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

Clogging: Blogging About My ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ Class (Week 2)

So this semester, I am taking an Introduction to New Testament course.  This is a 200 level course and I’m pretty excited about it so far (if only because I predict an easy ‘A’).  While I anticipate a good grade (I’ve been studying the subject independently for years now and have published on the subject), I have an excellent professor–who is both clever and attentive to the details–and am guaranteed to learn much from her as the course progresses throughout the semester.

The one gripe I have–of course there is always one, right?–is that we are using Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th Edition).  Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent ‘introduction’ book in some respects, especially when dealing with Textual Criticism.  For the average student in the class who is only taking the course for kicks, because they think it will reinforce their beliefs, or because they need it as a prerequisite for another course, I imagine it works out just fine as it covers the mainstream view nicely.  But it has some factual errors and glosses over too many important details that I feel are rather important.   On the plus side, my professor recognizes the books shortcomings.

Anyway, some important subject matter before going forward.

One of the really fantastic things about this class is that it really gives me a new take on exactly what it is that the general person knows about the Bible.  As someone who has been involved in academia for going on five years now and who is intricately involved in the Biblioblogging community, it is easy to lose sight over the little things–for example, there are many who still get hung up on how to define ‘manuscript’ or ‘variant’ (something I see as common knowledge).  Even New Testament terms like ‘Textual Criticism’ are old hat for me.  So being *in a class* and listening to conversations from fellow students (many of whom have not been as involved as I have) is a really important learning experience for me.

Since I am blogging through the class, I should state some general practices of the blog here for the reader so they know where I stand.  First, I will not be giving away any test or quiz information about the course (sorry to all the students who will be taking the same class in the years to come).  Second, all opinions expressed herein are mine alone.  All feedback and comments are welcome, so long as you follow the comment policy.

Now, some thoughts on this past week’s readings and conversations.  We started off by reading about Textual Criticism and the state of our current textual evidence.  Nothing here is necessarily new to me, but perhaps some of you will enjoy it.

Textual Criticism (briefly defined):

  • Textual Criticism is the academic process of analyzing the thousands of variant manuscripts in an attempt to locate the most recent context based upon our manuscript attestation.

Bulleted list of some benefits and problems with Textual Criticism:

    1. Textual Criticism (TC) plays a big part in our conversations over the next few weeks.  It’s very important and, in my mind, supports our understanding of the manner in which the transmission and reception of the New Testament texts occurred throughout the early Christian centuries.  But there are some factors that limit TC as a firm and (always) useful methodology.
      • We don’t have the autographa.  So one has to ask: How accurate are our manuscripts? How can we even begin to answer this question?
      • Without the autographa, we have no direct knowledge of what the original texts might have said–or how much was added or removed, or how ‘controversial’ it might have been compared to our accepted textual representation.
      • All the current Bible’s are the products of scholarly reconstruction.  In other words, the Bible we now possess (or more accurately, the version of the Bible you use) is not ‘the original word of god’ but the result of scholars picking and choosing (voting is often involved) on which particular variant is accepted into the volume.  Some variants disagree on rather important details (i.e., whether or not Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ in Lk 23.34–some ancient manuscripts omit this and many believe this was a later addition to the Gos. of Luke; or it may have been removed and then later re-added, but who knows for sure?).  So this process can–with the example given in class of Paul writes (or is portrayed to have written) “women must be silent in church”, it’s inclusion or removal from a version can produce an edition of the New Testament that is more suitable for a feminist or more suitable for a misogynist (it is crazy how extremely dichotomous the texts can be, the implications of how this might impact exegesis notwithstanding).
    1. TC also takes much for granted (i.e., it doesn’t analyze the reasons why a text might have been altered in a specific way, or if it does, it neglects imitatio or reception criticism).  The function of the text is lost.  For example, the very definition of ‘variant’ presumes a standard by which all other manuscripts have deviated–it implies, essentially, that a variant is ‘wrong’.  This, in my humble opinion, is not how ancient texts should be read.  “Right” and “wrong”, “standard” and “deviated” are terms that are not helpful, and perhaps should not applied anachronistically.  That isn’t to say that anyone in particular is making such an argument (though some do), simply that such language has the context to evoke these sorts of thoughts about the manuscripts.  Besides, it is the function of the text that is most relevant to the conversation, since we do not have any of the originals–all we have are the representations of copies of originals and at best that can only give us an understanding of what later Christians valued (certainly not the first ‘Christians’).  We can only refer to the books of the New Testament as ‘the version we now have’; this limits our understanding of the history of Early Christianity (to the point where one has to question if we have any evidence of the period at all).
      • This also means that using this method to date texts is essentially useless.  While we can see how the texts we have were altered and transmitted, what we don’t have is a grounding for the composition of the texts (since, again, we don’t have the originals).  How were these texts composed, when, and with what narrative constructions in mind?  Was this originally a vocal/oral narrative?  If so, how much had that original performance changed in its telling prior to someone writing it down?  What was added between its performance form and its written form?  Did it start as just a passion play or did it evolve into that?  Did the original narrative contain  an infancy or birth narrative that is now lost from our version of Mark (probably not, but who knows)?  Without answers to these questions, all dating is tentative and even textually it is impossible to know how late or early our Gospels are (though there are many tentative arguments).
      • As an example to the above, Mark 13 is used often to date Mark after (or before, depending on your particular theological beliefs) the fall of the Temple since he “predicts” the fall (the argument goes: Mark must have written this in after the destruction of the Temple, after 70 CE, to give Jesus credibility as a prophet).  But parts of Mark 13 have already been altered in the manuscript evidence (e.g., 13.14), and our earliest copy of this passage comes to us via the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 4th Century (so far as I’m aware).  between the time the Gospel of Mark is alleged to have been written to the time we have our earliest extant attestation to this verse, we have roughly 250 years or more.  To put that into context, that is almost as long as we have had the Declaration of Independence (approx. 237 years).  Between that time there had existed hundreds of competing theologies, vying for a chance to win out over the others.  Establishing ones theological framework using texts seemed to have been a common motif during this period, and what better way than to have your variant having a Jesus portrayed as foretelling events.  I’m not saying this is certain, or even probable, but it is likely and with no means to compare it to an original how can one use this as a definitive dating of the composition of a Markan Gospel?  Certainly we can say, “After 70 CE is when this variant of the text originated” but can we really say that ‘Mark composed his Gospel immediately after 70CE’?  I’m not so sure.    Even if this fragment were original to the text, there may be a relative function to it (i.e., Jesus may not be predicting the fall of the current Temple but repeating an ancient motif relating to Solomon’s Temple–a thematic element commonly found in the Hebrew Bible).  Again, this may be why using TC to date may simply be a waste of one’s time.

