Another baffle clearing for today, I’m finally getting to an embarrassingly childish review of Proving History by Stephanie Louise Fisher (a doctoral student in biblical studies). Her review (published through that nutter R. Joseph Hoffmann’s website…and I’m not throwing “nutter” around lightly, I genuinely think he might be insane) is ironically titled An Exhibition of Incompetence: Trickery Dickery Bayes. Ironically, because she betrays her incompetence in logic and mathematics and reading comprehension throughout, and yet is claiming I’m the one who is incompetent. Her review is also close to libelous and on at least two occasions overtly dishonest.
The immaturity of the review, with its gratuitous insults and intemperance and slanders and complete failure to actually engage with the book, gave it a low priority for me, since it really just discredits itself to any mature reader. But now I have time to cover it. Even right off the bat, a review written like this demonstrates no sense of irony in its author who opens with the claim that they are the one “drawing attention to [my] unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.” Her absurdly repetitious claims of my alleged incompetence characterize the whole thing, despite my having a Ph.D. in the history of ancient religion and philosophy from a top ranked university, and a published background in mathematical arguments (in peer reviewed journals no less), as well as official training in statistics, calculus and electronics engineering…and despite my book having been formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics and a professor of biblical studies. (Note that Fisher, at present, and so far as I can discern, can claim none of these qualifications.)
Fisher on Bayesian Logic
Right off the bat she is completely clueless about the function of a teaching example. She writes (in all quotations I will omit footnotes when they aren’t germane):
Carrier uses [the long form of Bayes’ Theorem] in a discussion which he calls ‘A Bayesian Analysis of the Disappearing Sun.’ This is the story that ‘there was darkness all over the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour’ (Mk 15.33//Matt. 27.45//Lk 23.44-5). Critical biblical scholars have known for a long time that this story is not literally true. Carrier’s discussion adds nothing significant to this discussion.
Hmmm. Why would she think I was trying to add to the discussion? Rather than, as the book says and the context makes clear, using this as a teaching example of how we reason to the very conclusion she endorses. In fact, I use the claim of Christians (e.g. Julius Africanus, 3rd century) that the vanishing sun story in the Gospels is literally true, as a way to teach why we reject it as literally true and to show that our reasoning on that is in fact Bayesian. That’s the function of the whole example she is referring to. Yet she doesn’t get that. At all.
She likewise says my example of a hypothetical vanishing sun incident in 1983 is “completely irrelevant,” when in fact its relevance is explicit and obvious: to show what kind of evidence would convince us such a thing occurred, and to reveal how Bayes’ Theorem explains the logic of our thinking in that case as well.
One thing the Flynn Effect (the generational rising of IQs) has been credited to is a culturally-driven increase in our ability to engage in hypothetical-categorical reasoning, which is what IQ tests actually measure (James Allan Cheyne, “Atheism Rising: Intelligence, Science, and the Decline of Belief,” Skeptic 15.2 , pp. 33-37 and James Flynn, What Is Intelligence? ). In her mistake here, Fisher demonstrates a textbook example of completely failing to understand hypothetical-categorical reasoning. She instead misses the whole point of this section of my book by taking it somehow as a literal and concrete effort to say something about bible passages and suns vanishing, when really it’s only about how we think about those things and why (see for yourself: PH, pp. 41-45, 54-60). You can connect the dots on that.
By completely missing the actual point, she concludes this:
Carrier concludes that ‘Instead of letting us get away with vague verbiage about how likely or unlikely things are, Bayes’ theorem forces us to identify exactly what we mean. It thus forces us to identify whether our reasoning is even sound.’ [Note that that statement is not about suns vanishing or any passage in the Bible–RC] Carrier’s discussion shows that this is not what happens. He tries to make it seem plausible by ignoring all the best critical scholarship, and discussing methodologically inadequate, ideologically-motivated pseudo-scholarship instead.
She doesn’t identify whom she is accusing of being a pseudo-scholar in my related citations (so this is yet another gratuitous, unsupported claim, which litter her whole review…I happen to know, by private communication, that several respected experts were very offended by her insinuating, and sometimes outright saying, at various points in her review that they were incompetent pseudo-scholars; collateral damage is evidently not her concern, but just imagine the optics: several prestigious, accomplished scholars being called incompetent by a graduate student).
But the actually important point here is that by thinking I was talking about biblical scholarship (mistaking my example as concrete and literal) she completely misses the fact that I was actually talking about reasoning in general (my example was in fact abstract and hypothetical…which citing “the best critical scholarship” would have nothing to do with, since I’m not talking about critical scholarship on bible passages here…at all).
So you might be getting an idea here of where this review of hers is going. Off the rails.
She finally gets to talking more generally with, again, unsupported assertions. She claims “most analysts would say that Bayes’ theorem is not in the least amenable to complex and composite historical texts,” yet names not even a single analyst saying that, much less most.
As it happens, if we ask who has any relevant qualifications (like a Ph.D. in philosophy, history of philosophy, or historiography and a background in the philosophy of history) and who has actually significantly examined the question (as in, beyond superficially), we appear to find agreement with me, not Fisher. Historical reasoning actually is Bayesian. I just reviewed noted philosopher Aviezer Tucker making that very point. And famed expert in historical method C.B. McCullagh, who was once skeptical, is now on board with the general idea (after having read advance drafts of my book), and interested in learning more (as communicated to me by email of 5 August 2010). His past objections have now been answered (Proving History, p. 273; cf. also n. 28, p. 304). The CIA even uses Bayes’ Theorem in the very same way historians do; and archaeologists are as well; and lawyers (on all three: PH, p. 49, with nn. 7-8, p. 300).
So much for Fisher’s worry that facts being too “complex and composite” would get in the way of that. Did she not even read my book? I do wonder. Because she never addresses any of its material that answers standard objections to applying Bayes’ Theorem to history (e.g., PH, pp. 60-67, 81-93, 97-119, 207-80). A reader of her review might actually think I didn’t devote over a hundred pages to that subject, or even address it at all.
