We have read Richard Carrier’s response to James McGrath’s latest post in Bible and Interpretation on Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Some commentary has focussed on Carrier’s tone and lost sight of McGrath’s own commentary — a serious oversight.
McGrath heads his response Richard Carrier’s Dishonesty. That title is not a joke.
Carrier’s title was deliberately ironic: In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field. We know it is ironic because his first words following that title are:
The title of this article is a joke. Sort of. But maybe not as much as you think. As I’ll show. Because James McGrath has added another entry to his bizarrely uninformed critique of On the Historicity of Jesus, and this time is the most dishonest of the bunch. For to get the result he wants, he has to essentially become a Christian fundamentalist, denying there is any mythmaking in the Gospels at all, and reject all non-fundamentalist scholarship of the last fifteen years.
McGrath then accuses Carrier of claiming he (McGrath) has claimed that the Gospels have no symbolic stories in them.
It is ironic that Richard Carrier’s blog post which accuses me of lying about his work blatantly misrepresents what I wrote. No one who has read things I’ve written – or listened to things I’ve said – would ever believe that I claimed that the Gospels have no symbolic stories in them, when I have so often said the opposite. The infancy stories (which I’ve discussed before) in the Gospels are just that – and are much like the infancy stories told about other historical figures besides Jesus.
McGrath’s accusation is false. He fails to supply any quotation or paraphrase of any place where Carrier said McGrath claims the Gospels have no symbolic stories. Carrier nowhere suggested McGrath has claimed the gospels do not contain symbolic stories. Some people would call McGrath’s accusation here a lie.
Carrier’s complaint rests entirely on the readers’ understanding that McGrath knows better. That Carrier is being ironic and directing readers to McGrath’s disingenuousness or word-games is evident in the following:
Do you know who does disdain all that these scholars have shown regarding the Gospels being allegorically constructed? Christian fundamentalists. Do you know who pretends their view is the mainstream view and all other views are “disdained” in the field when in fact the opposite is true? Christian fundamentalists. Who is McGrath siding with? Hm.
McGrath appears to be saying this is my own contrivance, that none of that went on. Once again, that’s the position of a Christian fundamentalist.
McGrath then adds
I’m guessing that the criticisms I’ve offered in my recent articles must be too damaging to mythicism for Carrier to respond to them in a manner that is professional, scholarly, and fair, so that instead he is resorting to deception and expletives. But goodness me, if you can’t deal with criticism in a rational and mature manner, you really shouldn’t try to produce something that even pretends to be scholarship, never mind the actual thing.
“I’m guessing”. Interesting. So McGrath has no apparent wish to respond to the clear reasons Carrier set out for his response. Don’t bother reading Carrier’s content. Focus on the one expletive in the last sentence and entitle yourself to substituting McGrath’s “guessing” for the content of Carrier’s post.
And misrepresent McGrath’s grossly unprofessional encounter with Carrier’s work (it would be misrepresentation to call it a “review”) as honest “criticism”.
Carrier exposes the unprofessional, the unscholarly, the unfair and the deceptive nature of McGrath’s criticism. McGrath ignores the detailed evidence Carrier cites to support each accusation and resorts to a supercilious tu quoque.
McGrath’s review is itself only a “pretence at scholarship” since it failed to provide the most fundamental requirement of any scholarly review: an explanation of the author’s overall argument and methods. (It is also important that we don’t lose sight of the “establishment’s” role in this. Bible and Interpretation claims to be a peer-review page so serious questions must be pointed at them, too. BI knows Carrier’s book was peer-reviewed so that knowledge alone should have alerted them to something amiss with McGrath’s posts — even apart from the several contradictions and fallacies in them.)
