This is a summary of the current state of the debate after the mini blog war between myself and Bart Ehrman over his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, which attempted to argue against various scholars (both legitimate and crank) who have concluded, or at least suspect, that Jesus never really existed, but was an invention in myth, like Moses or King Arthur or Ned Ludd. Some of this exchange involved other people, or were tangential to Ehrman’s book. But I will give a state-of-play for everything.
In one case I have concluded I was too harsh. But in every other case my criticisms have stood without valid rebuttal. Most were simply ignored (and thus no rebuttal was even attempted). For others, attempts to rebut them have only generated increasingly ridiculous errors of facts and logic to waggle our head at. Which in the end has only made historicists look just like the hack mythicists they rightly critique. This is not the way to argue for the historicity of Jesus.
My relevant articles in this series to date are (in chronological order):
Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism (21 March 2012)
McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman (25 March 2012)
Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic (19 April 2012)
Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One) (27 April 2012)
Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round Two) (29 April 2012)
This debate began when Ehrman published an article for the Huffington Post that was a travesty of errors and inaccuracies, in an attempt to promote his book. I criticized that article in my first critique. Ehrman attempted a weak response to that, which I then addressed in Round One, but the only substantive response attempted was by James McGrath, which I addressed separately. These rebuttals met with no substantive reply from either of them.
Here is the breakdown of the points I made and their attempt to deal with them:
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the genetic fallacy (mythicists are critics of religion, therefore their conclusions about religion are false).
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• MCGRATH: Repeats the fallacy.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the no-true-Scotsman fallacy (no one is qualified to talk about this unless they have an extremely hyper-specific degree major and a specific kind of appointment at a university). In fact, myself, Robert Price, and Thomas Thompson are all more than adequately qualified to evaluate the evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus.
• EHRMAN: Ehrman doubles down and not only doesn’t concede the point but falsely impugns my credentials and makes absurd claims about how professional historians operate. As I observed of his response:
[He then] repeats his misrepresentation of my credentials, suggesting I don’t know the period in question, or the languages, or the documents or the literature on early Christianity. Which is all false. I am adequately trained in all of these. And it is disingenuous of Ehrman to assume Thompson is not, simply because he has a different specialty than Ehrman.
Ehrman then quote mines my review to argue I said something I didn’t (about Thomas Thompson’s credentials), and then attacks the thing I didn’t say, and ignores entirely the point I actually made. And then he makes completely ridiculous (and easily-refuted) claims about the publishing practices of modern historians in general.
• CARRIER: I then demonstrate he did all this.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: This should never have been an issue. It’s just a fallacious attempt to dismiss arguments and evidence with a lame deflection tactic. He just assumes expert historians and biblical scholars can’t have familiarized themselves with the ancient languages and documents pertaining to Christianity, and that scholars who lack university appointments can’t be experts. Neither is true, and it is shameful that he keeps using those arguments.
• EHRMAN: Complains that I (yes, I) am making this into a debate about professional competence.
• CARRIER: To which I wrote:
He also…alleg[es] I am making this into a pointless contest over who is the better scholar. Yet he is the one who made it about that. As we saw in his article about the Thompson affair (and as I showed regarding his HuffPo piece), he attacked my credentials and argued that he is qualified to discuss this issue and I am not (likewise Thompson and others). For him to now say he is not interested in this comparison is massively disingenuous. It’s his comparison, which he has pressed several times, and it was that that forced me to respond by pointing out that the facts seem to point to the reverse. For him to claim I am the one who brought this comparison up is simply absurd. All I did was take his own argument and defend it properly: instead of making fallacious and irrelevant points about the hyper-specifics of what degrees we have (as he did), I tested the comparison he himself started by actually looking at the quality of our work on this subject. A comparison in which he came out very badly.
I do not see this as a competition between us as to who is the better scholar, but as simply a matter of who to trust: someone who presents carefully researched, carefully worded, carefully reasoned work on this subject, with a minimum of mistakes (because as I’ve said, I make them, too), or someone who doesn’t.
And Ehrman simply doesn’t. Not in his article. Not in his book. Not in any of his replies.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a veiled ad baculum fallacy (his fellow colleagues had better not entertain the same ideas or people like him will make sure they will never be employed or taken seriously again).
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a fallacy of false analogy. Whether by bad wording or bad memory (it doesn’t matter, since the misinforming effect on readers is the same), Ehrman makes the factually false claim that Pontius Pilate is like Jesus in being a famous person having no contemporary references to him, yet we believe he exists.
Ehrman does not rest on this argument (that would be another fallacy), he merely uses it to deflect one weak argument for mythicism (the argument from silence), and he is correct in his conclusion (absence of evidence does not entail evidence of absence; and whether a valid argument from silence can be made against a mundanely historical Jesus is indeed debatable), but not his premise, which is factually false: we do have contemporary references to Pilate. In fact, very good ones: an inscription commissioned by Pilate himself, and a discussion of him by a living contemporary, Philo of Alexandria. Would that we had such things for Jesus. The debate would be over!
We also have secure, detailed references to Pilate within forty years of his life in a secular historian (Josephus), something we also do not have for Jesus (even if we accept the two dubious references to Jesus in that same author, neither of them is in his early work but one written decades later, after the Gospels were published, and neither of those two references is secure or detailed, but rather brief and mysterious). In short, we have better evidence for Pilate than we have for Jesus. By a lot. And indeed, the silence of Philo on both Jesus and Christianity entails the insignificance of both to leading Jews of the time, which entails the Gospels hugely exaggerate (read: mythologize) the story of Jesus even if he existed–two conclusions even historicists must accept.
