Carrier, Lataster and Another Small Stumbling Block

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by Neil Godfrey

Raphael Lataster in Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists shows readers that one does not have to personally like Richard Carrier to agree and critically engage with his arguments. Lataster addresses the “stumbling block” of Carrier’s abrasive blog comments and his promotion of controversial relationships values that have made and makes it clear that in both areas he, Raphael Lataster, stands in diametric opposition to Carrier.

It is worth noting that I have no great inherent desire to promote Carrier or his work –he is certainly no friend of mine. Some of what he says and dies is annoying, seemingly egotistical, and even offensive to me, and we are otherwise quite different. . . . 

Nevertheless, apart from his frankness, none of this is truly relevant. The man is a rigorous logician and undertakes interesting and important research. I do not need to judge how he lives his life; nor do I wish to poison the well, especially since I am upholding him as the exemplar for the mythicist position. I only wish to highlight that our relationship is strictly professional. We are bound by the same dedication to truth, logic, and sound methodologies.  (JDNE, Kindle, loc 5661-5672)

Lataster’s comments on Carrier are just an aside and not related to what this post is about.

My own stumbling block is a different one and here I post another quibble I have with both Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus and Lataster’s review of it. (See Carrier, Lataster and Background Knowledge Element 4: A Quibble for my previous quibble.) Don’t think from these posts that Lataster blindly follows Carrier in all his arguments, by the way. Lataster does have a few of his own criticisms. Here I am commenting where I part from them both.

Quibble #2

Carrier writes in OHJ, p 614 in relation to 1 Corinthians 1:23 (Paul’s preaching Christ crucified being a stumbling block to the Jews):

It’s worth emphasizing here that we have absolutely no evidence that any ancient Jews (much less all of them) considered the idea of exalting a slain messiah to be blasphemous or illegal or even inconceivable — that’s a modem myth. To the contrary, the evidence we do have (from the Talmud, for example) shows they had no trouble conceiving and allowing such a thing (Element 5). Nor would such a notion be foolish to pagans, who had their own dying saviors, historical (Element 43) and mythical (Element 3 1 ). So the only thing Paul could mean the Jews were stumbling over was the notion that a celestial being could be crucified — as that would indeed seem strange, and would indeed be met with requests for evidence (‘ How do you know that happened?’).

Lataster appears to support Carrier’s analysis.

Something is amiss here. A couple of things, actually. The imaginary rhetorical questions posed by the Jews would scarcely have arisen if, as is soundly argued elsewhere, Paul “knew” it happened because of revelation and scripture. Those to whom God revealed it knew it to be so just as they knew anything else God revealed to them by his spirit.

One would expect if Paul was responding to such questions he would simply have pointed to the scriptural passages that midrashically (not literally, of course) revealed the point.

Carrier supports his interpretation by pointing to the preceding verse faulting the Jews for asking for signs to prove a claim said to be divinely revealed. The Jews failed to believe Paul, Carrier argues, because Paul could produce “no sufficient signs” to prove it was God’s truth.

Again I have difficulty here. Paul also says he produced signs more abundantly than other apostles. Besides, he goes on to say that the gospel itself is a power or sign far greater than anything else. The Jews simply fail to recognize the sign.

Besides, as Carrier rightly points out,

A martyred savior was never a stumbling block to Jews nor foolish to pagans (Element 43). Nor did it require signs or mystical evidence.

Why should a martyred saviour be any more of a problem if the event occurred in a heavenly realm? Recall Daniel 7’s suggestion that the Son of Man in heaven represented the slain martyrs and how from this seed the heavenly messiah evolved into a literal figure in the heavens; and again in the Book of Hebrews the sacrifice could be reasoned quite logically as happening in heaven.

I’m more persuaded by Morton Smith’s explication of 1 Corinthians 1:23 (Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ?). What was the offence was not the crucifixion of the messiah itself but what this death meant. Paul was preaching salvation, adoption as an eternal son of God, by the abolition of the wall of the Law dividing Jews and Gentiles from each other and both from God himself. Now that gospel really does sound like weakness to Jews and folly to gentiles.


