)—as a Jewish magician, wand in hand, raising Lazarus from the dead; as a Jewish Orpheus painted on the walls of synagogues; as a member of the Roman elite, with a clean-shaven face and curly hair and a toga; as an Anglo-Saxon; as a Germanic figure; as a Celt with red facial hair; and so on.  There is certainly a movement within secularism which is trying to subvert historical-critical scholarship and textual-critical scholarship by removing the figure of Jesus from the past—but as Crossley demonstrates this is not only a secular phenomenon.

Like asking whether an atheist can believe in god, and taking into account the various sociopolitical factors that have a role in such a question, we must also ask ourselves if someone can have different perspectives on the historicity of Jesus—or even on the value of that question—and not be thrown into camps like ‘historicist’ and ‘mythicist’.  Even historical Jesus scholars don’t talk about some unified ‘Jesus’ figure, but they define specifically their Jesus: the Aramaic-speaking Jesus, the Hellenized Jesus, the magician, the apocalyptic, and so on.  All of these Jesuses, as Crossley demonstrates, exist within a sociopolitical framework, even if some of these are more plausible than others.  So too it is with mythicism, with agnostics, with those who don’t identify with any label but find comfort in taking something from everything.

I believe these labels have some use—we cannot do away with labels all together—but we should limit the power they have in academic discourse.  Too much emphasis on broad labeling can have consequences—it can isolate good arguments, good scholars, by misidentifying them.  If we accept too strongly our own mythical fabrications of one another, we will continue to talk past each other and scholarship will shrink down to a point where ‘us vs. them’ is all it is about, leaving no room for growth.

James McGrath and Melchizedek

James wrote a very interesting post on Carrier’s response to Thom Stark.  I thought he made some useful points which need to be addressed (and I did send along a link to Carrier, so hopefully when he is caught up he will respond), but one in statement in James’ post struck me as peculiar.

“I can only assume that he considers it self-evident that the term translated “cut off” in Daniel 9:26 can only mean “killed,” which suggests he may unwittingly be reading it through the lens of later Christian interpreters.”

Richard Carrier Illustrates Historical Jesus Methodology.

This comment surprised me; I’ve been doing a great deal of research on 11Q13 for a paper I am in the process of writing for publication and in all the authoritative works I’ve read, the phrase ‘cut-off’ is generally accepted to mean ‘killed’.   The author(s) of Dan. 9 used the phrase to explain that Onias III was the messiah, who did die, so in this context it definitely does mean ‘killed’ and there certain was a tradition of linking Melchizedek with a dying messiah between the point of 11Q13′s composition and the Nag Hammadi version as the Gnostics certainly interpreted ‘cut off’ to mean ‘killed’ when they wrote their version of 11Q13 in Melchizedek (who they link with Jesus).  So while it doesn’t eo ipso mean ‘killed’, in the interpretation of this phrase from Daniel 9, in 11Q13, in the ongoing messianic beliefs from the Roman period to Late Antiquity, it probably does mean ‘killed’–with a higher probability than any other meaning, and enough probability that it is unlikely that its interpreters used it to mean something else.

I would also like to point out something about this argument:

But I would point out that Christians did not merely expect a Messiah who would die. They believed that the Messiah had died. And that surely has relevance to whether or not there was a historical Jesus. Perhaps others expected such a figure. Christians believed – and we have no evidence that their contemporaries disputed this point – that the figure had in fact appeared and had died.

The problem with this is that we have written accounts (clearly fictional) of earthquakes, the sun going dark, the dead rising from the graves, and these were written down and never once disputed by any contemporary.  This is the problem with this criterion.  Belief, as strong as it is, does not determine historical certainty.

In other words, just because Christians believed their messiah lived and died does not mean it definitely occurred.  And simply because no contemporary disputed it does not ipso facto  imply that it did happen.  Certainly, it might have happened.  But when wholly fabricated world-effecting events like earthquakes or the sun going out can exist without any recorded disputation, then certainly a fabricated individual could have gone completely undisputed as well.  I just don’t believe that this is a valid argument to make, when clearly more extraordinary events go completely undisputed by contemporaries; the plights of a peasant Jew in Galilee seem insignificant to dispute when one considers the scope of the sun going out. And this is a point Carrier makes in his Proving History that James should really consider reading (though I understand his hesitation–reading about method can be rather dull).

But I do thank James for his otherwise interesting and insightful post.

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.

Carrier on Ehrman on Jesus – Part of Richard Carrier’s Review is Posted

I was pleased to see carrier posted up his review of Ehrman’s book late last night (early in the morning for me, here on the East Coast); what is a shame is that Carrier’s (dozen or so page) review is so outstandingly better than what Ehrman wrote (in his few-hundred-page book) that you have to wonder what exactly is going on with Ehrman.

Carrier echoes a lot of my thoughts on the matter (I have already submitted an article for publication in an online Journal–which has been accepted just a few days ago–which should be published in early May), of which Carrier was one of the several scholars whom I had it reviewed prior to submission. I’ll be sure to include a link to the article once it is published (for now check out my preliminary review here).

