My latest book Proving History has been negatively reviewed by Kevin Brown (a Christian book reviewer [he has since deleted that post] who confesses he is “not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard,” although I must note that one only needs strong primary school math to understand and evaluate the concepts in the book). Although he doesn’t actually have anything bad to say about the overall thesis of the book (the application of Bayes’ Theorem to history generally and Jesus studies specifically, it’s many discussions of method, and so on, beyond vague expressions of uncertainty). His objections are more of a Christian apologetical bent: he doesn’t like certain conclusions about a few random minor points made throughout the book, which he cherry picks because he thinks they are egregiously false, and he uses this to build a comforting narrative for himself that I must not know what I’m talking about, if I don’t agree with him on those few scattered items.
You can get an idea of his bias when he tells you my other book Why I am Not a Christian is “appalling tripe” and “by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism” and other colorful things, all because he despises the most commonsensical of atheist arguments (that a God who wanted x would do what was needed to achieve x). Brown is not a great thinker. And his intemperance and lack of objectivity show here. So when he gets to reviewing Proving History, you can expect a less than objective approach, and a similar sense of hyperbolic contempt. Indeed, for not liking the book (for no actually good reason, as we’ll see), he appears to be more obsessed with attacking it than than with any other book he has ever reviewed (he has so far written six articles on Proving History, where his previous record for any other book is only four, and that only once in twenty or thirty titles).
Ironically, as so often happens with biased Christian readers, all of his complaints are already answered by any careful read of my actual book. So an attentive reader just needs to read the book to see why Brown is wrong. For example, he conflates my statement about what other scholars have concluded (that the quest for criteria has failed and no consensus exists as to who the historical Jesus was) with my own conclusion from this (that the quest for the historical Jesus has failed “spectacularly”) and then accuses me of crediting the latter conclusion to those other scholars (when in fact all they document is the failure to reach any consensus and thus actually uncover the historical Jesus…which just happens to be, by definition, failure).
This is a classic example of not paying attention to what you are reading, and is a good sign of a bad reviewer. Accordingly, you can’t trust his claims about the book or the conclusions he derives from his claims. In every case below, you’ll just have to read the book and see for yourself what I actually said and from what actual premises I derive my conclusions. But most important to me are the confusions Brown falls into about methodology and logic, correcting which will be informative to anyone who actually wants to understand how to reason logically about historical facts, and how to apply Bayes’ Theorem to the task. His attempts to criticize some few of my specific conclusions about history in the book likewise illustrate failures of methodology on his part that I actually wrote Proving History to correct. So it is ironic that his obsession with the few trivial items he actually criticizes blinded him to the rest of the book’s content, as evidently he didn’t learn from it.
Common Cognitive Errors on Display
Part of Brown’s bias may be because he can’t believe I can conclude Jesus might not have existed. Yet it is important to note that Proving History nowhere argues that Jesus didn’t exist. It is, rather, a book about how one would test a question like that. Brown is aware that I will only actually argue for that thesis in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ (which is completing peer review now and will soon enter the production pipeline at an academic press). But it seems that he assumes anyone who would argue such a thing must not know what they are talking about, and therefore this becomes the narrative he struggles to support by confirmation bias in his review of Proving History, ignoring the hundreds of displays of accurate knowledge and understanding of the field throughout the book and instead only cherry picking a handful of items he thinks don’t, and then making those few things more important than the hundreds of others.
Likewise, as I’ll show below, Brown is not only making himself a poster boy for confirmation bias, he is also displaying the common cognitive error of expectation bias, whereby as soon as one thinks they can refute a couple of moderate arguments in a case, they then assume all the strong arguments surrounding it must also have been refuted (and thus no attempt need be made to see if they can be). On this defect in human brains, see The Christian Delusion, p. 68. There are many cognitive biases like this that Christians (and atheists) often fall victim to because they don’t study them and don’t know their brains are misleading them in this way and thus don’t know how to compensate or correct for them (or even that they need to).
Biases also show in a failure to actually check if something you confidently assert is true. Brown exhibits this failing when he says “there doesn’t seem to be any scholars (in the relevant field) who argue for such a position” (that Jesus might not have existed). In fact, there are numerous such scholars (I list them here). Brown didn’t even think to check. He just assumed he was right, so strong is his bias against the conclusion that he can’t imagine that any doctors or professors of biblical studies or early Christianity or second temple Judaism could actually entertain that conclusion, and his imagination then gets inadvertently substituted for research. He then makes the leap of logic that anyone who would entertain such a thesis must not know what they are talking about. And so the wheel of self-deception turns full circle.
