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

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Book Review: Candida Moss – ‘The Myth of Persecution’

15a97f0a723e11e29a6422000a9e06c4_7I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know.  A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar.   From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.

There were a lot of ways this book could have failed.  It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine.  Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues.   So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page.   It does not disappoint.

In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book.  She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church.  In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil).  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9).  She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind.  That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.

QuitSquirming1We all know about this tactic, don’t we?  How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school?  Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws?  Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward.  For that she gets bonus points, in my book.  It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse.  But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:

In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)

Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous).  Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial.  Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence.  In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.

Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth?  What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history?  This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all.  As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what’; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’.  So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:

When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. …  This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer.  (pp. 127, 128)

To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences.  There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,….  At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence.  We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not.  (pp. 160, 161)

That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.

Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish).  Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius.  While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution.  Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans):  Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested.  And just who sent the letters?  It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail.  Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out.  In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!

Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity.  While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham.  This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions.  In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.

Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about.  Their absence does not detract from the book in any way.  To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger.  The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries.  As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them.  Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)!  He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense.  Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it.  So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.

This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead).  The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular.  But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth.  Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one.  Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it).  And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not.  For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say.  Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.

This guy probably won't buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read it.

This guy probably won’t buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read this book.

For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true.  It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages.  It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant.  These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.

69237_10100195428741034_1733929245_nFinally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom.  There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough).  Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss.  I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).

I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:

Wednesday, March 6th: RMP

Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog

Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek

Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna

Monday, March 11th: Aspire2

Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity

Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?

Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward

Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple

Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix

Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored

Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee

Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here:

Book Review – Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin’

Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler. Bloomsbury Publishing, Nov, 2007; 400 pages.

Preface (Praefatio) and Chapter 1 (Ad Infinitum – An Empire Lived in Latin):

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a about a year now.  I have been wanting to read it but unfortunately between what I had to read for school and what I had to read for research kept me busy.  Now that I am taking summers off in lieu of a much more fulfilling fall semester (which is approaching much to fast), I have found some time to sit down and read this.  And now that I’m well into the first half of the book, I can’t understand why I put off reading it until now.  First, some initial perspectives.  Not everyone will enjoy this book.  But for those who like this subject (ancient cultures, ancient languages, semiotics, etc…), this book is downright entertaining and full of wonderfully useful observations.  It is engaging, critical, and thought-provoking in all the right ways.  It introduces Latin–and perhaps language in general–as not merely a product of a culture, but a driving force behind its development.  More on this in a minute.

One of the (very, very few) negative reviewers of this book complained that they like their history with a bit of fiction.  But those that feel that way don’t seem to fully get the study of history.  In fact, they might not have fully understood the book–and that isn’t the fault of Nicholas Ostler, whose grasp of language is astonishing and impressive.    Rather, Ostler goes out of his way to illuminate the fact that history and language are as much a part of one another; and language is itself a complex entity that fuses with the self-concept which, above all else, contains personal fictions.

Ostler writes, “Languages create worlds to live in, not just in the minds of their speakers, but in their lives, and in their descendents’ lives, where those ideas become real.”   And he demonstrates this great truth about language, essentially writing on semiotics without actually referencing it, in the whole of the first chapter.  But the examples of such a phenomenon extend beyond the signs and symbols of the book.  This can be seen everywhere, id est, the Roman motto Pax Orbis Terrarum found on coins throughout the first centuries BCE and CE are anything but ‘fact’; so what is it if not a type of ‘fiction’?  And what might that say about the Romans and, consequently, the power of Latin for the Romans?  Ostler is correct when he writes that Latin is the language of an Empire (though it was also the language of a Republic); one can hardly think of the Romans without thinking of the Latin language.  When someone travels to Rome, the old ruins greet them in Latin;  M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT (‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulate, made it’), S(enatus) P(opulus) Q(ue) R(omanus), A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM (‘From the bedchamber of the Caesars’).  One cannot remove the two without losing a bit of something important.

The strength of the first chapter of this book is in how well it lays the groundwork for the rest of it.  One needs an established grounding of the function of a language within a society, how it is both a part of, and a mule tugging along, a cultures evolution.  So far this book is impressive and I hope to get into more detailed reviews as the book progresses, ceteris paribus.

Book Review – Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology, by James G Crossley

Just received word that James Crossley’s new book will be shipping soon!  This is quite exciting.  I have been looking forward to this book since I heard about it months ago.

I will be writing up a book review here, so check back or subscribe to my feed so you can be sure to keep up with it.

