McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. To say, for example, that early certain Jews reinterpreted scriptures to refer to a messiah exalted in heaven as victorious over death would be true whether Jesus were historical or not is simply a true and logical point of argument that must necessarily be granted by both sides. McGrath has ripped Carrier’s point out of its context and original meaning. Here are the passages McGrath cited as the basis for his criticism:

A field that generates dozens of contradictory conclusions about the same subject is clearly bereft of anything like a reliable method. But the very same flaw befalls the mythicists, whose community is likewise plagued by dozens of completely contradictory theories of the Jesus myth. If such a state is a scandal for historicity (and it should be), it is equally a scandal for mythicism. (p. 11)

This [“a messiah who triumphs in heaven, and reveals this fact from heaven, in secret, to a select few”] is essentially Christianity in a nutshell (whether Jesus existed or not). (p. 85)

This [“the book of Daniel was clearly a seminal text in the development of Christianity, influencing the core of the gospel itself…”] is all the case whether Jesus existed or not, so this does not answer whether he did; it only entails he didn’t have to. (p 87)

McGrath proceeds to expand on his own misunderstanding when he writes:

And so, for instance, the question of whether any Jews before the rise of Christianity expected the Davidic anointed one to die before restoring his dynasty to the throne is an interesting one, but whether one agrees with Carrier’s treatment of the evidence or not, it is clear that such pre-Christian thinking about a dying messiah, if it existed, could have inspired a historical individual who believed himself to be the messiah to try to get himself handed over to authorities. And so we could devote a whole article just to that question, and yet not make any progress on the central question the book addresses, whether a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed.

The first part of McGrath’s statement is not a criticism of Carrier at all but actually repeating one half of Carrier’s point. Yes, messianic expectations are irrelevant for deciding whether Jesus was a mythical or historical figure. The second sentence adds nothing to the discussion since Carrier’s point is the very one McGrath is presenting as his own insightful criticism. We can indeed discuss questions of such irrelevance for and against mythicism and historicism and get nowhere.

The following is a comment on another erroneous point embedded in McGrath’s critique.

We should be able to see what is wrong with McGrath’s objection here. Carrier is essentially making the same criticism of historical Jesus scholarship as McGrath’s peers who are critical of form criticism are making, or that the Jesus Seminar itself also made earlier. Certainly it is one thing for historians to have different interpretations of certain types of evidence but historians can always at least agree, say, that Socrates was a philosopher who questioned the values of his society and was a pioneer in the development of Western philosophical thought. They can agree that the plain evidence establishes certain core “facts” about persons and events. The different interpretations revolve around, say, how much Plato owed to Socrates’ ideas or the real reasons for and significance of his trial and execution, etc. But in the case of the historical Jesus scholars cannot even agree who Jesus was, what he did, what he taught, or how or why he spawned a movement. The different interpretations are not about the how and why but about the very core what we are even talking about. That is the scandal – or it should be. 

Carrier spoke of contradictory conclusions at such variance that there is scarcely a single “fact” about Jesus upon which all scholars can agree. We are not talking about variant interpretations of a person in the same way scholars have different interpretations of the careers of Alexander, Socrates, or any of the Caesars.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction”

  1. Even if the Jeus of Asc. Isa. was docetic, that docetism is 100% expected on the minimal Myth Theory:

    At p.55, note 18, talking about the ”supernatural realm”, Carrier says:

    ”But the latter [the supernatural realm] could have been imagined to be in outer space OR on earth and still conform to minimal mythicism as I have defined it: see note in Chapter 11 (§8).”
    (OHJ, p.55, note 18)

    The latter note 67 of p.563 says:

    ”The original ‘revealed’ death and burial COULD have been imagined as occurring on earth and still be (from our perspective) mythical, if, e.g., the passion sequenze was ‘revealed’ to have occurred somewhere like the Garden of Eden, a place no one knew the actual location of and thus where no ordinary witnesses could have been available (of course, the earliest Christians thought even the Garden of Eden was in outer space: 2 Cor. 12.2-4; see Element 38).”
    (p.563, n.67)

    If, according to original myth, the death of Jesus occurred on earth, then this Docetism is not historicity.

    Docetism is historicity only when Jesus is imagined doing other things on heart (i.e. preaching, traveling, healing, having disciples), not only being killed and buried. A point that I learned from Roger Parvus (he knows something about 🙂 )

    Therefore I have the suspect that prof McGrath didn’t read the entire volume that he is reviewing.

  2. Is there any other area of history where scholars disagree so widely about what can be known? I suspect that most historians would agree that we can’t know whether Caesar’s wife really warned him not to go to the Senate on the ides of March. However, this is precisely the kind of little tidbit that many NT scholars will insist can be verified when it comes to Jesus, although they disagree about which tidbits are verifiable.

    1. NT scholars swapping places with ancient historians for a day:

      How do we know Julius Caesar existed?

      We know JC existed because we we can show that his wife warned him not to go to the Senate that day. The embarrassment of such a detail is the most plausible explanation for its preservation. Therefore JC existed.

  3. “it is clear that such pre-Christian thinking about a dying messiah, if it existed, could have inspired a historical individual who believed himself to be the messiah to try to get himself handed over to authorities. And so we could devote a whole article just to that question”

    The National Geographic Channel did a show called “The First Jesus” that included precisely the subject matter that McGrath’s talking about, in relation to the Gabriel Stone. Unfortunately, at the end of the show it was revealed that the stone was missing the exact letter that HAD to be included in order to inspire some bloke named “Jesus” to live out and throw away his life as if he had to be the Messiah Jesus! Unfortunately, they didn’t rely debate the subject, just assume it as historical fact, letter or no letter in that stone.

    1. It’s an intriguing mind-game exercise. (Let’s assume the missing letter obligingly turns up.) What would we expect such a person’s followers to be most interested in talking about during his life and subsequently? What would we expect to find in the written record as a result? What passages did this figure decide would be too hard to fulfil and on what basis did he select certain others? What groups around him (not his followers) would have been aware of what he was doing? How would they react? What scriptures did his followers apply to themselves? What would Paul have thought of all this?

      I find it difficult to believe that McGrath had really read much past the pages that first dealt with the Ascension of Isaiah and even the pages leading up to that were only skimmed — he had no idea of the place of the Asc. Isa. in Carrier’s larger argument. Eventually he may (or may not, if his demonstrated form with Doherty’s book is any guide) get to the section where Carrier addresses the very approach of McGrath to such questions:

      The logically correct way to reason from evidence to a conclusion is to assume that a hypothesis is true (for the sake of argument-in other words, wholly regardless of whether you already think the hypothesis is probable or not, you must assume it is not only probable but in fact true), and then ask how likely the particular piece of evidence you are looking at would be in that case. You must do this for both competing hypotheses. . . . .

      The reason I make a point of this is that the most common, and wholly erroneous, way scholars look at arguments like the following is to simply assume, a priori, that a particular interpretation is unlikely. But that is simply a measure of the strength of your bias. It is not a measure of any logically valid effect of that evidence on your conclusion. . . .

      This is often hard for historians to grasp, because they typically have not studied logic and don’t usually know the logical basis for any of their modes of reasoning and thus have all too often simply enshrined ad hoc estimates of their bias-strength as arguments for a conclusion, which is not logical. . . . .

      Whatever explanation historicists devise for these curiosities has to be demonstrably true, and not something evidence. Because such ‘making up of excuses’ would risk the fallacy of gerrymandering, which necessarily lowers your theory’s prior probability since you have to assume facts that aren’t in evidence and that aren’t made probable by any evidence there is. . . . .

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