I Don’t Think You Know What a Non Sequitur Is
Indeed, not just cognitive biases afflict Brown, but also an inability to reason logically. The main argument of Brown’s Review Part I is this:
Carrier states his thesis again:
When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that the method is invalid and should be abandoned. (14)
This is a non sequitur. Carrier is arguing that since historians have used the same method (i.e. the criteria of authenticity), yet do not arrive at the exact same conclusion, this must mean “the method is invalid and should be abandoned”. But that conclusion does not follow. A more logical reason to explain the inconsistent depictions that emerge of the historical Jesus is the inevitable human element present in such undertakings. The scholars that are employing the criteria may hold different presuppositions which affect how they apply each criterion. Additionally, the data derived from applying the criteria can then be arranged in multitude of ways. The disparity in results is due, in part at least, to the unavoidable element of subjectivity in such an endeavor.
This is a weird argument, since Brown doesn’t seem to recognize that if your method allows “the inevitable human element present in such undertakings” to prevent anyone from reaching any consistent conclusion about anything, then that method is invalid. You may as well not even use it (as indeed I quote Dale Allison outright saying). So his claim that my conclusion is a non sequitur is not only false, it’s disproved by the very argument he uses to prove it. As I said, this is not a great thinker.
More importantly, my book discusses repeatedly and specifically the very problems Brown just confesses exist, and how Bayesian reasoning can solve them (e.g. pp. 88-93 and 208-14), and how the methods currently employed cannot. It is particularly amusing of Brown to suggest (as he does) that Allison has found a better method (in Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History), yet the method Allison uses there is far more subjective, vague, and in thrall to presuppositions and biases than the method of criteria Allison has (like me) denounced.
The method Allison now uses is essentially Dunn’s [corr. Le Donne’s], and contrary to Brown claiming I don’t address it, I do in fact discuss why it is invalid (on pp. 189-91). Brown fails to tell his readers that. Possibly because he is so blinded by the narrative he is trying to create, he didn’t even notice it. Proving History also repeatedly answers Brown’s questions here as to how we would determine a reliable method and how we would reliably establish a well-founded consensus, and when historians should admit certainty cannot be had. Indeed, that is essentially what the entire book is about. Apparently, again, he didn’t notice. So he fails to tell his readers anything about how my book answers those questions. He just asks them, as if the book he is asking them of provided no answers.
That sums up Brown’s complaints in Part I, which are meant to address chapter one of Proving History. Not a good start for a book review. One false claim not actually relevant to the book being reviewed (as to who might buy the idea Jesus didn’t exist, an idea Proving History doesn’t defend), followed by one single argument wherein Brown refutes his own conclusion with his own premise.
How Do We Obtain Objective Knowledge in History?
In Brown’s Review Part II, Brown agrees with the essential contents of my second chapter, and liked my third chapter (“It is quite an informative chapter and I think the author did a pretty good job of dumbing it down for the mathematically challenged (such as myself).”). He is skeptical that scholars can get past their biases and be objective, as any method, to be valid, requires. But then that would mean historians can never produce objectively reliable conclusions, that all they are doing is generating predetermined results governed by undefended ideological assumptions, and they should therefore be collectively ignored. I reject that conclusion by rejecting the premise it follows from. Brown, however, does not seem aware of the fact that that conclusion follows from his premise (not surprising, given his failure to grasp even a basic measure of methodological validity in Part I, as I just showed).
Brown says “the different ideological stances of the people applying Bayes’s Theorem is going to generate disagreement on how to quantify all the relevant data,” yet that is precisely a question I deal with at length in the book (again, e.g., pp. 88-93 and 208-14). If ideological presuppositions and differences on how to quantify data are the problem in any given disagreement, then that is precisely what historians then need to be debating, so they can determine which side of any such debate is the more objectively sound and defensible, or what ranges of possibilities need to be granted as likely. Because if they never do that, or can’t do that, then their conclusions are simply not objectively sound or defensible. Their conclusions are then just the efflux of undefended assumptions.
That this is the very conclusion Bayes’ Theorem teaches us is one of the merits of the theorem. Brown sees this as a bug. To the contrary, it’s a feature. Isolating just why and where we disagree and forcing us to defend the premises that our disagreements hinge on is exactly what historians must do to claim to be an objective profession. Bayesian reasoning helps us isolate and identify the real sources of disagreement, and gives us a framework for determining if there is any objectively determinable solution (and wherever there is not, there is no objective knowledge to be had). This I explain in the book specifically and repeatedly. Yet Brown never mentions that.