Here is the ToC:

Preface
Chapter 1: Introduction: Jesus Quests and Contexts

PART I: From Mont Pelerin to Eternity? Contextualising an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 2: Neoliberalism and Postmodernity
Chapter 3: Biblioblogging: Connected Scholarship
Chapter 4: ‘Not Made by Great Men’? The Quest for the Individual Christ
Chapter 5: ‘Never Trust a Hippy’: Finding a Liberal Jesus Where You Might Not
Think

PART II: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 6: A ‘fundamentally unreliable adoration’: ‘Jewishness’ and the Multicultural Jesus
Chapter 7: The Jesus Who Wasn’t There? Conservative Christianity, Atheism and
Other Religious Influences

PART III: Contradictions
Chapter 8: ‘Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!’ Other
Problems, Extremes and the Social World of Jesus
Chapter 9: Red Tory Christ

Chapter 10: Conclusion

You can also pick up a copy on Amazon, if you so wish:

Amazon.com: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (BibleWorld) (9781908049704): James G Crossley: Books.

Update 6/26/12:

My review copy of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism arrived yesterday and I had some extra time that I could skim through it and make some initial impressions.  What struck me first was the weight of the book; for the subject matter, at over 250 pages, it covers quite a bit.  James Crossley and I had talked about the publication and he mentioned that I would be in the volume so, the narcissist that I am, I eagerly looked myself up in the book (this being the second volume that I know of to discuss my forthcoming collection of essays, in which James Crossley has a chapter, it was rather exciting).  I was pleased to see that Crossley references both my blog and ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ on several occasions, all in good order. Interestingly, Crossley cites me within the context of the Jesus Project, and he spends a great deal of time on the Project as a whole, in a manner which is both responsible and apt–and he would know since, like myself, he was a part of it.  I’ll cover more on this issue when I get to reviewing that chapter at some point in the next month or so.

One minor correction (which is not Crossley’s fault) which should be highlighted is that he lists me as a mythicist.  At the time of the Jesus Project in 2008-2009 I did consider myself a mythicist, and by the time Crossley had submitted his manuscript to Equinox for publication, I had not clearly denounced that affiliation.  Crossley is aware of the change but, alas, it is too late to rectify the volume!

I browsed through the rest of the volume with interest and found the range of topics compelling.  Crossley’s book, while he admits is not comprehensive, is perhaps the most solid examination thus far of the subject of the political-social-religious reception of the figure of Jesus across the spectrum.  From atheists and secularists, to fundamentalists, to republicans and liberals, to diverse social groups, concerning confessional theology and presuppositional apologetics, Crossley does an exceptional job of laying out the subject.  And he isn’t doing it to make friends.  From the brief exposition into the volume, no one comes away from the volume feeling clean and unscathed.  And that is a good thing.  It keeps the world of New Testamentlers honest.

UPDATE 6/29/12: Chapter 1

Because the book is divided into sections, with Chapter 1 sort of standing alone, I’m going to review the first chapter and then move on to reviewing the sections instead of each subsequent chapter.  My skim of the book was positive and, so far, James Crossley’s book does not disappoint.  Chapter 1 is primarily an introduction to what he wants to do with the rest of it.  At times introductions can be boring and appear almost as if they were an afterthought to the reader, but not so with Crossley’s book.  Crossley delivers his purpose with lucidity and humor, making it a joy to read.  He spends the appropriate time necessary laying out definitions for his terms and, while normally that may be dull, the way he organizes it–with bits of funny tongue-in-cheek thoughts in parentheses–kept my attention.

To the meat of it, Crossley discusses doing away with the function of named quests (i.e., first quest, second quest, third quest, etc…); and I find those thoughts echo my own, since I don’t believe that is a practical way of describing the cultural phenomena of politicizing or socializing the figure of Jesus.  And I certainly appreciated Crossley’s discussion of ‘the well’; that is to say, scholarship on the figure of Jesus which has predominantly been about the scholar staring into the well, seeing his own reflection, and calling that reflection ‘Jesus’.   But Crossley does argue that he feels that this cannot always be the case; of course he is correct.  My concern though is that I am not so sure that we might not clearly be able to recognize those instances when the Jesus presented to us is a reflection of something other than ourselves (i.e., Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems to suggest that we are forever wrapped up in the self concept and the figure of Jesus provides, for many at least–though not all–some of those basic needs).

I am looking forward to getting into the sections now; it is hard to put the book down!  More anon.

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.