• EHRMAN: Gets the facts right in the book. But still commits the fallacy of false analogy with them. And never responds to my critique on either point, nor issues a correction.
So on this point his article was just sloppily worded (since he clearly knew the truth, in detail), and thus he will have misled tens of thousands of readers, who will in turn repeat that misinformation to hundreds of thousands or millions more. But even in the book Ehrman still uses this as a bad example of the point he wants to make, which is that plenty of historical persons have evidence comparable to what we can claim to have for Jesus. That conclusion requires examples of historical persons who actually meet that condition, producing a valid analogy. Pilate simply doesn’t. And Ehrman has still never produced a valid analogous case. He has therefore rested his case on a fallacy of false analogy, even though there is no reason to (since he should be able to find genuinely analogous persons). This I chalk up to his being lazy.
[I won't attribute to Ehrman the sad legacy of McGrath's attempts to defend his man, but McGrath's attempt at a rebuttal here went like this:
• MCGRATH: Claims only government officials erected inscriptions.
• CARRIER: Calls bullshit.
• MCGRATH: Wisely pretends he never said that.
• MCGRATH: Claims Ehrman was only talking about native Latin-speaking Italians.
• CARRIER: Explains why that's stupid.
• MCGRATH: Wisely pretends he never said that, either.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a fallacy of equivocation (trading on the tenuously variable meanings of the word “have”). Ehrman falsely claims “we have numerous, independent accounts” of Jesus, and that all these sources are “in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic,” and “dated to within just a year or two of his life”; and he concludes, “historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.”
The last statement is indeed true: that would be pretty astounding. It’s just that the first statements are not true. We have no such sources. Ehrman knows this. So he is deliberately misleading the public with his choice of words. He is misrepresenting merely possible, and purely hypothetical sources (whose exact and complete content is unknown to us), as if they were sources we have, and as if we know those hypothetical sources were “numerous” and “independent” and “date within a few years of his life” (we do not know that at all). I then summarized several of the problems with relying on these “hypothetical” sources to prove Jesus really existed. Such evidence is simply not “astounding.” It is in fact deeply problematic. And it grossly misleads the public to say otherwise.
• OPHELIA BENSON: Confirms that Ehrman is almost as misleading about this in his book (What Ehrman Actually Says). He is there somewhat clearer (if you try hard and pay attention) that these sources he says we “have” don’t actually exist, and thus we don’t actually “have” them (see her further analysis in The Unseen and A Small Town Guy). But as she notes, the way he writes it, and given the way he leans on these non-existent sources, even in the book a reader can easily mistake him for saying they exist. He likewise maintains they date to within a few years of Jesus (because like any crank mythicist, Ehrman has magical knowledge about things like that), and that they are numerous and independent and written and in Aramaic–all claims that are not known to be true, however much scholars conjecture them. And again, we don’t have those sources. So we don’t actually know what was in them (even if they existed–and many respected scholars do doubt it).
• EHRMAN: No reply. (On his treatment of this same subject in his book, see below.)
• MCGRATH: Claims Ehrman’s poor wording doesn’t matter because experts will know what he meant and agree with it.
• CARRIER: Explains why that does matter: most of Ehrman’s readers aren’t experts (and will be grossly mislead); and experts don’t all agree that what he said is true (in fact there is significant and pervasive disagreement on whether the Gospels used sources at all, whether any of those sources were written, whether they were ever in Aramaic, whether they were composed in the 30s, or what they originally said).
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a straw man fallacy (or a red herring fallacy, depending on what you think he was trying to argue). He correctly declares the non-existence of a single mythic god narrative (before Christianity no one deity was born to a virgin mother and died as an atonement for sin and was raised from the dead) and thereby implies none of its elements existed in any pre-Christian mythic god narratives. That is false. Each of those elements exists in the narrative of one pre-Christian god or another (or something relevantly similar to each element did), and some are shared by several gods. That all three are not shared by any single god narrative is irrelevant.
Ehrman is thus either making a straw man argument (“mythicists who claim Jesus is a copy of a previous god narrative with all three elements are wrong, therefore all mythicists are wrong”) or a red herring argument (“the Jesus narrative is not a copy of a previous god narrative with all three elements, therefore it was not influenced by any other previous god narratives with similar elements”). In fact, when we look at the peculiar features of god and hero narratives surrounding pre-Christian Judaism and the parallel features within Judaism itself, and combine them, what we end up with is a demigod so much like that of Jesus that this cannot be a coincidence. As I wrote in my critique:
He is implausibly implying that it’s “just a coincidence” that in the midst of a fashion for dying-and-rising salvation gods with sin-cleansing baptisms, the Jews just happened to come up with the same exact idea without any influence at all from this going on all around them. That they “just happened” to come up with the idea of a virgin born son of god, when surrounded by virgin born sons of god, as if by total coincidence.
That’s simply not plausible. And it misinforms the public to conceal this fact from them.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Possibly by punting to Hoffmann, Ehrman thought he’d responded. Against which I argued that a reasonable person should conclude Hoffmann is an unreliable loony. You decide.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a fallacy of hasty generalization. He says “prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah,” as if there was no evidence that could dispute that, even though I have presented a lot of it–there is room for debate over it, but it is fallacious to pretend no debate exists: see The Dying Messiah Redux. But more importantly, we simply do not know what most of the dozens of Jewish sects of the time believed, and therefore such blanket statements about what “no Jews of any kind whatsoever” believed are already wholly fallacious. We simply don’t know that “no” Jews were thinking about a future dying-and-rising messiah. We therefore cannot rest any conclusions on such a premise.
