A comment by VinnyJH has led me to rethink and plan to add a paragraph to my recent post on Nazareth. Of course, Nazareth is a significant factor in the historical Jesus debate. True, it is not necessary for Nazareth to have been settled to support Richard Carrier’s “minimalist historical Jesus” figure that he uses in his hypothesis for the unlikelihood for the historicity of Jesus. But in the wider culture, it does have a very strong significance. Witness the tourist industry related to Nazareth, the holy sites historically preserved there, for starters. Even in mainstream scholarly circles, we can find the argument presented that the “criterion of embarrassment” “proves” the historical Jesus came from Nazareth. It is a prominent feature of mainstream historical Jesus scholarship that the authors of both the gospels of Matthew and Luke supposedly tied their narrative in knots just to work out a way to get Jesus from Bethlehem (where he had to be born to fulfill the messianic prophecy) to Nazareth (from where “oral tradition” was so insistent as the place he was known to come from). The same scholarship is very clear: it posits that the Nazareth association was so important in the wider knowledge about Jesus that the evangelists somehow felt compelled to write contradictory and convoluted narratives to explain how that “general knowledge” came about.
It is no wonder that some mainstream historical Jesus scholars choose to respond to René Salm’s research with insult than engage in an intellectually honest way with the evidence he has published.
In his review of the GRC eConference on the historicity of Jesus Richard Carrier wrote with respect to the claim that the town of Nazareth did not exist in the early first century CE
There is no good case to be made that Nazareth did not exist as a town in the early first century, nor would it at all matter (OHJ, index, “Nazareth”). All the arguments to this effect ignore contrary evidence (e.g. an inscription establishes Nazareth as one of the towns that took in priests after the destruction of the temple, which entail Nazareth had to be a well-developed town by then—indeed, not a hick village either, but a place a member of the temple elite would not be embarrassed to settle at) and derive from invalid arguments from silence (e.g. we simply have not excavated hardly any of the locality now identified as Nazareth and cannot even establish that that is the same town as anciently named—a problem also with Bethlehem, which Zindler also incorrectly said we could “prove” didn’t then exist). And continuing to insist on this unprovable makes mythicism look crank, not least because the town’s not existing would have no more to do with the historicity of Jesus than Bethlehem’s not existing would: every historicist agrees Jesus was never associated with Bethlehem outside scripturally-inspired fiction, so its not existing has zero effect on the probability Jesus existed. Jesus was clearly linked to Nazareth for the same scriptural reasons, which also means the town had to actually exist when the Gospel authors chose it as fulfilling a prophecy they themselves admitted did not actually mention it (e.g. Matthew says the prophecy was that the messiah would be a Nazorian, not a Nazarene—a fact obscured by over-meddling translations—so if they were inventing a town to match, it would have been Nazoria, not Nazareth: see Proving History, index, “Nazareth”). It’s unlikely some obscurely new village would be known to the authors of the Gospels so as to be employed this way.
I did not listen in on that conference but I expect that Frank Zindler would have referred to René Salm’s study of the scholarly publications on the archaeological excavations of Nazareth in his two books and on his webpage.
Carrier’s first sentence is a value judgment that I believe can be demonstrated to be based on ignorance or misunderstanding of the details of the arguments advanced in Salm’s work. Carrier’s second sentence is false and leads one to suspect that he has either never read or has forgotten what he read in Salm’s and another’s arguments.
The Inscription Best Left Unmentioned
The inscription that Carrier indicates as evidence of “a well-developed town by” the first century was in fact “discovered” under highly questionable circumstances by Jerry Vardaman, a person whom Carrier has elsewhere and in another context described in terms such as “insane”, “not to be trusted”, tainted with “chronic mental illness”, “madness”, “absurdity”, “weirdness”, “nonsense on stilts”, a maker of “profoundly absurd” and “fanatical assertions”, “[ranking] right up there with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.”
Likely agreement with Carrier’s assessment is found in a letter by a president of the American Society for Overseas Research (ASOR) that he wrote to an academic peer about his experience with Jerry Vardaman’s competence and character as witnessed on an archaeological dig:
Jerry Vardanian was an unmitigated disaster from start tofinish. Hence, we could not invite him back for solid training. He does not have the judgment, the temperament, nor the essential honesty andsolidity of personality that he could be trusted with any work in the NearEast on his own. . . .
