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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] 1 Cor. 1.23-5.

[9] 1 Cor. 1.27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Agnosticism and Jesus and What it Means

Joel Watts recently wrote:

One cannot easily deny their association with a group if they spend all of their time defending the ‘quality’, ‘truth’ claims, or ‘validity’ of said group.

Pick a side, Tom.

via Pick a side, Tom | Unsettled Christianity.

But I refuse to do so.  The only honest position in this whole debate is on the side of doubt and agnosticism.  Does he not know that the reason I am agnostic is because I am not convinced by arguments for historicity?  It just so happens I think that some (please note: some–not all, not most) mythicists have sounder arguments about the state of the evidence (because historicists will often take that evidence for granted).  That doesn’t mean I agree with their conclusion about historicity.  Has Joel never cited a work or spoke praise of an argument from someone whom he didn’t agree with on everything?   Or does he only cite someone with whom he completely agrees with on every point?

I think this is a logical fallacy latent in certain parts of scholarship.   Just because I agree with certain arguments about the status of the evidence does not mean I agree with other conclusions.  I don’t believe all the evidence is in and thus I remain unconvinced that Jesus did not exist.  I also remain unconvinced that Jesus did exist.  Frankly I find the whole question useless and currently unanswerable.

However, I do think that Ehrman makes a ton of mistakes and ignores a lot of relevant scholarship and as a result Carrier comes out looking the better because he doesn’t ignore that scholarship.  I do not like ANY position based in presupposition.  And frankly Carrier is more agnostic about historicity than any other mythicist I know.

Finally, I agree with a lot of historicists on subjects unrelated to historicity (like with mythicists).  I like Crossley’s work, I like Crossan’s work (I really, really love Crossan’s work) and I think that Thomas Brodie’s arguments are outstanding.  And all of these individuals are historicists.  I also find a lot of what James McGrath says to be on the money about the socio-cultural world of second temple Judaism.

So Joel’s assertion that I disagree with historicists is just silly.  I don’t agree with them on historicity–and I don’t agree with mythicists on that point either.  But I have yet to see a historicist make a sound and reasoned argument without drawing on very crappy criteria and old data.  I am hoping that Casey’s forthcoming work is better and more sound and from what I hear it will be.  But Ehrman’s book is anything about good work.

Finally, I am surprised by Joel’s hypocritical suggestion that I ‘pick a side’ since he agrees with me!  He finds the whole question unanswerable and irrelevant (though he believes in a historical Jesus, he argues we can never find that individual).  And I say hypocritical since he sides with tons of historicists and never once makes even a passing agreeable comment about an argument from a mythicist!  if his response is ‘well I just don’t find them convincing’, then he knows why I am not in agreement with historicists currently.  That doesn’t make me a mythicist, however.

Richard Carrier, Bayes’s Theorem, and Historical Jesus Criteria

Richard Carrier has a new article posted at the online journal Bible and Interpretation entitled Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods.  Here is the blurb:

Several examinations of the methodologies employed in the study of Jesus have consistently found those methods invalid or defective. Which fact has resulted in the proliferation of endless different conclusions as to the nature of the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Attention to the logical validity of the methods we employ is essential to repairing this problem. One particular theory of human reasoning can lead the way: widely known as Bayes’ Theorem, historians would benefit tremendously from understanding it and learning how to apply it in their arguments and research.

Bayes.pdf (application/pdf Object).

You should definitely go read it!  I especially like this part:

The latest in this series of studies is a new volume to be published this year, edited by Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, titled Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T & T Clark, 2012), and featuring such luminaries as Mark Goodacre and Morna Hooker, all coming to the same conclusion: the method of criteria is simply not logically viable. This leaves the field of Jesus studies with no valid method, and puts into question all consensus positions in the field, insofar as they have all been based, to one extent or another, on these logically invalid methods.
The consequence of this has been more than evident: every scholar using these methods “discovers” a completely different historical Jesus. As Dale Allison concludes, “these criteria have not led to any uniformity of result, or any more uniformity than would have been the case had we never heard of them,” hence “the criteria themselves are seriously defective” and “cannot do what is claimed for them.”[8] As Helmut Koester concluded after his own survey, “The vast variety of interpretations of the historical Jesus that the current quest has proposed is bewildering.”[9] James Charlesworth concurs, concluding that “what had been perceived to be a developing consensus in the 1980s has collapsed into a chaos of opinions.”[10] Several others have come to the same conclusion, demonstrating, with extensive citation of examples, the whole confusion of contradictory opinions that has resulted from applying these methods: Thomas Thompson,[11] Thomas Verenna,[12] James Crossley,[13] Mark Strauss,[14] John Poirier,[15] Mark Allen Powell,[16] and John Dominic Crossan,[17] just to name a few.

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.[18] This has to end.

Indeed. Do read on.  Exceptional article.

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.

James McGrath Responds to Richard Carrier and….

…he once again proves my point: He doesn’t read things with which he has a predisposition to disagree.  He reacts to them.  This is precisely the criticism I gave to him before.  And because he doesn’t critically examine things he just flat out disagrees with, he makes gaffes and is then called on them and then he has to apologize and eat humble pie (he hasn’t yet, but perhaps he should).  Which is a shame.

James McGrath responded to Richard’s criticism of Ehrman and anyone with eyes who read it could see clearly that he was missing point after point and his defense of Ehrman was dogmatic, to say the least.

Richard has made this all too obvious.  Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened where James, forgetting exactly how educated Richard is, just runs off on a tangent without really reading what it is he is supposed to be arguing against and then has to back-peddle and apologize later when he is called on it.

As I’ve said before, I like James a lot and think he is usually lucid and erudite, but when he deals with the subject of Mythicism it is like he falls into an abyss where all logic and critical thought just vanish and all he can do is make hyperbolic claims and throw around appeals to authority without ever feeling the need to challenge what is actually being addressed by his critics.  I do hope this will end after today.  I believe he can bring a lot of good to the discussion, that is, as soon as he starts getting involved in it.

Book Review Update

Carrier’s book Proving History has been reviewed through Chapter 3 now!  Click through.

https://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/book-review-richard-carriers-proving-history-bayess-theorem-and-the-quest-for-the-historical-jesus/

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