Over at the Freethought Blog Ghetto, Atheist blogger and part-time Jesus-denier Richard Carrier has recently been applauded by atheist blogger and full-time loudmouth P Z Myers for “coldcocking” New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. This suggests that the sewer of internet-facilitated nastiness that exists, among other places, in the US Congress is also fully flowing into what used to be called academic discussion.
Except this isn’t discussion and it certainly isn’t academic.
The reason for the cheering? Professor Ehrman had the audacity to suggest that Jesus actually existed.
For those of you not paying attention, the New Atheism has a new postulate: Not only does God not exist but Jesus didn’t exist either. It is a theory that zips past Planet America every fifty years or so, like a comet, then fades away until a new generation of nutters tries to resuscitate it. Lucky us: We are living at the right time.
Just to give you the flavor of the discussion—header: Richard Carrier Coldcocks Bart Ehrman
This is great: Richard Carrier Blogs totally destroys Bart Ehrman’s argument for the reality of a historical Jesus. Jesus is a legend, like King Arthur or Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. There may have been some individual in the past who inspired the stories, but he’s not part of the historical record, and the tall tales built around him almost certainly bear little resemblance to the long-lost reality. It’s simply bad history to invent rationalizations for an undocumented mystery figure from the distant past.
I’ll make a deal with PZ Myers: I don’t try to lecture him on grasshoppers and he doesn’t lecture anybody on Jesus and “bad history.” I can’t quite imagine that the combined religion faculties at Harvard, Claremont and Tuebingen are awaiting further instruction on Bayes Theorem from Richard Carrier or packing up their offices, having been served notice that an associate professor of biology at the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota has discovered that Jesus is just like Robin Hood—and Paul Bunyan. I know it gives the mythtics a rush to think that the scholarly establishment discourages revolutionary ideas but in fact it is designed to discourage error and non-revolutionary discredited ideas. Like these.
On the other hand, this had to happen: the coalescence of God deniers and Jesus deniers I mean. After all, if God is a “story,” like Robin Hood and King Arthur then it stands to reason (inarguable Carrier might say) that a story about a god’s son is just a myth—EZ, PZ. But more to the point, the endorsement of amateurs by amateurs is becoming a rampant, annoying and distressing problem for biblical scholarship—one that apparently others in my discipline think will go away by assuming, as I do not, that saner heads will prevail. We can just ignore the provocative ignorance of Myers, Jerry Coyne, Neil Godfrey, and Richard Carrier et al. like so many mosquitoes.
Except mosquitoes are tough to ignore, and some carry Dengue and Malaria. If the last two years has proved anything, it is that the spawn of the new atheist movement, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, will not be ignored. Insult works. Spew works. Faitheist baiting works. What works works.
The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study.
When you reach the conclusion that Jesus did not exist before you start your journey, everything falls neatly into place: after all, the ancient world is populated with gods and every god has his myth. And as the new atheists have so deftly shown (though without footnotes) the fact that none of these gods has ever existed, increases the probability that the one in the Bible has to go too. Jesus is in the Bible, isn’t he? He has to go. Covers shut, case closed. Now all we have to do is “cold- cock” scholars who think otherwise and jerry-rig new methods to make their work look like the baseless, faith strewn twaddle it really is.
It is almost cruelty to begin picking on the methodological wowsers implied in the reasoning of the mythtics–the Jesus- deniers, who conflate God denying and Jesus denying as though they were on the same level of discussion and susceptible of the same kinds of proof.
Embarrassing–really–because these same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there. “Hermeneutics” for them is just a word theologians like to throw around to impress seminarians: how can it be useful in forming assumptions that lead to premises that force foregone conclusions? Like God-denying, Jesus-denying is tidy, simple and efficient.
In their own areas, it would be as though the supporters of flat earth theory and spontaneous generation were given equal time at the podium and a spotlight to scoff at astronomy and biology, but—the impoverished reasoning seems to run—this is Biblical studies—how serious do you have to be? “Atheist biblical studies” as it is represented by Carrier and company is nothing more than a conspiracy theory in search of respectability. Since that isn’t forthcoming through the normal channels of recognition—scholarship I mean—it has to rely on trivializing the settled or nearly-settled conclusions of modern scholarship itself, and if that doesn’t work, bashing the scholars. For some very strange reason, they like to quote Schweitzer. But Schweitzer famously refused to give up the historical Jesus. Prove me wrong and divide an extra hundred dollars. The likelier result is that I can prove to you that the mythtics don’t read complete verses in the texts they quote from.