How Do We Answer Questions in History?
(Especially When No One Can Be an Expert in Everything)
Again, Brown issues a long series of questions (which are indeed the kind of questions historians need to answer), not realizing that the answer to all of them is Bayesian: you must tackle every single one from a Bayesian framework (which often does not even require actual mathematics or specific quantification…a fact I repeatedly discuss, yet which Brown again never mentions). And if you can’t get a result that way, there is no assertable result to be had (and we then must honestly profess not to know the answer to that question: see pp. 106-14, and likewise Axioms 3 and 5, pp. 23, 26-29).
Notably, some of Brown’s questions relate to his pointing out the importance earlier of my Second Rule of historical method, in particular how I handle questions in fields I do not have the same level of expertise in, yet he overlooks the second part of that rule, even though he quoted the whole thing: I will “base all [my] assumptions in these areas on the established (and properly cited) findings of those who have” that expertise. This is important, because Brown fails to tell his readers when I do exactly that.
Otherwise I will (as the first part of Rule Two says) “develop wide expertise in the period, topics, languages, and materials that [I] intend to blaze any trails in.” That does not require mastering everything. I can rely on cited experts for Aramaic translations, for example, and thus not have to blaze any trails in translating Aramaic, and only build on the premises Aramaic experts have established. Likewise, one can engage the same study they did to gain their Ph.D., to gain the equivalent mastery of a new subfield in their Ph.D. meta-field (in this case, ancient history). That is what getting a Ph.D. trains you for, in fact, and is thus what you are eminently then qualified to do. Sadly, I had to explain this even to Bart Ehrman, with evidence of historians doing exactly that (since Ehrman didn’t get a degree in history and evidently doesn’t know what historians are trained for or how they apply that training afterward).
In one of my Replies to Ehrman (under the heading of “The Thompson Affair”) my remarks on this point are directly on point here, so I will quote them in full:
Indeed, contrary to Ehrman’s claim, every historian in my field that I know publishes on all manner of diverse subjects. The idea that (to use Ehrman’s own example) hyper-specializing in “Herodotus” disqualifies you from being competent to research and publish on other authors or subjects is ridiculous, and easily refuted by perusing the teaching subjects and cv’s of prominent historians like W.V. Harris, Erich Gruen, Alan Cameron, or, to pick actual specialists in Herodotean studies, Donald Lateiner or James Romm. Romm, for example, is a specialist in Herodotus and Arrian (among much else), authors 600 years apart, one Greek, one Roman. According to Ehrman, we should ignore Romm’s work on Arrian as being out of his field. Which would be news to Arrian specialists, who all value Romm’s work. When my dissertation advisor, William Harris, wanted to publish a book on Roman anger, he did not say to himself “I have never published on that before, or taught it before, and did not specialize in it when I got my degrees, therefore I am not competent to research and publish on this subject so I should just shut up then.” No, he applied his skills, degrees, and background knowledge to the task of thoroughly researching the subject and publishing a major authoritative work on it. That’s what ancient historians do.
What is alarming is that Ehrman doesn’t know that. For him to claim I don’t “know” that it’s the other way around is just appallingly rich: he is simply proving my point for me, that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and prefers instead to disparage almost all modern scholarship in my field because it is produced by people who don’t specifically teach those subjects and have not gotten hyper-specific degrees in them. His depiction and denunciation of nearly the whole of historical academia is simply absurd. All in his desperate attempt to justify the fact that he misleads his readers and misrepresents his opponents, all in defense of a dogma that he is certain cannot possibly be false, therefore he doesn’t need to take us seriously (despite pretending to). If Romm can do good work in both Herodotus and Arrian, Thompson can (in principle) do good work in both OT and NT studies (the study of the OT does, after all, involve knowledge of second temple Judaism, the very context in which Christianity arose).
It’s worth adding, as well, my point (which I have made countless times) that all historians make mistakes (myself included), and thus finding a few in any book (and you probably can find a few in every book by every historian there is) does not warrant concluding they are incompetent. If it did, then all historians should be dismissed as incompetent. This is why Brown’s deployment of confirmation bias is so incapable of supporting the narrative he wants to be true. His only examples (even if they did validly identify errors) are too few and too minor to carry the weight of his argument.