McGrath’s “review” committed the very same fallacy at the heart of climate change contrarian scientists: cherrypicking:
Cherry picking was the most common characteristic they shared. We found that many contrarian research papers omitted important contextual information or ignored key data that did not fit the research conclusions. (Here’s what happens when you try to replicate climate contrarian papers by Dana Nuccitelli)
Contrast McGrath’s “guessing” with the factual depth of Carrier’s rebuttal:
McGrath ignores what I actually wrote in the sections McGrath is talking about. My favorite example: McGrath complains that when I define three criteria that are markers of myth writing, I’m making a big mistake because no one of them is sufficient to entail a text is a myth…completely ignoring that I say exactly that, in the text he claims to be reading.
It is thus telling that in “support” of this falsity, McGrath does not cite any living scholar or recent work, but an antiquated essay written by James Barr in 1966 (with a follow up in 1989). And to deceive you further, McGrath cites it as if published in 2014 (actually only the date of a reprinted historical collection). And to deceive you further, McGrath implies these articles by Barr demonstrate McGrath’s claim that allegorical interpretation is disdained by the mainstream today. Yet, first, being written 26 and 49 (!) years ago, they cannot have said anything about the state of the field today; and second, both argue for allegorical interpretation of the Bible!
In line with what looks like a constructed lie, McGrath then deceitfully makes it appear that I just make everything up in my demonstration of allegorical content in the Gospels. In fact I extensively rely on the mainstream peer reviewed literature in the field. Look at n. 41, p. 405 (several peer reviewed experts on the Barabbas allegory), n. 56, p. 412 (Norman Petersen on the allegorical construction of the travel narrative in Mark 4-8), n. 59, p. 415 (Paul Achtemeier on the allegorical function of the miracle sequences in Mark—notably, when McGrath uses this example, he completely omits to mention that I am relying on the work of Achtemeier, and instead gives the impression that I just made it all up [on this see also a followup by Neil Godfrey]), n. 71, p. 423-24 (Deborah Krause on the allegorical structure of the triumphal entry), n. 78, p. 426 (Calum Carmichael on the allegorical structure of Mark 12), n. 97, p. 433 (R.G. Hamerton-Kelly on the allegorical structure of the temple clearing and fig tree inclusio), n. 98, p. 434 (several peer reviewed experts on Mark’s use of narrative intercalation to communicate allegorical content), n. 118, p. 445 (several peer reviewed experts on Mark’s use of allegory in his concluding chapter).
Plus all the ancient evidence I presented that this is in fact how the Bible was both read and written, which I extensively documented, and which McGrath completely ignores and pretends I didn’t present (Element 14, pp. 114-24).
And I don’t just demonstrate, and show that countless peer reviewed experts have also demonstrated, that allegorical-symbolic structure exists in the Gospels, but also that the Gospels often do this through fabricating narratives by rewriting Old Testament stories about Moses and Elijah (and I cite numerous mainstream scholars supporting this fact, including Dale Allison, Raymond Brown, and many others, not “just” Thomas Brodie), by inventing stories that communicate things a given author wanted people to believe but that have no plausible basis in history (and again I cite mainstream scholars supporting the point), and by assembling narratives out of pesher-like readings of scripture (a conclusion so mainstream I cannot believe I need to explain this to McGrath…for example, the derivation of Mark’s crucifixion narrative from Psalm 22 and other passages is famously accepted as a mainstream fact, and that’s just the most famous example). Likewise, I show that many sayings were invented for Jesus, sometimes out of things said by others, and sometimes improvised to explain how history proceeded after Jesus supposedly died. And this, too, is an accepted fact of mainstream scholarship.
Then there’s this section:
Lying about My Appeal to Conspiracy
Not content to rest on those deceptions, McGrath dishonestly deploys a well poisoning fallacy by saying he “will not discuss here [Carrier’s] conspiracy theory approach to early Christian literature, summed up nicely when he writes, ‘This appears to be what typically happened to the evidence. It was erased, doctored or rewritten to support a historicity party line against a mythicist one’.”