Then, while the Director of Antiquities in Jordan, Awni Dajani, was on his death bed, the current Department of Antiquities, as well as the University of Jordan, believe it to be a fact that Jerry bribed Awni’s cousin, Rafiq Dajani, to get a permit to dig at Machaerus. . . . . .That expedition was, from every point of view, a disaster. In any event, when Jerry came back into the country to see about digging again, the Department of Antiquities issued orders to the police to arrest him at the airport. The only way he was rescued from arrest and having to stand trial was that the American ambassador went to bat for him and asked that the matter be settled quietly to prevent the scandal from appearing in the papers. Now, as though that were not enough, this man has the continental gall to start it again. . . .
. . . He simply cannot be trusted to do anything right, not even whenhe is watched every minute. He is as devious and as untrustworthy anambassador in the Near East as any man could possibly be.
Salm’s translation of Enrico Tuccinardi’s research into the authenticity of the Caesarea Inscription begins here. Salm’s fuller discussion of the circumstances of the so-called discovery of that artefact begins here and the subsequent posts can be followed easily from this point.
One has to conclude that Carrier has forgotten or failed to read earlier work that René Salm tried to point out to him, including the publication by Enrico Tuccinardi.
Carrier’s cavalier swipe at the validity of the arguments on the basis that “we simply have not excavated hardly any of the locality now identified as Nazareth and cannot even establish that that is the same town as anciently named” ignores the arguments from the evidence that does exist. Even if the area Jesus happened to have grown up in is under a block of units and for that reason cannot be excavated, archaeologists can see what remains do exist in the surrounding areas and it is clear when nearby settlements were extant and when they were not. Settlements exist with surrounding farm areas, cemeteries, and other markers and it is the fact that we have evidence for these things at the wrong time.
The issue at hand is chronology, not location. The valley floor is now heavily built over and will in all likelihood never be excavated. This is convenient for those who claim a village there in the time of Christ, but it is untenable on several grounds. First of all, it is hardly likely that the village predated its tombs. The dozens of scattered tombs from Roman Nazareth that have been excavated on the hillsides all postdate 50 CE. This shows that the village did also. As was stated: “The earliest tomb at Nazareth is a significant clue regarding the existence of a village” (Chapter 4, p. 157). . . . . (Salm, Myth, p. 289)
And as for not addressing counterarguments, Salm continues,
It is worthwhile to consider the various counter-arguments to the evidence, because the issue of Nazareth in the time of Jesus is so explosive. In the case of the putative Hellenistic tombs mentioned above, once such tombs are shown not to be on the hillside of the Nebi Sa‘in, then one might assert that they were elsewhere—perhaps on the valley floor itself. But this too makes little sense, and is a reversal of what one would expect: presumably, the ancient Jews were living on the steep and rocky hillside, and constructing their tombs on the flat valley floor! (p. 290)
And so forth. A full treatment would take several lengthy posts but René Salm has already set much of it out — apart from his books — on his website.
I will mention just one more support for Salm’s work. It is correspondence from one the archaeologist Hans-Peter Kuhnen. I have posted about that here.
The Fear of Being Called a Crank Factor
Another acerbic online critic who often makes sweeping claims that have a misleading appearance of sounding well-researched and knowledgeable is Tim O’Neill. O’Neill has made one of his motivations quite clear: mythicism will make atheists look like nutters. So he knee-jerks and kicks mythicism whenever he can, usually from a position that is only partially informed. I fear that it looks as though Carrier may be a victim of a similar fear when he complains that arguments against the existence of Nazareth make mythicists look like cranks.
So let’s take a sober look at what is at stake here.
Is the Nazareth Question Important?
