McGrath’s BI Review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, 1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Not wanting on a Sunday to spend too much time at one sitting responding to James McGrath’s gaffes I will respond in small segments to his latest “review” of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus on the Bible and Interpretation site. Once I’ve done enough of these I may combine them into a single response and forward to Bible and Interpretation to see if they will post them there.

This post addresses the first “substantive” criticism in McGrath’s latest review:

His [Carrier’s] treatment of myth, and how to determine whether a work is largely or entirely myth, is less satisfactory. Carrier writes,

Characteristics of myth are

(1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events);

(2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and

(3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional).

No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical. But the presence of all three is conclusive. And the presence of one or two can also be sufficient, when sufficiently telling.

Ignoring Carrier’s point that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical but the presence of all three is conclusive” McGrath proceeds to “protest” that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical”. Not only that, but he completely fails to grasp the difference between “emulation” and “similarity“. 

Since similarity between real events and other real events is not at all unlikely, and on the contrary well­ documented, the first alleged characteristic of myth simply doesn’t work. 

Virgil creates Aeneas to emulate the characters of Odysseus and Achilles in Homer’s epics. That is, Virgil creates Aeneas to rival and surpass the Homeric heroes in meaningful ways to draw attention to those comparisons and the superiority of Aeneas. One can find similarities between Virgil’s Aeneid and the Epic of Gilgamesh but that’s all. One sees only similarities and not meaningful emulation. It is hardly controversial to propose that Matthew’s Jesus emulates Moses at certain points of the narrative (e.g. Allison 1993).

McGrath pleads some uncertainty as to the precise meaning of “external corroboration” in point 3 but had he noticed the footnote at the end of Carrier’s paragraph that he quotes (that he did fail to notice it is evident from his failure to include it in his quotation) he would have been left in no doubt. In the earlier chapters of OHJ especially Carrier reminds readers that the fundamentals of historical argument and method of reasoning underlying our acceptance of what constitutes supporting evidence for historical hypotheses were thoroughly covered in Proving History.

The third point is equally problematic, not only because it is unclear what “external corroboration” entails (external to one literary work and confirmed in another, or external to the entire tradition in question?),

Having expressed confusion over the meaning of “external corroboration” McGrath nevertheless proceeds to argue as if he knows exactly what it means and the consequences of accepting it as a criterion:

but also because a great many figures in the Judaism of this time, such as John the Baptist and Hillel, might be deemed unhistorical by this criterion.

This statement is simply wrong for several reasons:

  1. It is fallacious to reject a method because one fears its application may call into question long-held assumptions;
  2. Lack of external corroboration does not entail that any particular event or person is unhistorical (as Carrier himself explains in Proving History);
  3. In this case the respective evidence for John the Baptist and Hillel is not comparable either in terms of proximity to the person or the nature of the testifying documents;
  4. Having said he does not know what Carrier means by “external corroboration” McGrath fails to explain what he means by it in this assertion that is founded upon the term.

On Carrier’s second characteristic of myth McGrath protests:

The second also fails to do justice to the presence of the allegedly miraculous in a range of sources about verifiably historical people and events.

Again McGrath here overlooks not only Carriers elaboration of this point in Proving History and referenced here in a footnote, but also Carrier’s follow on explanatory sentence:

No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical.

McGrath illustrates his objections to Carrier’s characteristics of myth by comparing 1 and 2 Maccabees, only once again to demonstrate Carrier’s point that “no one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical but the presence of all three is conclusive” and confusing once again the meaning of “emulation” with “similarity” and even appearing to confuse “no indication of an author or sources” with “external corroboration”.


Continued: Part 2 of McGrath’s Review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

22 thoughts on “McGrath’s BI Review of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, 1”

  1. “but also because a great many figures in the Judaism of this time, such as John the Baptist and Hillel, might be deemed unhistorical by this criterion.” Argh, this has got to be the worst argument that is commonly bruited about. Those who use it should be required to copy

    “It is fallacious to reject a method because one fears its application may call into question long-held assumptions”

    one hundred times on a blackboard.

    1. It’s just a variation on the “if you’re going to doubt Jesus’ historicity, you have to doubt X’s historicity” gambit. This argument is stultifying weaksauce in every form it has been uttered up until this day by the usual suspects in defense of Jesus’ historicity. It’s been cut down so many times in all it’s variations, it’s mindboggling that they still think they can use it.

      The fact that it comes back again and again in so many desperate forms, which are all equally out-of-touch with reality, and all it’s variations depend on the ignorance of the public about the actual evidence for “X” compared to Jesus, gives the impression that we’re dealing with a very, very insulated group of pretentious intellectuals.