Book Review: Richard Carrier’s ‘Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus’

Book Review

Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (New York: Prometheus Books, 2012), by Richard Carrier

Table of Contents (Reviewed chapters are bolded)

  1. The Problem
  2. The Basics
  3. Introducing Bayes’s Theorem
  4. Bayesian Analysis of Historical Methods
  5. Bayesian Analysis of Historicity Criteria
  6. The Hard Stuff

1. Some Caveats:

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Richard Carrier for the past seven years or so.  Over the course of our friendship we’ve exchanged a lot of ideas and had some interesting conversations, and at times we haven’t seen eye-to-eye (I think he drops one too many ‘F’ bombs on occasion, but maybe I’m just a bit more sensitive after hanging around with septuagenarians and Baptists in the academy).  I’ve read a lot of his work and, suffice it to say, with the exception of perhaps Thomas L. Thompson, no one has had more influence upon my academic pursuits than Richard.  I hope he takes that as a compliment (he’s also read a lot of my work, so goodness knows he probably doesn’t want that blame)!  So when he told me some years back of his two-volume project–one volume handling historical Jesus criteria and the other dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus–I couldn’t wait to get my copies.

To be clear, my enthusiasm for the release of these volumes has nothing to do with blind or uncritical devotion to a particular individual or agenda.    I don’t belong to a school (though I do consider myself a minimalist and had the pleasure of working with others who call themselves minimalists as well), I don’t belong to any label (I am not an atheist like Richard, nor am I out to disprove Christianity or any such nonsense), and whether or not the figure of Jesus has a historical core is of no serious consequence to me or my research.    But I do have my own biases.  And this is where I think the Richard’s preface to his work needs to be highlighted.

I like the Jim West Method of Book Reviews, so I shall continue to update this page as I read through and review each section rather than creating a new post for each section I review.

2. Initial Impressions of Proving History and a Brief Review of Carrier’s Preface

This book appears to be a triadic tour de force; in this ambitious volume alone, Carrier educates his readers (1) on the nature and value of doing proper critical history, (2) on the value of Bayes Theorem and logical analysis, and (3) on the current methods of Historical Jesus scholarship.  No wonder he had to split the content into two volumes!  I am not as math-inclined as I should be–a flaw among many in the field of Biblical Studies–though I have some standard knowledge about the basis of Bayes Theorem.  My  grasp of it is still pretty basic and I’m looking forward to reading those chapters dealing just with the general applications of the theorem (For those curious, Carrier has a brief explanation of its use here, a blog post here with all sorts of nifty links, and, for those not easily offended, a video demonstration from Skepticon IV).

Now onto the Preface.  He is open and honest about the purpose of the book, which he writes:

All historians have biases, but sound methods will prevent those from too greatly affecting our essential results. No progress in historical knowledge, in fact, no historical knowledge at all, would be possible without such methods. Hence, the aim here is to develop a formal historical method for approaching this (or any other) debate, which will produce as objectively credible a conclusion as any honest historian can reach. One need merely plug all the evidence into that method to get a result. That’s a bold claim, I know; but the purpose of this book is to convince you, and if in the end you are convinced, provide the background necessary to implement the method I propose. All I ask is that you give my argument a fair hearing.

As noted above, Richard admits he is not without bias, as none of us–no matter what we want to believe–are without it.  One of my favorite lines in his preface, and one I have used on occasion, is when he outlines presuppositions within historical Jesus scholarship.

I have always assumed without worry that Jesus was just a guy, another merely human founder of an entirely natural religion (whatever embellishments to his cult and story may have followed). I’d be content if I were merely reassured of that fact. For the evidence, even at its best, supports no more startling conclusion. So, I have no vested interest in proving Jesus didn’t exist. It makes no difference to me if he did. I suspect he might not have, but then that’s a question that requires a rigorous and thorough examination of the evidence before it can be confidently declared. Believers, by contrast, and their apologists in the scholarly community, cannot say the same.

Some may argue that rigorous and thorough examinations have already taken place, but remember that the purpose of Proving History is to analyze the current criteria to determine if they are even sound!  Time, reading, and careful analysis of Carrier’s arguments will determine if he has been successful in that regard.  So far I believe the work has a lot to accomplish.  Looking forward to getting into the first chapter soon enough.

3. Chapter 1: The Problem

Carrier follows up his preface with an overview of the problems, that is to say, the issues that currently plague historical Jesus research.  Rhetorically, this is a great place to start.  While most scholars are probably already aware that problems exist, I doubt many laypeople are aware of them, and even scholars might not know just how deep seeded the problems are and how much their conclusions are hindered by them.  But Carrier aply points out, and argues this convincingly that none of these problems are new, nor have they been avoided in the past.  I’ve argued similarly, along with Thomas L. Thompson, in our forthcoming edited volume ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’.