One of Brown’s questions, though, is important because it is a question about method, and one that I answer in my book. Brown asks, “Is Bayes’s Theorem a practical and effective tool to use in historical studies or does it just provide only a veneer of rigor and logic?” For my answer see note 33 on page 305 and my remarks on pp. 91-92. In short: it’s the job of historians to learn and understand how to evaluate the logic of their own arguments (the point also made extensively and devastatingly by David Hackett Fischer in his excellent book Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought). Doing that ultimately entails learning and understanding Bayesian reasoning. Because, as I formally prove (pp. 106-14), that is the logic of all historians’ arguments, whether they are aware of it or not. Thusly informed, then they will be able to tell when Bayes’ Theorem is being used to create a false appearance of rigor, and when it is being used honestly and correctly. My book, in fact, was written to help historians do exactly that.
Notably, Brown does not appear to have read my book all that carefully, because he concludes his Part II by quoting another reviewer of my book (Ian at Irreducible Complexity)–who essentially retracted his main objections in our subsequent discussion, which Brown links to, but see especially Ian’s conclusion here, although we continued to work out other disagreements in the ensuing thread. Brown is evidently unaware of the fact that what he quotes from Ian (to conclude his own review) is already directly answered in my book, on pp. 110-14 (building on pp. 83-88 and 106-10).
In short, if we can’t quantify the likelihood of something in any way at all (due to poor data or any other factor), we simply cannot claim to know it’s likely (and therefore we should stop pretending we do); and if the only way we can quantify the likelihood of something is with a wide margin of error, then we simply cannot claim to know anything more precise than that (and therefore we should stop pretending we do). Exposing this fact is, again, not a bug in Bayesian Reasoning. It’s a feature. It’s the very reason historians need to be more explicitly Bayesian.
Cherry Picking Minor Points and Misrepresenting Them to Support the Narrative
In Brown’s Review Part III, he skips over chapters four and six without any noted objection. He also skips over almost the entirety of the remaining chapter five. He is instead annoyed with only a small handful of claims made in that chapter, which he then uses to draw conclusions he paints the entire book with (there’s that confirmation bias and expectation bias I was talking about), because he wants to sandbag in advance the conclusion of my next book (that Jesus might not have existed) by somehow building a narrative that I can’t be qualified to argue it.
Here Brown mentions my lengthy treatment of the Argument from Embarrassment (pp. 124-69) and straw man’s my argument there as saying “so an author would never include anything that could be viewed as embarrassing?” This is a classic straw man fallacy, as I actually repeatedly described the conditions in which an author would include things that were embarrassing to them, and would even be expected to (e.g., pp. 125-26, 138, 158-69), and explained why those conditions don’t obtain for the Gospels (e.g., pp. 135, 133-34, 126-28, 156-57, etc.). So clearly Brown has not fairly characterized my argument at all. That definitely makes him a bad reviewer. Readers simply cannot trust that he has accurately represented the work he is reviewing.
Similarly, Brown bizarrely claims I approach the biblical text like a fundamentalist, even though in fact it is well know that I regard the Gospels as complete fiction. I often approach the Gospels in Proving History from a position of arguendo (assuming things for the sake of argument, or assuming conservative interpretations are correct, in order to show what the conclusions would be even in that case). Brown thus has a hard time grasping the meaning of conditional statements (like “if x is the case, then y is the case,” which Brown will confuse with “x is the case, therefore y is the case”), or telling the difference between something I believe and something I am saying ancient Jews believed, and so on.
For example, contrary to his claim that all Jews in Jesus’ day believed the dying messiah in Daniel 9 was Onias III, see my discussion of the evidence to the contrary in The Dying Messiah Redux (contrary to what Brown says, the authors of 11Q13 certainly did not think Daniel 9:25 or 9:26 was referring to Onias III or in fact any figure in the past, since it explicitly says it is referring to a figure in the future). Brown evidently can’t tell the difference between what the authors of Daniel intended and what later Jewish readers decided the text meant. And here Brown just gainsays all the evidence and argument in my article without providing any evidence or argument of his own. He likewise cites Stark, unaware (?) that my article has been rewritten in response to Stark and is no longer vulnerable to Stark’s criticisms (as the article itself now even says on the very first line…notably, an instance of my following Rule Two of historical method that Brown commends…as well as, incidentally, Rule Twelve: see pp. 37-39).
Anyone who actually reads my book (and the evidence cited there) will be set straight on all these matters. You should simply not trust Brown’s characterizations. They are inaccurate. But notice how Brown bases his conclusions (and builds his narrative about my supposed incompetence) on such weak and easily disproved claims about what I said and the facts of antiquity. More importantly, notice how few such claims Brown even marshals to support that narrative, and how trivial and obscure they are relative to the entire contents and substantive points of chapter five.