But worse, she makes astonishing statements like this:
Carrier has too much misplaced faith in the value of his own assumptions. He claims, “[Bayes’] conclusions are always necessarily true — if its premises are true. By ‘premises’ here I mean the probabilities we enter into the equation, which are essentially the premises in a logical argument.” Bayes theorem was devised to ascertain mathematical probability. It is completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to historical occurrence and therefore irrelevant for application to historical texts. Carrier doesn’t have a structured method of application, but worse, he is dealing with mixed material, some of which is primary, much of which is secondary, legendary, myth mixed accretion. He has no method, and offers none, of distinguishing the difference and this renders his argument a complete muddle. Effectively in the end, he can conveniently dispose of inconvenient tradition, with a regrettable illusion that Bayes provides a veneer of scientific certainty to prior conclusions he is determined to ‘prove unarguable’.
The first embarrassing thing here is that I extensively discuss how science is based on historical propositions (and there are many outright historical sciences, e.g. paleontology, geology, cosmology, criminal forensics: e.g., PH, pp. 45-49, with expert support: n. 5, p. 299), so if Bayes’ Theorem cannot apply to history, it also cannot apply to most science, which would be news to thousands of scientists and philosophers of science who use it that way (e.g., Colin Howson & Peter Urbach, Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach, 3rd ed. ). It would also be news to all of them who have explicitly applied Bayesian reasoning to historical questions (as surveyed and cited by Tucker). Fisher doesn’t seem to know this. Yet how could she not, when it’s in the book she’s supposed to have read?
The second embarrassing thing here is that all historical claims are about probability (what is likely, unlikely, more likely, less likely, and so on). Yet Fisher claims Bayes’ Theorem cannot apply to history because it only deals with probability (and word to the wise, “mathematical probability” is redundant…there is no other kind; indeed, that’s the whole point of PH, pp. 23-29, 83-88, 106-14…which evidently she again didn’t read). As soon as you admit historians’ premises are all statements of probability, you have to face the fact that they are then subject by Bayes’ Theorem, which formally describes the logical relationship among exactly such premises (formal proof: PH, pp. 106-14). You can’t escape this. As my book proves…proofs Fisher neither mentions nor critiques.
The third embarrassing thing here is that I present several “structured applications” of this, yet she claims I have none. In fact, I show that all the structured methods any historians use are already Bayesian (that’s the whole of chapter four). I give additional advice on how to build more (through much of chapter six). Thus her claim that I have and offer “no method” for distinguishing myth from history is simply false (that’s the whole of chapter five). Instead she accuses me (without a single item of proof) of using Bayes’ Theorem to reach predetermined conclusions. Curiously, she fails to mention that in fact I explicitly argue against doing that and even outline practices to ensure people can detect when someone is doing it (e.g., PH, pp. 66-67, 81-93, 208-14, and n. 33, p. 305). None of which she mentions.
The fourth embarrassing thing here is that Fisher claims “dealing with mixed material, some of which is primary, much of which is secondary, legendary, myth mixed accretion” somehow prevents Bayesian reasoning from being applied. But then gives absolutely no reason anyone should believe that. She doesn’t even explain why she believes that. She certainly gives no examples demonstrating it. Yet, in my book, I give numerous (and I mean numerous) examples proving the contrary. Not a single one of which Fisher mentions or addresses. More importantly, a substantial amount of the book is dedicated to showing that historians already think like Bayesians (when they think soundly at all), in chapter four especially (and Aviezer Tucker, I now know, independently demonstrated the same thing).
I give many examples one can then adapt to model any other method any historian uses, on any subject or for any task, with Bayes’ Theorem. But Fisher seems incapable of grasping categorical-hypothetical reasoning and thus can’t even think to try doing that. For instance, might one look at a standard textbook like Paul Maas, Textual Criticism, and try to model the methodological principles advanced there on a Bayesian framework? I guarantee anyone who tries will succeed (if they know at all what they’re doing). To declare it can’t be done without even trying is just about the most irresponsible (and quasi-religious) thing a scholar like Fisher can do. That’s how bible-thumping fundamentalists behave, not science-minded skeptics.
Clearly, Fisher understands neither Bayes’ Theorem nor probability nor even basic hypothetical reasoning. She simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And yet she is supposed to have read a book that would more than adequately prime her to discuss it more informedly than this. Her review not only doesn’t interact with 99% of my book on exactly the issue she claims to be addressing, she doesn’t show any signs of having read it, or having understood what it said. She never gives an explanation of the theorem that shows she understands it or its terms or their relationship. She doesn’t even seem to know that historical propositions are statements of probability, or that statements of probability are governed by all formally proved theorems of probability (like, say, Bayes’ Theorem; hence the point in PH, pp. 106-14). And yet she is using her ignorance as evidence that I am incompetent. You do the math on that.
Fisher against the World
So much for the math. Next she attacks mainstream scholars…indeed, pretty much the whole field. Fisher says (emphasis now added in bold):
Carrier begins his book by arguing that the Quest for a historical Jesus has been a failure because it has reached no consensus on criteria or results. He does not seem to realise that this is partly because he has included under the general umbrella of ‘Jesus scholars’ virtually anyone who has written about him, regardless of competence or bias. If he had included only recognised academics in top tier universities with qualifications in ancient history and New Testament Studies, he would have got a different result. As it is, he includes ‘scholars’ such as Burton Mack, who left the Church of the Nazarene to became a methodologically incompetent radical, and Stanley Porter, who is an equally incompetent Christian fundamentalist.