The free thought rabble have chosen Carrier as their standard bearer, without any reason to put their trust in his inane conclusions and methods—a man who has never published a significant piece of biblical scholarship, never been peer reviewed (peers?), never been vetted, and never held an academic position. His “reputation” depends on deflecting his mirror image of himself as a misunderstood, self-construed genius onto a few dozen equally maladroit followers. This billboard for poor method, we are now asked to believe by freethought’s bad boy, PZ Myers, has cold-cocked a senior New Testament scholar for saying something as reasonable as “Jesus existed.” Only in the age of instant misinformation and net-attack is this kind of idiocy possible. Only in the atheist universe where the major premise– “religion is a lie so the study of religion is a study of lying”—infects everything is this kind of lunacy possible. Unfortunately, we have Richard Dawkins to thank for the original formulation of that premise.
Carrier is committed to making up methods as he goes along and pretending that he has found an evidence-based way of approaching the biblical books. He is about to re-publish (he had vanity published it already) his “research” on this subject with Prometheus Books, and scores wait with bated breath for his results, though from what I have seen of it so far, he could have saved us all the trouble by simply telling us what we already knew: that the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and King Arthur are all figments of the teenage imagination and never really existed. If they had, presumably, they would have studied grasshoppers.
In any case, Carrier has had plenty of time to build up the suspense of this little drama: he blogs about himself, frolics at other sites that tout the fact that he has a PhD in ancient history, and disses the work of any one who disagrees with him, which leaves him both a very lonely and a very busy man.
Sticking to the main point however—the cold-cocking of Bart Ehrman: let me say straight off that Bart and I have a difference of opinion about many things. We disagree especially on the influence of Marcion (a second century “heretic”) on the shaping of the New Testament canon. I have always been ready to accept that I may not be right about Marcion, and other scholars have been gracious enough, including some very conservative ones, to say that although I am probably wrong there is a thin chance that I am right. In the push and tug of historical scholarship, you take what you can get if you can’t sell it for the price you ask. That is the way the game is played.
But Carrier’s challenge is not about “How the New Testament canon was shaped.” I suspect that prior question is of comparatively small interest to him as a meat and potatoes sensationalist. It is about a fundamental question that I and my critics have answered positively: While there is some very slight chance that Jesus did not exist, the evidence that he existed is sufficiently and cumulatively strong enough to defeat those doubts. To get around this evidence, you have to begin by excluding second- order questions which can be answered, and have been answered for a hundred years negatively– questions, which up until recently Carrier was focused on: Did Jesus rise from the dead or perform miracles? Was he born of a virgin, or at Bethlehem, or say all of the things ascribed to him? Then there is the perennially dull question that was laid to rest in the writings of the French triumvirs almost a century ago—Loisy, Goguel and Guignebert–who were not strangers to radical conclusions: where was the Nazareth that Jesus was supposed to be from?
The study of the gospels is often the study of the lacunae of ancient history: we know less than we would like to know to form a coherent picture of Jesus, and the sources for knowing as much as we know are not disinterested reporting but the writings of believers propagating a certain message about him. This is not new. This is not radical. This is where discussion starts.
By the same token we know more about Jesus than we know about a great many figures that we think existed, from far fewer sources—often from faint allusions in the work of only one ancient writer. Did Diogenes exist? Cincinnatus? Outside the gospels, Pontius Pilate is virtually unknown except for a reference in Tacitus and mentions in Philo and Josephus, if we discount the so-called Pilate stone
Does his central role in the gospel nullify these sources or corroborate them? Alexander the Great believed he was the son of Ammon; Plutarch believed that Alexander’s mother gave birth after being penetrated by divine lightening, and was seen in the embrace of a giant snake. In the gospels, Caiaphas and Augustus are also mentioned in the historical frame, and they are well known outside it; do we assume that they were merely added to a gospel as historical ornamentation, while names like Joseph of Arimathea and Simon of Cyrene, or the “Sons of Zebedee,” or James the Lord’s brother, are made up in the writer’s head? How would we justify that assumption? The difficulty of being certain should not lead to the conclusion that nothing can be known, and the fact is, we know a great deal more for certain, especially of his historical context, than we did a century or two centuries ago.
Given a literary tradition that begins with statements of belief from Paul and his associates rather than the tantalizingly difficult accounts called gospels, can we be sure of anything a gospel has to tell us about Jesus? These are all fair questions, and questions that New Testament scholars, including scholars like Bart Ehrman, have thought about for a long time.
You can cold -cock them if you want to, but they will still be there to haunt you.
This little rant (and it is a rant, I acknowledge and I do not apologize for it: somebody’s got to do it) will be followed next week by three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by me, the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher a specialist in Q-studies. We will attempt to show an impetuous amateur not only where he goes wrong, but why he should buy a map before starting his journey. Other replies will follow in course, and we invite Carrier, his fans, and anyone else interested in this discussion to respond to it at any stage along the way.