Worse, what Ehrman attempts to argue from this premise is in fact self-refuting. I will quote my original remarks on that point:
His mistake here is two-fold, in fact, since it does not merely consist of a factually questionable assertion, and one that does not entail the conclusion he wants even if the assertion were true (since imagining a murdered messiah was possible for Jews, he cannot mean to argue Christians wouldn’t have invented it, when later [Talmudic] Jews clearly had no problem inventing one), but he leverages it into a whopper of a logical fallacy: a self-contradictory assertion. Ehrman says “the messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy” (certainly, that was the most common view; but it is a fallacy of hasty generalization to assume that that was the only view, especially since we don’t know what most of the dozens of Jewish sects there were believed about this: see Proving History, pp. 129-34). From this fallacious hasty generalization, Ehrman then concludes “anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”
Now, I want to pause for a moment and perform a brief logic test. Before reading on, read that last quotation again, and ask yourself if you can see why that conclusion can’t be correct. Why, in fact, what he is suggesting, what he predicts would happen on mythicism, is impossible.
Answer: the only kind of messiah figure you could invent would be one who wasn’t like that. Otherwise, everyone would notice no divine being had militarily liberated Israel and resurrected all the world’s dead. This means the probability of that evidence (“anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that”) on the hypothesis “someone made up a messiah” is exactly zero. In formal terms, by the Bayesian logic of evidence (which I explain in Proving History), this means P(~e|h.b) = 0, and since P(e|h.b) = 1 – P(~e|h.b), and 1 – 0 = 1, P(e|h.b) = 1, i.e. 100%. This means that if “someone made up a messiah” we can be absolutely certain he would look essentially just like Jesus Christ. A being no one noticed, who didn’t do anything publicly observable, yet still accomplished the messianic task, only spiritually (precisely the one way no one could produce any evidence against). In other words, a messiah whose accomplishments one could only “feel in one’s heart” (or see by revelation, as the Corinthian creed declares; or discover in scripture, as that same creed again declares, as well as Romans 16:25-26).
Ehrman thus also rests a wholly illogical argument on his original hasty generalization, a generalization he cannot prove true, and which some evidence suggests might be false.
• EHRMAN: No reply. (He only addresses some of the evidence for a dying-messiah expectation in his book; and then rests again on the same fallacy of false generalization. See my discussion below.)
• MCGRATH: Repeats the fallacy. Only changing the claim up from “no Jews expected a dying messiah” to “all Jews expected a conquering messiah,” unaware that these are not the same thing and do not entail each other.
• CARRIER: Points out the obvious: that Christians also expected a conquering messiah, and thus were not going against that trend anyway (they were sure their Davidic messiah was going to come and conquer the universe any day now…he just had to die first, to clean the world of sin and gain his celestial powers). Thus, McGrath’s revision of Ehrman’s argument ceases to be any kind of rebuttal to mythicism.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a fallacy of begging the question. He claims that Paul met “Jesus’ closest disciple Peter,” but that begs the very question, whether the Gospels are telling the truth or weaving a mythical account. If we do not beg that question, then we must admit that (a) Paul never once calls Peter a “disciple” (in fact, no such term appears anywhere in Paul’s letters–he never shows any knowledge of such a thing as there being a “disciple” of Jesus) and (b) Paul never mentions Peter being close to Jesus at all, much less the “closest” to him (other than being the first to receive revelations of Jesus: 1 Cor. 15:5). This is actually one of the many curious things about Paul’s epistles that suggests the Jesus myth theory is correct: Paul continually assumes only apostles exist, and that apostles are made apostles by having a revelation of Jesus. The idea that anyone actually saw him or spent time with him in the flesh is nowhere found in his letters.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman begs the question again (assuming the Gospels are not myth, in order to conclude that Paul is referring to facts reported in them). In his article Ehrman produced only one non-fallacious argument for the historicity of Jesus: that Paul at least appears to refer to having met his brother.
This I acknowledged (it’s really the only evidence that historicity has). But in the Huffington Post Ehrman never mentions the fact that it is a fundamental cornerstone of all Jesus myth theories to offer alternative explanations of this passage. He thus misrepresents the strength of his own position by ignoring (and not telling the public about) fundamental elements of the contrary position. By contrast, I pointed out:
Paul does not say “brother of Jesus,” but “brother of the Lord,” which can only be a cultic title (one does not become the brother of “the Lord” until the person in question is hailed “the Lord,” thus the phrase “brother of the Lord” is a creation of Christian ideology). Yes, he may have earned that cultic title by actually being the brother of Jesus. But he could also have earned it by simply being a baptized Christian. Since all baptized Christians were the adopted sons of God, just as Jesus was (Romans 1:3-4), Jesus was only “the first born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), which means all Christians were the brothers of the Lord…
[And] there are numerous passages in Paul that confirm this: Romans 8:15-29, 9:26; Galatians 3:26-29, 4:4-7; and Christians explicitly taught that Jesus himself called all of them his brothers in Hebrews 2:10-18, via a “secret message” in the Psalms (Psalms 22:22). They had obvious inspiration from what they regarded as scripture, the Psalms of Solomon 17:26-27, which Paul appears to reference, and which predicted that the messiah would gather a select people and designate them all the sons of god (and thereby, his brethren).
Debate can still proceed from there (for example, see my further remarks to McGrath), but it’s important not to straw man the opposition by leaving out key elements of their argument. Yet in his article, that’s exactly what Ehrman does.
• MCGRATH: Accuses me of burying the lead.
• CARRIER: I explain why that’s stupid.
• MCGRATH: Wisely pretends he never tried to argue that.