Now, do note, Mack and Porter are widely respected, very well-qualified scholars in their respective fields, who have distinguished careers and impressive publication records. And she just said they were incompetent hacks. She even disrespected them with egregious ad hominems (Leaving a church makes you a “radical”? Devastatingly questioning and toppling the very pillars of fundamentalist methodology makes you a “fundamentalist”? Being a “Christian” makes you “incompetent”?).
In fact, Fisher is here claiming, essentially, that merely having a worldview renders anyone too biased to be credited as competent. Yet that general rule would entail nonbelievers are also not competent, because they also have worldviews that bias their perspectives, in exactly the same ways she is accusing of Porter and Mack. Fisher again, not evidently able to engage in categorical-hypothetical reasoning, didn’t evidently realize that her argument entails a general principle that rules herself and everyone else on earth incompetent.
Indeed, Fisher is not a recognized academic in a top tier university with qualifications in ancient history and New Testament Studies, either (at least, in the sense Porter and Mack are…they vastly outrank her in established qualifications, career pedigree, and accomplishments). But the important point here is that she cannot plausibly claim she has no biases, no worldview perspective, no prior accumulated assumptions, and she has certainly not proved she has less of them than Mack or Porter, or that any of their biases in any way discredit the validity of their work or…and this is key…their competence.
In other words, Fisher accuses everyone who disagrees with her of being incompetent (myself included), yet never gives any logically valid evidence of their actually being incompetent. Not for me. Nor Mack. Nor Porter. That completely discredits her opinion in this matter. Indeed, if “being incompetent” means being as capable as Stanley Porter, I’ll take that as a rather impressive compliment.
But not to lose sight of what just happened here, take note: when she says I include “virtually anyone who has written about [Jesus], regardless of competence” she does not mean what everyone else would mean by a phrase like that (e.g. authors with no advanced degrees in the subject). Because, in fact, no such person is included in my “general umbrella” of Jesus scholars in chapter one. The only people I include there are the well-qualified, predominately peer reviewed experts that were named and surveyed by the expert scholars whose analyses I am summarizing and reporting. Read that sentence again. I did not assemble my own list. I instead cite established peer reviewed scholarship by widely respected professionals in the field (or other authors who in turn do) and it is their lists of scholars Fisher is calling incompetent.
Fisher on Embarrassment (Irony Meter Pegging Out)
Okay. So, Fisher’s opinion, not very credible. It is at this point she says:
(She loves that word, using cognates of it 14 times in her review.)
are [Carrier’s] discussions [of] the “Criterion of Embarrassment.” Carrier begins with a blunt declaration of a typical mythicist view…
In fact, I only summarize what has been said by respected mainstream scholars, including legendary biblical scholars Morna Hooker and John Meier–and not a single mythicist–indeed, even evangelical scholar Mark Strauss voices many of the same points, and he cannot in a million years be accused of being a mythicist (see PH, nn. 8, 10, 14, 15, 17, pp. 311-12).
‘The assumption is that embarrassing material “would naturally be either suppressed or softened in the later stages of the tradition.” But all extant Gospels are already very late stages of the “Gospel tradition”, the Gospel having already been preached for nearly an entire lifetime across three continents before any Gospel was written’. There are two serious things wrong with this. The first is the description of Meier’s view as an ‘assumption’. No-one reading this without checking Meier’s enormous book would imagine that Meier’s comment is the beginning of a coherent argument of some length, not an ‘assumption’ at all.
In fact, I actually go on to discuss what Meier says about this (PH, pp. 131-32), including his own argument against this principle always being assumed. And yet (contrary to what Fisher implies) Meier does not give any defense of the principle even when he accepts its application. He simply states it, as if it were indisputable, and then lists examples (which depend on the principle simply being assumed). Then he lists a counter-example (which I also discuss). That’s it. Meanwhile, Meier himself admits the Gospels are a very late redaction of the tales of Jesus (Meier, Marginal Jew, 1.170) and contain almost boundless creative fabrication (ibid.), which is precisely the point I am making that Fisher is annoyed by. So there really is no valid criticism for Fisher to make here.
The second problem is the very late date assumed for all the Gospels. As early as 1998, Casey proposed Aramaic reconstructions of a small number of passages of Mark’s Gospel, and on that basis he rather tentatively proposed a date c. 40 CE for this Gospel. This was worked through in detail and reinforced with considerable evidence and argument by James Crossley in a doctoral thesis published in 2004. Carrier knows just what to do with such learned arguments leading to results which he does not wish to believe in: he leaves them all out. What defence does Bayes’ theorem offer against this? It cannot provide any defence against such professional incompetence and methodological bias.
Note that she now cites one maverick claim, rejected by most mainstream experts, as if I am supposed to ignore the consensus now and only trust this one hyperbolic possibility. (Indeed, I can count the number of living experts who buy that argument on less than one hand…unless we count actual fundamentalists, whose opinion Fisher would condemn.) I am sympathetic to the idea of not always assuming the consensus is right, but I can’t simply “assume” it’s wrong when discussing how most mainstream scholars use a particular criterion (as in fact I am doing at this point). She thinks a “tentative” date for a purely hypothetical document we don’t have (an Aramaic source for Mark) somehow is relevant to the date of the document we do have and that I am actually talking about (the Gospel of Mark).
Last but not least, Fisher is effectively calling all mainstream scholars professionally incompetent, merely if they don’t mention the fringe theories of Casey or Crossley when they work from consensus assumptions on the dating of the Gospels. Which is pretty much most scholars. Worse, notice what Fisher left out of her quotation: I say on the very same page (emphasis now added) “the most widely held consensus in the field is that the Gospels post-date the life of Paul” (p. 126).
So is Fisher arguing it is professionally incompetent to say that not all scholars agree on this dating issue? That is, after all, what “most widely held consensus” means…but again, Fisher seems incapable of categorical-hypothetical reasoning, and here that would be required to understand and grasp that “most say x,” logically entails “some do not say x.” But wait, no. She is saying it would be professionally incompetent not to say that. But wait, I did say that. So what was her point again?
