Gullotta, Carrier and the point of the Rank-Raglan classification (Or, Can Carrier’s RR reference class be justified?)

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by Neil Godfrey

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

We finally arrive at the double-back-flip as Daniel Gullotta’s concluding word on his discussion of how wrong he believes it is to place Jesus in a Rank-Raglan scale.

Even if Jesus’ life merited a 20 out of 22 on the Rank-Raglan hero-type list (which it does not, as I have shown), this does not confirm his place amongst other mythological figures of antiquity. As the late folklorist Alan Dundes* pointed out, mythicists’ employment of this analysis does not have much to do with whether Jesus existed; it is merely an exercise in literary and psychoanalytic comparisons.124 The traditions of Jesus conforming to these legendary patterns does not negate his historicity any more than the legends connected with Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana denies theirs.

(Gullotta, p. 344 — * Dundes, as we saw in the previous post, argues that Jesus certainly fits 17 of Raglan’s 22 points)

And here we will address what I offered two posts ago: a discussion of the rationale or place of the archetypes in any discussion of the historicity of Jesus.

After having gone to such lengths to persuade readers that the use of the Rank-Raglan archetypes was an intellectually dishonest ploy by Carrier, that the archetypes did not fit Jesus anyway, Gullotta concludes all of that by agreeing with what Carrier said in the very first place when pointing out that they do not prove the historicity or nonhistoricity of Jesus! The problem with Gullotta’s conclusion, however, is that he in fact repeats what Carrier himself said without realizing he could have quoted Carrier to make his point (supposedly) against Carrier! Carrier writes at length about how historical persons do indeed fit elements in the Raglan list and accordingly argues a fortiori.

[I]f a real person can have the same elements associated with him, and in particular so many elements (and for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they actually occurred), then there should be many real persons on the list—as surely there are far more real persons than mythical ones.

Therefore, whether fitting more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria was always a product of chance coincidence or the product of causal influence, either way we can still conclude that it would be very unusual for any historical person to fit more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria—because if it were not unusual, then many historical persons would have done so.

(Carrier, pp. 231f)

Appeal is sometimes made to a satirical essay by Francis Lee Utley, Lincoln Wasn’t There, Or, Lord Raglan’s Hero, as evidence that Raglan’s archetypes have no value at all in assessing historicity. What is not always realized by those who point to Utley, however, is that he was writing satire and to make his case work he had to bend the rationalizations beyond breaking point as can be seen by an apologist making use of Utley’s assertions. Alan Dundes comments on Utley’s essay (p. 190):

The significance of Utley’s essay is that it underscores the distinction between the individual and his biography with respect to historicity. The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents. Accordingly, if the life of Jesus conforms in any way with the standard hero pattern, this proves nothing one way or the other with respect to the historicity of Jesus.

Carrier might add, of and by itself it allows Jesus a one in three chance of being historical.

Carrier’s point is that it is very unusual (he says it has never happened) that a historical person scores as high as many obviously mythical persons, including Jesus, on the list. (Is it kosher at this point to turn the tables and ask if the reason Gullotta was so keen to limit the number of Raglan’s points against Jesus to as few as four was to use the list to argue for Jesus’ historicity?)

And that means we can put that specific data (the Rank-Raglan-assigning data) in our background knowledge and see what it gets as an expected frequency: how often are people in that class historical vs. ahistorical? Because, given the fact that Jesus belongs to that class, the prior probability that Jesus is historical has to be the same as the prior probability that anyone we draw at random from that class is historical.

(Carrier, p. 239)

What is Carrier’s final argument, then? It may surprise Gullotta to learn that Carrier, in arguing a fortiori, was prepared to accept that chances of Jesus being historical even though a high scorer on the Raglan list was one in three.

Again, even if we started from a neutral prior of 50% and walked our way through ‘all persons claimed to be historical’ to ‘all persons who became Rank-Raglan heroes’, we’d end up again with that same probability of 1 in 3. For example, if again there were 5,000 historical persons and 1,000 mythical persons, the prior probability of being historical would be 5/6; and of not being historical, 1/6. But if there are 10 mythical men in the Rank-Raglan class and 5 historical men (the four we are granting, plus one more, who may or may not be Jesus), then the probability of being in that class given that someone was historical would be 5/5000, which is 1/1000; and the probability given that they were mythical would be 10/1000, which is 1/100. This gives us a final probability of 1/3, hence 33%. No matter how you chew on it, no matter what numbers you put in, with these ratios you always end up with the same prior probability that Jesus was an actual historical man: just 33% at best.

(Carrier, pp. 243f)

That is, Carrier is willing to concede for the sake of argument that a high number of the Raglan archetypes can be found to apply to many historical persons as well as many more mythical ones, one in three.

Given Gullotta’s insistence that Jesus fell short of even half the Raglan elements I suspect he would not be willing to argue that a third of all those we could find in the high end of the Raglan types would be historical. (One wonders if Gullotta’s criticism might have taken better turn if there was no prior animus against mythicism or presumption that any mythicist argument is by nature flawed in both motives and methods.)

So what is the point?

Is there any validity to using a twenty-two point Raglan scale or anything comparable in the first place? Should Carrier not have placed Jesus in a Rank-Raglan reference class to begin with? Continue reading “Gullotta, Carrier and the point of the Rank-Raglan classification (Or, Can Carrier’s RR reference class be justified?)”