Having just read Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I expect to be posting over the coming weeks a series of analytical responses. In the meantime, some overview thoughts.
Firstly, the choice of journal for this review, The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. One of the editors of JSHJ effectively declared that the editorial board is hostile to the very idea of Jesus mythicism. In December 2014 an article by Michael Bird was published in On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate, and a month later on his college’s website, that stated the following:
The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth. I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.
That gives you at least some idea what to expect of any discussion of mythicism that is published in JSHJ. (Daniel Gullotta, a doctoral student, surely knew the bias of JSHJ before he submitted it for their consideration.) Unfortunately, Gullotta’s concluding paragraph does not belie expectations, and ironically declares that a shortfall in “academic detachment” is the problem of the mythicists:
Scholars, however, may rightly question whether Carrier’s work and those who evangelize it exhibit the necessary level of academic detachment.130 If David L. Barrett was right, ‘That every generation discovers the historical Jesus that it needs’, then it is not surprising that a group with a passionate dislike for Jesus (and his ancient and modern associates) has found what they were looking for: a Jesus who conveniently does them the favor of not existing anywhere except in the imagination of deluded fundamentalists in the past and present.131 Whereas mythicists will accuse scholars of the historical Jesus of being apologists for the theology of historic Christianity, mythicists may in turn be accused of being apologists for a kind of dogmatic atheism. But while some have no doubt found their champion in Richard Carrier and his version of mythicism, like others before him, his quest has been in vain. Despite their hopes, the historical Jesus lives on.
130 A concern shared by Bart D. Ehrman, Maurice Casey, and also Carrier. See Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 334-339; Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, p. viii; Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 14.
131 Quoted from David L. Barrett, The Historical Jesus and the Life of Faith’, in The Christian Century 109 (May 6,1992), pp. 489-493.
(the bolding is mine)
A passionate dislike for Jesus? Dogmatic atheism? That would be a huge surprise to the mythicists Thomas Brodie, Robert M. Price, Herman Detering, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Francesco Carotta, René Salm, G.A. Wells, P.L. Couchoud (and a good number of other Christ Myth authors of yesteryear), certainly myself, not to mention others who are fence-sitters on the question such as Hector Avalos, Arthur Droge and Kurt Noll.
Nor, quite frankly, do I detect even in Richard Carrier’s atheistic writings a “passionate dislike for Jesus” nor an endorsement for New Atheism. (I substitute New Atheism for Dogmatic Atheism because I am not quite sure what Dogmatic Atheism is supposed to mean. I am certainly an atheist and by no means a fence-sitter on that question, but I do deplore the rise of what was for a few years labelled the New Atheism, a movement that I think would have been better labelled Anti-Theistic rather than Atheist.)
For the record, I cannot see that it makes the slightest bit of difference to any atheist whether Jesus was a historical person or not. The simple fact that atheists also populate the pro-historical Jesus biblical studies academic guild as well as being found among the ranks of mythicists ought to testify soundly enough to that point. Jesus is a cultural icon. He has served many causes to which atheists and any number of other religionists have associated themselves.
Anyway, back to the substance of Gullotta’s review. It is thirty-seven A4 pages long (310-346) so don’t expect a comprehensive critical review soon or in a single post. Gullotta’s review is packed with footnotes and the time gap separating my responses will largely depend upon how accessible I find most of those citations. (Yes, I’m one of those who does read all the fine print and follows up as many footnotes as possible.)
The early part of Daniel Gullotta’s review is an overview of how Gullotta has come to perceive the “Christ Myth” theory (the older term) or the “Jesus mythicism” view (the current term) historically. He then proceeds to an introduction of Richard Carrier himself, who he is, his academic background, and what led to the book On the Historicity of Jesus being reviewed.
In short, I found the earlier criticisms of Carrier to be the most on target. Gullotta zeroes in on what I also happen to think are a some of Carrier’s weaker points. If I imagine Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty in a heated discussion over some additions Carrier seeks to bring to Doherty’s original thesis, I confess that I might, in the end, side with Doherty and ask Carrier to leave the argument as it is. (I mention Doherty because Carrier himself acknowledges his debt to Earl Doherty’s arguments.)
Yes, some (not all) of Gullotta’s criticisms are on target, I think. I will elaborate in a future post. But Gullotta’s later criticisms of Carrier appear to me to be based, ultimately, on little more than sweeping generalizations arising from ideologically-grounded arguments.
Sometimes Gullotta gets Carrier’s point just right, but at other time, I think, he misses the point entirely and simply fails to understand. For example, I saw no indication in Gullotta’s review that he had ever read the book that Carrier wrote as a prequel to On the Historicity of Jesus, and the work he encouraged readers of OHJ to consult.
In the end, I found myself mentally “screaming”,
Okay, take any of your alternative models/scenarios etc, and then apply the Bayesian model to them and see what happens!
Unfortunately, Gullotta indicates that he had no interest in what, in fact, was the entire foundation of the method underlying On the Historicity of Jesus. That was Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2012. Worse than lack of interest, Gullotta confessed to complete befuddlement:
But despite his call for historians to write with ‘a style more attractive and intelligible to ordinary people’, many, myself included, will find Carrier’s Bayesian analysis unnecessarily complicated and uninviting.47 I would echo Petterson’s critique that at the ‘worst of times it felt like I had stepped into a Jesus Seminar, a seminar armed with a reversed agenda and τι-89 Titanium calculators’.48
47 Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. xiii.
48 Petterson, ‘Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus’, 254.
I am most definitely no mathematical genius but even I could follow the argument in the Bayesian preparation to On the Historicity of Jesus. Perhaps it’s because I did read Carrier’s preparatory book, but I found nothing in the least obscure or problematic with the On the Historicity of Jesus summary discussions at the end of each chapter on the probability calculations to each argument. Unfortunately, Gullotta gives no indication in his review that he even read Carrier’s preparatory volume. What disappointed me the most, no doubt a consequence of Gullotta’s failure to do the background reading, was his reference to a bizarre misapplication of Bayes theorem by Swinburne in an attempt to prove the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus:
Yet I cannot help but compare Carrier’s approach to the work of Richard Swinburne, who likewise uses Bayes’ theorem to demonstrate the high probability of Jesus’ resurrection, and wonder if it is not fatally telling that Bayes’ theorem can be used to both prove the reality of Jesus’ physical resurrection and prove that he had no existence as a historical person 49
49 Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
The most simplistic syllogisms can be used to “prove” any nonsense — “all men have two legs; a chicken has two legs; therefore a chicken is a man” — and the same applies to Bayes’ theorem. Gullotta’s apparent fear of a mathematical term seems to have led him to jettison the entire logical system underlying the fundamentals. All Bayes’ theorem does is assign mathematical symbols to the most fundamental processes of everyday reasoning. The point of those symbols is to assist in alerting the thinker to any details overlooked in the normative reasoning process, or to any lapse in the logical validity of the thinking process.
One can easily toss aside the mathematical symbols and just focus on the logical and methodological process.
That was the biggest disappointment in reading Gullotta’s review. He failed to address the central point of the book — that it is the method and assumptions that are central to all evaluations of each argument.
What followed was what amounts to a tiresome repeat of the apologist arguments against specific arguments of Carrier without ever, at any point, addressing the core of Carrier’s discussion.
I found myself screaming (mentally) when Gullotta claimed that some alternative concept could be used as a starting point for an argument. “Great,” I found myself saying (mentally), “Test any or each of the alternatives you are proposing and let’s see how the argument pans out in the end.” But no, there was no (mentally conveyed) response. The whole point of the Bayesian method is that it enables the testing of divergent hypotheses. You can forget the maths. Just focus on the fundamental reasoning processes that the mathematical symbols represent. The symbols only serve as an aid so you don’t forget fundamental processes too easily discarded otherwise.
Okay, to conclude. I found Gullotta’s earlier criticisms of Carrier’s argument to be valid. (That means nothing more than that I agreed with much of them.) I found other criticisms inadequately informed. (That means that I think Gullotta has confined his views too narrowly to biblical scholars and remains uninformed of the relevant scholarship in the wider field of Classical studies.) And still other criticisms of Gullotta I found to be grounded on a fundamental misunderstanding of Carrier’s argument — in particular, he failed to grasp the point of the Rank-Raglan hero type. That’s when I found myself mentally screaming for him to apply any of the other “types” that he proposed as alternatives. Instead, Gullotta seemed to think that the mere possibility of alternative types somehow undercut Carrier’s thesis.
What I would like to do in future posts is take Gullotta’s criticisms on board and adjust Carrier’s Bayesian figures as if they carry more weight than any alternative and then see what happens to the Bayesian probability for the historicity of Jesus.
More to come. In due course.
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