We laugh now at the idea that the Soviets and Nazis used scientific research to buttress their ideologies but archaeology is still being used to support nationalist ideologies and justify illegal occupations today. From Ynetnews:
Culture Minister Miri Regev has ordered the Israel Antiquities Authority to put plans in motion to undertake far-reaching archeological restoration of many historical Jerusalem sites, in a bid to strengthen Jewish bonds to the ancient city. . . .
“The immense importance of the archeological digs taking place in Jerusalem cannot be questioned. The digs are uncovering the deep roots we have in our land,” Israel Antiquities Authority Chairman Israel Hasson in a letter to Regev.
“The digs’ results provided the appropriate response to anyone wishing to dispute our right to Jerusalem, alongside the fact the sites are a tourist attraction of the highest order and research being conducted there is foremost in the world,” Hasson added.
Regev herself told Yedioth Ahronoth that the desire to strengthen Jewish bonds to the city was at the heart of the initiative. “Even if (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas made an effort to dig hundreds of meters into the ground he will not find a Palestinian coin from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago,” she explained.
The fundamental point is that it’s easy to be calm and confident when you “know” you are right. As I was reading (both Mano’s extracts and the original) I found myself thinking that the same techniques are used by others who are in positions of authority or prestige, although these groups may not always consciously think of what they are doing as a “method” they need practice to apply. If some of those in authority find themselves addressing an idea that is potentially threatening to all they have invested in, it is probably a good idea not to take the challengers’ arguments too seriously. Simply extracting a few points at a superficial level will do, and then have fun with them.
That is, play with logic. Let the underdog get flustered, impatient, angry, that you are not being serious or are distorting what they are trying to express.
The real audience is not the person argued with but onlookers, your fans, your public in whose eyes you are the esteemed authority. Let the minor party lose patience with you and you’ve scored a great victory. You have demonstrated you are the rational one and the challenger is a fool.
On top of that, we were trained to always be calm, cool, and collected. There was a dialectic, after all, and there were bystanders. If we were arguing with someone, we had the obligation to be dispassionate and stereotypically “scientific”. Let the people we were arguing with get upset. Let the people we were arguing with display how attached they are to their narrative. Let them rage and rant. It is our job to stand there and be calm and have tons of facts at our fingertips. It was their job to say “I don’t know” and get frustrated.
Over and over again, it was reiterated to us that it wasn’t just about the person with whom we were arguing. There would be people watching and it was our job to present identically to how stereotypical scientists: calm, cool, collected, tons of information at our immediate recall, and the ability to withstand some angry person yelling about how they were told something different by people they trusted implicitly. . . .
We were not only communicating with the person we were arguing with. We were communicating with the audience.
One of the most frequently asked questions about the Book of Esther is: Are the events recounted in it true? In other words, is the book historically accurate? Arguing against the book’s historicity is the fact that many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable. The following points are among the most obvious.
We know of no Persian queen named Esther, or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not expect there to have been one. Queens came from the noble Persian families, not from ethnic minorities. Moreover, real kings don’t choose queens from beauty contests. In fact, Esther enters the story more like a concubine, and only later emerges as a dignified queen. In contrast, Vashti, who was presumably a queen of proper ancestry and clearly in a high position at court, is treated like a concubine by Ahasuerus.
While Ahasuerus has been equated with Xerxes, no Persian king acted or would act the way Ahasuerus did. He is a king who cannot make the smallest decision without legal consultation, and leaves the big decisions to others altogether. Any resemblance to a real Persian king is purely coincidental.
To govern a country in which a law could never be changed would make governing impossible.1
A decree to annihilate the Jews is least at home in ancient Persia, an empire that is thought to have been relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups within it, and is portrayed positively elsewhere in the Bible.
This is the empire that permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, of which there is not a word in Esther.
The plot hangs on at least one particular hook that goes against all logic but which is crucial to the story: that Esther could keep her Jewish identity hidden while all the world knew that she was related to Mordecai and all the world knew that Mordecai was a Jew.
In contrast, those who defend the book’s historicity point to the authentic information about the Persian court and its many customs and institutions, and the use of a number of Persian terms. But it is not simply a matter of weighing one side’s proofs against the other side’s, for, when we look carefully at the points for and against historicity, it turns out that the historically authentic material is in the background and setting, while the main characters and the important elements in the plot are much farther removed from reality. If this were a modern work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction. While those terms may not be appropriate for the Bible, we can certainly recognize Esther as a form of imaginative storytelling, not unlike Jonah and Daniel, or Judith and Tobit in the Apocrypha. In fact, such storytelling was common in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and even Greek historians such as Herodotus, whose writings are given more credibility as history, include imaginative tales in their works. The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value; The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.