Postscript, 2nd Oct 2021:
Of course, Nazareth is a significant factor in the historical Jesus debate. True, it is not necessary for Nazareth to have been settled to support Richard Carrier’s “minimalist historical Jesus” figure that he uses in his hypothesis for the unlikelihood for the historicity of Jesus. Many of us see its irrelevance from such an intellectual perspective. But in the wider culture, or in “the real world” we might say, it does have a very strong significance. Witness the tourist industry related to Nazareth, the holy sites historically preserved there over the centuries, for starters. Even in mainstream scholarly circles, we can find the argument presented that the “criterion of embarrassment” “proves” the historical Jesus came from Nazareth. It is a prominent feature of mainstream historical Jesus scholarship that the authors of both the gospels of Matthew and Luke supposedly tied their narrative in knots just to work out a way to get Jesus from Bethlehem (where he had to be born to fulfill the messianic prophecy) to Nazareth (from where “oral tradition” was so insistent as the place he was known to come from). The same scholarship is very clear: it posits that the Nazareth association was so important in the wider knowledge about Jesus that the evangelists somehow felt compelled to write contradictory and convoluted narratives to explain how that “general knowledge” came about.
It is no wonder that some mainstream historical Jesus scholars choose to respond to René Salm’s research with insult than engage in an intellectually honest way with the evidence he has published.
Is any knowledge important? Is any research into learning more about our world and our history important?
If Nazareth was not a town at the time of Jesus’ upbringing then legitimate and productive questions must arise. If the gospels speak of Nazareth, presumably their authors wrote at a time when the village existed and presumably that must be some considerable time after the setting of the events they narrate, most reasonably well after 70 CE. If Nazareth did not exist then it strengthens any argument that Jesus was originally known by an epithet that was not related to the town and refutes the view that some continue to hold that Jesus was known by his place of early residence. What were the origins of the revival of settlement at Nazareth some time after 50 CE, what were the general conditions of the time, what was happening in that region?…. all of this information would be potentially significant for any investigation into the period leading up to the Bar Kochba war and final destruction of Jerusalem.
Carrier cites his works On the Historicity of Jesus and Proving History for further discussion but a quick re-scan tells me that neither of these references go much beyond saying that the existence of Nazareth is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus. Of course, it is fallacious to argue if Nazareth didn’t exist then Jesus didn’t either. But its nonexistence certainly raises questions about when the gospels were written and how and when Jesus came to be associated with that town. Yes, Matthew twists a prophecy to make Nazareth seem the logical place for Jesus’ early years, so presumably Matthew knew of the town, and presumably he believed it to be long-established by his time, so presumably he was writing as late as…..? The answer to that question has major consequences in any reconstruction of Christian origins.
That opponents of the view that Nazareth did not exist (and I am thinking here more broadly than Carrier) react with such vitriol against the thesis and against René Salm personally, with misrepresentation and worse, suggests to me that the question of Nazareth is most certainly very important in many quarters. So much so that tactics that go beyond mere intellectual tools of honest inquiry are brought to bear in the “debate”.
Salm, René. The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press, 2008.
I like the above work better for its consistently academic style but the one below is of course more complete with updated material. In the 2008 work, Salm discussed the Caesarea Inscription demonstrating its irrelevance to the main thrust of his thesis despite some views at the time that it verified a settlement at Nazareth in Jesus’ time. It was only after Enrico Tuccinardi alerted him to the character of the “discoverer” of the inscription that Salm eventually came to the same conclusion that it was a forgery.
Salm, René J. Nazarethgate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press, 2015.
Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW
[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]
In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.
The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:
“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith
I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.
So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?
Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:
When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)
These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?
Let me state at the outset here that I fully understand the actual merits of Simon Gathercole’s recent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus do not matter. Its mere existence suffices for the task at hand. In other words, it is not necessary for mainstream scholarship to demonstrate that Paul’s writings prove the existence of the historical Jesus; it is only necessary to assert it.
We saw the same sort of effect back in 2017 after Gullotta’s swing-and-a-miss treatment of Carrier’s magnum opus. For example, Gathercole writes, with no hint of irony:
One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (Gathercole 2018, p. 185)
Do you believe?!
Despite the laughably bad anti-mythicist works offered by Casey and Ehrman, both scholars got a pass from their friends, colleagues, and sycophants. More than a pass, really, since both enjoyed backslaps and cheers for participating. They showed up and wrote down some words, by golly. It’s the Tinkerbell Effect in full bloom. Biblical scholars can claim they have refuted mythicism in all its forms as long as enough of them clap their hands and shout, “I believe! Oh, I do believe in the historical Jesus!”