First, no mainstream scholar doubts that “the evidence” for Christianity was extensively “erased, doctored or rewritten” (and fabricated) to support the victorious sect; the evidence for this is vast, we have countless proven examples, and I extensively cite mainstream scholarship demonstrating it. McGrath appears to be saying this is my own contrivance, that none of that went on. Once again, that’s the position of a Christian fundamentalist.
Meanwhile, this is what I actually say in the book about “conspiracy theories”…
[T]here was no organized conspiracy to doctor the record (except when it came to controlling faith literature, for which we have clear evidence of Christians actively eliminating disapproved Gospels, for example), but this along with all the other cases (above and below) indicates a common trend among individual Christians to act as gatekeepers of information, suppressing what they didn’t like. Which collectively destroyed a lot of information. (OHJ, p. 303)
[T]his doesn’t demonstrate any organized conspiracy, but there seems to have been a zeitgeist motivating many Christian scholars and scribes, independently of one another, to remove embarrassingly silent sections of secular histories, or to remove embarrassingly silent histories altogether (by simply not preserving them). (OHJ, p. 305)
[T]he epistles do reveal the constant vexation of novel dogmas; the devastating events of the 60s did occur; the history of the church is completely silent from then until the mid-90s or later; a historicist sect did later gain supreme power and did decide which texts to preserve, and it did doctor and meddle with numerous manuscripts and even produced wholesale forgeries to that same end—and not as a result of any organized conspiracy, but simply from independent scribes and authors widely sharing similar assumptions and motives. (OHJ, p. 609)
And most extensively:
Unlike most other questions in history, the evidence for Jesus is among the most compromised bodies of evidence in the whole of ancient history. It cannot be said that this has no effect on its reliability. This does not entail or require any particular ‘conspiracy theory’, however. Of course, the fact of it is so firmly in evidence it cannot be disputed (only its degree); so even if a conspiracy theory were required, it would be more than amply established by the evidence we have. But it isn’t needed, because all that one does need is a sect of fanatical believers who (a) have a common dogma to promote (e.g. that Jesus really lived and really said and did certain things conducive to the doctrines they wanted to promote), as we know the ‘orthodox’ sect did, and (b) have no qualms against destroying evidence (or just not mentioning or preserving it), forging evidence and doctoring evidence, as we again know the ‘orthodox’ sect did (i.e. these are not mere hypotheses, but established facts in our background knowledge). Any such community will organically produce the same effect as a conspiracy, without ever having to conspire to do anything. They do not require any top-down instructions or orders to follow, nor any collusion. If each independently did what made sense to him, each on his own initiative, the effect on the evidence that survives for us now will have been the same. (OHJ, p. 276)
How did McGrath miss all of that? It’s not conceivable…if he is actually reading my book. His contempt for the truth is therefore galling.
We see this again in his treatment of my mythic marker criteria, which I did not invent (as McGrath dishonestly implies) but adopted from mainstream scholarship. As Godfrey also pointed out, McGrath does not address what I mean by mythical emulation as one of the three criteria. He says instead that mere similarities are inevitable; thereby implying I neither looked for nor found anything more than that. He doesn’t mention the example I give (Virgil’s emulation of Homer), which refutes him, or the mainstream peer reviewed scholarship I cite arguing my very point (I didn’t make this criterion up).
Nor does McGrath reveal that I actually address the importance of distinguishing inevitable similarities from actual emulations in my methodological primer for OHJ, Proving History (pp. 192-203), which he also reviewed and thus claims to have read. Nor does he offer any rebuttal to my solution. So again, McGrath is lying to you about what I said, and trying to make it look like I said something else.
McGrath also confuses my third criterion (the presence of uncorroborated persons and events as key to the story) as meaning lack of corroboration entails their non-historicity. I never say any such thing. All I said was, when that happens, that ups the probability, but does not guarantee, that we are looking at a myth. I said nothing about having determined anything as non-historical from such a criterion alone, and in fact elsewhere in the book I explain in detail that that can’t be done (e.g., chs. 2.1 and 8.3-4). McGrath effectively lies to you, by not telling you that, and telling you instead that I said the opposite of what in fact I actually said.