He also notes that scholars have done little more than develop additional methods and produce additional portrayals of Jesus which, if anything, have countered any attempt for clarity and any call for a more narrowed consensus.   But Carrier presses the point even further, stating quite directly:

When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned. Yet historians in Jesus studies don’t abandon the demonstrably failed methods they purport to employ. This has to end.

And his conclusion to this point is one I found particularly refreshing:

If historians can’t agree on what that method [i.e., the best method – ed.] should be, then their whole enterprise is in crisis, because agreement on the fundamentals of method is the first essential requirement for any community of experts to deem itself an objective profession.

I find that last bit to be dead on.  Indeed, his point is two-fold here: if the methods used are coming to different results then clearly the methods are determined subjectively, not objectively.  While many historians might agree with that claim, Carrier’s solution is simple and obvious; if subjective methods aren’t working, and they clearly aren’t, then the next step must be more objective.  And I’m sure that many of my colleagues would agree that subjectivity is indeed dangerous when one is making an objective type of claim (i.e., that ‘Jesus existed historically’, rather than say ‘Jesus may have existed historically’–but more on this when I review a later chapter).

Carrier’s solution, as you already know, is Bayes’s Theorem.  He makes it clear that in the coming chapters he will defend various aspects of the structure of the Theorem, its application, and its value overall not just for historical Jesus scholarship but for historical research as a whole.  But before he can even do this, he must make it clear that everyone is on the same page.  This makes sense, since carrier’s method appears to rely heavily on logical constructs and statistical math–to bring everyone to the same level of understanding before proceeding with the meatier data is a no-brainer.

4. Chapter 2: The Basics

The function of Chapter 2 serves as a means to get everyone on the same page with how historical research, that is proper historical research, is done (or perhaps, specifically, how carrier views historical research). Carrier lays down what he considers to be the 12 axioms of professional historical investigations.  He writes that these axioms should be accepted by everyone in the field, and they aren’t at all that hard to accept. Notions like ‘All conclusions muist logically follow from evidence available to the observer’ to ‘overconfidence is fallacious; admitting ignorance or uncertainty is not’ are general common attributes of all historical inquiry and most of Carriers colleagues will have no trouble
agreeing with them.

Next he produces the 12 rules.  The rules are not axiomatic, but Carrier recommends these rules be followed to the best of human ability (though he admits that everyone fails to follow them from time to time, including him).  These rules include the following of the 12 axioms, continuing to better ones understanding of the periods they study, confirming all interpretations using the original languages, and so on.  Again, these may be idealized rules but, overall, Carrier writes that to better oneself as a historian, we should strive to follow these rules to the letter.  I don’t think that many scholars would disagree with these either.  Though I can understand when Carrier urges us not to assume what isn’t in evidence.  It seems very simple, but it is a very easy rule to break.

The interesting part of this chapter is that Carrier uses his background as a professional philosopher to bring to the table a set of ethical clauses for the historian that I think are often taken for granted.  While scholars know they should be following the logical path of evidence, some don’t actually verify they are but presume it.  I see this mistake made consistently by maximalists (particularly those who argue for, say, a historical Moses, or a historical united monarchy, or a historical patriarchal period) and also with historical Jesus scholars (they’ll make the fallacious mistake of ‘possibly, therefore probably/certainly’ as Ehrman makes in his book Did Jesus Exist [Introduction, p. 4]).

After Carrier is done setting out these axioms he then goes into explaining the basics of Bayes’s Theorem.

5. Chapter 3: Introducing Bayes’s Theorem

For this section, I recommend a piece of scrap paper.  Though Carrier does a fantastic job of simplifying everything, it may be useful to write down the formula so you can make notes around it as you read through this section.  This will be extremely helpful as you go through the rest of the book as a reference and a good way to use the formula as you go (and in turn to gain experience using the Theorem).  I know most historians probably do not need scrap paper to read, but one of the values of Carrier’s book is not simply that it educates you about this new method, but engages you to think about history while utilizing it.  So it is a bit of an educational tool in this regard which, in all honestly, makes me feel like Carrier should have charged more (as it is a tutoring device in the use of historical statistics as much as it is a guide for the historian). That said, let’s move on to the meat of the chapter.