Berlin, Adele. n.d. Esther = [Ester]: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. pp. xvi-xvii
Of course in the gospels some of the “too fantastic to be believable” points have been written out and replaced by scholarly inventions. The most obvious example is that Jesus in the gospels was crucified for no good reason (except for being very good and being the messiah); so the gospel truth is replaced by the more plausible notion that Jesus must have been crucified for as a political rebel.
Pilate acts as unhistorically as does Ahasuerus.
But then again …. you never know. I mean, how else can you explain the existence of the Jews today if Esther was not historical? Why would anyone make it up? How else do you explain Purim? Maybe it was historical after all…. ?? (tongue is wedged deep into cheek)
A week ago James McGrath posted Earl Doherty as Christian Reformer in which he expressed a point I have been making for some years now and especially since Thomas Brodie “came out” as not believing that there was a historical Jesus. Approvingly citing Matthew Green, McGrath writes
if mythicism did turn out to be true, all that would likely happen would be a shift to focusing on learning what the celestial Jesus rather than the historical one taught. Indeed, for many Christians Jesus is a celestial figure who still speaks to them in the present day. For atheists to try to use mythicism as though it were an argument against Christianity makes no sense.
Exactly! And the point has been most clearly demonstrated by Thomas Brodie who has continued to be a Christian believer. See posts #22, 23 and 24 linked in Vridar’s Brodie Files for Brodie’s explanation of why he believes the Christ Myth theory is not incompatible with Christianity.
I have for some years even been quoting Albert Schweitzer who indicated a very similar possibility when he wrote that Christians needed to get away from their focus on the historical Jesus:
[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.
. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .
. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.
To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .
Schweitzer was not a Jesus mythicist and that is all the more reason Christians ought to seriously think about what he said here (from pages 401f in The Quest of the Historical Jesus).
Part of the problem in some circles seems to be a fear or ignorance of atheists and atheism. There seems to be an assumption among some believers that atheists are programmed to seek to attack and destroy Christianity.
McGrath is by no means the only one to dismiss “mythicists” because they are atheists and therefore have a motive to find Jesus did not exist. The point is thought to be to undermine Christianity.
That is nonsense. No doubt some atheists somewhere do scoff at Christianity and claim they don’t believe Jesus existed anyway. But at least among the serious writings I have read arguing for a mythical origin of Jesus not a single one has expressed a hostile or subversive Christian agenda.
I have posted about several Christ Myth advocates from past years who have even been very pro-Christian, expressing admiration for the faith, despite not being Christians themselves. Paul-Louis Couchoud was one, if memory serves.
Today there are a number of mythicists who are also favourably disposed towards Christianity. Consult the Who’s Who table for details.
I can see no reason why an atheist would “want” to believe Jesus did not exist. The Jesus atheists believe existed was just another Jewish prophet or miracle worker or whatever. The only reason I could imagine an atheist might want to believe that there was no Jess is if he or she thought Jesus really was god, too. But that makes no sense!
So I am very mystified to learn that another atheist would write the following in her review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:
What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . .
These posts for most part are following the argument of Wright, Elliott and Flesher in “Israel In and Out of Egypt”, a chapter in The Old Testament in Archaeology and History (2017), edited by Jennie Ebelilng, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher.
In Part 2 we look at the state of Egypt between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE.
Canaanites enter Egypt
In the previous post we saw that it was Egyptian weakness that allowed Asiatics to enter Egypt, often as unwelcome guests. In the Late Bronze Age, however, it was Egyptian strength that brought Canaanites into their homes.
Egypt was at the height of its power in the fifteenth century, especially under pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep II of the eighteenth dynasty.
Thutmose regularly raided Canaan eventually to establish Egypt’s undisputed hegemony there. The crucial battle was at Megiddo in 1482 BCE.
One of the Canaanite place-names Thutmose had inscribed was Jacob-El. So the biblical narrative is not totally alien to this era.
Canaanites during this era of Egyptian domination became commonplace in Egypt. Canaanites brought tribute to Egypt; many were taken as hostages, especially as children, to be reared in Egyptian values before returning as loyal subjects to their original home cities.