      1. The funny thing is that the Jesus of the Bible is Mythical Jesus. Rather than just accept the possibility that there is only Mythical Jesus, historicists demand that everybody else play along and pretend there is an identifiable Historical Jesus hiding behind the Mythical Jesus. Of course, everybody can find his own Historical Jesus.

        Historicism is an exercise in apologetics incapable of giving rise to rational discourse.

  2. Do you plan to write a review of “On the Historicity of Jesus” yourself? It would be very interesting to hear your perspective on the historical arguments in OHJ, for instance the interpretation of the Ascension of Isiahs myth.

    1. I have scores of books I’d love to write about. I’m still wanting to complete a raft of other posts on the Ascension of Isaiah, too. Trouble is, I need to work full time to pay the rent. Last few years I’ve tended to post on what is quick and easy at hand — and/or the newest interest that has suddenly surfaced in my reading. Tim’s the one doing the background research to produce the quality posts.

      I’d love to write about aspects of Carrier’s book, too. But right now I’m still struggling to get the time to give the followup post on McG’s “review” — McG won’t let me post on his blog anymore but I’d really love someone who can push him a little bit to get a clear and unambiguous answer to the question: “How much of OHJ did you actually read? Did you just skim large sections? Did you read it right through from cover to cover? What do you believe is Carrier’s thesis and argument in the book? Why have you not explained what C’s argument is in any of your reviews? Why do you think BI have allowed your reviews to be published even though they do not meet the minimal standard of a scholarly review and explain to readers the main argument of the book?”

      Those are the questions I’d be pushing him to answer without ambiguity.

      1. Neil, you do pretty well if you also work full-time. It would be nice for us all if you could get your ideas together in a single book. Even when I do not share your views, I find your articles almost all worth filing. Luckily I am retired, but unluckily have only a few years left free from fatal illness – though if I find I’m wrong about the finality of death, I shall try to get in touch somehow with the good news (despite Luke 16.26). Meanwhile, I would like to recommend here some of my own books on “Holy” Land conflicts, if you think the effort might be of interest.

        1. If you think there are books with information my own views appear not to take into account or to be unaware of and that hopefully might give me reason to pause you are certainly welcome to list them here. I’d like to think my own retirement years are not too far away but who knows what the future ever holds. Do hope you are able to make the most of the years left you. All the best.

          1. Will add a select booklist from my own collection in due course. The literature on Zionism, Islam, the Middle East, Antisemitism &c &c is of course immeasurable, but a number of authors from different viewpoints can be recommended to make the yoke easier and the burden light.

            On HJ we may have to agree to disagree.

    1. I am always hopeful despite the past that I will see something competent and interesting in his reviews but after I begin to check on his claims I always find the same old . . . . I really did not believe he would repeat his approach to Doherty’s book in a “review” published on a peer-review site. It says as much about the peer-review site and other scholars who commend the review as it does about McG.

    1. Quite rightly, too. I am angry as well. I cannot believe McGrath has read much more of Carrier’s book as he ever did of Doherty’s. Everything points to McGrath skimming with hostile intent until he finds a passage that he can rip from context, only half-read, and use as a catapult for his pre-packed diatribe against what he thinks mythicists argue and that he can use to show what shallow or disreputable persons mythicists are. What is so despicable about this instance is that a supposedly peer-reviewed site, BI, actually published McGrath’s tripe. Anyone who read even the extracts quoted from Carrier could see that McG’s criticism was fallacious; and besides– how can any scholarly platform allow three parts of a book review appear that fails to ever explain the argument of the book being reviewed?

        1. I don’t follow his argument there. Certainly on the point about McGrath faulting each of the three criteria as stand-alones he is only repeating Carrier’s and McGrath’s argument — that no one of them by itself proves myth. That’s what Carrier himself said. McGrath completely avoided Carrier’s point, in fact implied Carrier’s point was something other than what it was. For the author to somehow say McGrath’s point is on target because he demonstrates (as everyone knows) that each point by itself means nothing re historicity/myth is self-contradictory or circular or just a general meaningless failure to grasp the original point of the discussion.

          The rest looks like the standard bash-Carrier rhetoric one sees so often. Of course there will be no criticism of McGrath’s blatant falsehoods or other forms of unprofessionalism. (McGrath himself, for what it’s worth and iirc, has excoriated another mythicist for misleading/deceptive conduct in citing reprint dates instead of very old original publication dates.)

      1. Carrier posted some strong words about McGrath on his blog today:

        Tim Bos says

        September 13, 2015 at 3:33 pm

        Have you considered the possibility that McGrath is not intentionally trying to deceive his readers (i.e., “lying”), but that the misinformation he is putting out there is simply a result of cognitive dissonance, and that he is actually not fully cognizant of his numerous misreadings and distortions of the facts?