Debating the Book
The main problem with the book itself was the sheer number of errors, fallacies, and misleading statements that fill it. It is important to emphasize this: a handful of errors or fallacies would not condemn any book, as every book has a few, and a good book can more than compensate for that by being consistently useful, informative, and on-point in every other respect. But Ehrman’s book was so full of gaffes it is simply unsalvageable, and as I said, it resembles in this respect some of the worst Jesus myth literature, which I can’t recommend to people either, as it will misinform them far more than inform them. (Scholars can also correct their errors. If they are inclined to. Ehrman, so far, does not seem at all inclined to.)
I could not list all the errors, fallacies, and misleading statements I marked up in my copy of his book. There were hundreds of them, averaging at least one a page. This shocked me, because all his previous works were not like this. They are superb, and I still recommend them, especially Jesus Interrupted and Forged. Their errors are few, and well drowned out by their consistent utility and overall accuracy in conveying the mainstream consensus on the issues they address (Interrupted is an excellent primer to get anyone up to speed on where the field of New Testament Studies now stands, and Forged is an excellent summary of why that mainstream consensus accepts that many of the documents in the New Testament are forgeries, and why that was known to be deceitful even back then, despite attempts to claim the contrary).
But Did Jesus Exist? was a travesty. In my review I chose a representative selection of the worst mistakes, in order to illustrate the problem. Some readers took that as a complete list, and suggested those weren’t enough errors to condemn the book. Although they certainly are (not all of them, but many of them are damning and render the book useless at its one stated purpose), they are not a complete list, but just the tip of the iceberg, and that is the bigger problem. Those errors are examples of consistent trends throughout the book, of careless thinking, careless writing, and often careless research. Which means there are probably many more errors than I saw, because for much of the book I’m trusting him to tell me correctly what he found from careful research, but the rest of the book illustrates that I can’t trust him to correctly convey information or to have done careful research.
And that was the gist of my review. So when, here, I check the state-of-play of the specific criticisms I made, keep in mind that these were only representative examples of hundreds of other errors in the book.
I think I have an idea what happened, if reports are true that Ehrman has said he takes only two or three weeks to write a book: with the exception of Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (and a few related works), which summarizes many years of his own dedicated research (and thus is an excellent piece of scholarship, not aimed at laymen), all his books have been just summaries of “what he knows” from being a trained New Testament scholar (plus occasionally a small foray into specific independent research, as when he investigated the nature of forgery in the ancient world for Forged, which could have been completed in a couple of long days at a library). He is thus relying on field-established background knowledge. Which is fine when that’s what you are reporting on (as he usually does). But when you are going outside your field, you do need to do a bit more, and you do risk being wrong a bit more often (which is why it’s a good idea to field ideas in other venues before committing them to print: it gives you an opportunity to be corrected by experts first).
I had said it was his “incompetence in classics (e.g. knowledge of ancient culture and literature) and ancient history (e.g. understanding the methodology of the field and the background facts of the period) that trips him up several times,” and that now makes sense: he is fully competent to make up for not being a classicist or specialist in ancient history, by getting up to speed in what he needed (which for this task might have taken a year or more), but instead he just relied on “what he knows,” which was all just what he was told or has read in New Testament studies. Which isn’t enough. Disaster resulted.
With those general points understood, let’s look at the problems I specifically selected to discuss:
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits a straw man fallacy. This he does in two respects, one excusable and one not. Regarding the first I said:
Almost none of this 361 page book is a critique of the “bad” mythicists. He barely even mentions most of them. Indeed…for the few authors he spends any time discussing (mainly Murdock and Freke & Gandy), he is largely dismissive and careless (indeed, his only real refutation of them amounts to little more than nine pages, pp. 21-30). I was hoping for a well-researched refutation of these authors so I could recommend this book to students, so they could see what sound scholarship looks like and to correct the errors in their heads after reading authors like these. But this book simply doesn’t do that.
As I said, this I could live with. I sympathize with a disinterest in wasting the months of time it would take to fact-check and vet these terrible books and publish a comprehensive take-down of them. Although I would love such a book if anyone ever produced one, they have to do it right (actually do the fact-checking and make sure their criticisms are on point), and that takes a lot of work. And since his book’s professed aim is to defend historicity, he really only needed to deal with the serious rebuttals to it, not the cranks.
But he failed to do even that properly. As I said:
He treats our arguments only selectively, never comprehensively, and I never once saw him actually engage directly with any single mythicist case for their theory of Christian origins–as in, describing the theory correctly, listing the evidence its proponent offers for each element, and then evaluating that evidence and the logical connection between it and their conclusion. You won’t find this done once, anywhere in this book, for any author. He just cherry picks isolated claims and argues against them, often with minimal reference to the facts its proponent has claimed support it.
This alone almost condemns the book to the dustbin. I say almost because it would have been deeply flawed, but it could at least have had a lot of accurate and insightful analysis or well-researched information even when tearing down this straw man. But a straw man it is. And that is big error number one.
• EHRMAN: Gets completely wrong or ignores everything I actually said about this, and uses one of the most astonishing rhetorical tricks to avoid addressing an argument that I’ve ever seen.
• CARRIER: I point this out.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman makes a false statement in his attempt to demonstrate that mythicist D.M. Murdock is unreliable as a scholar; but instead ends up proving he is unreliable as a scholar. Regarding a particular statue that Murdock cites as evidence of one of her theories, Ehrman claims “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up,” clearly meaning the statue she referred to never existed but was made up (by her).
A correct statement would have been “the statue she refers to does exist, or once did, but it’s not a statue of Peter but of the pagan god Priapus, of which we have many examples; the notion that this one represents Peter comes only from the imagination of theorists like her.” But that is not what he said, or anything like it. It’s clear to me that Ehrman simply didn’t research this claim. He assumed that because she presented only a drawing of it, and the statue looked ridiculous, that she was making this up. The result: he makes a false claim that misinforms readers and establishes that he is not a reliable critic of D.M. Murdock’s work. And as I pointed out, if he couldn’t even be troubled to check facts like this, what else “didn’t he check” in this book?