Amenhotep boasted of transporting 89,000 people from Canaan to Egypt.
Perhaps there is an archaeological correlation; the population in the hill country in Canaan was drastically reduced during this period. Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE) records that his temple was filled with “male and female slaves, children of the chiefs of foreign lands of the captivity of His Majesty.” (Wright, p. 251)
Many of us know the story of Amenhotep IV (1353-1336 BCE). He changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of his new god, Aten, the sun-disc. Many consider him the first monotheist. He was certainly a monolatrist, exalting his one god above all others as the only one truly worthy of worship and sole creator of the universe. He removed himself from the old capital dominated as it was by priests and temples for the old order and its chief god, Amen, and established a new city as the capital with new forms of art and architecture, and a new religion. Inscriptions and images of the old god, Amen, were erased from public monuments, temples and tombs throughout Egypt.
With his death his religious reforms also died and soon his own monuments to Aten suffered the same fate as he had inflicted on Amen. The old religion and its priesthood was restored.
Did Akhenaten’s religion influence the Israelites?
Even though Akhenaten’s monotheistic changes took place less than a century before an Israelite exodus could have happened, there is no indication that their religion was influenced by his activities. (Wright, p. 252)
….. In surveying references to angels during this time, one of the most common features in the names of angels is the appearance of the element of ‘el’.53 This survey reveals that the most common angelic characters of this period were named Michael, Gabriel, Sariel/Uriel, and Raphael.54 In other words, a prosopographical analysis of the names of the particular angels known to Jews in the Second Temple period shows that the name Jesus does not conform to the way angelic beings were designated as such. Because the name Jesus is never associated with an angelic figure, nor does the name conform to tropes of celestial beings within Judaism, Carrier’s assertions are unconvincing.55
Furthermore, studies of Second Temple names found in Jewish texts, ossuaries, and inscriptions only associate the name Jesus with human figures. The name Jesus was so common and widespread it was one of the six most popular names for Jewish males.56 This commonality is particularly on display when Josephus distinguishes between the different Jesus figures of the period, such as Jesus, son of Gamaliel, who served as high priest during the Maccabean period, as well as Jesus, son of Daminos, who served as high priest in 62-63 ce, only to be succeeded by Jesus, son of Sapphias, who served from 64-65 ce. Similarly, within early Christian literature, Jesus’ name and the power associated with it is presented as Jesus the Christ (Ιησούς Χριστός)’, likewise distinguishing him from the other Jesus figures of the time.57 Carrier’s argument does not adequately explain why an angelic figure would have a name so commonly associated with human beings, let alone one which does not conform to typical angelic naming conventions. At no point does an angel or celestial being called Jesus appear within Second Temple Judaism, and Jesus’ exhibits all the signs of a mundane name given to a human Jewish male within the period.
Gullotta, D. N. (2017). On Richard Carrier’s Doubts. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 15(2–3), 310–346. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-0150200 pp. 326-328
That sounds like a reason to be very cautious about accepting a hypothesis that a divinity would be named Jesus but it is also a double sided coin. The fact is that Jews did accept the name Jesus for a divinity or supernaturally exalted being worthy of worship. We know early Christians were quite capable of assigning a new name to a person to indicate a significant change of role or status. What if the historical Jesus had been named Simon (the most common male Jewish name of the time) or Joseph or John? How likely are they to have felt comfortable singing the praises of Dear John or Joe, John Christ, Simon Christ? If we imagine that living with even more common names than Jesus identifying their heavenly Christ then what are we to make of them sticking with Jesus even though that was one of the top half dozen most ordinary names known?
The full text of the 66 page article is available at the above link to the title Jesus the Healer.
The classicist was not a mythicist, but in the abstract to his article he did talk about the mutual benefits of closer interdisciplinary efforts between the Classics and Biblical Studies departments:
Abstract. This paper argues that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles contain sustained and substantial punning on the name of ‘Jesus’ as ‘healer’ and explores the implications for the following: the interpretation and appreciation of these texts, including the question of whether (if at all) they function as Classical texts and the consequences of an affirmative (however qualified): present-day Classicists should be able to ‘speak to them’ and they in turn should ‘respond’ to such Classical addresses, to the benefit not only of New Testament scholarship but also of Classicists, who at a stroke acquire five major new texts; the constituent traditions of these texts; the formation, teaching, mission, theology, and political ideology of the early Jesus movement, and its participation in a wider, public, partly textual, and political debate about the claims of Christianity; and the healing element of the historical Jesus’ ministry.