At this point (and continuing from here on out) she has not addressed any of my logical arguments about the defects of the Criterion of Embarrassment (even though she is supposed to be proving my incompetence to do so). Fisher evidently doesn’t understand the difference between isolated facts unconnected with the criterion, and the abstract principles behind the validity and applicability of the criterion. Again, that’s a failure of categorical-hypothetical reasoning. She thinks only in the concrete and particular. She completely glazes over when any abstract general principles are actually the subject being discussed. And then she confuses the former as the latter. In result, she fails to actually review the book itself.
A “Long” List of Impertinent Examples
Here Fisher descends into a random list of things she thinks prove my incompetence (although not one relates to my competence in discussing the Criterion of Embarrassment, which is what she said she was going to show).
(1) First on the list is the standard “I think the Gospels always tell the truth when it is convenient to what I am saying” method of rebutting me, this time again on the matter of Judas’ arrest, which I already showed to be ridiculous in my response to Brown (see here). I won’t reiterate the argument. The relevant point here is that she can’t claim I am ignorant of facts when I was not even working from assumptions she is working from, about how amazingly famous and popular Jesus is supposed to have been. Certainly, if you buy that, hook-line-and-sinker (as she apparently does), then you would have to make a different argument at this point. But since I don’t, I didn’t. That’s not incompetence. It’s simply starting with different levels of trust in the tale (hers being the more gullible).
Although, ironically, the example she gives argues that what Archelaus did (take military action against his own people) is exactly what would be done, because it’s exactly what was done…she does not cite any examples of high priests, or Romans or anyone, refraining from doing that by citing the travesty of that case or any other…to the contrary, the elite were often happy to resort to mass civil violence to get their way and didn’t particularly care who got killed if it went bad. But in any event, her logic is self-refuting even if her own premise is granted, since, as I pointed out to Brown, the proposed violence would surely have occurred at Christ’s crucifixion, if it would have occurred at his mere arrest. Thus, either way you turn it, the story makes no sense.
Indeed, here it’s interesting that to Fisher, Porter, an accomplished contemporary scholar, is incompetent because he is a fundamentalist, but she is okay relying on the fifty-years-old scholarship of hard-core Lutheran abbots like Jeremias. But no matter. The conclusion he reaches changes nothing, as it indeed only reinforces my point that they cannot possibly have crucified Jesus during the festival if they feared mass violence merely at his arrest. It’s not like he was crucified in private. Contrary to Fisher’s undefended assumption, why would there be no crowds about?
Jesus was marched in public from the city court (which was packed with crowds noisily crying out to Pilate to crucify Jesus), through the city streets, right into a mass crucifixion within view of the city…where random pilgrims could be pressed into service (Mk. 15:21) and lots of folk were about to mock Jesus (Mk. 15:29-32), but somehow not a single supporter managed to notice or hear about any of this or tell anyone about it, despite it all going on for over six hours. Maybe Fisher will go fundamentalist herself here and claim the Gospel of John contains the only true account of the crucifixion and that it therefore occurred in a private garden away from the prying eyes of all but an inexplicably selected few, who must have been busy dodging the shadows cast by the tombs John says were there, lest they be ritually defiled. But I can only speculate.
(2) Fisher then maligns Haim Cohn, a renowned Jewish legal expert, claiming (conveniently, again) that his being a Jew makes him incompetent (indeed “totally inept”). Personally, her “Protocols of Zion” style description and dismissal of Cohn’s scholarship disturbs me just a little. At any rate, none of the examples she gives of Cohn’s alleged incompetence prove any incompetence whatever (unless her merely disagreeing with him suffices to establish he is incompetent…and come to think of it, that has consistently been her only discernible standard). No more need be said on that point. Her argument here is that he’s incompetent, and I cite him, therefore I’m incompetent. None of the premises in that argument are demonstrated by anything she says.
(3) Fisher then criticizes my observing that Judas’ name essentially means “Jew” (which is a cognate of Judah). She suspiciously does not tell her readers that I say much of what she does (including discussion of Judah as a common as well as famous name: PH, pp. 154-55), yet she makes it seem as though she is explaining things I left out (note also I give the scholarly analysis of the Greek in note 69, pp. 317-18; Fisher seems to pretend that isn’t there). That comes close to libel. She also says I don’t rely on any experts in Judaism for this point, when in fact I explicitly cite Thomas Thompson, a renowned expert in ancient Judaism. Again her representation of my work approaches the libelous.
(4) Fisher then breaks her own rules when she claims my saying “Iscariot” could be a misrecording of Sicarius is “barely coherent.” Fisher thinks it is incompetent to not cite scholars who disagree with you (remember the dating of the Gospels?), even if it’s only a fringe few (remember the dating of the Gospels?). Yet note what I actually said here (Fisher conspicuously does not quote this, but emphasis now added): it may be “all the more obvious an allusion if ‘Iscariot’ is (as many scholars believe) an Aramaicism for the Latin ‘Sicarius’.”
Note, first, the conditional (“if”). This is not an assertion, but a conditional statement of possibility. Though again Fisher evidently lacks ability in categorical-hypothetical reasoning, so conditional propositions must be particularly hard for her to understand. In any event, by her own standards, she just proved herself incompetent by not mentioning the scholars who have argued what I just said. She is also obligated (by her own absurd standards) to cite all the other theories scholars have proposed (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible lists at least seven).
That “Iscariot” refers to Kerioth is thus just a hypothesis (one that, incidentally, relies on an assumption of a mistake in transcription, conjoining the town’s name with a denominal verb of “man”; similar mistakes scholars suggest transformed the heard-word Sicarius). A popular hypothesis. But not one everyone accepts with any certainty. And again, saying “if x, then y,” does not preclude x being false. Thus, my saying this in no way implies there aren’t other things the term can mean (so she can’t build any claim to incompetence here…except by absurd standards she herself repeatedly violates). But grasping that fact, again, requires categorical-hypothetical reasoning, in order to understand inferred facts from stated propositions (such as that stating “if x, then y,” entails the possibility that not x).