• EHRMAN: Insists that’s not what he meant, and that he knew the statue existed all along, and that he was only saying in the book that it wasn’t a statue of Peter.
• CARRIER: I adduce considerable evidence that he is lying.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of poisoning the well by making a false claim about Earl Doherty that wrongly impugns his character and reliability as a scholar. Ehrman wrote that Earl Doherty “quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis,” which is simply false.
Doherty is in fact one of the most careful scholars in the Jesus myth field, and is honest about his use of sources and fully in line with the way good experts handle them. (That doesn’t mean Doherty is always right or never makes an error, but no expert is infallible, so I am not holding him or anyone to an impossible standard. What matters here is that Doherty does as good a job as any New Testament scholar. So attempting to make it seem otherwise is a tactic on the dark side of shady.)
I explained how this is a characteristic tactic employed by Ehrman throughout the book and not a one-off goof, and why this sort of thing downgrades the book’s utility to junk status.
• EHRMAN: Claims he didn’t do this.
• CARRIER: Proves he did.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman exposes how careless his research for this book was by horribly bungling his treatment of a key source. He discusses the one letter of Pliny the Younger that mentions Christ, but in a way that demonstrates he never actually read that letter, and misread the scholarship on it, and in result so badly misreports the facts that this section will certainly have to be completely rewritten if ever there is a second edition.
The error itself is not crucial to his overall thesis, but reveals the shockingly careless way he approached researching and writing this book as a whole. As I wrote:
Ehrman’s treatment of the sources and scholarship on this issue betray the kind of hackneyed mistakes and lack of understanding that he repeatedly criticizes the “bad” mythicists of (particularly his inability even to cite the letters properly and his strange assumption that both subjects are discussed in the same letter–mistakes I would only expect from an undergraduate). But if even historicists like Ehrman can’t do their research properly and get their facts right, and can’t even be bothered to read their own source materials or understand their context, why are we to trust the consensus of historicists any more than mythicists? And more particularly, how many other sources has Ehrman completely failed to read, cite, or understand properly?
• EHRMAN: Claims it was just a typo.
• CARRIER: I adduce considerable evidence that he is lying.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman makes a false claim about Pontius Pilate’s title (that he wasn’t a procurator but a prefect; in fact, he was both) and about the historical development of Roman government (that prefects of provincial districts were renamed procurators by the time of Tacitus; they weren’t, they still held both titles).
However, I now conclude I was much too harsh on him about this. This issue I realize is at such an advanced level even many historians of Rome don’t know it correctly, and the literature can be confusing to someone not carefully attending to it. This counts as the kind of obscure error that commonly happens and doesn’t impugn a book when it does. It needs to be corrected, but it’s not indicative of any great failure for having made it.
• EHRMAN: Cites a modern source saying it’s not an error.
• CARRIER: No, it’s still an error. For readers who want to know why, I have prepared a special document explaining the scholarship and evidence establishing the point: On the Dual Office of Procurator and Prefect. But again, I no longer think this mistake counts against Ehrman’s work in this book, since it is a mistake easy to make.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims that from antiquity “we simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other kinds of records that one has today” and is adamant not only that we have none, but that such records were never even kept, because he asks “if Romans kept such records, where are they? We certainly don’t have any.” In fact, we have lots of those things. I mean lots. (So in answer to Ehrman’s question, “Where are they?,” probably some are in his own university’s library.) But more importantly, Christians could have quoted or preserved such documents relating to Jesus or his disciples, as such documents certainly would have existed then. Thus a historian must explain why they did not.
A correct treatment of this issue would be to give reasons why Christians didn’t quote or preserve any of these records; not to claim that no such records existed or could have survived. That is simply false. What he said, therefore, suggests he didn’t even check whether his claim was true, and had no experience with ancient documents other than New Testament manuscripts, two marks against him that cast a shadow over the whole book. If this is how clueless and careless he is, again, what else is wrong in this book?
At the very least what he says in the book badly misinforms the public, and that not on a trivial matter, but on a crucial issue in the debate between historicists and mythicists. As I wrote originally:
We cannot claim the Christians were simultaneously very keen to preserve information about Jesus and his family and completely disinterested in preserving any information about Jesus and his family. An example is the letter of Claudius Lysias in Acts, which if based on a real letter has been doctored to remove all the expected data it would contain (such as the year it was written and Paul’s full Roman name), but if based on a real letter, why don’t we still have it? It makes no sense to say Christians had no interest in preserving such records. Moreover, if a Christian preserved this letter long enough for the author of Acts to have read it, why didn’t they preserve any other letters or government documents pertaining to the early church, just like this one?
I personally believe we can answer these questions (and thus I agree with Ehrman that this argument from silence is too weak to make a case out of), but not with this silly nonsense. A good book on historicity would have given us educationally informative, plausible, and thoughtfully considered answers and information about ancient documents and the total Christian failure to retain or use them. Instead Ehrman gives us hackneyed nonsense and disinformation.
And as in this case, so we can expect in all others. Therefore we simply cannot trust this book. It belongs in the dustbin.
• EHRMAN: Says a variety of confusing, fallacious or false things, in an attempt to simultaneously deny he said what he said and at the same time defend what he didn’t say.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims that no “trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome” have ever questioned the authenticity of the reference to Christ in Tacitus. In fact, some have, as I demonstrated (citing the survey articles of Benario). It is clear that Ehrman didn’t even bother to check. And if he didn’t bother to check this, what else “didn’t he bother to check”? It’s a serious question. Because given the many examples of this, it really looks like this book was a lazy armchair spinoff, and not a serious work of scholarship. And that also matters here specifically, because, as I wrote:
Part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.