I won’t repeat the detail I covered in my earlier posts but will mention just a few items that hopefully will encourage interested readers to consult the originals. Moles points out the importance of puns in this context:
Much scholarship over the last four decades has demonstrated the importance of puns and name puns in Classical societies, cultures and literatures, including historiography and biography. (p. 125)
Moles discusses in some detail the significance and role of the god and hero Jason in Hellenistic Greek culture. Jason was a healer and a type of dying and rising (through the mouth of a serpent) god. Jesus is the Jewish equivalent the name Jason:
The Palestinian Jewish Jesus bore the very popular name ישוע (‘Joshua’), which means something like ‘Yahweh [or ‘Yah’—shortened form] saves’.45 The Jewish-Greek form of the name, found in the NT, is ‘Ιησούς, whence our ‘Jesus’. Bilingual and etymological puns on the meaning of ‘Joshua’/’Ιησούς as ‘Yahweh saves’, alike in the Gospels and Acts (as we shall see), and in the letters of Paul and of others in the NT, are clear and acknowledged in some of the more linguistically alert scholarship.46 But there is a crucial additional factor: Jews who bore the name ישוע and wanted a straight Greek equivalent chose ‘Ιάσων (Ionic form Ίησων, modern ‘Jason’): an equivalence attested in official and governmental contexts.47 This Greek name actually means ‘healer’ (~ ίάομaι) and readily produces etymological puns.48 Jews who adopted Greek names generally tried to adopt ones nearest in form and meaning to the original. So not only do Ιησούς, the Greek-Jewish form of ‘Joshua’ and the name of a renowned Jewish ‘healer’, and ‘Ιάσων, the Greek form of ‘Ιησούς/’Joshua’ and a name which actually means ‘healer’, look similar and mean similar things: from a Hellenistic Jewish perspective, they are actually the same name, as any Jew with a modicum of Greek would have known.49 For us it is of course completely immaterial in this sort of context whether they are actually the same name.
Not only was ‘healing’ by ,Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period.50 Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer Jos.
. . . . Not only was ‘healing’ by ‘Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period. Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer . . . The Essenes—frequent comparators of Jesus in modern scholarship—were celebrated as healers . . . , which their very name may mean. While ‘Therapeutae’, the name of the Egyptian Jewish women philosophers, probably means ‘attendants’, both the Jewish Philo . . . and the Christian Eusebius . . . readily connect it with ‘healing’ (which the Therapeutai certainly practised). A few years after Jesus, the Galilaean charismatic Hanina ben Dosa performed similar healings to Jesus’. The Qumran community . . . expected an ‘anointed one’ who would ‘restore sight to the blind, straighten the bent …, heal the wounded, and give life to the dead’ . . . The ‘healing’ of ‘Ιησούς is thus writ all the larger, because he was certainly the greatest Jewish ‘healer’ of the time, and because from the Christian point of view, from the very beginning, and ever afterwards, he was the greatest healer of any race or culture at any time.
There are also wider considerations. . . . (p. 127)
There is an inevitable link between the concepts of saving and healing, and Moles has much to say about the two names together. Example,
[Jason] derives from the pagan goddess of healing who is called Ίάσω (Ίήσω in Ionic) . . . Thus on the Greek side Ίάσων is a human name derived from a god’s: a theophoric name, just as on the Jewish side side ישוע is a human name derived from ‘Yahweh’. Furthermore, for the early Christians, this [Jesus] is in some sense, and to some degree, himself a divine figure. There is also a simple matter of sound. Ιησούς, Ίάσων and Ίάσω not only look very similar: they sound very similar. And the sound of names is very important. There is also a matter of extended meaning. There can be important links between ‘saving’, the basic meaning of ‘Joshua’, undeniably punned on in the NT, and ‘healing’, both at the levels of divine and qausi-divine and alike in medical, religious/social and political contexts. Given these links and the sound factor, one even wonders whether the many Greek speakers who knew that the Jewish god was denoted by ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yah’ could also ‘hear’ both Ίη/σούς and Ίά/σων as ‘Yah saves’ directly, because -σοΰς and – σων could evoke σώζω and σώς, and whether bilingual speakers could even regard the Greek σώζω and the Hebrew verb as cognates.” (pp. 128-9)
I cannot set out all the detail here. Read the article. Except just one more, a gospel read through a classicist’s eyes:
Many Classicists nowadays, I think, would already feel that Mark’s dramatic and emphatic foregrounding of Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is underpinned by the very name of Jesus, which seems to be deployed both strategically (1.1, 9, 14, 17) and locally (1.24–5; 2.5, 8) in a telling way. The logic would be that the combination of Jesus’ much-repeated name, which means ‘healer’, with the lexicon of ‘tending’ and ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ effects ‘punning by synonym’, a process further helped by the intrinsic importance attached to names (both of exorcist and demon) in exorcisms, whether Jewish or pagan. Certainly, in Mark, as in the others, use of Jesus’ name increases—sometimes dramatically—in healing contexts. By comparison with Classical texts (with which, as we have seen, Mark has some affinities), such punning would be quite elementary, naive even, by comparison with a text such as Pindar’s Fourth Pythian, which puns in subtle and allusive ways on ‘Jason’ as ‘healer’.