        Richard Carrier says

        September 14, 2015 at 11:54 am

        I am less and less convinced in general of the “they are just fantastically delusional” hypothesis. Some people I can buy it (David Marshall, for example) but others I no longer can (William Lane Craig, for example).

        McGrath has so consistently misrepresented my arguments, even going out of his way to remove references to scholarship or premises in arguments, and even saying the opposite of what he himself believes, that I can no longer believe he is insane. He is a liar.

        Cognitive Dissonance might be the motivation for his lying, but I don’t see any evidence that he is, for example, “negatively hallucinating” away the reference to Achtemeier in my treatment of the miracle sequences, or “negatively hallucinating” away the fact that my argument for the possible use of targums is actually that of Chilton, or “negatively hallucinating” away all the scholars I cite as having developed the actual mythmaking criteria I am using (and thus “hallucinating” that I made them up instead), or “negatively hallucinating” away an entire page long argument for my conclusion that the Jairus episode was fiction and saying it was instead just a presumption, or “negatively hallucinated” away all the mainstream peer reviewed scholarship I relied on, and all the views of all the leading mainstream interpreters of the Gospels today (including his own views, as he now revealed in his reply!), or “negatively hallucinated” away all the times I conceded there might be historical facts in the Gospels and that the problem was our inability to show any are there beyond 50/50 odds, or “negatively hallucinated” away the dozens of times I discussed the symbolic interpretation intended by the authors (and instead claiming I never did and basing an entire argument on the absence of my having repeatedly done this); or that he “hallucinated” Barr making an argument that he didn’t (but in fact nearly the opposite), or that he “hallucinated” it as being a discussion of the current state of the field rather than the state of it nearly half a century ago.

        And indeed, one might suppose he missed all my repeated explanations of the absence of any conspiracy thinking required in my discussion of the evidence being problematized only if you adopt the conclusion that he lied about actually reading my book. And even then, how can one explain his claim that the things he mentions (that Christians destroyed evidence, let evidence vanish, altered evidence, and forged evidence) entail specious conspiracy thinking, when he well knows (his actual real belief is) that all those things are true, and are the mainstream view of the matter (as shown from Ehrman’s Forged and beyond)? To say that this requires specious conspiracy thinking is a lie. And he knows it is a lie.

        McGrath cannot be this wildly insane. Therefore, he is a liar. There is no other possibility.

        – Any thoughts?

        1. I simply don’t know. When dealing with McGrath’s response to Earl Doherty I had the same thoughts — that McGrath was deliberately lying. If not lying about the point in hand then about his claim to have actually read as much as he claimed.

          Then we had Ehrman. There is no way Ehrman could have read the works he claimed to have read and said what he said about them.

          That led me to try to figure out what they mean when they say they have read something. Do they mean they let their eyes skim over pages all the while feeling absolutely livid and disgusted with the entire theme of the book? If so, then that’s not really “reading” but I suppose technically they can say it is.

          I can understand Carrier’s reaction. I find it difficult to avoid spilling out my own suspicions about McGrath’s integrity. Am I going too far? Would the natural conclusion of my own efforts be that no-one ever really lies? What is the psychology involved in lying?

          But either way, the bigger problem is that McGrath’s peers respect his efforts. He gets to present on mythicism at conferences when blind Freddy can see that he is the least informed about the topic. I have tried to push him to explain what he understands about a particular argument of mine, Doherty’s or anothers and each time he really could not do it. He can only see his own disinformation as the real fact of the matter.

          But why do his peers respect his efforts? That’s the real problem.

          Are we on to something if we read between the lines of the little tidbits of his past that he lets out? He does seem to have had something of a painful adolescence (who hasn’t — but McG “above average”?) and found his personal social salvation in Jesus. He does come across as living a “put on”, a “faith-made-man”….. without it he would collapse….? Motive to lie? To kid himself like crazy?

          I don’t know.

        2. McGrath’s reviews would surely prompt a formal complaint for dishonest conduct to some academic governing body but I don’t know what standards and governing bodies there are for academics in the U.S.

          It’s more useful, I think, to avoid the L word because it does impute motive, and to stick to the behaviours themselves: falsehoods, misrepresentation, etc.

          They are damaging enough and all that a judge or panel of reviewers need.

  3. Is there evidence for John the Baptist? The only reference I know of is the bit in Jospehus. Is there more elsewhere? Most things I read point to biblical evidence or Jospehus, and a few (stretched) links of a cave or church, maybe some wall paintings – but nothing really concrete.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading