2017-12-14

Gullotta’s Review of Carrier’s OHJ: A Brief Comment

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by Neil Godfrey

Before I address specific points of Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus here is my overall assessment.

Despite having the appearance of a comprehensive review of the primary argument of OHJ (37 pages that includes a detailed background discussion on “who Carrier is” certainly has all the appearance of being comprehensive) Gullotta has failed to convey Carrier’s method of evaluating the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus.

On the contrary, Gullotta’s discussion of selected arguments in OHJ turns out to be misleading because of what it fails to observe.

For example, although Gullotta criticizes some aspects of Carrier’s analysis of the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19, he fails to point out that in the final analysis that Carrier weights the evidence of that verse in favour of historicity! Carrier is arguing his mythicist case a fortiori so that although he personally argues for broad contextual and stylistic reasons that that the appellation does not supports the historicity of Jesus, he acknowledges the historical Jesus viewpoint and weights that phrase as being 100% what would be expected if Jesus were indeed historical.

That is, Carrier concedes in the final weighting of the evidence that Galatians 1:19 favours the case for the historical Jesus.

So how can Carrier still argue mythicism?

The answer to that question is unfortunately where Gullotta’s review fails its readers.

All Bayesian analysis does is provide a symbolic mnemonic to help one (1) be sure nothing is overlooked in assessing all the available evidence that relates to a particular historical question and (2) keep in mind the need to carefully evaluate each piece of that evidence. It serves as a mnemonic to help one guard against tunnel-vision solutions or what I call simplistic “proof-texting” in historical inquiry.

I recently quoted the historian G.R. Elton’s warning about the nature of responsible historical inquiry:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Bayesian formula represent what we know of relevant background information and all the contextual factors, for and against, relating to a particular hypothesis. They are nothing but a set of tools to help lead us away from the pitfalls of “confirmation bias” and otherwise failing to give due weight to how the evidence stacks up both for and against one’s hypothesis.

On the Historicity of Jesus is not just another series of arguments for the mythicist Jesus. It is an attempt to set out all of the evidence both for and against the hypothesis and to find a way to validly weight the many variables before coming to a tentative and probabilistic conclusion.

Leave the proof-texting level of argument to the apologists. A professional historical inquiry follows Elton’s advice. There is indeed some evidence that even an “anti-mythicist” recognizes as problematic for the simplistic proof-texting use of Galatians 1:19 to settle the question. (See my post on A.D. Howell Smith’s discussion from his book Jesus Not a Myth.)

Perhaps Carrier has worked “too hard” to be “too comprehensive” in OHJ and by adding too much of his own arguments for or against particular interpretations of certain passages in the New Testament epistles he has exposed himself to criticisms that in fact deflect from the main argument. Some of his “newer”(?) interpretations might have been better tested (and potentially refined over the long term) by being published in journals prior to their appearing “raw” in the book.

I also have my disagreements with several of Carrier’s arguments and interpretations. (I have posted some of those on this blog.) At the same time, any criticism of Carrier’s overall thesis, in order to be valid, does need to do more than argue against any of those specific arguments.

A critical review of Carrier’s work needs to acknowledge the a fortiori approach of Carrier’s method (giving as much weight as reasonably possible to the historical Jesus case — even to granting Galatians 1:19 is exactly consistent with the historical Jesus case!) and to address the totality of the evidence and background information that needs to be brought to the table in a historical investigation that would rise to the standards of a G.R. Elton.

 

30 Comments

  • J. Quinton
    2017-12-14 21:44:00 UTC - 21:44 | Permalink

    Carrier is arguing his mythicist case a fortiori so that although he personally argues for broad contextual and stylistic reasons that that the appellation does not supports the historicity of Jesus, he acknowledges the historical Jesus viewpoint and weights that phrase as being 100% what would be expected if Jesus were indeed historical.

    That is, Carrier concedes in the final weighting of the evidence that Galatians 1:19 favours the case for the historical Jesus.

    So how can Carrier still argue mythicism?

    The answer to that question is unfortunately where Gullotta’s review fails its readers.

    I’ve encountered this sort of thing multiple times when arguing against Creationists. They think that, if they prove one aspect of the theory of evolution false — like say, the fossil record (e.g., fossils on the top of a mountain is proof of a worldwide flood) — then this must disprove the entire body of evolutionary theory. That’s just not how scientific knowledge works.

    Which is ironic, because a lot of anti-mythicists claim that Carrier’s is the equivalent of a Creationist.