McGrath also complains that miracles sometimes are claimed in histories not just myths. Again lying to you, by implying I did not concede this very point in the very next paragraph, where I explain:
[I]f we find enough of those in a single text, this supports the conclusion that the remainder are as well, according to the principle of contamination, which Stephen Law has formally articulated for ‘miracle’ content. His argument can be fully extended to all improbabilities, including emulative features of a story that are improbable coincidences if posited as history but not improbable as an authorial creation. (OHJ, p. 394)
In a sense, even McGrath’s entire thesis is a lie: he tries arguing at length that I am wrong to dismiss the Gospels as of any use because some history may yet be in a myth-heavy narrative. A fact I never deny. To the contrary, I repeatedly say, “There is no good case to be made that any scene in Mark reflects a historical Jesus. Because most scenes clearly do not, and even if any do, we cannot discern which, or what in them is historical” (OHJ, p. 456); “There is in fact no way to discern what if anything Matthew has added to Mark has any historical basis, or even a source (and its having a source would still in no way establish that it’s historical…),” so “The burden is therefore on anyone who would insist there is anything in Matthew that is any more authentic than what’s in Mark,” otherwise, “Even if any historical facts about Jesus are in it, we have no way to identify them” (OHJ, p. 469); “Even if any historical facts about Jesus are in [Luke], we have no way to identify them” (OHJ, p. 487). Etc.
McGrath again lies when he says “Carrier … refrains from expounding what the mystical meaning of the texts is supposed to have been” because maybe that “would expose just how speculative and unconvincing such approaches to the Gospels really are.” In fact, I give several examples, from possible interpretations (that have at least a 50/50 chance at being true) to interpretations convincingly demonstrated in mainstream peer reviewed literature! My chapter is full of these, and many are from mainstream scholarship. So here we have the most appalling lie: to avoid addressing what I actually argued, McGrath says I didn’t do X, when in fact I did, and uses the false fact of my not doing X to insinuate I can’t because the attempt would expose the effort as untenable, when in fact I actually engage in the effort and show not only why (and when) it is tenable, but I also cite dozens of scholars who support me in that. Not one piece of which McGrath mentions or engages. That’s simply dishonest.
Another example of McGrath’s dishonesty appears in a footnote where he says:
Carrier’s confident assertion about talitha koum in Mark 5, ‘Certainly, Jesus never actually spoke those words, since the story is entirely a fiction’ (p. 410), illustrates how his presumption that the material is fictitious leads him to dismiss details which in fact suggest otherwise. Carrier’s speculation that Mark ‘adapted those words from a targum’ is not persuasive.
This remark contains several deceptions. First, he falsely claims this is a presumption, when in fact I outline an extensive case for the first conclusion. Which he does not address. At all. And pretending there is no argument to rebut is dishonest. Second, he merely asserts that my second argument is “not persuasive,” but does not explain why. That’s not dishonest so much as lazy. But where it becomes dishonest is that he does not mention what I actually argue. I only argue that anyone asserting historicity for this event must rule out that source, and for the very reasons introduced not by me, but by Bruce Chilton, an expert on targumic literature, whom I cite on the point, another fact McGrath deceitfully fails to mention.
So here, McGrath falsely represents me as arguing these words definitely come from a targum, when in fact my argument is that we cannot know they didn’t. This is a burden of evidence argument. My argument is that the burden is on him. It is not on me. It is dishonest of him to pretend that’s not the argument I made, and to not respond to my actual argument, but to respond instead to an argument I didn’t make, that he falsely represents me as making.
I won’t address McGrath’s shameless attempt at a well poisoning fallacy by attempting to equate me with Barbara Thiering. That’s just bullshit.