The Nazorian from Narareth
In Brown’s Review Part IV he obsesses over Nazareth. This always amuses me, since Jesus mythicists also have an unhealthy obsession with Nazareth, and so do Christians like Brown. Somehow it’s so very important for Jesus to have hailed from Nazareth. So important to some mythicists that they can illogically conclude that if he didn’t come from Nazareth, he didn’t exist; and so important to some Christians that they can illogically conclude that if Nazareth existed, so did Jesus. (Likewise, in each case, some argue that it at least shifts the probabilities either way, when really it doesn’t to any significant degree.) I’ve remarked on this before. But here I’ll just address the way Brown approaches this issue.
The context is my argument that we cannot construct a valid Argument from Embarrassment from the evidence we have to the conclusion that Jesus actually came from Nazareth (note that I do not claim Nazareth didn’t exist). I give numerous reasons for this conclusion (pp. 142-45), and cite primary evidence and peer reviewed scholarship supporting me. Almost none of which Brown mentions or even acknowledges. Instead, he cherry picks a single claim that annoys him (out of the many made in the course of three pages), and tries to make hay of it.
Here Brown is again annoyed by a conditional argument (“if x, then y“) and seems to behave as if it wasn’t a conditional. But apart from that slip of logic, he claims “Carrier doesn’t provide any reasoning to support [Mark 1:9] being an interpolation, which is probably due to the fact that there isn’t any support for such an idea,” when in fact I cited Kennard (a peer reviewed article, no less), and did not say the claim was established, but as only worth considering (given the abundant evidence I discuss, which Brown fails to mention). There are in fact arguments to be made for that possibility even beyond those of Kennard, as cataloged by Frank Zindler in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (pp. 369-88; although I suspect his Bayesian model needs revision, one can appreciate the evidence and arguments Zindler presents without it).
Once again, this is a minor point, and one I don’t even rely on (I state it only conditionally). Thus again Brown has ignored all the strong substantive points of the chapter (and even this section) and just cherry picked the one minor claim that annoys him. And then mischaracterized it. And then he follows that with a bizarre parody that bears no analogy to anything I was actually arguing, a parody that shows Brown doesn’t understand conditional statements even when he is mocking them. The point that “if we make any weird assumption we want, then we can get any weird conclusion we want” is true but irrelevant when I am not making any assumption at all but describing what follows only if a certain assumption is made, and explicitly stating it exactly that way–and then presenting evidential reasons to suspect it might be true (arguments Brown ignores and doesn’t tell his readers about) and therefore concluding it has to be ruled out before simply assuming the contrary, a conclusion that doesn’t track what Brown thinks he is mocking.
Strangely, Brown even quotes the key point of all my arguments on this one issue (and remember, it’s just one), that alternative explanations of the evidence are “at least sufficiently probable to require us to rule them out first,” yet he fails to grasp the import of that point, but ignores it completely, and just gainsays the alternatives without properly ruling them out as one methodologically should. He thus completely misses the methodological point I was making, and demonstrates what happens when you miss the methodological point I was making, without realizing he just made himself the poster boy for exactly that kind of error.
Moreover, I am describing peer reviewed arguments (of Kennard and Laupot). Again, Brown conspicuously doesn’t tell his readers that. He gives the impression these are my own off-the-cuff arguments. He has to, because his fabricated narrative requires that I be proved incompetent by this example, not Kennard and Laupot and their peer reviewers (even though Brown’s argument has to entail the same conclusion for all of them…collateral damage, I guess…everyone is incompetent who doesn’t agree with Brown, even peer reviewed scholarship).
At this point, Brown insists Matthew was “lying” when he said the Nazorian origin of Jesus was prophesied, yet doesn’t think this through–neither has anyone else who has made this claim, a claim never anywhere proved by anyone. Thus Brown is doing the very thing he just thought he was criticizing me for: making a baseless claim that suits his agenda, without proving it true or adducing any evidence at all. Ironically, I didn’t do that, since I did adduce evidence as well as cited scholarship, whereas Brown adduces none. So he has become the pot calling the porcelain black.
Let’s actually think such a claim through. What use is lying about a non-existent scripture in a book meant to satisfy Jews (Torah-observant Christians) that Jesus fulfilled prophecy? If such a scripture didn’t exist, Jewish readers would know this, or soon find out, and at any rate could hardly be impressed by the fulfillment of a scripture they’d never heard of and could never verify. What would be the point of making such a claim? Indeed, how could Matthew even think he could get away with it? Or indeed, why would he even try? Why not just not lie about this and simply repeat the fact that Jesus hailed from Nazareth (a fact that Brown is sure Matthew would already have learned from Mark) and was simply born in Bethlehem according to prophecy? Why did Matthew need a prophecy for Nazareth at all?