So what I have to say here will make no difference in the big picture, but I suppose somebody, somewhere, should say something, before Gathercole’s article inevitably takes its rightful place among “solid refutations” future scholars will point to.
If we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus?
At the start of the new year, I started reading a book by Judea Pearl called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to counterfactuals (see Chapter 8 — Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been). I had already read Gathercole’s article before that, and it rang a bell. Hadn’t he said something about counterfactuals? Yes, he did.
This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone. . . . The only exception is that the New Testament is occasionally used as evidence for Greek idiom. Otherwise, the letters of Paul are not interpreted in the light of, or even in tandem with, the Gospels, but are taken as far as is possible only against the backdrop of non-Christian sources. (Gathercole 2018, p. 187, bold emphasis mine throughout)
I confess I’d forgotten this tidbit, possibly because in the paragraphs that followed he appeared to be taking up arms against docetism rather than mythicism. Or perhaps Gathercole’s supposed commitment to the counterfactual approach had slipped my mind, just as it had clearly slipped his.
I have from time to time tried to imagine what our conception of early Christianity would look like if we had, say, only the Gospel of Mark or only the Gospel of John. Gathercole’s basic idea makes sense — if we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus? What are some things we wouldn’t know for certain or, perhaps, at all? Let’s take a look. Continue reading “Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History”
The author of the third gospel tells the well-loved post-crucifixion story of two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Along the way they meet a stranger (Jesus, incognito) who asks them what’s going on.
One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” (Luke 24:18, NASB)
Here, Cleopas (Κλεόπας) makes his first and only appearance in the canonical gospels, unless you believe the character named Clopas in John’s gospel is the same person.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25, KJV)
Notice that the Authorized Version manages to hide the fact that the underlying Greek contains a different name. The Textus Receptus says κλωπα, but the KJV translators have pre-harmonized John with Luke, a fact the lay reader would scarcely suspect.
(From this point forward, I’ll use the modern transliteration for Kleopas and Klopas.)
Some have even argued that Alphaeus, Klopas, and Kleopas are all the same person, but you would have to dive pretty deeply into the upside-down world of the apologists to believe that. Harmonization here, given the scant information we have about the name and the characters portrayed in the gospels, is unwarranted.
We might even suspect that Luke invented the name, given the lack of attestation to it in contemporary literature and the uncertainty surrounding its etymology. Some authorities have presented the argument, not without merit, that Kleopas is short for Kleopatros, the masculine form of Kleopatra, a name that means something like “glory of the father.” As an example, they note that the nickname of Herod Antipater was “Antipas.” On the other hand, several authors have claimed that the names Kleopas and Klopas both come from the same Aramaic source, which seems possible, but tough to prove.
Being called Antipater or Antipas was not intended as an insult.
(the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns)
(when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way)
(the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing)
(the higher the number, the more positive the tone)
Unfortunately when one reads McGrath’s Two Truths post one soon sees that his very positive tone (over 92% positive) is in fact an indication of overconfidence with the straw-man take-down.
But but but….. Please, Richard, please, please, please! Don’t fall into McGrath’s trap. Sure he sets up a straw man and says all sorts of fallacious things but he also surely loves it when he riles you. It puts him on the moral high ground (at least with respect to appearances, and in the real world, despite all our wishes it were otherwise, appearances do seriously count).
But see how McGrath then followed with a lower tone — and that’s how it so easily can go in any debate on mythicism with a scholar who has more than an academic interest in the question.
Ditto for anger.
This variable was measured by the following words:
Clearly a more thorough and serious analysis would need to sort words like “argument” between their hostile and academic uses.
Analytic thinking style
James McGrath began the discussion in a style that conveyed a serious analytical analysis of Carrier’s argument. Of course anyone who has read Carrier’s works knows McGrath’s target was a straw man and not the actual argument Carrier makes at all. (Interestingly when Carrier pointed out that it appeared McGrath had not read his actual arguments McGrath at best made inferences that he had read Carrier’s books but fell short of saying that he had actually read them or any of the pages where Carrier in fact argued the very opposite of what McGrath believed he had.) Nonetheless, McGrath’s opening gambit conveyed a positive approach for anyone unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments.