Awesome moment of the week: The professor used a stack of paper to demonstrate the variants and where most of the manuscripts fall in a timeline.  She set up an impromptu timeline on a desk representing the first four centuries in the Common Era.  Using the paper she immediately “discarded” about 90% of it.  What she had left she leafed out mostly after the 3rd Century CE and then tore up some sheets and spread a few here and there throughout the second and third centuries.  The visual aid was brilliant and clever and I’m sure that anyone in the class who had questions about the manuscript attestation had them solved with this one demonstration.  It was very nicely done.

Addendum: ‘Clogging’ = ‘Course Logging’ or ‘Class Logging’.

An Inside Look at Bart Ehrman’s Second Home!

Presumably (we hope), he rolls around in it ‘Scrooge McDuck’ style.

room_filled_with_an_obnoxious_amount_of_money_by_vlue-d4o6l53

(Just kidding, Bart)

Bart Ehrman Discusses Future Book Projects

Bart Ehrman was generous enough to tell his readers about some future book projects he is working on.  On his blog, he writes:

So, my next book, starting tomorrow, is my Bible textbook. I have two weeks, and I won’t have it all written by then, as it will be much longer than one of my tradebooks. My goal is to have the entire Old Testament section written before I go to England…. That means I will have the house to myself, with almost no distractions, and I can work like a wild man.

Which I plan to do. My goal is to have all eight of the chapters on the Old Testament written before I fly the friendly skies. If I don’t meet the goal – it’s highly ambitious – that will be OK. In London I’ll have a month … and will be able to work every day there. It won’t be as intense, as it won’t be my home study. But it’ll be enough to finish the OT section of the book and to make serious inroads into the NT.

My goal is to have the entire thing finished by the end of September. I want to get onto the next project, doing my research for How Jesus Became God. More than anything else this is what drives me to write fast – wanting to get to the next project, which always sounds even more interesting than the current one!

via My Next Book « Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog.

The latter book doesn’t interest me as much as his current project however.  I would much rather like to read about ‘How Jesus Became Man’ (but I suppose James Crossley has already written that book, and I’m reading it now with interest!  Also K.L. Noll’s chapter in Thompson’s and my forthcoming collection of essays).  But while I was reading this blog post from Ehrman, some of the content troubled me a bit.