Acting like that is not how to respond to mythicists.
• EHRMAN: Misrepresents everything I said about this.
• CARRIER: I call him on it.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman also argued that he “meant” that no current Tacitus scholar doubts the passage, but he gives no reason to believe that’s true (the latest articles against its authenticity have no known rebuttal, so we really don’t know if or how many experts share their opinion). But more importantly, it’s not a valid excuse, since by concealing the fact that several Tacitus experts have doubted its authenticity, the entire argument he makes is undermined.
In my subsequent research I encountered a new reason to question the authenticity of the passage in Tacitus, and so I went back and checked the standard text on evidences for Jesus (which Ehrman should have read cover-to-cover for his book), Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament, and I realized that he, too, documents serious scholars questioning the authenticity of the passage (pp. 42-43). I had forgotten about that. So Ehrman really has no excuse for either his ignorance on this fact or (as he now claims) his merely failing to mention it. For surely a scholar writing a book on historicity should have read Van Voorst, and should be honest about when mythicists can rely on actual published scholarship by Tacitean scholars.
Like Benario, Van Voorst mentions (most relevantly) C. Saumagne, “Tacite et saint Paul,” Revue Historique 232 (1964), pp. 67-110, and Jean Rougé, “L’incendie de Rome en 64 et l’incendie de Nicomédia en 303,” Mélanges d’histoire ancienne offerts à William Seston (1974), pp. 433-41. Van Voorst also argues (as have several other scholars, only some of whom he cites: pp. 43-44; Benario names others) that Tacitus originally wrote “Chrestians” and not “Christians,” which was corrected by medieval Christian scribes back to Christians (there is indeed some evidence of this).
I am increasingly convinced that Van Voorst (and his backers) might be right about that. Which creates a problem they overlook. If Tacitus originally wrote “Chrestians,” then it becomes possible he was originally writing about rioters who were following the Chrestus who had ginned up riots under Claudius (Nero’s predecessor) as reported by Suetonius (Claudius 25.4), and that later Christian scribes inserted only the line about Christ (that he was killed under Tiberius by Pilate), thus coopting a passage about a completely different group, turning it into a passage about Christians. So when Tacitus says the people punished for the fire are the ones “the public calls Chrestians,” he may have been referring to his treatment of the Chrestian riots under Claudius (which must have been covered in the lost books of Tacitus that covered Claudius’ reign from 41 to 47 A.D., as the date of the Chrestian riot could have fallen in that period, and it is indeed odd that Tacitus does not otherwise mention it: Van Voorst, pp. 31-32).
This makes the possibility of interpolation substantially more credible. This would also explain why no one else mentions this event (for centuries), and no other historians of Nero’s reign (like Pliny the Elder) were ever quoted or had their histories preserved (as we would normally expect if they had mentioned Christ or Christians–which fact supports the conclusion that they didn’t, which then entails Tacitus didn’t, unless he was repeating what was by then a Christian legend about the fire at Rome, about a persecution that never actually happened, and not anything actually recorded by historians contemporary with the fire).
In the end, I still think we cannot establish an interpolation has occurred here (even if one did), but it’s certainly more plausible than I had once thought. And it was always more plausible than Ehrman claimed.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events” (of the 30s A.D.) is “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all.” In fact, some of the sources that “deal with the matter” date the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to the 70s B.C., and this would be known to anyone who read up on the basic literature on the historicity debate (whether, again, Van Voorst, or the mythicists Ehrman claims to be rebutting on this point). Instead of mentioning this or discussing these sources (Epiphanius and the Talmud), Ehrman gives the impression that the mythicist G.A. Wells was just making this up. Again, this kind of sloppy treatment of the evidence and mythicist arguments is typical of Ehrman’s book; this is just one of the examples I chose to discuss.
• EHRMAN: Claims he didn’t mean “all” when he said “all” (and that he had his reasons for keeping quiet).
• CARRIER: Explains why that’s not a valid excuse.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims that Osiris “return[ing] to life on earth by being raised from the dead” is a fabrication because “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).” Note the hyperbole: no such thing about any gods. This is multiply false. Moreover, as I wrote:
He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false.
I cited abundant evidence that his claim is false: many dying-and-rising gods predate Christianity. Many effected their deaths and resurrections in different ways (the differences being moot to the point that they nevertheless died and rose back to life), and some even “returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead” in essentially the same way Jesus did (who, after all, did not stay on earth any more than they did). Whether the one kind or the other, these gods include Osiris, Dionysus, Romulus, Hercules, Asclepius, Zalmoxis, Inanna, and Adonis-Tammuz.
• EHRMAN: Acts like a Christian apologist and invents hyper-specific definitions of “dying” and “rising” in order to claim that since no god meets his hyper-specific definition of those terms, therefore there were no dying-and-rising gods.
• CARRIER: I then demonstrate that there were indeed dying and rising gods even by his own hyper-specific definition, and the gods who don’t meet his hyper-specific definition are still sufficiently similar to the original beliefs of how Jesus died and rose to sustain mythicist arguments for cultural diffusion and syncretism (thus rendering his original argument moot, just as I originally said).
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims “we don’t have a single description in any source of any kind of baptism in the mystery religions” (note the hyperbole again). To which I quoted and cited several sources describing baptisms in the mystery religions.