But look what happened to McGrath’s analytical style after meeting Carrier’s less analytical style: he followed Carrier’s lead.
Carrier has chosen to write in natural language style which is fine for informal conversation but the first impression of an outsider unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments would probably be that McGrath was the more serious analyst of the question. (I understand why Carrier writes this way but an overly casual style, I suspect, would appeal more to the friendly converted (who are happy to listen rather than actively share the reasoning process) than an outsider being introduced to the ideas.
In actual fact, Carrier uses far more words that do indeed point to analytic thinking than does McGrath. Carrier uses cognitive process words significantly more frequently than does McGrath (24% to 16%/19%). But his sentences are far less complex and shorter.
There are many other little datasets that a full LIWC analysis reveals. One is a comparative use of the personal singular pronoun. A frequent use of “I” can indicate a self-awareness as one speaks and this can sometimes be a measure of some lack of confidence. Certainly the avoidance of “I” is often a measure of the opposite, of strong confidence and serious engagement in the task at hand. Carrier’s use of I is significantly less than McGrath’s.
Another progression one sees is the use of “he”. As the debate progressed it became increasingly focused on what “he” said: e.g. McGrath1: 0.45%; Carrier 1.65%; McGrath2 2.06%.
McGrath sometimes complains about the length of Carrier’s posts. But more words are linked to cognitive complexity and honesty.
Of course I could not resist comparing my own side-line contribution:
Have we, after all, been making too much of Galatians 4:4? That’s the question I keep asking myself. After much reflection, I believe yes, we have, but perhaps not for the reason you would expect.
In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” he writes:
Furthermore, while Paul does use the word γενόμενον [genómenon] (to be made/to become) [see: γίνομαι (ginomai)] instead of the typical γεννάω [gennáō] (to be born), γενόμενον does appear in relation to human births in other pieces of ancient literature, such as Plato’s Republic and Josephus’ Antiquities [of the Jews].61 It is also noteworthy that the similarly worded phrase ‘born of a woman’ is also found within the Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in other early Christian texts, each time indicating a human birth.62 With this convention in mind then, Paul’s expression, ‘born of a woman’, is fitting and certainly not exceptional. Thus, when Paul writes of Jesus’ coming into the world (Gal 4.4-6; cf. Phil 2.5-8; 2 Cor 8.9; Rom 8.3-4), it is apparent that it should be taken at face value to indicate Jesus being born like any other ordinary Jewish human being, that is, ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gullotta 2016, p. 329)
I have preserved Gullotta’s footnotes above, because we’re going to take a look at all of his references to see if his assertions hold up. We’ll see whether the phrase “born of a woman” is (1) fitting and (2) certainly not exceptional. Ultimately, we’ll try to determine the function of the phrase in its context in Galatians.
People on the Internet who like to style themselves as rational, worldly, and clever members of the intelligentsia enjoy poking fun at people for their irrational beliefs. The usual targets of their (our) jabs are fish in a barrel: creationism (young Earth and old Earth), homeopathy, climate-change denial, and so on.
We see, for example, groups of people dedicated to poking fun at those who are supposedly afraid of chemicals by calling water by its unfamiliar sciency name: dihydrogen monoxide. I’m not necessarily opposed to poking fun at people for their ignorance, but I can’t really support the DHMO thing, because it’s a one-joke wonder that’s too clever and far too satisfied with itself.
There’s a sociological reason why it provokes a smug smile, but not actual laughter. It breaks one of the few rules of comedy — punching up is funny; punching down is not. We should try not to make fun of people who cannot understand science (the dumb) while we’re justifiably ridiculing those who refuse to understand science (the deliberately ignorant) or who exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain (the malicious).
On social media rational people enjoy posting on subjects like the anti-vaccine movement and the rejection of anthropogenic global warming. And that’s good; these are threats to human survival. However, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years in which the proponents of the nuclear power industry have successfully made supporting “green nuclear energy” one of our merit badges.
Many conservatives reject the science of man-made climate change, just as many liberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which political group we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.