  • Paul
    2016-03-25 16:56:23 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

    I think what was a stumbling block to the Jews was that since all this was supposed to have happened in their backyard, where was the evidence? Paul and the rest seemed to be preaching a non-event. (The secret hidden Christ of Mark, who came and went and needed faith to accept.) That was (one of the) problem, not the meaning of it. (I don’t agree that Paul thought it was all celestial. Perhaps there was some celestial counterpart to the earthly events, but I think he definitely thought it was terrestrial. The celestial sacrifice version I would put down to a heretical reaction or interpretation due to the lack of earthly evidence, or possibly misreading of the text which is supposed to be allegorical.) The other problem was the purpose of the Messiah as earthly king with thousands of his angels as predicted in the book of Enoch. Jews would accept one visitation but not two. I guess they would be arguing, what is the point of the first visitation? A bit like Celsus. Also Judaism was not a uniform phenomenon. Also Paul does not elaborate on exactly what he means.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-26 02:51:53 UTC - 02:51 | Permalink

      Your comment contains a series of speculations. Paul does explain very clearly why he is persecuted. It is because he teaches gentiles (at least) that they do not need to be circumcised or keep the law. He also explains that it is Christ’s death, Christ crucified, that is the reason for this. It is the implication of his gospel — freedom from the law — that is the stumbling block.

      Added later…..

      (I should add that I don’t know how much of Paul’s victim mentality is rhetoric. As you point out Second Temple “Judaism” was a very broad “church”. I find it hard to imagine (after reading Philo, for example) that Jews would necessarily and seriously “persecute” Paul for teaching gentiles did not need to be circumcised, or for teaching a celestially crucified messiah. I find it easier to imagine Paul’s abrasive personality and ego getting himself into lots of “victim” situations.)

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2016-03-25 19:26:56 UTC - 19:26 | Permalink

    “Nor did it require signs or mystical evidence”

    This seems wrong to me. “Conversion” seems largely out of place in a diverse, polytheistic religious milieu like the Greco-Roman world, but it did occur, and the one factor that crops up overwhelmingly in known cases is actual contact with the divine or supernatural (as perceived by the convert of course). Any change to an individual’s orientation to divinity was occasioned by “signs or mystical evidence”.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-26 03:05:08 UTC - 03:05 | Permalink

      I think so, too. (And even “weakness and persecution” itself is presented as a sign in 2 Corinthians 12.)

      1 Corinthians 1:23 might be addressing another facet of the question — a crucified messiah looks like “no sign” to Jews and “folly” to gentiles; but the meaning of this event is that by it alone people are united with God, saved, — now christ crucified becomes a mighty sign and great wisdom.

  • John MacDonald
    2016-03-26 16:19:46 UTC - 16:19 | Permalink

    Paul’s gospel is that “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES,… (1 Cor 15:3-4.” Presumably the crucified Christ was “to Jews a stumbling block” because Paul’s allegorical reading of the Hebrew scriptures which provided Paul with the true meaning of Christ’s death was at odds with how most Jews understood those scriptures.

  • babaganusz
    2016-04-04 23:11:26 UTC - 23:11 | Permalink

    “Paul also says he produced signs more abundantly than other apostles.”

    what would make such a claim *by Paul* necessarily anything more than preaching to the choir (i.e. not actually requiring him to back the claim up with, you know, signs)?

  • Darth Ballz
    2017-05-20 22:03:49 UTC - 22:03 | Permalink

    What I find a little offsetting about Carrier and Lataster is their sometimes evident inflated sense of their own abilities. Carrier will often say things like “As I ‘proved’ in chapter 6,” when really all we can say is that he “argued for it in chapter 6.” Carrier also frequently throws out barbs like his opponents are lying or crazy.