As your humble custodian and dishwasher, I would like you to know that we’ve implemented some updates here. The biggest change you’ll notice is that we’ve switched over to https/ssl for everything. So, if you noticed some glitches in the past 24 hours, that was most likely us, banging around in the kitchen.
Please let me know if you come across any problems. You can respond here (below), on Facebook, or via email (widowfield at gmail dot com).
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 above quotation is from page 16 of Daniel Gullotta’s 37 page review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus [OHJ].
To make such a comparison one would expect the author to be familiar with how the Bayes’ rule is used by both Carrier and Swinburne. Unfortunately Gullotta nowhere indicates that he consulted the prequel to OHJ, Proving History, in which Carrier explained Bayes on a “for dummies” level and which was referenced repeatedly in OHJ. Gullotta moreover indicated that he found all of the Bayesian references in OHJ way over his head — even though the numbers used were nothing more than statements of probability of evidence leaning one way or the other, such as when we say there is a 50-50 chance of rain or we are 90% sure we know who’s been pinching our coffee at work. Robert M. Price has expressed similar mathemaphobia so Gullotta is not alone.
Anyway, we have a right to expect that the reviewer is familiar with the way Bayes is used in at least one of the works he is comparing, and since he skipped the Bayesian discussion in OHJ he is presumably aware of how Swinburne used Bayes to effectively prove the resurrection of Jesus.
Bayes’ theorem is about bringing to bear all background knowledge and evidence for a particular hypothesis, assessing it against alternative hypotheses, and updating one’s assessments in the light of new information as it comes along.
Anyway, scholars who ought to know better have indicated that they can safely dismiss Bayes because Richard Swinburne used it to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Never mind that that’s like saying we should never use syllogisms in argument because some joker used one to prove everything with two legs was a man.
So let’s see exactly how Swinburne used a tool that some of the smartest people in the world use for all sorts of good things in order to prove Jesus is alive today and about to come and judge us all.
Bayes works with facts. Hard data. Real evidence. Stuff.
For Swinburne, anything in the Bible is a definite fact that requires us to believe it if there is nothing else in the Bible to contradict it. That’s the “hard data” that Swinburne feeds into his Bayesian equation!
Notice some of Swinburne’s gems found in The Resurrection of God Incarnate (with my own bolding as usual):
Most of St Paul’s epistles are totally reliable historical sources. The synoptic gospels are basically historical works, though they do sometimes seek to make theological points (especially in the Infancy narratives) by adding details to the historical account. St John’s Gospel is also basically reliable, at any rate on the later events of the story of Jesus . . . . (p 69)
I argued earlier that, in the absence of counter-evidence, apparent testimony should be taken as real testimony and so apparent historical claims as real historical claims. (p. 70)
It seems fairly clear that the main body of the Acts of the Apostles is intended to be taken as literal history. It reads like any other contemporary work of history, and the later parts (which contain no reports of anything miraculous) are so detailed and matter-of-fact as to have a diary-like quality to them. (p. 71)
Hence there is no justification for thinking that Mark is trying to do anything else than record history when he writes about these events . . . (p. 73)
I conclude that the three synoptic Gospels purport to be history (history of cosmic significance, but I repeat, history all the same). (p. 74)
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.
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.