At this point, I should remind my readers how immensely trivial this point is. One off-hand remark, and that only a conditional statement, on a very minor point, itself not essential to anything I argue about the Criterion of Embarrassment generally. And what I actually said isn’t even demonstrably wrong. Fisher is thus not engaging with the substantive points in my book. Not even at all. But most of all here, where she is supposed to be discussing the merits of the general conclusions I reach about the Criterion of Embarrassment and its application. Instead, she doesn’t even tell you what those conclusions are, and never discusses any of the general principles I arrive at, or the cases I make for them. Indeed, she doesn’t even address my overall discussion of the possible literary invention of Judas (for which I advanced evidence and arguments well beyond what she mentions).
Take note of that. Because it tells you what the merits of her review really are. Fisher, like Brown, is trying to fabricate a narrative of incompetence (and has no other agenda…like, perhaps, actually reviewing my book and its thesis). And to fabricate that narrative, she uses the same dishonest (or delusional?) tactics of straw manning, quote mining, cherry picking, distortion, omission, and a convenient reliance on double-standards (see Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History).
Screwed Logic and the Failure to Learn
After that random, cherry picked (and sparse) trivia, Fisher says:
How much help is Bayes’ theorem in understanding all this? It is of no help whatever. It can do nothing to prevent Carrier from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars such as the hopelessly radical Mack, the Christian fundamentalist Porter, and the equally bigoted Cohn as pillars in his argumentative travesty.
This is most curious, because she has strangely neglected to discuss any of the many examples I gave of applying Bayesian reasoning to similar problems, and then invents examples of her own instead, and asks how to apply Bayesian reasoning to them. That would be a productive question if it were sincere. But in fact, she says that because I didn’t build Bayesian models for her examples, that therefore no Bayesian models can be built, not only for them, but for any claims in history. Which is dishonest. Because it ignores all the examples I did build Bayesian models for, which not only refute her generalization (that it can’t be done), but provide case examples she should be able to use to build Bayesian models of anything else (like her own examples). Except, that would require a decent measure of categorical-hypothetical intelligence, which she has exhibited a consistent lack of throughout her review. Oh well.
Of course, she again slanders Porter and Mack and Cohn (this time a more libelous ad hominem, that Cohn is a “bigot”…merely because he is a patriotic Jew…Elders of Zion, anyone?). But what is more important to address here is her inability to tease out the genuine merits of what she might have to say, but instead folds everything into a rage narrative about how I am a hopelessly unreliable pseudo-scholar…merely because I don’t always agree with her or say exactly what she wants.
To see what I mean about genuine merits buried in her junk discourse, let me diagram her implied argument (sans the possibly libelous ad hominems):
- P1. [Bayes’ Theorem by itself] can do nothing to prevent [someone] from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars.
- P2. Therefore, [Bayes’ Theorem] is of no help whatever.
Note that P1 is quite true. I even make the point myself in my book (and the whole of chapter two is about the steps that have to be taken to avoid it), although, again, Fisher conspicuously never tells her readers that. But P2 in no plausible way follows from P1. Her whole argument is simply a non sequitur.
I shouldn’t have to explain that Bayes’ Theorem, like any other method whatever, only works when it is used properly and its premises are sound. So, for example:
- P1. Textual criticism can do nothing to prevent someone from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars.
- P2. Therefore, textual criticism is of no help whatever.
See the problem? Fisher’s logic is, in a word, fucked. By her reasoning, all methods are useless and should be abandoned. Even logic itself. After all:
- P1. Knowing logic can do nothing to prevent someone from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars.
- P2. Therefore, knowing logic is of no help whatever.
Notice how logic is used to defend all manner of absurdities (like the existence of God). That bad premises lead to bad conclusions simply has nothing to do with whether logic itself is of use and needs to be learned and used properly. So, too, Bayes’ Theorem. Fisher utterly fails to grasp this. And in fact her entire review is based on her failing to grasp this. If we’re going to cite evidence of incompetence, doesn’t that count as an actual example?
Ultimately, I fully agree I can mistakenly use bad premises and thereby get bad conclusions. I even say in my book that statistically I, like all scholars, will make occasional mistakes. But that does not discredit the method we are using to draw conclusions from our premises. And that method simply must be Bayesian. Because it already is. That’s the entire thesis of Proving History, proved meticulously across six chapters. So when Fisher asks the rhetorical question “How much help is Bayes’ theorem in understanding all this?,” the actual answer is: Bayes’ Theorem is precisely what justifies your revised conclusion when you correct a faulty input (like removing an undefended assumption, or correcting a mistaken fact, or adding a previously overlooked fact), and is precisely the guide you rely on to pinpoint the inputs you should question, and to determine their effect on the conclusion.
That is not “no help whatever.” To the contrary, it’s all the help there is. If it wasn’t for the validity of Bayesian reasoning, you could not revise your conclusion upon revising your premises in any logically valid way. And that’s the bottom line. Fisher is already relying on Bayesian reasoning. She just doesn’t understand how or why, or have any idea how understanding that can improve her ability to reason (and detect or avoid errors). Because she didn’t pay attention to any of the hundreds of pages in my book devoted to teaching her that. She was too busy searching for cherry picked trivia to build her narrative of incompetence out of. And consequently, learned nothing.
