by Neil Godfrey
I have decided to do my own review, or series of reflections, on Bart Ehrman’s book. I think it could be worthwhile writing about it through the context of both Richard Carrier’s response to it and Bart Ehrman’s replies to Carrier. It is interesting, perhaps instructive, to see the way Bart Ehrman’s tone has changed in his most recent posts. The context of that change is equally interesting. But let’s start at the beginning — in this case Carrier’s initial reaction.
Richard Carrier expressed the disappointment of many when Bart Ehrman’s book finally appeared:
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. . . . 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 . . . .
No doubt many who have favourably considered mythicism agree. We were looking for a serious challenge. But one thing Bart Ehrman made clear in his Introduction was what he thought of mythicism and mythicists. Mythicism is on a par with Holocaust and moon-landing denial (p. 5). Mythicists are driven by anti-Christian agenda and are not interested in historical inquiry for its own sake. They will not be convinced by anything he writes so the rest of the book is not even an attempt to engage with them. It is to inform “genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist” and the answers will come from scholars who, supposedly unlike mythicists, have no vested interest in the question.
That is the tone Ehrman sets in the opening pages of his book. He is essentially telling mythicists to step outside, or at least to the back of the room, while he talks to those who (unlike mythicists) think evidence matters. This is not the book that mythicists and those who are curious but undecided were waiting for.
So Ehrman opens up the game by patronizing and insulting mythicists and muddying the very idea of mythicism.
I sympathized with Carrier’s heated response to Ehrman’s book. It’s a sure sign that I’m less young than I used to be but I do feel uncomfortable with some of Carrier’s abrasive language. It is not only Ehrman whom Carrier severely chastised. He was downright offensive with the way he spoke of Freke and Gandy, too.
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 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.
That is also insulting. It is a more youthful and blunt form of how Ehrman himself behaved in his Introduction. I can understand Carrier being impatient. No doubt he gets fed up with the same sorts of questions over and over. But his post is a formal response to Ehrman’s book. Carrier can distinguish himself from anyone he wants to with calmer but equally trenchant language.
I don’t mean that one should feign a dispassionate air. Nothing wrong with letting one’s biases and feelings show.
At the same time, however, is it so hard to be civil and explain what you believe are the deficiencies of books without speaking of “disease” and the tone that accompanies that? Diseases can be contagious and now Hoffmann is spreading his dengue and malaria carrying mosquitoes. I fully understand Carrier speaking to his generation and preference for using common jargon, but as I have said in other contexts, I think public intellectuals also have a responsibility to set an example of how public discourse should be conducted. If Freke and Gandy write something as bad as Carrier says, then let him express that opinion in a way that opens up the debate to a calm and honest discussion. Let the evidence and logic win the day. Dissing “bad mythicism” through intellectual bullying and intimidation is reassuring no-one but the choir. If we want to lift the quality of mythicist arguments we don’t do it by insulting anyone.
Carrier followed up by thrusting the blade into Ehrman. Much of it I think Ehrman deserved. But is it always a good idea in a public debate to give what YOU know your opponent deserves? It’s also a wise move to side-step any stones if you are not fully sure they won’t wobble.
So it is not a happy start. I sympathize and agree with much of what Carrier has said about Ehrman’s book. And I have no reservations about what Carrier said in his response to Ehrman’s Huffpo article. Calling a spade a spade is very often just the right thing to do. Ehrman was engaging in outright intellectual bullying and suppression of open debate, and making many fundamental factual errors in the process.
But if Ehrman started out very badly with that Huffpo piece and then again in his book with his imputing of motives and offensive mental states to mythicists, I did not feel fully comfortable with how “our side” followed up.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with most of the content of Carrier’s criticism of Ehrman’s book. Ehrman has played it cool since then. His blog advisors have even counseled him to play it cool:
I think you [to Erhman] have two main choices at this point. . . . . .
The two choices are:
a) Admit error where the error has been pointed out and is plain to see. You can probably explain why you did not give this subject the attention it apparently demands. This will salvage what, from what I have read, is an ignominious work. Everybody makes mistakes. You admit error and everybody moves on. Most of these “facts” can be checked because information is much more accessible nowadays and is no longer the preserve of a few. Like those cases where you declare “no scholar…” Those are eggs. Eggs must not be allowed to sit on your face.
b) Allow your ego to check in and dig in like James McGrath and maintain that black is white and white is black, deploy abstruse obfuscation, muddy the waters, dangle red herrings, poison the well, attack personalities, impute malevolent motives to your opponents (this, alack, alas! you have already done), continue appealing to authority and further enlist the support of the no-true-scotsman-fallacy and other tactics that clarify nothing and fail to improve understanding of the subject and lose your reputation as you wade in this mud.
Amateurs like myself and experts alike are watching and waiting.
The choice is yours.
Bart Ehrman replied with a thanks for the advice and his fuller reply followed.
Now reading that “fuller reply” one can be charmed into forgetting the ad hominem attacks, the muddying of the waters, the falsehoods, of his book’s Introduction. This is a different Bart speaking here, and one that Bart no doubt hopes will deflect attention away from the faults of his book that Carrier partly exposed.
Now the game is for the hearts and minds. If Ehrman is now seducing the hearts, it is up to mythicists to use the advantages of their superior arguments to win the minds.