Do some liberals oppose nuclear power for unscientific, political reasons? Probably. Ignorance exists in all quarters. Some social liberals believe in healing crystals. Others may fear vaccines. Conservatives and liberals have irrational beliefs.
With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)
Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.
New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:
According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)
A narrow, precarious path
The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.
The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?
According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: Continue reading “Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?”
In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” we see a phenomenon common in nearly every apologetic debate, but comparatively rare in print: namely, the Gish Gallop. It works better in a live, oral/aural environment, of course, because the wave of information washes over and stuns the opposition, while on the other hand, it impresses supporters with its sheer volume of facts.
However, it loses its power on the page, since we all read at our own pace. We can pause. We can look away and reflect. I still, nevertheless, must offer Gullotta kudos on giving it the old college try. Here’s just a portion of a Daniel Dash:
In conjunction with the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion by Romans is depicted in every one of the earliest narrations of his death, one can also examine the reaction to early Christianity by Greco-Roman critics to see a widespread reception of Jesus as a crucified man. Lucian called Jesus a ‘crucified sophist’; Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’; Celsus depicts Jesus’ death as a ‘punishment seen by all’; and Marcus Cornelius Fronto scoffed at how Christians could ‘worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment’. One of the earliest visual representations of Jesus carved into a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome (ca. late second century CE), the Alexamenos graffito, is one of mockery, depicting the Christian Alexamenos paying homage to a naked figure on a cross with the head of a donkey, scrawled with the words: ‘Alexamenos, worship [your] God!’ (Gullotta 2017, p. 333, emphasis mine)
There’s even more after that; the paragraph continues. But slow down. Take a breath. The power of the Gish Gallop is its sudden rush of data points, so many that the listener will be lucky to recall any one of them once the flood has subsided. Bewildering the opponent adds to the mystique of the speaker. “He knows so much!” they whisper among themselves.
The weakness with the Daniel Dash is persistence. We can look away. We return to the page, and it remains. The Gallop is ephemeral, but the Dash hangs around. When I read the above passage, I immediately thought to myself, “Suetonius never wrote that.” I had the luxury of pausing in mid-dash. I could take time to think. I could even stop and shoot Neil an email. Continue reading “What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 3”
What is the probability (think Bayesian if you like) that any scholar, any author, any person, has nothing to say that is worth an honest response or engagement? How likely is it, really, that a person who holds a view that you strongly disagree with is also a person of such a bad character that you can never imagine in them a single redeeming quality?
Can you really know that a person who is arguing something you find detestable is also insincere, a hypocrite, driven by some pernicious secret motivation?
When you see a person you don’t like react or act in an uncivil or unprofessional or even dishonest manner, does it follow that everything that person is on record as doing and writing is also dishonest?
There’s another side to this question, too, of course. Someone once said to me that “mythicists must stick together”. I disagree. We all must be honest with each other and with those who we disagree with or engage with in any way at all.
A little while ago I posted that the debate between Hurtado and Carrier had become unpleasant. The unpleasantness went well beyond Hurtado and Carrier themselves. Several other scholars posted very nasty accusations, outright dirty insults, against both Carrier and anyone who went along with his ideas.
I said there are two sides to this question, but right now the fault is primarily on the side of those opposing Carrier. I find it very difficult to read a critical comment on Carrier’s book that does not at some point declare that they believe Carrier to be a liar or a hypocrite when he says something that might be construed as a positive point in favour of his motivations and interest in the debate. No evidence is required for the motivation imputed except the fact that what he said is not what we believe or want to believe to be true.
If Carrier makes an argument for a point that we believe is going too far or is ill-informed then it seems to give us licence to ignore all the rest of his arguments or to bracket them all as equally fallacious.
No-one has to like Carrier as a person. But I am sure we don’t seriously believe that everyone we dislike is simply bad in all their ways and in every fibre of their being, a total arsehole in every imaginable way and situated beyond the ability of any decent society to accept them. Yet that is the impression that one begins to gain when one reads of criticisms of Carrier’s work. It’s all bad, all of it, nothing good in it at all, every argument is either absurd and/or fundamentally motivated by deception.
I think when we get to that point about anyone’s work we ought to be honest with ourselves and admit we are being unreasonably hostile, unreasonably biased, or simply unfair.
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“