    It’s the difference between method and authority. If one goes by the relationship between academia and fringe beliefs, then yes, mythicists are analogous to Creationists. But if one is going by methodology (in this case, the proper use of probability theory), then it’s the historicists who are analogous to Creationists.

    And it’s the methodology that gives science its prestige and authority, not just being mainstream consensus.

    By way of analogy, say someone wins the lottery. On the hypothesis that they won by chance, the probability of winning is 1 out of millions. On the hypothesis that they cheated, the probability of winning is 100%. So how come lotto winners aren’t all carted off to jail when they win? The reason they aren’t is the same reason why, even if Creationists claim that fossils at the tops of mountains fits 100% on the Creationist hypothesis, they’re still wrong about evolution, and Carrier can say that “brother of the Lord” is 100% on a historicist hypothesis but yet still come down in favor overall on the mythicist case.

    • Tige Gibson
      2017-12-15 02:00:16 UTC - 02:00 | Permalink

      When defending a lie, it’s necessary to build a massive argument with thousands of details, but when denying a truth only one minor deviation makes it suspect. When defending the truth, you really only need one fact of the matter. Scripture has none.

    • Pofarmer
      2017-12-15 03:02:19 UTC - 03:02 | Permalink

      And it’s the methodology that gives science its prestige and authority, not just being mainstream consensus.

      And it wasn’t always that way. Science had to take the prestige away from religious authority, and they largely couldn’t do anything about it, because, quite frankly, science works, and explains the world around us, while religion, as it pretends to, does not.

    • 2017-12-15 03:13:54 UTC - 03:13 | Permalink

      Indeed, the parallels between historicism and creationism run deep. Back in Darwin’s day, he had a strong case to make, though there was some data that didn’t seem to fit his theory: Lord Kelvin had calculated that the sun couldn’t be more than ten million years old. We know now that his calculation made false assumptions about how the sun produced heat:
      http://apps.usd.edu/esci/creation/age/content/failed_scientific_clocks/kelvin_cooling.html

      Sadly, Mark Twain even fell for it, dismissing the many geologists who thought the Earth was older. We now have enough evidence to see who was right, of course, but even back then it was never rational to accept a theory that explains a few pieces of data while rejecting the theory that explains the larger body of data. As I argued in another comment, this is exactly what historicist do when they ignore the general rule of silence (or ‘explain it away’) while clinging to the few passages that seem to refer to a historical Jesus and laughing off any attempt to give such sparse data a plausible explanation under the Christ myth theory.

      • Pofarmer
        2017-12-15 03:48:56 UTC - 03:48 | Permalink

        Yeah, the problem here is that the false assumptions probably won’t ever be dealt with, because they are baked in and essentially unfalsifiable.

  • 2017-12-15 01:16:12 UTC - 01:16 | Permalink

    “Leave the proof-texting level of argument to the apologists. A professional historical inquiry follows Elton’s advice. There is indeed some evidence that even an ‘anti-mythicist’ recognizes as problematic for the simplistic proof-texting use of Galatians 1:19 to settle the question.”

    Yes. It bothers me greatly that scholars have their eyes not on the on the rule of silence but on the few, rather ambiguous “problem passages.” Clearly, you don’t throw out a good paradigm over a few anomalies!

  • mcduff
    2017-12-15 04:57:18 UTC - 04:57 | Permalink

    Until I saw reference to it at https://atheologica.wordpress.com/2017/08/16/jesus-man-or-myth/ I was not aware of this in Philippians 1.14.

    “and the greater part of the brethren in the Lord, having confidence by my bonds, are more abundantly bold — fearlessly to speak the word.”
    Young’s literal Trans.
    or
    “And many of the brothers in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
    AKJV

    Which seems to justify this conclusion from Atheologica:
    “And, while Galatians 1:19 mentions a James, “the brother of the Lord,” Paul is using an epithet that was bestowed upon all baptized Christians (1 Corinthians 15:1; Philippians 1:14), not a description of an earthly sibling.”

    • Pofarmer
      2017-12-15 07:00:50 UTC - 07:00 | Permalink

      Nice find.

    • Jeff
      2017-12-15 13:37:19 UTC - 13:37 | Permalink

      “In” and “of” are different prepositions in English. But the conceptual difference between them comes through more strongly in the Greek. In is “en”, a standalone word. But “of” isn’t a standalone word in Gal 1:19 — rather, the word kyrios is in the genitive case, indicating possession. Literally it’s “the Lord’s brother”.