Carrier starts off his chapter with an account of the disappearance/eclipse of the sun from the synoptic Gospel accounts which takes place during the passion narratives.   He analyzes in typical historical form why this account is improbable and unlikely.  He notes, rather brilliantly, that the Gospels talk of this event as having an effect over the whole world, yet even with how unlikely it is that it occurred (indeed, that is probably didn’t), not a single person argues against it or points out how erroneous the Christians were for including it in their narratives:

This entails, in turn, that the Gospels, even from the very beginning, contain wildly unbelievable claims of inordinately public events that in fact never occurred, yet were never gainsaid by any of the millions of witnesses who would surely have known better.  I’ll consider the significance of that fact in my next volume.

We return to this event at the end of the chapter, but before that he explains some rather important details to the reader.  Carrier’s followup section deals with the intersection of science and history and raises some very important points, like the fact that science and history are in many ways symbiotic systems.  Science is dependent upon history to maintain and catalog events of the past (especially studies) and history is dependent upon science for a strong and useful method with which to maintain accurate information about the past for future scientific studies.

A point I agree with completely that is worth noting in this review is his statement that essentially we are analyzing theories which address now just what happened, but why it happened.  In effect, he argues, the function of the historian is not that different from the function of a scientist in that we seek to understand and explain three basic questions of our subject of interest:

(1) If our theory is false, how would we know it?

(2) What’s the difference between an accidental agreement of the evidence with our theory, and an agreement produced by our theory actually being true—and how do we tell the two apart?

(3) How do we distinguish merely plausible theories from provable ones, or strongly proven theories from weakly proven ones?

Carrier states that Bayes’s Theorem is what is needed to effectively answer them in the best manner possible.

And he starts the next section off by directing readers to important studies in Bayes’s Theorem as a method for historical research which I find very useful.  But he also makes the very astute point that we actually intuitively already use Bayes’s theorem without even knowing it.  When we make the claim that something is ‘improbable’ or ‘plausible’ we are actually using a very basic form of Bayes’s, but we often fail to account for the rest of the formula which is necessary for determining if what we’re stating from intuition is arbitrary or sound.  This, Carrier argues, is why actively using Bayes’s is far more superior, and produces superior results, than simply guessing.  Even when we make educated guesses they are still merely guesses at best, which is what we do when we arbitrarily apply a statement of probability–like saying something is ‘likely’–to an event of the past without using the theorem.  Which overall is a very strong motivation for using the theorem in the first place. Interestingly enough, he raises another point which I had forgotten, which is that Bayes’s theorem is already used in archaeology to analyze the data.

The bulk of this section then goes into detailing the what’s-what of the Theorem, breaking down every part in lay terms.  this is where the scrap paper comes in handy.  The formula looks like this:

P(h|e.b) = __________P(h|b) x P(e|h.b)__________
[ P(h|b) x P(e|h.b) ] + [ P(~h|b) x P(e|~h.b) ]

It may look daunting (which even Carrier admits), but he does not fail to explain the meaning in a way even the most mathematically challenged could understand.

And thus he returns to the sun disappearance narrative and analyzes the same discussing using Bayes’s Theorem.  Carrier argues:

With BT, instead of myopically working out how we can explain all the evidence “with our theory,” we start instead by asking how antecedently likely our theory even is, and then we ask how probable all the evidence is on our theory (both the evidence we have, and the evidence we don’t) and how probable all that evidence would be on some other theory (every other theory that has any claim to plausibility, but especially the most plausible alternative). Only then can we work out whether our theory is actually the best one. If we instead just look to see if our theory fits the evidence, we will end up believing any theory we can make fit. And since that will inevitably include dozens of theories that aren’t actually true, “seeing what fits” is a recipe for failure. In fact, this is worse than failure, since we will have deceived ourselves into thinking the method worked and our results are correct, because “see how well the evidence fits!” That’s the result of failing to take alternative theories of the evidence seriously. That this is exactly what has happened in Jesus studies (as shown in chapter 1) should be proof enough that historians need a new method. One that actually works. And as far as I can see, BT is the only viable contender.

He then goes on to explain why Bayes’s theorem is so important and why math is exceptionally important to historical research.  And he isn’t the first do so, but he is the first to apply these methods-so far as I can tell-to Biblical Studies.  He even goes so far as to address all the main criticisms he has received about the use of the theorem and uses math to show how those criticisms fail.

This chapter is just too good to ignore.  I want to write more but if I do I’d essentially just be repeating what Carrier argues in a less functional and coherent manner.  Frankly, I am looking forward to the rest of the book.

More anon.

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