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.) Continue reading “Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus“
Nicholas Covington of Hume’s Apprentice has collated lowlights of his discussions about Jesus mythicism with James McGrath and Larry Hurtado. He includes references to posts on the same topic by Jonathan Bernier, too.
Nicholas identifies the same circularities of argument and the same logical fallacies that characterize their points as I have also found in the past.
It’s funny how anti-mythicists nowadays spend more of their time wading into personal attacks on mythicists, extensive psychological speculations about why they hold the beliefs they do, non-stop reminders that all the “real scholars” believe it, but ancient evidence and its interpretation is practically an afterthought. Moreover, this whole accusation is largely false, I personally do not use this as an argument against Christianity: I have debated the resurrection without suggesting Jesus was mythical and written a chapter in my book Atheism and Naturalism refuting common apologetical arguments without once mentioning the Christ myth theory except to make clear that my arguments did not assume it was true. neither do any of the more prominent scholarly mythicists. Thomas Brodie sure doesn’t, neither does Robert M. Price (“There could be a god but no Jesus or a Jesus but no God” and sees his own views on the mythological origins of Christianity as a “working hypothesis” or a “speculation,” with the qualification that “it’s all speculation,” in other words: he’s saying his thesis is at worst no more speculative than anyone else’s). Carrier himself routinely assumes Jesus was a historical figure when debating Christian apologists.
All power to Larry Hurtado, he kicked the beehive of crazy, amateur, angry conspiracy theorists who deny that the historical Jesus existed. Read his blog posts here and here, and the comments show just how inane, vapid, and vacuous Jesus mythicism is.
If you want to read a blogger going ape-shit, troll through Richard Carrier’s recent belligerent, intemperate response (here) to my posting in which I showed that his three claims that supposedly corroborate his “mythical Jesus” view are all incorrect. It’s really quite amusing, or maybe sad. . . .
All the above are the “Christian” scholars who claim the moral high ground over Richard Carrier’s known penchant for calling certain others “liars” and “lazy” and “bizarre”. You will say I am biased, but I honestly could not see most of what I read of Carrier’s posts as “intemperate”, “ape-shit” “rants”. I was reminded how easy it is to approach the work of a person we don’t like and imaginatively read into it a hostile tone that a more neutral person would simply fail to see. If you think I am bound to defend Carrier, then understand (1) that Carrier and I disagree on a number of points of argument, and (2) that I do feel uncomfortable with Carrier’s accusations of lying and other “language” against some of his critics.
I wish he would write the same way he talks in live debates in front of audiences.
In the past I know I have come to the brink of the same kind of accusation (of lying and blatant dishonesty) against one or two others. I wish I had the grace and skill of a Michael Goulder who could use humour to undercut the unprofessional responses of some of his critics, or of an Earl Doherty who could respond with a light-hearted fun-yet-serious article against bitter sarcasm that had been aimed at him.
The unfortunate reality is that once a person who is not in a position of power accuses another of lying then they put themselves on the defensive, no matter how powerful they momentarily feel for making the accusation. They become all-too-easy targets of those in power who feel no need to defend themselves.
Besides, even the worst of us rarely believe they are lying; or if deep-down they do, then they believe it is justifiable for the greater good.
I have come to think that it is better to do all one can in order to stick to a calm, reasoned, analytical response and let the readers draw their own conclusions, if necessary, about professional dishonesty. Let the facts speak for themselves, in other words.
I’d love Carrier and his supporters to take a step back and focus on regaining the moral high ground, the genuinely scholarly tone, even under the extreme provocations of unprofessional, childish, bitter, fearful and outrageously false attacks.
The scholars we recall with most admiration, often enough, are those who do manage to maintain their cool and respond professionally, even with humour, under extreme provocation.
I have no hope for the likes of the scholars I cited at the opening of this post. They evidently have most to lose and are reacting like fearful children. The onus is on the outsider to expose their unprofessionalism by example and humility.
On making reasonable assumptions and seeing where they take us
Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark was received as about an actual person? Is it reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Mark as written around the 70s or 80s CE, in your mind? What makes an assumption reasonable when it comes to the Gospel of Mark?
That’s not how valid historical inquiry works. Such a method can only produce speculative results. Not historical reconstruction.
According to the normative methods of dating documents the gospel of Mark could have been produced anywhere between 70 and 140 or even later CE. The only reason scholars prefer the earlier date is because of that mother of all assumptions, the presumption that the gospel’s narrative derives from a historical Jesus or events and they need/want the text to be as close as possible to that event so a proposed oral tradition chain does not lose too much in the process. And so the circle turns.