    I have just started reading Lataster’s new book and you can detect a hint of this inflated sense of his own abilities when he says things like: “My work in the philosophy of religion … has given me the ability to easily – and brutally – identify logical errors (Lataster, JDNE, 10).”

    • A Buddhist
      2017-05-21 00:51:06 UTC - 00:51 | Permalink

      In all fairness, opponents of mythicists also frequently insult them.

      • Darth Ballz
        2017-05-21 01:54:54 UTC - 01:54 | Permalink

        Carrier boldly claims: “There is only about a 0% to 33% chance Jesus existed.”

        Given the ambiguous nature of the biblical evidence, I don’t believe Carrier’s math is reasonably argued.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2017-05-21 07:49:08 UTC - 07:49 | Permalink

          Have you read Carrier’s arguments and his grounds for his figures? I’d be interested in a particular example of where one of his points is not reasonably argued in the face of the ambiguous nature of the biblical evidence.

          As for Carrier’s “sometimes inflated sense of his own ability”, yes, I do sometimes think Carrier comes across as overconfident, but no more in his book than many other scholars writing in similar fields, and I don’t restrict my claim to biblical scholars either.

          • Darth Ballz
            2017-05-21 15:25:11 UTC - 15:25 | Permalink

            The Rank-Raglan mythotype, for example, does nothing to show that Jesus did not exist. Scoring high on the scale may just as well reflect legendary embellishment of a historical core of the Jesus story, as it would a mythical genesis of it. Raglan did not categorically deny the historicity of the Heroes he looked at, rather it was their common biographies he considered as nonhistorical.

            • Darth Ballz
              2017-05-21 15:47:40 UTC - 15:47 | Permalink

              Due to the ambiguous nature of the evidence, I agree with Lataster’s position of being a Jesus agnostic, not Carrier’s position of being a Jesus mythicist.

            • Darth Ballz
              2017-05-21 17:53:45 UTC - 17:53 | Permalink

              The haggadic midrash/mimesis argument is equally as useless in establishing Jesus did not exist. It cannot be established whether the writer started with facts about the historical Jesus, and then embellished them to make it seem like a Hebrew Scripture text, or whether the writer started with the Hebrew Scripture text and simply re-wrote it using Jesus as the central character.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2017-05-21 21:02:56 UTC - 21:02 | Permalink

              I think you have missed Carrier’s point of the Rank-Raglan type. You are quite correct that scoring high on the scale does not prove a person did not exist but that is not Carrier’s argument for Jesus’ nonexistence. Some critics seem to have misrepresented Carrier’s argument; perhaps they never really read it themselves. I have discussed this point in several posts: see http://vridar.org/?s=rank+raglan+carrier

              As for the midrash/mimesis argument, that is only true to a certain point. We have many cases, ancient and modern, where historical persons are described with reference to (or even as deliberately imitating) past legendary or mythic figures. In every case the historicity of such persons stands firm independently of the mythical embellishments.

              Thus the Roman emperor Hadrian liked to dress up as Hercules, it appears. But it is impossible to think Hadrian did not exist or that he was really just another rewrite of Hercules. A more lowly figure (not a great political and military leader) was Socrates who has been described with mimetic allusions to Achilles. Yet we have ample reason from the same documents to know Socrates was not simply another version of Achilles and that he had an existence apart from the literary “mimesis”.

              It is quite a different matter when a character consists entirely of mythical or mimetic allusions and has no other existence apart from those allusions.

              That does not prove that a historical figure stood behind such a literary creation, but it does not give us any reason to think such a figure existed in the first place, either.

              • Darth Ballz
                2017-05-21 22:26:26 UTC - 22:26 | Permalink

                Neil said “It is quite a different matter when a character consists entirely of mythical or mimetic allusions and has no other existence apart from those allusions.”

