Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 2 — Review

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues from my previous one in which I began my review of Richard Carrier’s Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Chapter 2: The Basics

Here Carrier pauses before addressing Bayes’ theorem in order to establish fundamentals that ought to be part of the basic mechanics of every historical enquiry.

The first subsection of the chapter is “Why History Requires Expertise”. Carrier opens by listing three golden rules he always offers lay people who ask him what history they can trust:

  1. Don’t believe everything you read;
  2. Always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible;
  3. Beware of scholars who make amazing claims but who are not experts in the period or even historians.

I have learned to extend #2 to “always ask for the primary sources of all claims — including the commonplace ones”.

Many people are quite content to accept whatever “authorities” say, which is of course a quite reasonable thing to do. But if you want to investigate a topic for yourself try to remain aware of when you notice primary sources are cited and when they are not. Always be on the lookout to understand why a claim is being made.

And don’t simply accept the claim about a source. Try to read or look at a copy of the source for yourself. Has the historian accurately represented what the source says? (A blog reader has recently brought to my attention that one biblical scholar who is widely seen as an authority in the history associated with early Christianity, a certain Dr Bart D. Ehrman, in his latest publication has claimed that a Roman historian, Tacitus, said not one but two things he simply did not say at all (p. 54 of Did Jesus Exist?). All one has to do is read the passage in Tacitus for oneself to see that even a reputable scholar like Ehrman is quite capable of carelessness so sloppy that he writes things that are contradicted by the sources he cites.

As for #3 I would say that we also encounter instances where experts in the field and historians sometimes make some pretty amazing claims. N. T. Wright is a reputed expert in the field and he makes the amazing claim that we can prove the literal truth of the resurrection by historical inquiry. There are many who even claim that the Jews exalted a man, and a crucified one at that, to divine status.

Carrier then gives four stages of analysis that must be completed before a historian can proceed to draw historical information from the primary or earliest sources available.

Textual Analysis: This step is to establish that the text we are reading is either the original or an authentic copy of the original.

Literary Analysis: I have often spoken about the quite limited comprehension of the importance of literary analysis. I have learned the critical importance of it in my own posts about historical methods. To practise it effectively involves an understanding of the literature and culture of the era in which the source was composed. The best preparation for this exercise is to read widely other literature of the times and scholarly studies analysing these literatures as well as the philosophical views, the customs, the societies, of the day. Many “professional biblical historians” have a quite limited comprehension of the importance of this basic requirement, I have learned. Others have published papers begging their peers to explore more widely the literary culture of the time of the Gospels and Genre studies as undertaken beyond biblical studies.

Source Analysis: Another process I have often emphasized. I like Carrier’s stress on the requirement not to trust routinely what a document says about its sources, too. Then, as now, authors were quite capable of making fictitious claims for special effect. I have recently been catching up with John Van Seters’ work, In Search of History, primarily to learn what he has researched about the nature of sources that are explicitly cited in ancient Mesopotamian historical literature, and the evidence he uncovered to demonstrate that they either did not exist or did not exist as the works they were purported to be. The lesson may well apply to those little claims we read in the Old Testament about “more information about such and such a king can be found in the chronicles of x, etc”.

I would also extend the search for sources to comparative literary analysis. Is there evidence that a work was rewriting episodes from another work. Virgil, for example, relied upon a re-write of Homer’s epics to create his own Aeneid.

Historical Analysis: Carrier addresses here the years of mentoring students receive as they progress in their studies. That can’t be replicated for most readers, so fortunately Carrier does the next best thing and prepares to explain the methods the experts should ideally employ so as to help readers be better discerners of when historians are really behaving and using the right methods themselves.

I would recommend to others not fortunate enough to undertake that sort of study to spend a lot of time lurking in professional online discussion groups and learning from the exchanges. Wide reading, too, is essential. But it helps to have some guidance in knowing the sorts of things to read, and having read one book, knowing what one should read next to get an alternative perspective.


Carrier’s next section in this chapter is “The Axioms of Historical Method”. These are the points he promised to introduce above in order to assist lay readers to be more discerning of things being said by “the professionals”. He lists twelve and they are based upon earlier essays of his, including online publications:

  • http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com.au/2006/11/epistemological-end-game.html
  • http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com.au/2007/07/experimental-history.html

These twelve axioms represent the epistemological foundation of rational-empirical history. (p. 20)

Carrier, of course, discusses each of the following in some depth, but I won’t do that here. You’ll have to read the book for the explanations and how they are applied in historical studies. I have paraphrased many of them:

  1. All conclusions must logically follow from the evidence available to all observers
  2. Seek consensus among all qualified experts who subscribe to the basic principles of rational-empirical history
  3. Overconfidence is fallacious; admitting error and uncertainty is not
  4. Every claim has a nonzero probability of being true or false (unless logically impossible) (Carrier devotes the lengthiest of his explanations to this axiom)
  5. Arguments of inference “possibly, therefore probably”, are fallacious
  6. “An effective consensus of qualified experts constitutes meeting an initial burden of evidence.”
  7. Facts are to be distinguished from theories
  8. “A conclusion is only as certain as its weakest premise.”
  9. The strength of a claim is proportional to the strength of the evidence supporting it.
  10. Weak claims that contradict strong claims are probably false
  11. Generalizations need to be supported by evidence that truly is evidence for the validity of the generalization
  12. When one cites a scholar it is to be assumed that one agrees with that scholar only on the point cited.