Back in March 2011, the inter-highway was abuzz with news of an ebook on the way by Bart Ehrman which supposedly would challenge mythicism.  In January, it became clear that the book would be published in hardback as well, which raised some questions: at what point did the ebook become a hardback?  And when was the manuscript handed into the publisher?  I ask these questions because according to Ehrman:

Normally I will write (that is, type out the words/pages/chapters) for six or seven intense hours a day, starting in the early morning until I finish.   For my trade books (and a bit less so for my college textbooks; this doesn’t apply to my scholarship which is much harder to put into writing) I can normally write 14,000 to 16,000 words a day, with this kind of schedule.  It is exhilarating.  I don’t answer my phone, I shut the door to my study, I put on my headphones, and I write intensely, pounding away at the key board as fast as my fingers will fly, for hours.  I will usually take a 20 minute lunch break, and then get back to it, and keep going either until I finish the chapter I’m working on, or until I’m brain dead and can’t do it anymore.

Then I go to my basement exercise room, work out for a couple of hours, take a steam bath (I had an old, small bathroom in my basement converted into a steam room!), eat a nice dinner, have some nice wine, vegetate in the evening, and get a solid night’s sleep, and the next day, do it again.

With this kind of system, I can normally write a trade book in two weeks.   I then need to edit it, polish it, mop up loose ends, and so forth.  But the writing is the hard part, and I do it with bursts of intensity.

Now, I would say that Did Jesus Exist is a tradebook–clearly it was not written with the intent of becoming an academic book.  But here is what is so troubling about it: while I cannot deny that Ehrman does produce some very solid work (especially when writing about manuscripts and interpolations–anything within his specialty), there are faults–debilitating faults–with pumping out books this fast.   Not the least of which is that things get missed.

Granted, things can get missed in anyone’s book–whether it took them months (or years) to publish or a matter of weeks.  But with added time, mistakes are caught that with limited time have a greater risk of being missed.  And I have to wonder if this is not what happened with Ehrman’s book on the historicity of Jesus.

With my chapter in my forthcoming ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’, it took me a solid 5 months of writing, cutting, rewriting, editing, researching, more editing, and finally submission (followed by more editing and cutting) to get the 20 or so pages on Paul that is in the final version of the manuscript.  Five months.  For 20 pages.  And I was no slouch when it came to my background knowledge of the source material or of academic works on Paul. And I’m sure I still made a few mistakes that someone will undoubtedly point out at some time or another.

Now for a good portion of those five months I had a similar schedule to Ehrman.  So what is the difference here?  How did Ehrman, with well over several months to prepare his book, end up with so many disappointing mistakes?  Well, I can’t speak for him, but I did my best to fact-check everything.  I’m sure I missed something, because everyone does.  But if something was missed, then not only did I miss it on my various readings, but so did all those I sent the final draft to for vetting, the language editor, the copy-editor, and Thomas Thompson–so if there are mistakes, then they were well disguised as nonerrors.  And in the event someone corrected me, I took their objections seriously and made an effort to change what I wrote or, in the event I disagreed, made a footnote discussing why I disagreed to some detail.

But I am not so sure Ehrman did the same.  Mark Goodacre, who vetted the book (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), would have probably objected to the dismissively short endnote of which all but ignored his extremely compelling case against Q.  So why didn’t Ehrman do the right thing and at least give some additional supporting information for why he felt Goodacre’s case wasn’t convincing?  And really?  Nobody caught the many, many mistakes in his section on Tacitus?

Some may be wondering why I’m going on about these trade books.  ‘They aren’t for scholars’ some may say.  And those arguments would be valid.  Which is what concerns me.  When reading a book, scholars have the added benefit of reading other scholars sympathetically.  Laypeople do not have this benefit.  Since most will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the primary and secondary literature, they will not read Ehrman sympathetically, but literally.  The difference is a subtle, but vital one.  A scholar will know that Tacitus is not that good of a historian–better than some, certainly, but he wasn’t great.  Likewise, they will know the correct format for citing Tacitus, even if Ehrman does get it wrong.  But a layperson probably won’t know this information, or won’t have the time to fact-check (or even the grounding to recognize an error to fact-check).  That should bother everyone. So I don’t know if two-weeks is really appropriate for a book on the past.  It seems like too much could be missed, too much ignored–especially implications of the research, which are sometimes not fully realized until later.

Anyway, ranted long enough.  Still look forward to these books–especially his textbook.