And that’s not even addressing the clear evidence that our form of the gospel is not what it was in the beginning.
What other historical inquiry works with “assumptions” that can never be corroborated from which they build their entire historical reconstruction? I suggest any that do are invalid.
Can you clarify your argument?
Is your argument that although 1st century CE Christians believed in a recently executed historical Jesus, we cannot tell if this Jesus really existed or not ? Or is your argument that we cannot tell whether 1st century CE Christians believed in a historical Jesus or not ?
I don’t argue for either. I leave behind any questions that arise directly or indirectly from the assumption that the fundamental plots of the gospel narratives or any of their narrative details are derived from real historical events. Such an assumption I find unsupportable given the absence of independent corroboration.
I think some biblical scholars work on the same principle: they study the Jesus in the gospels as a literary and theological figure. The question of historicity or otherwise simply does not arise. It is not a question that the sources enable us to explore.
Further, the question assumes the existence of a certain group (“Christians”) at a certain time (1st century CE) that I suggest are derived from the assumption of a historical background to the gospel narratives. What are “Christians” in the question? How are they defined? What is the evidence for them and for existing in the 1st century CE? I am not denying that there are reasonable answers to such questions. Just seeking my own clarification.
(Even if we are relying upon Paul’s letters, I am not sure that even those support the assumption that Paul and his followers belonged to a separate “Christian” group distinct from “Judaism”.)
The best I think we can say is that we have narratives about an executed Jesus (whether “recent” from the time of writing we cannot say with any confidence) and the historian needs to work with these, seeking to understand the nature of these narratives and explanations for their origins and the functions and influences they served. As for what certain people at certain times “believed”, that sounds to me like a very thorny question that will require a reliance upon more than the narratives themselves.
The letters of Paul are another set of documents that give rise to their own questions. The important thing, to me, is to study these questions without introducing traditional assumptions.
Is Matthew trying to squash rumours about the empty tomb?
Do you think Matthew 28:13-15 (if written in 1st CE) could be a actual response against the Jews of 1st CE who believed Jesus body was taken by his disciples after being crucified and thus evidence of historicity?
“Matthew” is writing a story. It’s a story. It could also be an actual response to Jews of the first century etc, but we would need to have independent evidence to support that interpretation. I don’t know how we can say that such a view (that it is an actual real-life response etc) is part of a historical record.
It is dangerous to use the Matthew narrative as evidence that Jews at the time were saying that Jesus’ body had been stolen. In fact, I don’t see how it can be justified by valid historical methods. Of itself, the story reads just like the ending of a Hans Christian Anderson tale that assures children that the shoes or some trinket can be found “to this very day” beneath a certain tree in a certain forest. It adds a teasing touch of verisimilitude.
It is just as reasonable to explain Matthew’s story of the bribery of soldiers as an attempt to tidy up a loose end in Mark’s narrative. And a far more parsimonious explanation that postulating all the variables that need to be introduced to support historicity.
Besides, what if the gospel were not even written until the mid-second century? Would there be such a concern for explaining away a historical event a century earlier? We simply don’t know when Matthew was written.
So am I a Jesus Mythicist?
My answer to that question is that I see no evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons so as far as I am concerned the question is irrelevant. We cannot assume that he did exist. And I don’t assume he existed. If I were to think there was such a historical person then I would need to be shown clear evidence comparable to the evidence we have for other known historical persons.
Merely trying to argue a point by apologetic proof-texting is not going to cut it. Historians don’t do simplistic proof-texting; at least not “real historians”. They evaluate the evidence, its provenance, its context, its agenda, before they draw conclusions from it.
We can only work with the evidence we have, and if the ultimate goal of New Testament studies is to understand the origins of Christianity, then the literary Jesus is all we have and the only one we can work with.
(The epithet “mythicist” has become too emotionally charged. Academically, though, there is no need. Many critical scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the gospels is surely literary and mythical. More biblical scholars are doing a new type of literary analysis on the gospels. It ought to be quite possible, at least in theory, for believers in a historical Jesus and for those who don’t believe there was a historical Jesus to discuss, argue, debate, explore and research the evidence together — as long as all are agreed that the evidence is the written documents we have and not some imaginary constructs that see the figures of the narrative take on a life of their own independent of those texts.)