If Jesus really came from Nazareth, Matthew would not need to cite a prophecy that he did. But more importantly, if he was going to fabricate a prophecy, he would fabricate one that actually matched the town’s name. Instead, Matthew invents a prophecy that Jesus would be a “Nazôriaios” in order to explain why he came from “Nazaret,” which makes no sense (the two words are unrelated etymologically and phonetically). If he was fabricating, he would invent a prophecy that said Jesus would be a “Nazaretos.” Clearly, Matthew was stuck with a prophecy that didn’t quite match the town, but he ran with it anyway. That all but entails he wasn’t lying. He was reading a scripture (or scripture variant) we no longer have (of which we know there were many, something McGrath embarrassingly isn’t aware of, and now Brown repeats that same ignorance–by trusting McGrath to have told him this).
Notably, Brown leaves out all the other evidence I present on this point, and fails to mention I even make the point that we know Christians were using scriptures and variants we no longer have (not only in the paragraphs he cites, but explicitly in note 54 on pp. 315-16). This is a most unfair and misleading way to review the arguments in my book. Brown, again, evidently cannot be trusted to correctly and fairly represent what my book argues.
Sons of Man
In the same way, Brown then makes assumptions about my treatment of the Son of Man question that ignore what I actually say in the text (pp. 150-51). Brown claims:
Another display of ignorance from Carrier is his brief foray on how Mark presents Jesus speaking of “the Son of Man”. There is no mentioning of the possibility of an Aramaic Vorlage underlying the Greek phrase (ο υιος του ανθρωπου), making Carrier’s discussion on all this pretty meaningless. In a footnote he does list a few of the most recent scholarly volumes on the the issue, but evinces no real knowledge about this controversial topic. It’s like he searched Amazon for the phrase ‘Jesus Son of Man’, saw the recent volumes by Müller, Casey, Walck, Hurtado and Owen, and just threw them together in a footnote to make it look like he knows what he is talking about.
This suggests he isn’t paying attention to my argument in the book. Because he doesn’t tell the reader here that the point Brown is concerned about (that “Son of Man” might in some instances simply be a translation of an Aramaic idiom for “person” and not a reference to the Enochic or Danielic eschatological figure that Mark clearly imagines it to be) isn’t even relevant to any argument I make here. This is gross incompetence on Brown’s part.
Contrary to Brown, in the section he is referring to, I was responding to the claim that Jesus must have said “Son of Man” because it references an eschatological figure as not being himself (which is supposed to be unexpected and therefore true); if instead we side with Brown and conclude it didn’t reference an eschatological figure, but was just a translation from Aramaic of the generic “man,” then there would be no argument for me to respond to. But alas, Mark clearly has Jesus use this phrase several times of an eschatological figure, so I do have an argument to respond to–and I can’t refute that argument by claiming every instance in Mark is just the translation of the generic idiom, because every instance in Mark isn’t…as, incidentally, all the literature Brown admits I cite says, yet Brown himself is the one who seems to be unaware of this.
If Brown wants to make a completely different argument than the one I am addressing here, that Jesus must have said “Son of Man” on some occasions because in those occasions it translates an Aramaic idiom and thus derives from an Aramaic source (written or oral), then Brown needs to go to the other section of my book where I address that argument, as it is a completely different argument (pp. 185-86). Thus, I don’t address a point on pp. 150-51 because it isn’t relevant there, and then Brown claims I didn’t address it because I didn’t know about it, even though I did, and addressed it where it belonged, on pp. 185-86. That’s either a shocking error of reading comprehension on his part, or outright fabricating a narrative, either way, it’s not a competent way to review a book.
The Judas Narrative
Brown then acts like a fundamentalist (the thing he accuses me of) by saying the Jewish authorities “could have seized [Jesus] in public at any time they wanted, [only] if they wanted to risk a deadly skirmish,” a claim that presumes a literal reading of the Gospels in which Jesus is so famous and beloved that “the public” would have battled any soldiers sent to seize him. That is simply not a plausible assumption (were Jesus that famous and that supported by the masses, we would surely have much more evidence of him, as then the literary elite of the era and region could hardly not have noticed him).
Indeed, if we are to suppose a riot would have ensued at that action, it would have ensued the moment he was crucified…yet somehow, suddenly, the Jewish authorities stop being concerned about deadly skirmishes, when they do something enormously worse than merely arrest him, but actually murder him in a public and humiliating manner, and most offensively, on (or on the dawn of) a high holy day. So we’re supposed to believe riots would ensue at his mere arrest that didn’t ensue at his outrageous public murder? If we’re going to play the game of “read the Gospels literally,” the story just ends up making less sense, not more.