      • Tige Gibson
        2017-12-15 16:57:47 UTC - 16:57 | Permalink

        Someone could have added one word in the 2nd century and no one would be wiser.

        • Jeff
          2017-12-15 17:47:15 UTC - 17:47 | Permalink

          In addition to being lazy, that’s also poor Greek. The case of kyrios is different in Gal 1 and Phil 1. It’s possessive in the former, and an indirect object (I believe) in the latter.

          • Tige Gibson
            2017-12-16 02:20:07 UTC - 02:20 | Permalink

            It’s still a minor difference: Κυρίου vs Κυρίῳ

        • Pofarmer
          2017-12-17 15:32:49 UTC - 15:32 | Permalink

          That’s kind of the problem with the whole endeavor. “We” are arguing about a few passages in a book that is rife with interpolations, which appears, in some cases to be several letters put together, and which no one actually knows the original form of. The whole argument becomes almost silly when you look at it.

          • Tige Gibson
            2017-12-18 05:06:33 UTC - 05:06 | Permalink

            I don’t even see any argument. I see an established industry of people whose careers depend on maintaining nonsense on stilts. And I don’t actually care about that at all except that it’s sometimes a bit funny to see people with supposed credentials humiliate themselves over and over.

    • Alif
      2017-12-15 13:52:40 UTC - 13:52 | Permalink

      NB re Philippians 1.14 “brethren in the lord” – is translatid elswher as:

      [NET Bible]
      .”..and most of the brothers and sisters, having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment, now more than ever dare to speak the word fearlessly.”

      Hence Carrier:

      https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/10035

      “Philippians 1:14 doesn’t say “brothers in the Lord” either, it says “brothers have confidence in the Lord.” Some (but not all) English translations disguise this fact. Read in context it’s the obvious meaning.”

  • Michael Cooper
    2017-12-15 13:47:23 UTC - 13:47 | Permalink

    “And, while Galatians 1:19 mentions a James, “the brother of the Lord,” Paul is using an epithet that was bestowed upon all baptized Christians (1 Corinthians 15:1; Philippians 1:14), not a description of an earthly sibling.”

    Here’s Galatians:
    ___________

    Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.

    ____________

    I don’t know Greek, but it’s not Cephas, the brother of the Lord & James the Brother of the Lord. He is highlighting 2 important people.

    • Der Gottesverachter
      2017-12-15 17:34:27 UTC - 17:34 | Permalink

      Not really. He seems to be highlighting one important, and one unimportant person.
      Except Cephas he saw none of the apostles, just some James, meh. If he really meant biological brother, he certainly didn’t make much of the fact, so little he couldn’t even be bothered to elaborate.

      Notice that if you replaced ‘brother of the Lord’ with anything ordinary, like a potato merchant, the sentence still sounds fine in context, but if you replaced it with something extraordinary, like The Incredible Lobster Man from Mars, or the biological brother of the Lord himself, it immediately sounds weird.

      • Michael Cooper
        2017-12-16 13:50:37 UTC - 13:50 | Permalink

        I get the impression that it’s “the brother of the Lord” not “a brother of the Lord.”

        Anyway, according to Carrier and the mythers, Peter (and James) didn’t exist. Paul seemed to think they did.

        • Der Gottesverachter
          2017-12-16 19:07:02 UTC - 19:07 | Permalink

          It turns out you’ve got no idea what Carrier and the mythers think.

          No, Carrier does believe Peter existed, he even thinks it’s plausible Peter and Cephas are the same person, even though the epistles seem to say otherwise.
          He also believes in existence of a number of Jameses, including the one from Gal, he just does not speculate any extra details about him and his identity, beyond what’s written in the epistles.

          You might want to read up about mythicist arguments instead trying to guess what they are. Good place to start is jesuspuzzle.humanists.net, bit outdated, but it’s free and easily accessible.

        • Tige Gibson
          2017-12-16 20:25:02 UTC - 20:25 | Permalink

          If you start with the premise these men were all gnostics, Paul’s claims are not significantly better than theirs, which is how he was able to weasel his way into their ranks. As gnosticism changed into historicity, Paul’s claims are reduced in value and his significance sank as well. Mythicists sort of take it for granted that Jesus was not real and Paul is the real founder of Christianity, or Paulinism. What we want to sort out is what these people who followed Paul were really up to before Paul came along. Christianity was some sort of angelic cult without a lot of specific substance.