Nor will I bother addressing at length his closing assertion, that I have constructed the mythicism thesis to be unfalsifiable. That is a shameful lie. Anyone who reads OHJ will see I explain numerous times what would falsify the thesis. I spelled out more in Proving History (especially Ch. 5). And frankly I am disgusted that I should have to dig through and find the countless occasions of that just to prove McGrath is lying. It is his moral responsibility as a scholar to locate those passages in my work and actually address them, before maintaining a claim like his. That he did not do this disgraces him as a scholar.
McGrath is true to form. When his arguments and criticisms are demonstrably exposed as false or fallacious he does indeed typically resort to disdainful dismissal. He will not engage in the detail or ever respond to the actual content of criticisms demonstrating his unprofessionalism in this area — as we have seen many times before Carrier’s book appeared, in particular with his similar treatement of Doherty’s book.
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18 thoughts on “McGrath Guessing Versus Carrier’s Content”
I have since added to the above post the following:
McGrath’s agenda is clear: Shut all mythicist arguments out. Do all one can in the name of Jesus to shut down public engagement with questioning the foundations of many scholars’ belief systems. “The end justifies the means,” as the Jesuits are reported to have said.
Who does McGrath write for – who reads it to be informed rather than for the same entertainment purpose that others watch train wrecks?
I have been back and forth reading the posts and comments.This exercise once again confirms that words are such slippery things. Professional academics will write something then claim he meant something else etc. When what he wrote is there for all to see. When he is called out he protests that he has been misrepresented him.
The approach of James F. McGrath does not strike me as an intellectual that cares about genuine and rational inquiry. That is what academics are supposed to do.They are suppose to foster clearer thinking and assist the general public to understand the issues under their purview, not to be intellectual slight-of-hands!
I think it’s 50/50 as to whether a mythic pericope in the gospels leads back to an historical Jesus or not:
(1) Perhaps the gospel writer was just rewriting an Old Testament story, and there was no historical core.
(2) In the synagogue, the Jews of Jeus’ time heard scriptures read, taught, discussed, or expounded. The vast majority of first century people could not read. So people didn`t own bibles. The Jews had access to their sacred stories in the synagogue. The memory of the historical Jesus would have there been recalled, restated, and passed on (in the synagogue). This would have shaped stories told about the historical Jesus to reflect The Old Testament stories. And the gospel stories may also be shaped in terms of Jewish liturgy. The crucifixion may be shaped against the passover. The transfiguration echoes Hanukkah. Many things are reminiscent of Rosh Hashanah. So, as it says in Acts, they would have read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prohets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So followers of Jesus would have then recalled their memories of Him which that Sabbath elicited. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41). They went through this process for about forty years during The Oral Period before the gospels were written. Through this process of myth-making, Allusions to the Old Testament, religious celebrations, political ideas, and the like would have all been mixed in to the stories about the historical Jesus until historical memory and mythic fantasy became inseparable.
It seems to me there is no way to tell whether a mythic pericope has an historical core or not, so that the presence of a mythic pericope isn’t evidence for or against the existence of Jesus.
This may be an entry level question, but I have been wondering lately about Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:
“3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).”
What does “according to Scripures” mean? Is Paul saying “according to the Hebrew scriptures I read, Christ died in this way”? Is Paul saying Christ’s death fulfilled scriptures?
We are all familiar with allusions to the Hebrew scriptures in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ death, but maybe Paul has the same thing in mind even though he doesn’t elaborate.
If Paul interpreted Jesus death in accordance with Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Wisdom of Solomon, this would certainly be “according to scriptures.”
But why would Paul say Christ was buried and that he was raised in three days “according to scripture?” Maybe Paul had in mind the story of Jonah. For Matthew it is a symbolic prophecy represented by the three days and three nights that Jonah spent in the stomach of a great fish (Jonah 1:17). Jesus said the only “sign” people would be given would be “the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then proceeded to explain what He was talking about: “for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40).
What was Paul talking about? If Paul is alluding to the Old Testament in his conceptualization of the death and resurrection of Christ, can historical content be derived from it?
Other scripture possibilities could be from Daniel (the Son of Man figure representing the martyrs and the dying Messiah there) and from the account of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac (Levenson). Hosea 6:2 speaks of being raised up on the third day, of course.