Parade of Non Sequiturs
That’s not the only non sequitur in Fisher’s review. For example, she says:
Mack and Porter have in common with Carrier that they cannot read Aramaic, and consequently cannot understand any arguments based on features in the text of the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, which have often been thought to reflect Aramaic sources. Cohn simply seems not to have done so, and wrote too early to have read recent work written in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I don’t know how she can be certain Mack and Porter “cannot read Aramaic.” I also think it’s obviously hyperbolic to say that not reading Aramaic means you “cannot understand any arguments based on features in the text of the synoptic Gospels” (not any), which is basically condemning the large majority of New Testament scholars (collateral damage again). It’s also a bit rich, considering that the Gospels were written in Greek, so one can certainly say you “cannot understand most arguments based on features in the text of the synoptic Gospels” if you can’t read Greek. But Aramaic? That’s begging way too many questions. And that is exactly what many scholars have taken Casey to task for (see, for example, references in PH, n. 63, pp. 316; and discussion in pp. 185-86). Porter, for example, is a world authority in New Testament Greek.
But what really disturbs me here are the non sequiturs. At no point has Fisher presented any evidence (none at all) that “Mack and Porter” actually fail to understand something they have said–at all, much less because they (supposedly) don’t read Aramaic. Her generalization is simply wholly unsupported by even a single particular, much less the array of them one would need to sustain a generalization. She likewise has presented no evidence that Cohn “did not” rely on knowledge of Aramaic in any argument he has ever made, or that his not doing so undermined any argument he has made. She also hasn’t given a single example of any claim Cohn made, on which I rely, that is in any way affected by subsequent discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, as she alleges. (On the crucial importance of that last point, see Axiom 12, PH, pp. 34-37.)
Thus, all we have here is a string of wholly unsupported assertions. Notably, this is not what you find anywhere in my book. Compare the method of argument she deploys (which is basically, no logical method at all), with what I deploy throughout Proving History, and you’ll have all you need to know about their relative merits.
This is a repeated failing. Fisher goes on to malign a fellow student (Thomas Verenna), and then says I am “typically misleading and characteristically over confident about [my] convictions” (emphasis added) yet she has provided evidence supporting neither. Not even a single instance of my misleading anyone, much less sufficient examples to show I “typically” do. Nor has she presented any examples of my being “over-confident.” Not any. Much less, again, sufficient examples to show I “characteristically” am. (Remember, for example, in the Judas case, I stated a conditional, the exact opposite of over-confidence, and in the Gospel dating example, I actually correctly informed the reader that not everyone agrees with the consensus dating, which is again not evidence of “over-confidence.”)
Thus, again, just unsupported assertions, all bordering on libelous. Even closer to libel is her statement that “especially in evidence in this article is [Carrier’s] inability to provide sufficient or adequate references.” This is appalling, because she actually omits many references I do provide and never once discusses the full array of arguments I deploy for anything (for example, in the Judas case, she ignores maybe 90% of everything I say). No mention of the fact that many of the points I make about the Criterion of Embarrassment are likewise made by Meier, Tuckett, Porter, Hooker, Allison, Avalos, Goodacre, and many others I extensively cite throughout. I have 39 pages of citations in endnotes in Proving History (for less than 290 pages of main text). To claim I consistently fail “to provide sufficient or adequate references” is ridiculous.
More potentially libellous non sequiturs follow. For example, she says “Carrier considers himself to be an expert in fields in which he has no qualifications,” but doesn’t give a single example. So no one really can know what fields she thinks I have claimed to be an expert in, or whether I actually do have any qualifications in them (note she says “no” qualifications, which can be refuted by citing even so much as one). But somehow I suspect her standards for what counts as “claiming to be an expert” are absurdly vague, while her standards for what counts as “a” qualification are absurdly fastidious. Her opinions in the matter are therefore simply not reliable. She just isn’t speaking the same language the rest of us are.
Then We Get to the Telling of Lies
Yep, lies. Fisher says I “made the most extraordinary and unqualified claim that ‘every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked’.” She tries to dispute that by questioning “whom” I consider to be expert (and as we saw, she condemns almost all actual experts as incompetent pseudo-scholars, so we can see where this is going).
In fact, my statement is true. My main criterion is right there in the statement she quotes: “a specialist in [the] methodology.” What counts as that? Someone who has the minimum qualifications in the field (= a relevant graduate degree) and has published studies and research on the methodology itself. Given those criteria, there is not one (not even one) scholar who disagrees with me (except, I’m sure, as to my colorful language).
Fisher’s contrary claim that “all competent and critical New Testament scholars investigating the history of early Christianity, should be competent in methodology in order to pursue academic enquiry” is not only rich (as we just saw, Fisher thinks almost all critical New Testament scholars are incompetent), but also false. If you have not taken the time to study and analyze the methodology to the extent expected of any graduate level thesis, you are not a specialist in it. You may know how to use it, but you do not know whether it is valid or sound. Knowing that requires actual directed study of that very question.
Really, I shouldn’t have to explain this to someone who thinks everyone is incompetent who isn’t hyper-specifically qualified in whatever it is they are discussing. But I’ve already said her standard is absurd. Mine is far more reasonable, and still it comes out with the conclusion: every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are totally fucked (or at least mostly fucked, but either way, unsalvageable as-is). Fisher names some folks she claims have published studies of the methods used by Jesus scholars and found them sound, but she fails to cite a single article or book where they do this, so her claim is unverifiable. It’s also dubious. I suspect she is conflating “written about their own methods” with “published studies of the methods used by Jesus scholars and found them sound.”
But here is where Fisher’s morals go out the window. Fisher at this point goes on to condemn a book she hasn’t even read (which is now available: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity), featuring numerous prominent experts specializing in the methodology, all coming to this same conclusion. She gives the impression that I discussed this in the same place as the remark she quotes above (notably, she fails to identify either location or provide any links so readers can ascertain their context), which she calls a “blog,” which is correct for the colorful phrase (which is taken from here), where such things belong, but what she quotes me on about JCDA is actually not from a blog, but a major online industry publication, The Bible & Interpretation, which published my article about my book (PDF here).