If you want a more historically plausible account of how the Jewish elite would have actually handled the Jesus problem, look at how we’re told they planned to handle the Paul problem (Acts 23:12-21). More likely, they would have killed him immediately upon his vandalism of the temple square, which was guarded by six hundred armed soldiers (with thousands more to summon just a javelin’s throw away in Fort Antonia, which housed a whole Roman legion, adjacent to the Temple: Josephus, Jewish War 2.12.1, 4.5.1, 5.238-248; Jewish Antiquities 20.8.6, 20.8.11), who were not afraid to beat down any rebellious public who got in their way (most especially trouble-makers in the Temple). Certainly in the temple they could have arrested him easily, with ample armed support (note that Gentiles were permitted in the Temple area that Jesus vandalized, so Roman legions could police it, as well as the Jewish guards authorized to kill any Gentiles who entered the forbidden areas).
Thus, as Acts would have it, Claudius Lysias had no difficulty dispatching hundreds of soldiers and cavalry from within Jerusalem to escort Paul outside the city (Acts 23:22-24), and Paul was able to be arrested even in the middle of a riot. As Josephus relates in Antiquities 20.1, the Romans regularly killed political undesirables surrounded by hundreds of fanatical supporters, without wasting time on an arrest or trial. And even Mark seems to imagine the Jews could assemble a large armed force, and indeed arrest Jesus with one (Mk. 14:43, Mt. 26:47; according to John 18:3, they even came with six hundred Roman legionairies, a full cohort).
Thus, Brown conveniently accepts the Bible literally when it supports him, but says it lies when it doesn’t, and all without actually providing any other argument for either (except that either gets the result he wants, the very methodological mistake I argue against repeatedly in my book).
Another methodological gaffe is when Brown attacks my mention of the symbolic import of the name of Judas by proposing the alternative hypothesis that he was named that by coincidence (the name being common–roughly 1 in 16 Jewish men had it). But in making this argument, he ignores the entire section of my book where I explain the defects of relying on such a hypothesis (cf. pp. 192-204). His hypothesis has a probability of producing the evidence of approximately 1 in 16. Mine has a probability of producing the evidence that could be better than 1 in 2 and is certainly no worse than 1 in 16 (see the case I make: pp. 151-55, esp. with affiliated notes on pp. 316-19), and if the odds are the same on both hypotheses, both hypotheses are equally likely (if starting with neutral priors). In short, you should never try to trump a good explanation (one that makes all the evidence highly likely) by trying to argue it’s all just a coincidence instead…unless you can show that such a coincidence is highly likely (as for example by pointing to a multiple comparisons fallacy). Otherwise, at best, you can only get coincidence to be a respectable possibility, not a greater probability, and my argument here can only be rebutted by the latter, not the former–since my point is that we cannot know this is historical, not that it definitely isn’t.
The latter seems to be a confusion Brown is prone to. In every one of his criticisms he doesn’t seem to understand the argument that “we cannot assume the historicity of stories when we have good reasons to suspect they might not be historical.” That is not the same argument as “we should conclude these stories are not historical.” The argument I am making is: “if we can’t demonstrate a story is more likely historical than not, then we can’t use it as evidence that what the story relates is historical.” It might be historical, it might not be. We don’t know. Because both explanations can account for all the data with the same or nearly the same probability. Maybe the nuance of this is too complex for Brown. I don’t know. But the distinction is methodologically crucial.
It’s ironic for Brown to miss so many methodological points in a book entirely about methodology–and instead to just focus on minor cherry picked fact-claims he doesn’t like, and then address them using all the methodological mistakes the very book is warning him against.
You Might Want to Look up “Straw Man” in the Dictionary
Brown then misleads his readers by saying:
[Carrier’s] discussion on the criterion of Aramaic context left a lot to be desired. Why? Because he pretty much just dismisses the possibility of the Greek text of the Gospels containing any Aramaisms, saying that any would just be the result of a Semitized Greek.
Notably, I present several reasons that criterion fails. Several. See pp. 185-86. Indeed, note most conspicuously my remark [emphasis now added] “even if we can distinguish what is merely a Semitic Greek dialect from a Greek translation of an Aramaic source (and we rarely can), that still does not establish that the Aramaic source reported a historical fact.” I wonder what preceded that sentence? Brown evidently doesn’t want you to know. I do not rely on only the one point Brown mentions, nor did I rely on it in the way he claims. So he is being dishonest with his readers when he says I reject the criterion because I “pretty much just” say Semitized Greek could be the cause of all the same evidence. He also doesn’t mention that I cite several experts who agree with me, and even quote two of them. Instead, again, he tries to make it seem as if I am just coming to these conclusions on my own.