        • Pofarmer
          2017-12-17 15:36:30 UTC - 15:36 | Permalink

          Are you sure you aren’t conflating the Peter and James in the Gospels with the Cephas and James of the Epistles? ‘Cause they’re not the same thing.

  • Richard Stokes
    2017-12-15 22:35:12 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

    G. R Elton was controversial in certain respects: I remember that he was against studying History at O-Level and A-Level – a provocative point of view which to me sounded elitist and counter-productive.

    I also think it is very hard for a historian to live up to such purist principles of historical enquiry which supposedly “safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence”.

    Elton championed the significance of Thomas Cromwell and the rise in importance of parliamentary statutes, but Penry Williams, a rival historian from the 1960s, would probably argue that Elton fell into the familiar traps of biased evidence selection.

    A recent scholar Ian Harris has discovered that Elton was under pressure in the 1950s to promote Cromwell as a revolutionary administrator (rather than a reformer) to help get the expanded version of his PhD thesis published in book form. ‘The Tudor Revolution in Government’ is a more forceful title, even though its content discussed reform not revolution.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-12-15 23:24:07 UTC - 23:24 | Permalink

      I suppose I choose to quote Elton because according to biblical scholar Scot McKnight,

      so it seems to me, most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonian . . . .

      McKnight, Scot. 2005. Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. p. 16

      And that’s why McKnight (I think McKnight is actually postmodernist, quite unlike Elton in his philosophy of history) uses Elton’s work when talking with his fellow biblical scholars.

      Elton was certainly controversial in some quarters but he is also conservative or traditional enough with respect to the nature of history and what people expect of historical work for most biblical scholars to relate to him. I am not addressing his political or ideological views, nor all of his approach to historical reconstruction which perhaps does raise some concerns, but nothing more than the fundamental truism he expressed about historical research.

      I think it would be difficult to find a historian who disagrees with the quotation I used — except perhaps some postmodernists at a certain extreme edge of the field.

  • Caravelle
    2017-12-16 11:55:39 UTC - 11:55 | Permalink

    I haven’t read OHJ but offhand I think there should be two sides to evaluating the role of the “Brother of the Lord” passage in the historicity/mythicism argument: the odds of the passage under historicity, and the odds of the passage under historicity being false. The a fortiori case would have the highest possible number for the first (which you bring up, 100% apparently) and the lowest possible number for the second. If it were zero then that piece of evidence would lead to a rejection of mythicism, regardless of the other probabilities, so clearly Carrier doesn’t set it that low. Can you remind us where he puts it?

    To be fair to the critics, I think that number is more representative of the argument anyway. The argument they make isn’t “‘Brothers of the Lord’ means Paul met Jesus’ brother, which he would have if Jesus was historical”, it’s “Paul met Jesus’ brother, which would be impossible if Jesus was a mythical figure”.

    I agree with your larger point that Carrier’s method looks at all the evidence, including evidence that doesn’t favor his conclusion, and draws his conclusion from the whole thing, and that he weighs the “Brother of the Lord” passage as being in favor of historicity. But in the context of the general discussion, instead of pointing out the 100% probability he gives the passage under historicity I would find it more meaningful to know what the lowest odds are Carrier gives the passage under non-historicity, and how he justifies those odds. Are they something even most historicists would agree with (‘one chance in a million, the passage could be a forgery/interpolation/any other one-in-a-million event’), or are they part of the debate? If they involve specific arguments Gullota takes issue with then he might be right to dispute those arguments specifically (depending on how much plugging in his numbers instead of Carrier’s would change the overall conclusion at least), regardless of larger issues in his review.

    • Tige Gibson
      2017-12-16 20:18:23 UTC - 20:18 | Permalink

      Then of course his proper response is his own calculation, showing his work.

  • Der Gottesverachter
    2017-12-17 16:03:17 UTC - 16:03 | Permalink

    “The argument they make [..] it’s “Paul met Jesus’ brother, which would be impossible if Jesus was a mythical figure”.

    Which is not exactly true.
    A mythical figure can have as many mythical siblings as they please. A mythical figure can even be said to be a sibling of a real person, especially if there’s no one around to deny it.

    There’s so much more to this argument under the surface which historicists are trying hard to protect from being scratched.

    • Tige Gibson
      2017-12-18 05:09:22 UTC - 05:09 | Permalink

      The most obvious one being the fact there were many gnostic sects, so lots of Christians didn’t have any problem with Jesus not being “real”.

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