Why is this important? Because Fisher says this:
Carrier then goes on to include several other people, including Tom Verenna who has no qualifications and Thomas Thompson who is not a New Testament scholar, suggesting they all reject historical method as leading to confusing results. This is a grotesque caricature of scholarship, and Carrier’s expectation that consensus should be reached by people of such different ideological perspectives is fantasy.
This is very dishonest. And it looks pretty libelous to me. Because here is what I actually said (and this is the only context in which I cited Verenna and Thompson on anything close to this point):
James Charlesworth concurs, concluding that “what had been perceived to be a developing consensus in the 1980s has collapsed into a chaos of opinions.” Several others have come to the same conclusion, demonstrating, with extensive citation of examples, the whole confusion of contradictory opinions that has resulted from applying these methods: Thomas Thompson, Thomas Verenna, James Crossley, Mark Strauss, John Poirier, Mark Allen Powell, and John Dominic Crossan, just to name a few
Note very carefully what this actually says. I did not cite Verenna or Thompson as specialists or experts in the methodology, and did not cite them in support of my statement that the methods are “fucked.” In lieu of my repeating that sentence, please read it again. Now look at what Fisher is saying: she is communicating to her readers that I cited Verenna and Thompson among the “experts who are specialists in methodology,” and that this makes me incompetent, because they are not competent to write about that subject. Leaving aside the latter assumption (which could be false), her claim is a lie. I did not cite Verenna and Thompson in that capacity.
What did I cite them on? As having documented what Charlesworth observed, that scholarship has now “collapsed into a chaos of opinions” about Jesus. Not the invalidity of methods. The proliferation of contradictory conclusions about Jesus. What qualification does one need to document (and I do mean document) that scholarship has now “collapsed into a chaos of opinions” about Jesus? Well, pretty much a brain, access to a library, and any means of typing words. Fisher’s entire attack against the competence of Verenna and Thompson is completely invalid. They are completely competent (even more than) to do this. The thing I actually said they did. And cited them as having done. And that topples Fisher’s claim that I must be incompetent or untrustworthy because I cited them…because there was nothing incompetent or untrustworthy about how I cited them or what I cited them for.
This appalls me. Because it means Fisher is so desperately keen on building her false narrative about my incompetence, that she is willing to deceive her readers, and quote me out of context, to create the impression I did something I didn’t. And she uses that as an additional opportunity to insult two other scholars in the field. (The nonsense that Thompson can’t be an expert in early Christian history because he is “only” an expert in second temple Judaism, which Christianity happens to be a sect of, I already debunk here. Verenna, meanwhile, is presently an undergraduate in the field who reports as a journalist, a task for which he has developed considerable skill, arguably more than Fisher can claim. He also has published a chapter on this subject in a peer reviewed academic book. It’s unknown to me whether Fisher has ever done that.)
It’s thus sadly ironic that Fisher accuses me of “select[ing] helpful words out of context.” Right. Her only example of this fails to illustrate her point. She claims I cite Goodacre out of context, and to prove it, she quotes Goodacre saying essentially the same thing I do, repeatedly in chapter five, where I argue (like Goodacre) that many of the criteria can be salvaged if used soundly…it’s just that I find that “soundly” means, as I demonstrate (a demonstration Fisher never once even mentions much less addresses), that it must be Bayesian, and once we go there, the results aren’t what Jesus scholars would hope for. I don’t think Fisher understands what “quoting out of context” means. I didn’t do it. She did. And in a profoundly dishonest way.
Lying about My Treatment of the Criterion of Aramaic
You are probably getting tired by now. I know I am. And yet we haven’t even gotten through half her review. No, seriously. Not even half. I don’t see much point in continuing, except to respond to her more substantive slanders, so don’t worry, we’re almost done here.
Fisher attacks Stanley Porter’s honesty and competence again, again without any evidence except claims and suspicions about the possible role of his biases (word to the wise, you cannot claim “you are biased, therefore your conclusions are invalid”…I should not have to explain why that’s a non sequitur). She notably obsesses so much on Porter, that she altogether forgets that I quoted another authority agreeing with us on the problems facing the Criterion of Aramaicism (or “Aramaic Context”): Christopher Tuckett.
But more important here is the fact that Fisher claims I and everyone else who disagrees with her on this are incompetent on this question, but never once actually answers any of the arguments I summarize from Porter and Tuckett as to why the Criterion of Aramaicism has not been shown to work (and by “work” it should be obvious from context that this means: has successfully been used to establish something as factual about Jesus…other than the trivial, like that he probably spoke Aramaic if he spoke at all, which everyone, even mythicists, agree on).
I don’t know about you, but not addressing the actual arguments you are responding to is what looks like incompetence to me.
I want to emphasize this, because readers might not notice it. Fisher spends six paragraphs arguing against Porter…but not on the point I cite Porter for (that the Criterion of Aramaicism is problematic: PH, pp. 185-86), but on a point I myself argue against (PH, pp. 184, 186-87; thus, Fisher is only agreeing with me here…yet somehow has confused herself into thinking she is disagreeing with me). I think she is wrong even in some of the particulars of what she says against Porter here, but that isn’t relevant to Proving History (I give a contrary bibliography to hers, as it happens, in my next book; but as just one example, she thinks that there being no Greek loan words in Aramaic at Qumran shows the non-use of Greek by devout Jews, yet somehow neglects to mention the various uses of Greek at Qumran, indeed 27 examples, which kind of refutes her point: see Matthew Richey, “The Use of Greek at Qumran,” Dead Sea Discoveries 19 : 177-97; more evidence has been recovered from Masada and Jericho and a dozen other sites: ibid., p. 180).
Notably, the entire argument Fisher deploys here is a textbook violation of Axiom 12 (PH, pp. 34-37). Ironic, considering her complaining that we need more than Bayes’ Theorem to argue soundly, where she completely ignored my whole chapter two which says essentially that (containing twelve axioms and rules to ensure sound premises go into your Bayesian model). And here she is again ignoring the very advice the book gives her that she said it should have given her. Honestly.