My own suspicion is that Paul was not reconstructing clearly defined narrative-type images or events from the scriptures but producing ideas/dogmas from the putting of this verse with that (haggadah midrash?) — I imagine the details were blurry around the edges. It was, after all, hidden mysteries that they understood were being revealed/hinted at — emerging. Confirming visions no doubt were important, too.
Or am I misunderstanding your thought?
I’m slowly undertaking a reading of a couple of Whitehouse books on the origins of religious thought but it will be quite some time before I get on top of them. (Thanks again to some recommendations by Dan Jones.) I wonder if there will be further clues there to understanding all of this. I am already wondering if there are biblical or Christian origins scholars who do study this aspect of the origins of religions.
I’m wondering if Doherty/Carrier may have a point about a celestial death of Christ as a vague savior myth. If Paul says Christ was killed, buried and raised “according to scripture,” maybe Paul was looking to the Hebrew scriptures to flesh out the vague savior myth of a crucified celestial Christ that he had been hallucinating about (as Carrier would say).
The RSV cites Psalm 16:10 as Paul’s “Scriptures” for 1 Cor 15:4: “For thou doest not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit.” It references Acts 2:31:”[David] foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”
Usually what we say is that if a section of text serves a theological purpose (such as Old Testament scripture fulfillment), then there is no reason to think it goes back to The Historical Jesus. If Paul is illuminating Jesus death, burial, and resurrection by saying he understands them “according to scripture,” then there is no reason to think that any of it goes back to the historical Jesus.
We find the same in Justin Martyr. All the evidence marshalled to support the claims about Jesus is sourced right out of Scriptures. If there is no historical “tradition” or witnesses to appeal to then why must we complicate the explanation by assuming historicity is also a factor? You know as well as I do that we are veering off sound method if we want a more complex explanation of origins when the evidence points to just one origin.
That pesky Occam’s razor. lol
Maybe Paul met some other people who had visions of a risen Jesus and who quoted some remark that Jesus had made which they then recalled as something prescient. But that COULDN’T have happened, could it?
Carrier seems to suggest that Paul only knew Jesus through revelation and scripture. Here are some quotes from Carrier:
That second argument looks familiar somehow . . . . compare Putting James the Brother of the Lord to a Bayesian Test. Great minds and all that. . .
It’s fun to speculate.
When Paul says that Christ died for “our sins” in accordance with the scripture, he may be speaking as a Jew, on behalf of Israel: Christ died for the sins of God’s people. He refers in the same way to “our fathers” all being under the cloud and passing through the sea (1 Cor. 10:1). If, as seems likely, Paul has in mind the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, who “bears our sins”, who was given over “because of their sins” (Is. 53:4, 6, 11, 12 LXX), etc., then “according to the scriptures” means that this was a death for Israel. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day according to the scriptures” recalls the narrative of Israel’s punishment and restoration in Hosea 6:1-2: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
It is interesting that Paul says Jesus died, was buried, and was raised “ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE.” This may mean Paul thought Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection “fulfilled scripture,” or else that Paul “discovered these things in scripture,” but in either case it means Historicists can’t use Paul as evidence for the death, burial, and resurrection of the historical Jesus because if a section of text serves a theological purpose (scripture fulfillment or scripture derivation, etc.), it is excluded from being used as information about the historical Jesus. This is standard biblical hermeneutics. And without Paul, historicists have a major problem, because there is no reason to think any pericope in the gospels is doing anything but serving theological purposes.
Wouldn’t you agree, Neil?
By the way, your name would make a good pseudonym for an atheist: “Neil Godfrey” = “Kneel-God-Free”
I think Daniel played an important in shaping the content and “chronology” of the HJ narrative, especially an interpretation of 9.26. The “Messiah” cut off = execution.
Your passage from Daniel is what Mark had in mind when he wrote:
Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? (Mark 9:12)