I proved sin-remitting baptisms had long been a component of the Bacchic mysteries and were in some way a feature of Osiris cult as well, and were then known to be a component of several other mystery religions. As I concluded regarding Osiris:
One could perhaps get nitpicky as to what might be the exact theology of the process, but whatever the differences, the similarity remains: the death and resurrection of Osiris was clearly believed to make it possible for those ritually sharing in that death and resurrection through baptism to have their sins remitted. That belief predates Christianity. Ehrman is simply wrong to say otherwise. And the evidence for this is clear, indisputable, and mainstream. Which means his book is useless if you want to know the facts of this matter. Or any matter, apparently.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of hasty generalization (or the fallacy of argument from ignorance), claiming “there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought Isaiah 53 (or any other ‘suffering’ passages) referred to the future messiah.” I explained why this is a fallacy in several respects, among them the fact that he couldn’t possibly claim to know what all Jews thought, among all the dozens of divergent sects we know about. (As I explained above.)
Ehrman later makes that very point himself (that blanket assertions about what “no one thought” cannot be allowed, because we don’t know what everyone thought: Did Jesus Exist?, p. 193), and thus he contradicts himself by using a rule that, applied to himself, would destroy one of the central pillars of his whole thesis (Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 142-44), which is the fallacy of inconsistency (an implicit fallacy of special pleading). He also didn’t address the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (even though he knew I had proposed some) or the Talmud (which he also knew about).
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• THOM STARK: At least did what Ehrman didn’t: actually engaged with my argument and evidence, in a series of lengthy exchanges online. And he identified a number of errors in my treatment of the evidence.
• CARRIER: I corrected my errors and revised my analysis. But the conclusion came out the same. See my latest analysis of all the evidence in The Dying Messiah Redux. As even Stark agrees, and contrary to Ehrman, we cannot rule out the possibility of Jewish theologians having imagined a dying messiah before the rise of Christianity; and though Stark still disagrees with me, there is still a lot of evidence that there probably were some pre-Christian Jews who did.
• CARRIER: Ehrman neatly combines a no-true-Scotsman fallacy with a fallacy of poisoning the well, by (perhaps unintentionally) misrepresenting my credentials (saying my Ph.D. is in “classics” and not, as it is in fact, “history” with a specialization in ancient religion and historiography), thus making it seem as if I’m less qualified to discuss this subject than I am. As I pointed out, at the very least this demonstrates how carelessly he wrote this book, given (once again) how poorly he checked its facts.
• EHRMAN: Apologized.
• CARRIER: Ehrman falsely claims in his book that there are no hyper-specialized historians of ancient Christianity who doubt the historicity of Jesus. So I named one: Arthur Droge.
(And of those who do not meet Ehrman’s irrationally specific criteria but who are certainly qualified, we can now add Kurt Noll–as I note in my review of Is This Not the Carpenter. Combined with myself, Robert Price, and Thomas Thompson, that is a handful of well-qualified scholars who are on record doubting the historicity of Jesus. And there are no doubt many others who simply haven’t gone on the record.)
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: See my remarks above on Ehrman’s continuing fondness for this No-True-Scotsman argument and why it’s a fallacy.
• CARRIER: Ehrman hitches his wagon to a whole festival of fallacies by ignoring all the literature in his own field demonstrating that the “method of criteria” he relies upon is logically invalid and must be abandoned. In fact, every study ever produced specifically examining the value of those methods has come to the same conclusion: they are invalid and must be abandoned. I document this and demonstrate it myself extensively in my book Proving History.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of inconsistency (which is an implicit fallacy of special pleading) by arguing that using the “criterion of dissimilarity” negatively is invalid, and then (later in the book) arguing that using the criterion of dissimilarity negatively is valid. His first claim (against Robert Price) was also false: using the “criterion of dissimilarity” negatively in the way Price actually did is not invalid. Thus, besides being inconsistent with himself, Ehrman also doesn’t know how logic works.
As I wrote:
Ehrman attacks Robert Price for using the “criterion of dissimilarity” negatively (on p. 187), insisting that’s a “misuse” of the criterion, and then defends using it negatively himself (on p. 293), a blatant self-contradiction. It is also fallacious reasoning. Price was using it “negatively” (in Ehrman’s sense) to show that the case for historicity from the Gospels is weak because for every story about Jesus the Christians had a motive to invent it, which is a logically valid way to argue: he is rebutting the contrary claim (that some of these stories must be true because they didn’t have a motive to invent them) and thereby removing a premise that ups the probability of historicity, which necessarily lowers the probability of historicity (by exactly as much as that premise being true would have raised it). Ehrman outright denies this (on p. 187) which betrays a fundamental ignorance of how logic works. Perhaps what Ehrman meant to say was that this argument cannot alone prove Jesus didn’t exist, but Price never says it does.
(Similarly, Ehrman uses the same self-contradiction tactic when he complains about my dismissing his book as unreliable because of all the errors I found in it, and then defends his dismissing of mythicist books as unreliable because of all the errors he found in them. Nice.)
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of hasty generalization again. In order to assert absolute certainty that the “Q” source existed (since he leans a lot of his case on it), he dismisses the work of Mark Goodacre (who extensively presents The Case against Q in print and on the web) and other leading scholars who agree with Goodacre (including Michael Goulder, E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies), without giving, or citing, any rebuttal to it whatever. He just says it “has failed to convince most of the scholars working in the field” (buried on p. 352, n. 10).