As one can well imagine each of these rubrics can be expanded and Carrier does so. Even in brief, however, I would assume most of us interested in rational-empirical inquiry would agree with these axioms.

Of course, one finds many scholars breaking a good number of these principles all too regularly. On point #12, for example, both McGrath and Ehrman have fallaciously faulted mythicists of quoting scholars to support a particular interpretation of a text for supposedly implying that the scholars cited support mythicism generally. That’s rubbish, of course. But even the best and brightest break the rules sometimes.


Richard Carrier concludes this chapter with “The Twelve Rules of Historical Method”. Happily Carrier acknowledges that even these rules, like all rules, are made to be broken from time to time. Only machines never break rules (until they break down). So like a merciful high priest he encourages us with these words:

[N]o one is without sin on this score, and we all fail at them from time to time (myself included). They are the standards by which we seek to correct ourselves and be corrected by our peers. . . . none should be controversial. (p. 37)

If you were hoping the 12 axioms were only principles and not really rules then you will be disappointed with the first rule. Again I paraphrase many of them.

  1. Obey the Twelve Axioms (Richard tags on to this one “obey Bayes’ theorem which he admits some will find controversial)
  2. Develop wide expertise in the period, topics, languages etc or at least base all your assumptions upon the established findings of those who have
  3. Don’t assume. Check everything you think you may have heard or read against the evidence and scholarship (How how true! The times I have broken this rule in the past are best forgotten. This is the one area I still need to be pulled up on so often!)
  4. Rely upon the original language of a text, and its original textual and sociocultural context
  5. State things honestly: note where there is uncertainty, avoid overstating things, concede insufficient information; acknowledge the difference between speculation and assertion — (Hoo boy! How often is this rule violated by those “professionals” who have set themselves on a vendetta against mythicist arguments!)
  6. Be clear about the differences between weak and strong claims, facts and theories, and never conflate these (Once again it appears we are stumbling across Carrier’s neglect to define his terms. A theory in history as I understand it is a formally proposed model that explains events or processes. Carrier has said at the outset he will be avoiding professional jargon and it would help if he could be clearer when he uses terminology that has quite different popular and scholarly meanings. Presumably here he is using “theory” in the sense of speculation about what might have happened. I will try to keep in mind that he is ostensibly addressing the question of Jesus’ existence rather than historical questions in general despite his earlier “bold claims”.)
  7. “Address all relevant and significant evidence against what you claim (including any relevant arguments from silence against what you claim.)” (Now this is one rule that would rescue many from some of the more bizarre theories in any area of history or world affairs. But it’s hard for some of us to do this honestly when we get excited about a new theory. Maybe age helps mellow one here.)
  8. Be cognizant of chronological development. (I still recall being disappointed to learn in a Roman history class that one of the books I enjoyed so much about customs — and it was written by a “professional scholar”! —  had jumbled things from wide time-spans all together.) Parallels, similarities, correlations do not in themselves imply causation. Be alert to possibilities of alternative directions of influence or causation.
  9. Always cite the primary evidence, or the sources that cite it. That is, leave a trail of supporting evidence to support your assertions. (By “primary evidence” Carrier means “the earliest surviving evidence in the chain of causation”.)
  10. Avoid reliance upon scholarship earlier than 1950; rely as much as possible on work since 1970. (There are some possible exceptions, such as archaeology and philology, but if old work is used it should be supported by newer research or your own independent verification.)
  11. Always report what the most recent general scholarship says on a subject — never give the impression that a minority view is the predominant one.
  12. Constantly seek expert criticism to refine your work; look for corrections, admit error.

As Richard Carrier points out, there is nothing controversial in any of these rules. But such reminders never go astray.

Now, down to business. The next chapter is Introducing Bayes’s Theorem. I’ll need a bit more time before I can prepare my next post on that chapter.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Carrier’s “Proving History”, Chapter 2 — Review”

    1. I expect to be in a better position to discuss the ideas of Richard Carrier after I read more of his book. I am still thinking through his third chapter and have come to a pause where he says historians are unaware they are more “scientific” in practice than they realize because they fail to understand that what they call “explanations” are what scientists call “theories”. I don’t know. I am reading slowly and thinking as I go — unfortunately I can be a slow thinker at times.

    1. Speaking of “lending cachet” to an Internet junkie site, this is an impressive list of posts.
      The last one, about Carrier reviewing scholars’ contribution to the Jesus Myth studies is riveting, and tremendously instructive. The Jesus Myth movement is lucky to count him as one of its most analytical voices.

  1. …a certain Dr Bart D. Ehrman, in his latest publication has claimed that a Roman historian, Tacitus, said not one but two things he simply did not say at all (p. 54 of Did Jesus Exist?). All one has to do is read the passage in Tacitus for oneself to see that even a reputable scholar like Ehrman is quite capable of carelessness so sloppy that he writes things that are contradicted by the sources he cites.

    For what it is worth, a blogger named Tom Veranna has discussed Ehrman’s sloppiness with respect to Tacitus.

    1. Thanks for the link, Bob Carlson.
      The aftermath and repercussions of the Great Fire, as well as the 69-70 destruction of Jerusalem are holding my interest at the moment.
      I’d be grateful for any other leads on the subject of Tacitus’ references to Nero, the Great Fire and the Christians.

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