This is typical of Brown’s review. I don’t know if he’s deliberately trying to deceive his readers or if he is just a lousy reader and a terrible reviewer who can’t ever represent what he is reading correctly or fairly. But more notably, this is another instance of Brown’s failure to grasp the actual methodological point I am making here (and elsewhere in chapter five): the point I make is that we have to be able to rule out these alternatives (and remember, there were more I listed than just the one Brown mentions) before we can assert the conclusion that Aramaicism entails a historical Jesus said it. Brown completely fails to get that. Instead, he wants to misrepresent this argument and thus not even respond to it, thereby proving once again the need of me to have made the argument in the first place. As an antidote to the awful methodology of the likes of Kevin Brown.
Thus, you really need to read my book if you want to know what is methodologically necessary to make the kind of arguments Brown wants to defend. Because you won’t get properly educated on the subject from Brown. He simply won’t tell you what my actual arguments are or why they matter.
That Old Quelle Demon
In Brown’s Review Part V, he summarizes his conclusions, but as we’ve seen, none are based on accurate representations of anything I say or do in the book. (Seriously. I’ve surveyed all his examples. That’s it. That’s all he bases his conclusions on.)
The only thing he adds here is some sort of vague defense of the Q Source, without addressing anything I cite on the subject (such as the work of the renowned expert on the subject Mark Goodacre), and then a similarly vague defense of a multiply-hypothetical reconstructive claim that Q establishes a different theology for Jesus’ death than the Pauline epistles evince, arguing that somehow this will be relevant to my case for the non-existence of Jesus.
Here Brown would have to be arguing that Paul’s understanding of Christ’s atonement sacrifice was an invention of Paul’s and not original to Christianity (and that “Q” preserves the pre-Pauline understanding…of, who? Peter, James and John?), thus using a hypothetical inference, from a hypothetical document that doesn’t exist, to trump a collection of pre-Gospel documents that do exist and were written in the lifetime of and with the knowledge of the original apostles (Gal. 1).
I do not find this a sound way for a historian to proceed methodologically, for a number of reasons I’ll discuss in my next book. But principal among them is that (even if Q existed) we don’t know what was in Q that wasn’t used by Matthew and Luke, and we don’t in fact know that Mark didn’t use Q (a frequently made point by many experts that Q-defenders continually ignore…their argument to the contrary, that Mark didn’t use Q, is classic circular logic). Thus we cannot validly infer anything about what Q didn’t contain, unless it contains something that contradicts it (and thus proves Q did not argue it, but argued the contrary), and this is not such a case. For example, “For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45) could well have been in Q, or any similar statement could have been that didn’t have to be used because this line from Mark sufficed. This is the problem with not actually having the document you are making claims about. You don’t in fact know what all was in it.
In Brown’s Review Part VI, he iterates a linked debate over his review between Brown himself and Tom Verenna, which I think Verenna’s original remarks already adequately address. Brown is attempting the same ridiculous tactic of attacking my qualifications instead of my actual substantive arguments. Even when he attacks any of my arguments, he picks only minor and often insubstantial points, ignoring even the substantive points those minor claims are used to elucidate, and on top of that, as I’ve noted all the way through, he misrepresents what I said and mischaracterizes it as if it were my own musings rather than being based on existing scholarship or actual cited evidence, and he omits all my other arguments to the same conclusion and then pretends I only made the one or other argument he thinks he can answer.
Most ironically, Brown defends his inept review by saying “Poor argumentation deserves no respect,” yet notice how he completely misrepresents my actual arguments, actually going out of his way to make them look poor by omitting almost all my premises and all my actual primary evidence and cited scholarship, and then uses this fact that he just invented (that my arguments, thus straw manned by Brown, are “poor”) to justify what he’s done. That is cheeky. When you actually look at my book and read my arguments that he addresses, in context, with all the actual evidence and arguments and citations, and in respect to what I am actually arguing in each case, all of his claims that any of my arguments in the book are “poor” are easily shown to be false.
That means he is the one using poor argumentation. Which means by his own reasoning, his review deserves no respect. But alas, when people make false claims about our work and straw man our arguments in an effort to malign our competence, sometimes we have to pay at least the respect of exposing what they’ve done.