But I doubt Ehrman has widely polled scholars on this (so as to know “most” reject it), much less all and only those scholars who have read and examined the case made by Goulder and Goodacre (since the opinion of scholars who haven’t even examined their argument obviously doesn’t count for anything). He is therefore arguing from his own ignorance, and making hasty generalizations about “the scholarly community” as sufficient reason to dismiss Goodacre’s case. That is a fallacy. His case has to be addressed. It can’t be dismissed by armchair polls conducted in Ehrman’s head.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of non sequitur by arguing that if there is material in a document (like Matthew) that doesn’t come from a known source (like Mark), it therefore comes from another source (like M), and therefore we “have” that source (we “have” M). He never allows that it comes from no source at all but was fabricated by the author of the document we have. I explain why this is ridiculous.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman commits the fallacy of non sequitur again by arguing that if stories everyone agrees were fabricated were originally fabricated in Aramaic, then Jesus historically existed (try to wrap your head around that travesty of logic for a moment). I discuss two of his examples: Jesus’ cry on the cross and Jesus’ resurrection of the daughter of Jairus. Every (non-fundamentalist) expert on these materials agrees neither story is true, both are fabricated, and therefore these are not historical recollections of Jesus. Yet Ehrman argues that they probably derive from Aramaic sources, therefore they prove Jesus was a real person. I explain why this is ridiculous. (Even granting the premise that they derive from Aramaic sources.)
Even in the case where we know a source was used, obviously it can be wholly fabricated–even fabricated in the original language of Aramaic, as clearly happened here (supposing Ehrman is right about these stories originating in Aramaic). Therefore the existence of such a source does not argue for historicity at all.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: I should add that this isn’t the only way our knowing of sources doesn’t help the case for historicity. The fact that we don’t have that source also means we don’t know exactly what it said, and that also makes it useless for determining historicity.
For example, if someone used a book like Revelation as a source for some sayings of Jesus and put those sayings in the middle of his Galilean ministry, if we didn’t have Revelation we would not know that it actually claimed those sayings came from a vision of Jesus in heaven and not an actual historical Jesus. Likewise, if we did not have the Epistle of Eugnostos, we would not know that the source used for the sayings of Jesus in the Sophia of Jesus Christ actually originally claimed those sayings came from Eugnostos and not Jesus.
Thus not having the actual source makes it impossible for us to know whether that source would have supported historicity or not. The mere existence of such sources is therefore useless. Even when we can confirm there were such sources, which we cannot honestly do with the kind of certainty Ehrman claims anyway–for many leading mainstream scholars do not believe such certainty is warranted on this point.
Aramaic…was not only spoken in first century Judea; it was spoken in parts of Syria and to an extent across the diaspora, continually for centuries, so “Aramaic source = Judean source written in the 30s A.D.” is a ridiculous inference, yet Ehrman uses it again and again.
Repeatedly, Ehrman argues that because the lost sources behind the Gospels were in Aramaic (which is a double conjecture: that there were sources; and that they were in Aramaic), that therefore they originated in Judea in the 30s A.D. Because, you see, Aramaic was spoken in Judea in the 30s A.D. But this is a classic fallacy of affirming the consequent:
|If p, then q.||If a source was written in Judea in the 30s A.D., then it was probably written in Aramaic.||If a dog ate your homework, then you have no homework to turn in.|
|q.||The Gospels used sources written in Aramaic.||You have no homework to turn in.|
|Therefore, p.||Therefore, those sources were probably written in Judea in the 30s A.D.||Therefore, a dog ate your homework.|
You can prove anything with logic like this.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Ehrman ignores the relevant scholarship in classical studies demonstrating that fabrication was actually commonplace in the construction of biographies and stories about people, using as inspiration things they were thought to have said or an author wants them to have said, and borrowing models and elements from other stories about other people; and that ancient schools specifically taught students how to do this. And as a result, many elaborate biographies were written about non-existent people. This significantly reduces the value of the Gospels (and their sources) as evidence for Jesus, unless any element in them can be proved not to have been fabricated to a convenient purpose.
That’s where things stand. To all of which Ehrman has made some general replies worth closing with:
• CARRIER: I carefully explain that hundreds of errors plague his book, and that I chose only a representative sample of them, a representative selection of all the errors in the book (and a large sample, to demonstrate I wasn’t joking about their being a lot of them), and that it was their vast number that ruined the book and made it useless to any and every reader–as I put it, a “sad waste of electrons and trees.”
• EHRMAN: Complains that I picked on only a few mistakes and no book can be condemned for a few mistakes. Also claims I only picked random mistakes and didn’t address his “mounds of evidence” for the historicity of Jesus. Then says some other silly things.
• CARRIER: I myself said in my review, many times, that a few errors would not condemn any book (as we all make them). But I didn’t pick on only a few mistakes; I documented a great many serious mistakes, and even the many mistakes I wrote about were, as I repeatedly said, just a fraction of all there were. A book can be condemned for that scale of error. And I did address his evidence (of which there were not “mounds” but barely a molehill), in the whole second half of my review demonstrating that his methods of arguing from it were illogical.
• EHRMAN: No reply.
• CARRIER: Throughout my review of his book I point out how the kinds of errors he made cumulatively and repeatedly demonstrate his shoddy and careless research for this book and his incompetence in relevant ancillary fields (like classical literature, historical methodology, and Roman history), which he clearly made no effort to make up for.
• EHRMAN: Complains that I am being mean to him and that my review is a personal attack.
• CARRIER: I point out that he must not understand the difference between a personal attack and an attack on a person’s work product. As I wrote:
I pointed out failures of wording, failures of fact, and failures of logic, and showed why these all entail his book cannot be trusted, that his research and writing of it was sloppy and careless, that it fails at its every professed aim, and that he (professionally) doesn’t know what he’s doing here–ironically, considering how much hay he tries to make over the point that the rest of us can’t know what we’re doing because we have the wrong degrees.
That is not a personal attack. It’s a valid criticism, and a relevant deduction from the evidence I adduced.
• EHRMAN: No reply.