                It’s unclear what you mean here. Jesus’ crucifixion by Pilate may “possibly” be reduced to mimesis, but I would hardly say you can demonstrate that is “probable.” Similarly, there are certainly mimetic elements in Mark’s portrayal of John the Baptist, describing him in the light of the Elijah/Elisha motif, but that isn’t the same as thinking you have “positively” demonstrated, in your words, “a character consists entirely of mythical or mimetic allusions and has no other existence apart from those allusions.” This doesn’t help the mythicist argument, as I said, because there is no way to determine what percentage of the Baptist periscope is mimetic. Maybe the mimetic material is just a few allusions that came about after the fact.

                Neil said “That does not prove that a historical figure stood behind such a literary creation, but it does not give us any reason to think such a figure existed in the first place, either.”

                Then what do you think Carrier demonstrates in a positive sense toward mythicism that shows the likelihood Jesus existed is 0-33%?

              • Neil Godfrey
                2017-05-22 02:54:05 UTC - 02:54 | Permalink

                What aspects of Jesus’ character stand independently of any “mimesis” or “midrashic” source? This point is not, by the way, some unique “mythicist” argument. You are probably aware of Kee’s list of over 140 OT allusions in the last few chapters of Mark, of Dale Allison’s detailed identification of the Moses tropes overlaying Jesus in Matthew….

                The crucifixion is entirely mimesis and intertextuality — and countless apologists publish endlessly on all the prophecies it supposedly fulfilled, verse by verse. Of course they are not prophecies but the textual sources the evangelists used to create their narrative.

                If the mimetic material is really just a few allusions added after the fact, then what prior facts about the career of Jesus do we see in the gospels? None that I know of — or can think of at the moment. That is the significant difference between Jesus and known historical persons who are said to emulate mythical heroes or gods.

                Ditto with Mark’s John the Baptist. He is entirely “midrashic”. There is nothing about him that can be separated from the Elijah and Voice in Wilderness motifs of the OT: his mission, his appearance, his message, his geographical setting.

                As for your last question, are you asking me to summarize the arguments of his book? Can I ask how much of his book you have read?

        • 2017-05-22 01:26:56 UTC - 01:26 | Permalink

          I don’t think the problem is Carrier’s mathematics, so much as his possible overestimation of the “objectivity” of the probability he ends up with. It is a subjective probability, a statement about both the person making the estimate as well as the uncertain proposition being assessed.

          On the same facts as he estimates “1/3 or less” another equally skilled and well informed Bayesian might estimate “2/3 or more.” It’s even realistic that there would be a lot of spread given the thinness of the evidence, its often equivocal character, and the many varieties of “real historical Jesuses” on offer.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2017-05-22 03:01:31 UTC - 03:01 | Permalink

            I’d be interested in an example to illustrate the claim that on a particular point of argument in Carrier’s book that one person might estimate a very low probability and another a very high probability of the same point.

            I don’t see how that is likely if both parties are considering all the same background information. Can you think of an instance where I would be wrong?

            I presume we are aware that Carrier often sets ranges of probabilities, allowing for and following the most favourable odds for historicity.

          • 2017-05-22 10:02:05 UTC - 10:02 | Permalink


            I’m unsure what you’re looking for. You really have no examples already in hand from your own real life of two people holding different opinions about some uncertain factual matter? There’s no sports betting where you live?

            The Bayesian perspective is that all differences of (factual) opinion can be represented and analyzed as formal probabilistic relationships. Intervals are fine, but they have the same interpretation as the point-valued probabilities that make up the interval: somebody’s actual or ideally justified confidence about some uncertain matter.

            Conversely, you have no examples of anybody having more or less confidence than Carrier about anything discussed in his book? Ehrman has flirted with Bayes (but it didn’t stick; I suspect he didn’t get very far with it). Ehrman seems to be “2/3 or more” on something that Carrier is “1/3 or less.”