Another Example of Misreading: James McGrath on Thomas Thompson

James McGrath writes:

He points out, as he does in his book, that Jesus in the Gospels is depicted using motifs and echoes from literature about earlier royal figures. It is hard to imagine that anyone could make a claim to kingship in a Jewish context without doing so. And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson’s book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus.

via An Odd Diatribe from Thomas L. Thompson.

But James, you need to read it all.  Because Thomas’ book has no bearing on historicity.  And he even makes that abundantly clear:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Myth offered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years.

That is the point; evidence that Ehrman, and apparently now James McGrath, have not read Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.  Had they read it, they would know that his book does not address such a question.  So again, we have scholars who would rather spend time attacking strawmen than the actual issues.

Thomas L. Thompson: Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? A Reply to Bart Ehrman

Thomas Thompson has written a response to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? over at Bible and Interpretation.  Below I have included three snippets:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed…. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical.

And

Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity—leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels.

And:

Ehrman has asserted that the present state of New Testament scholarship is such that an established scholar should present his Life of Jesus, without considering whether this figure, in fact, lived as a historical person. The assumptions implied reflect a serious problem regarding the historical quality of scholarship in biblical studies—not least that which presents itself as self-evidently historical-critical. I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology—an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. I am, accordingly, very pleased that Thomas Verenna and I can offer this response to Ehrman’s unconscionable attack on critical scholarship in so timely a manner. It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits. In the course of that statement, I hope that readers will find some very interesting, new avenues of research being explored.

(via)  You’ll want to read the whole thing.  For my more detailed refutation, see my article, published there as well, entitled ‘Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship‘.

Carrier on Ehrman’s Response to Criticisms

Carrier took a moment out of his conference schedule to type a response to Ehrman.  It is as efficient as his others, meaning that he thoroughly shows the hubris of Ehrman’s latest foray (his book and his response to critics).  And let us not beat around the bush here, there is either dishonesty at work or Ehrman just isn’t doing his due diligence.   Carrier starts off by stating what many of us have already picked up on (emphasis added):

Bart Ehrman has finally composed an extensive response to my critical review of his book. But before that came out, he composed two briefer responses, one to my review of his Huffington Post article and another to my subsequent review of his book. He also briefly punted to another blogger, R.J. Hoffman. In this post I’ll address those latter items. Next I’ll reply to the longer piece (I’ve nearly finished my reply to that, but as I’m now at the  Madison Freethought Festival with tons of amazing speakers and excellent liquor, I won’t be able to proof that and post until Sunday evening).

The strangest thing about those latter items is not the alarming-enough fact that they ignore nearly every substantive point in what they are responding to, and focus each on only a single issue, and that one of the least importance (the Hoffman piece likewise doesn’t address anything I actually said). That is strange. But stranger still is that they do not look entirely honest to me. But I’ll just present the evidence and you can decide.

First up is the bizarre deflection of the issues in Ehrman’s response to Carrier’s very real criticisms.  These criticisms focused on the false claims made by Ehrman throughout his recent publicity articles and his book, all of which are completely bizarre and look like the claims made by rank amateurs :

  • The incorrect attribution to Pliny’s letters
  • The false claim that a statue (Priapus Bronze) does not exist.
  • The curios claim that Pilate was not a procurator, but only a governor (He was in fact both.  In the past, I actually made this false claim–but this was before I became a student; we should not expect this from a veteran scholar).
  • The outstandingly false claim that “we simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other kinds of records that one has today” (yes he said that!)
  • The claim that no Classicist argues that the record of Christians and Jesus in Tacitus is an interpolation (there are at least six that Carrier lists)
  • The claim that no other scholar has proposed a different period for the death of Jesus and the rise of Christianity
  • Ehrman’s apparent ignorance of the Innana death and resurrection story and that of Romulus’ death and resurrection story.
  • The very false claim that we have no evidence of baptism in any mystery religions
  • The claim that no Jews thought the messiah would die or suffer
  • The rather hyperbolic claims that Carrier is somehow unqualified–with his three graduate degrees in relevant fields–to speak on the New Testament and Jesus studies
  • The claim that “not even … the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate” is “mentioned in any Roman sources of his day.”
  • That we have sources dated to within a year or two of Jesus’ death

Those are the patently FALSE claims made by Ehrman.  This doesn’t account for all of his errors either, since there are plenty more (which I cover in my forthcoming paper due out next week, with any luck); it also doesn’t account for Ehrman’s many misleading statements or contradictory statements made throughout the book (where he says one thing at one point and then contradicts himself at a later point).