But now she lies again. Even more egregiously than she did before. She says (emphasis added):
He comments, ‘If every instance is a Semitism, then it is not evidence of an Aramaic source’, and then assumes that every instance is a general Semitism (although he doesn’t distinguish the difference) and dismisses Casey’s evidence and entire argument of cumulative weight.
Okay. Now look at what my book actually says (emphasis added):
The first difficulty with this criterion is that it isn’t easy to discern an “underlying Aramaic origin” from an author or source who simply wrote or spoke in a Semitized Greek. The output of both often look identical. And yet we know the earliest Christians routinely wrote and spoke in a Semitized Greek, and regularly employed (and were heavily influenced by) the Septuagint, which was written in a Semitized Greek.
Many early Christians were also bilingual (as Paul outright says he was), and thus often spoke and thought in Aramaic, and thus could easily have composed tales in Aramaic (orally or in lost written form) that were just as fabricated as anything else, which could then have been translated into Greek, either by the Gospel authors themselves or their sources. Indeed, some material may have preceded Jesus in Aramaic form (such as sayings and teachings, as we find collected at Qumran) that was later attributed to him with suitable adaptation. So 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.
Consequently, Semitic features in a Gospel pericope do not make its historicity any more likely, other than in very exceptional cases (where we can actually prove an underlying source that we otherwise did not already suspect), and even then it gains very little (since an underlying source is not automatically reliable).
And so on (there is more…but I’ve quoted enough to prove Fisher is a liar). Notably, this more than adequately responds to Casey-style arguments. But Fisher doesn’t discuss that or show any point where Casey-style arguments overcome these problems.
It’s important to note that Fisher is supposed to be addressing (reviewing) my book, Proving History. She even opens this section of her review with “Carrier’s section on ‘Aramaic Context’ moves beyond the incompetent to the barely comprehensible.” So why, when she claims to be quoting “Carrier’s section on ‘Aramaic Context’,” does she not in fact quote a single word of that, but instead a blog comment? That’s right, not even a blog article, but a comment I made in response to a specific question, in a specific context. (Her endnote 29 exposes this trick, so she was at least honest enough to leave a trail this time.)
It is disturbing that she would do that, and then essentially tell her readers that my book’s “section” on this not only says that (it doesn’t) but that it says nothing else but that. That is outright deception. Her endnote 30 is evidence of this, as it cites my pages in PH, yet that note is appended to a sentence that claims I said nothing else against Casey-style arguments, so she is unmistakably lying about the content of the book. All in the context of claiming I am incompetent. And that is, again, pretty close to libelous. (I should warn her that libel laws in England are draconian and not at all her friend…she is very fortunate that I am too moral to use them against her, as I believe they are unjust, but a future target of her behavior might not be so high minded.)
After all that, Fisher devotes eight or so paragraphs against something Earl Doherty argued regarding the family of Jesus. I cannot discern anything in this relevant to anything I say in Proving History. Yet she follows this section, which says nothing about me or my book, with the section heading “Still More Incompetence,” as if somehow I can be impugned by the mistakes of Doherty (even if such there are…by now, I have zero confidence in Fisher’s ability to fairly represent her opponents or make logically valid arguments, so Doherty probably has nothing to worry about).
The stranger thing is that this section, called “Still More Incompetence,” doesn’t reference Proving History at all. It’s as if she forgot she was supposed to be finding evidence of my incompetence in PH. Go look. Not a single thing she says there refers to any of the contents of PH. Likewise in the following (and final) two sections of her review (one on Schweitzer, again showing no relevance to Proving History, and another on “the future,” where she again doesn’t discuss anything in Proving History).
What she does try to dicker against in all three of those sections can certainly be disputed (you’ve seen by now how very unreliable she is), but I’m bored with her. I have no more interest in analyzing any garbage she writes. Dishonesty, illogicality, a complete failure to engage with any substantive point in my book…and I had to sit through 8,000 words of that crap. I’m done.
I’ll just close with one last observation: Fisher says “Carrier slanders scholars with spurious and unqualified accusations such as being ‘insane’ and a ‘liar’ which is merely a reflection of his own non-professionalism and inability to engage in critical academic debate,” but note that when I do make those claims, I thoroughly document them and provide strong evidence they are true–whereas Fisher never does this. She evidently doesn’t realize that she is the one “slandering scholars with spurious and unqualified accusations.” My accusations are neither spurious nor unqualified nor given without evidence to back them up (and lest she was unaware, it’s not slander if it’s true, or I can reasonably believe it’s true given the evidence available to me). For examples, see here, here, and here. Contrast how seriously I take the need to carefully and clearly provide evidence of any such accusation I make, with how much Fisher doesn’t take this responsibility at all seriously and never proves any of her possibly libelous generalizations.
Likewise, my “attacks are entirely personal and usually conducted in the kind of language we would expect after a few rounds at the local,” is hugely ironic coming from miss Dickery, who indeed does appear to be acting solely on personal grudges, because she certainly isn’t acting on sense or evidence. By contrast, she cannot honestly claim my attacks are “entirely personal,” because every last one of them I meticulously document and support with evidence. Again, unlike Fisher. It is thus her writing, and not mine, that looks like a spew of “emotional outbursts.”
Perhaps exemplifying this is her weird question, “How does an author of self published books, which have never been peer reviewed, become renowned?” Well, by the books being known and talked about all over the world, and selling in multiple countries by the thousands, leading to my being asked to speak to colleges and community groups at least a dozen times a year across three nations. Somehow I doubt Fisher can claim anything of the sort for herself. And that appears to anger her. But that’s her problem.
In the end, Fisher tries to claim I’m delusional, but the key requirement, “falsity of content,” remains something she has utterly failed to demonstrate.