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.

4 Responses

  1. Would Ehrman ever write “No one identifies Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the canonical gospels prior to 180 AD” without explaining the significance of Papias? It might be technically correct since Papias doesn’t enable us to determine that the writings he attributes to Mark and Matthew are the same ones that bear those names in the New Testaments, but Ehrman would never put it that way. In every other book I have read by him, he has taken great pains to make sure that his readers understood the evidence and arguments on both sides of an issue and he carefully qualified his statements to avoid misimpressions.

    The statement about the priapus may be technically correct since there is no such statue of Peter, but it sure lacks the precision I’ve come to expect from him.

  2. Hee is the paragraph containing the offending statement from Ehrman”

    A Freudian slip?

    Ehrman:

    I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us

    Then why does Ehrman “go on” at arrogant length about how only he is qualified to arbitrate biblical texts?
    It sounds juvenile but: He started it.
    Now he claims to be puzzled by the blow-back.

  3. Was Ehrman man enough to apologise to Archarya for insinuating that she drew the picture of the statue herself?

  4. Ehrman just seems to have gotten careless with this book, something he has not been guilty of in the past. I know it was originally slated to be an ebook only, but I don’t feel that that is a valid excuse. Perhaps he was wasn’t expecting any feedback. He does not seem to handle criticism well and it is making me lose a lot of respect for him.

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