            But that can’t be what you’re looking for.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2017-05-22 11:50:12 UTC - 11:50 | Permalink

              Bayes isn’t about mere opinion of the odds of something happening out of the blue. In historical reasoning (and Carrier is not the first or only historian to apply Bayes to historical reasoning) Bayes works the same way as it does in solving any other problem it is seriously applied to. All the background factors are laid out and considered carefully before arriving at some probability estimate.

              Sports betting???? We are talking about Bayes, right? What does Sports betting have to do with anything?

              I sometimes wonder if quite a few critics of Carrier have never really bothered to read his first volume on Bayes or any other work on how Bayes reasoning is applied in historical or other inquiries.

              No, I have no example from my “real life” of two people holding different probabilities about something given all the relevant background knowledge. I used to use Bayes at work and invited people in to help flesh out all the background factors. Never did some people in the end decide probability of X was very high while other decided it was very low. That makes no sense. That’s not how Bayes works. Bayes is not about guessing odds in the absence of relevant background information.

              Ehrman’s flirting with Bayes, iirc, was a sham. He has no idea what it’s about and trusts his readers not to know any better either. Correct me if I am wrong, but my recollection is that he is merely playing to an “anti-Carrier” audience who are lapping up the put-downs of the maverick.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2017-05-22 12:02:17 UTC - 12:02 | Permalink

              It seems a number of us don’t understand what the Bayes’ theorem is about and are being misled by some sort of anti-Carrier brigade. I can understand people being offended by Carrier’s tone often enough, but don’t let personal dislikes get in the way of what’s really what here. I can highly recommend a book by Sharon McGrayne, “The theory that would not die: how Bayes’ rule cracked the enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines, & emerged triumphant from two centuries of controversy”. Take a look. And maybe pass on a hint to Ehrman that he might learn something from it, too.

            • 2017-05-22 14:51:45 UTC - 14:51 | Permalink


              > Bayes isn’t about mere opinion of the odds of something happening out of the blue.

              It is when that is all you’ve got. Many post-WW II “orthodox” Bayesians have been overtly comprehensive – you supposedly always have a “best” estimate of the odds, regardless of how “good” that estimate is.

              That Bayes makes no necessary distinction between the 50-50 that might arise, say, from “the principle of insufficient reason” (aka the Bayes-Laplace rule) and the 50-50 that arises from the the industrialized minting of modern coins is a frequently heard criticism lodged against Bayes.

              > Sports betting???? We are talking about Bayes, right? What does Sports betting have to do with anything?

              For starters, if a theory of uncertain reasoning can’t handle how to bet in the NBA play-offs, then maybe settling the historical Jesus problem is still a tad out-of-reach.

              More crucially, if you really think that betting is somehow foreign to Bayes, then you might consider a move from Carrier and popular journalism to De Finetti (“definetti gambling semantics” is searchable).

              > Never did some people in the end decide probability of X was very high while other decided it was very low.

              Thank you for answering my question, then. Nevertheless we do know that in this domain, confidence in a historical Jesus ranges from near-certainty in favor (like Ehrman, who often forgets the “near”) to … well, Carrier is less than about 1/3 for the same proposition.

              > That makes no sense.

              That is, nevertheless, what Bayes predicts in the absence of either revelation or copious and conditionally independent evidence.

              What alternative force do you propose that would coordinate and align human estimation if not evidence?

              > Ehrman’s flirting with Bayes, iirc, was a sham.

              I don’t know the man personally. What I saw impressed me as a good try, but if you know it to be a sham, then I defer to you. That would be an example of two people, you and me, having divergent probability estimates about an uncertain matter.

              > It seems a number of us don’t understand what the Bayes’ theorem is …

              But another number of “us” do. Bayesian and near-Bayesian methods are a very popular and well-known approach to uncertain reasoning, whose scholarly literature is enriched by legions of contributors.

              It’s not about being anti-Carrier. It’s about recognizing his contribution for what it actually is, which is not bad, but there is no surprise that there are people who bear Carrier no ill-will, but who disagree with his conclusion without rejecting Bayes.

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