And to which argument in Carrier’s arsenal of criticisms does Ehrman choose to respond?  That’s right–the Priapus statue (which oddly Ehrman thinks is the strongest one, which is just silly).  He doesn’t address any of the other more relevant and important matters of oversight or misstatements.  You can read my reply to Ehrman’s response here.  Carrier writes the following (snippet):

In his second reply he addressed one single point in my review. And here I believe there is reason to suspect he is lying about the Priapus statue. In my review of his book I called him out for saying (certainly very clearly implying) that Murdock “made up” the statue at the Vatican that she presents a drawing of and says is a symbol of Peter. He clearly did not call the Vatican about it or research the claim at all. Because if he had, he would have said what any responsible scholar would have said, which is that yes, the statue she depicts is real and the drawing she provides is reasonably accurate, but her argument that it symbolizes Peter is not credible. It’s just a pagan statue of the god Priapus.

Now in his reply on this point, in “Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”),” he claims I misread him, that he never denied the statue existed nor implied that Murdock made it up. Now let’s look at what he actually wrote in the book. You be the judge:

[Acharya says] “‘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.

That’s the sum total of what he says about this. It is quite evident to me that when he wrote this, he doubted the drawing came from any source, and believed (and here implies to the reader) that she just made it up. There is no such statue. That is what he is saying. But you can judge that for yourself. Certainly, the one thing this paragraph doesn’t say is that the statue she references does exist, is (or at one time was) at the Vatican, and looks essentially just as her drawing depicts it. It also does not say that she is merely wrong to interpret this statue as being of Peter. To the contrary, all it says is that there is no such statue, she made this up. Which is false. And betrays his failure to even check.

But he now claims he did check. Sort of–he says he saw her citations and assumed there were priapic statues; he did not actually say he checked her sources, or contacted the Vatican.

Indeed. Ehrman is basically saying “I was never wrong. I’m just such a phenomenally lousy writer that things I wrote appear to say what they don’t, and everyone who reads this book will often be misled in result.” Others have noted the problem entailed by his repeatedly careless and irresponsible wording of things, which can completely mislead lay readers of his book. Ophelia Benson (Butterflies & Wheels), for example, found many problems with the way Ehrman’s choice of words misleads, as well as his questionable logic (see: What Ehrman Actually Says, The Unseen, A Small Town Guy).

But I fear it may be worse than that. Because I don’t actually believe him when he says he didn’t mean to say the statue didn’t exist. I suspect that is a post-hoc rationalization that he cooked up in an attempt to save face, after his careless and irresponsible scholarship on this matter was exposed. I suspect this not only because his excuse is implausible on its face (read his original paragraph again, and ask yourself how likely it is that someone who wanted to say “the statue she depicts does exist, but it’s not a statue of Peter” would say instead what he did), and not only because he still doesn’t claim to have researched her sources or contacted the Vatican (in other words, to do what he should have done), but also because, as several people have since pointed out to me, he said in a podcast (before my review and before Murdock herself exposed him on this) that the statue did not in any sense exist.

That’s right. On Homebrewed Christianity, April 3 (2012), “Bart Ehrman on Jesus’ Existence, Apocalypticism & Holy Week,” timestamp 20:30-21:10: at this point in that podcast, Ehrman says Acharya talks about Peter the cock and shows a drawing of a statue with a penis for a nose and claims this is in the Vatican museum, at which Ehrman declares, with laughter, “It’s just made up! There is no such s[tatue]… It’s just completely made up” (emphasis mine). In context it is certainly clear he is saying there is no such statue of any kind, that her drawing is not of any actual object. (Note that I put the word “statue” in partial brackets because he speaks so quickly he didn’t complete the word but started saying what is obviously the word “statue”; he doesn’t pause to correct himself, though, he just quickly segues to the next phrase in animated conversation.)

Now, I must leave it to you to decide what’s going on here. From both his own wording in the book and this podcast, it certainly seems that Ehrman had no idea the statue actually existed, until Murdock and I hammered him on it. Notably, I had emailed him about this weeks before my review, asking what his response to Murdock was, because I was concerned it didn’t look good. I had not yet read his book, so I didn’t know the whole thing would be a travesty of these kinds of errors. Ehrman never answered me (even though he has in the past). Only after my review did he come out with the explanation that he meant to say the statue existed but wasn’t connected to Peter. And on that point I suspect he is lying.

You’ll have to go to his site to read the rest of his response on this.  In fact go read the whole thing.

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.

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.

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