Here are a few snippets from Carrier’s review:

I was certain this would be a great book, the very best in its category. And I said this, publicly, many times in anticipation of it. It’s actually the worst. It’s almost as bad, in fact, as The Jesus Mysteries by Freke & Gandy and I did not hyperlink that title because I absolutely do not want you to buy it: it will disease your mind with rampant unsourced falsehoods and completely miseducate you about the ancient world and ancient religion. I was eagerly hoping for a book I could recommend as the best case for historicity but alas, that title stays with the inadequate but nevertheless competent, if not always correct, treatment in Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament and Theissen & Merz’s The Historical Jesus. I was also expecting it to be a good go-to rebuttal to the plethora of bad mythicism out there, so I could just refer people to this book every time they ask me why for example Freke & Gandy suck.But I cannot recommend books that are so full of errors that they will badly mislead and miseducate the reader, and that commit so many mistakes that I have to substantially and extensively correct them. Did Jesus Exist? ultimately misinforms more than it informs, and that actually makes it worse than bad. Like the worst of mythicist literature, you will come away after reading it with more false information in your head than true, and that makes my job as a historian harder, because now I have to fix everything he screwed up.

And:

This book is also badly written (I’ll give some examples of that, too) and almost useless in its treatment of mythicist authors (even when he’s right). The latter failure I find the most disappointing. Almost none of this 361 page book is a critique of the “bad” mythicists. He barely even mentions most of them. Indeed, if he mentioned Atwill even once it was in passing at best, and for the few authors he spends any time discussing (mainly Murdock and Freke & Gandy), he is largely dismissive and careless (indeed, his only real refutation of them amounts to little more than nine pages, pp. 21-30). I was hoping for a well-researched refutation of these authors so I could recommend this book to students, so they could see what sound scholarship looks like and to correct the errors in their heads after reading authors like these. But this book simply doesn’t do that.

And:

It makes no sense to say Christians had no interest in preserving such records. Moreover, if a Christian preserved this letter long enough for the author of Acts to have read it, why didn’t they preserve any otherletters or government documents pertaining to the early church, just like this one?

I personally believe we can answer these questions (and thus I agree with Ehrman that this argument from silence is too weak to make a case out of), but not with this silly nonsense. A good book on historicity would have given us educationally informative, plausible, and thoughtfully considered answers and information about ancient documents and the total Christian failure to retain or use them. Instead Ehrman gives us hackneyed nonsense and disinformation. Again, the relevance of this is that if he failed so badly in this case, how many other statements and claims of his are misinforming us about the evidence and the ancient world? And if he didn’t do even the most rudimentary fact checking (“Let’s see, do we have any Roman documents?”) and didn’t know so basic a background fact as this about the field of ancient history (that we have tons of these documents, as any ancient historian cannot fail to know because she will have worked with them many times, even in graduate school), then how can we assume any of his work in this book is competently researched or informed?

via Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic | Richard Carrier Blogs.

You’ll want to read the rest.  Superb scholarship overall on Carrier’s part.  I really wish I could say the same for Ehrman.

Preliminary Overview of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?’

I will write up a full review in due course (when I can muster the patience and the time necessary to sit down and write it). I had very high hopes for this book; it was the book for which I had been waiting.  So now that I have finished the book, what do I think?

To put it bluntly: I found it disappointing.

In fact I’m greatly surprised by the amount of positive reviews of the book by fellow bibliobloggers and I wonder if (a) they really read it all and (b) if they are really familiar with the various mythicist arguments (and keep in mind, I am not a mythicist).  Errors and contradictions and fallacious logic abound and my book is marked up in red ink throughout!

For example (h/t to Carrier for putting me on the look out for this), on pages 51-52, in his discussion of Pliny’s letter to Trajan on the Christians, Ehrman confuses Book 10 (in which all of Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan can be found) with Letter 10.  I had at first assumed it was an editorial mistake or a typo but when I saw it was repeated twice, I am starting to wonder if Ehrman even read the letter in question or if he is simply discussing it via a secondary source (who must have had the source quoted wrong).  The letter number is actually 96 (so: Epistulae 10.96) and Ehrman never once cites it accurately which is either extremely sloppy or he just doesn’t know what is the proper citation.     And on the same section he seems to believe that the same letter discussing Christians contains mention of the fire in Nicomedia (which is entirely another letter, in fact 10.33-34) and there is quite a large amount of unrelated discussion between those letters concerning the fire and the letter containing mention of the Christians (most of it having to do with this or that building project or this and that business matter).  But Ehrman doesn’t seem to know this or even hint that these are two separate letters at all, which again raises the issue as to whether he actually read the letter in question. And there are multiple instances of this sort of mistake.

On top of that he often contradicts his own arguments.  On page 56, Ehrman writes:

“It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comments on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.”

But on page 97, he contradicts himself:

“Tacitus almost certainly had information at his disposal about Jesus, for example, that he was crucified in Judea during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. …. Indirectly, then, Tacitus…provide[s] independent attestation to Jesus’s existence from outside the Gospels…”

Anyone with a grasp of logic can tell that not only is he contradicting himself (if it is hearsay, it cannot be considered historical ‘independent attestation’ to anything) but making wildly unsound arguments.  Simply repeating something from someone else, even if that person had better information, does not necessarily mean that what was repeated was historically true.  Tacitus goes on and on in his Histories about the Jewish exodus from Egypt which, as many scholars now agree, never happened historicallyAnd we actually know which sources he was using and what his sources were probably using as their sources–this is actually Tacitus using source material (rather than hearsay from a Christian or someone who knew of Christian tradition)–and yet his repeated testimony is completely historically inaccurate.  So repetition of tradition actually proves nothing.  So why does he think this is even worth mentioning?

He also ignores, or refuses to engage with, rather recent scholarship on subjects which are integral to his case, or rather are integral because if they prove fruitful could damage his arguments.  For example, he only mentions Mark Goodacre in a footnote and claims that his work on Q has failed to convince most of scholarship.  But this is silly; Mark’s arguments stand on their own weight.  Simply because a large chunk of historical Jesus scholarship refuses to engage his arguments (probably more out of self preservation than anything else–after all, no Q = one less hypothetical source for Jesus) in no way suggests that they are unconvincing.  As it goes, I am unconvinced that Ehrman has spoken to enough scholars on the subject to make such a bold claim.

And then there is that whole Acts thing (pages 106-113).  That Ehrman considers Acts to be an “independent witness” (p. 107) bespeaks of the sorts of brazen claims that plague his book.   This may be one of the more conservative claims Ehrman makes, but there is no engagement of the recent scholarship on Acts at all–either in the structure of Acts which shows quite decidedly that Acts engages with Josephus (even though Ehrman cites Mason’s work on Josephus and the New Testament a few chapters earlier on a completely irrelevant point; he would have been better off citing a Loeb text or something more primary in its place), he never discusses, even in passing, the relationship between the two which makes one question whether he is aware of it.  Nor is there any discussion of the dating of Acts which has come under fire in recent years.  This is crucial since if it can be shown (and I believe it can) that Luke-Acts are second century compositions, it would decimate the argument that these are early Christian testimony and independent of tradition.  One would expect a cursory review of this work, or even a footnote containing bibliographical information with references to rebuttals for the reader to review.   Alas, the reader finds none of this.  None of the recent collections of essays to come out of Westar Institutes’ Acts Seminar chaired by Joe Tyson, nothing from SBL’s recent collection of essays on Luke-Acts, nothing from Richard Pervo or Todd C. Penner or Caroline Vander Stichele or Dennis MacDonald.  It is really unnerving how he spends so much time on explaining the legitimacy of Acts without once dealing with the elephant in the room: the legitimacy of Acts!

He writes on Acts (page 107):

“For the writer of Acts, Jesus was very much a man who really lived and died in Judea, as can be seen in the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection in Chapter 1 and in the speeches that occur abundantly throughout the narrative.”

On what does he base this claim?  The author of Acts accepted the historicity of Jesus as much as the author of Judith accepted the historicity of Holofernes, or Tobit’s author accepted the historicity of Raphael or Sarah.  Just because a character in a narrative is portrayed as historical does not mean the character is historical.  If that were so we would have to accept the historicity of every character in every piece of literature ever written.

Ehrman may feel as though the Acts of the Apostles warrants a special consideration, but he hasn’t made the case.  He just presumes that the author believed that Jesus lived and died–maybe s/he did, but his conclusion does not follow from his argument.  And it certainly doesn’t follow that, assuming the author of Acts believed Jesus lived and died in Palestine, due to the mention of Jesus in Acts this counts as an “independent witness!”  By this logic, we must accept the testimony of Livy on Romulus’ death and resurrection and subsequent post-resurrection meeting with Julius Proculus on the road to Rome on the Appian Way!  It is an unconscionably unsound argument to make and, considering his vitriolic article on the Huffington Post site, it is rather embarrassing.

Finally, for this roundup of preliminary comments on the book, I am dismayed by Ehrman’s discussion of the messiah concept in Jewish tradition in the second temple period.  He actually wrote (seriously, he wrote this):

“But weren’t there any Jews who expected the messiah to suffer and die? The short answer is that so far as we can tell, there were not.”

This statement flies in the face of all second temple period scholarship, particularly that scholarship which focuses on the concept of ‘messiah’ which, above all else, proves that the concept was so varied and inconsistent–due largely to the varied levels of syncretism of the period, different levels of assimilation, and so forth–that to claim ‘no Jews expected a messiah to suffer and die’ is simply wishful thinking and nothing more.  The absurdity of this claim is only matched by the hubris of the dismissal of Daniel 9:26, where Ehrman completely ignores the reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls to this very verse whereby the author of the commentary on the scroll interprets the passage in the exact way Ehrman suggests doesn’t occur anywhere from the time!  And he does this all while completely misrepresenting Carrier’s whole point (showing once more that he doesn’t have a clear grasp of the arguments by those he is criticizing).

This is only a fragment of the errors and fallacies in this book.  It is shocking because I was expecting much better–especially after reading his book Forged!  I can’t believe I’m reading the same scholar.

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