I shall continue my series on early reviews of On the Historicity of Jesus next week. But for the weekend I’ll just post a little embarrassing bit about Bart Ehrman I’ve just not found a spot to fit it in until now. Bart Ehrman has so far been refusing to engage with my book or its argument, and instead just complains about being criticized, without ever responding to any of my more serious criticisms, in a most suspicious and conspicuous fashion. And since my last commentary on this, he has avoided ever responding to me, until this April…sort of.
Ironically, while I was at ReasonCon in Hickory, North Carolina, giving an extensive and entertaining lecture on the evidence in my new book, Bart Ehrman was at FFRFCon just over in Raleigh, North Carolina lecturing on his. That would be, of course, his newest title How Jesus Became God, which I am reading and will review eventually (I’m already up to page 250 but have too many other demands on my time so I won’t likely finish it soon), although I can already say, for all its flaws, it’s a much better book than DJE.
Notably, someone who was present has reported to me something that happened during Q&A. They also told me they thought it curious how many of the points Ehrman raised [in his talk] seem to support myth over history (as I can verify the book does, too–ironically Ehrman even defends a position throughout it that he once attacked me for holding: that in fact the earliest Christians preaching a risen Christ did think of Jesus as like a god, even in fact a pre-existent divine being). But during Q&A, someone in the audience asked him why he still thinks Jesus existed, given all he himself has argued that casts doubt on it, and apparently he got defensive, saying something like (and this is not an exact quote) “All serious biblical scholars in the field are convinced the historical Jesus existed, and you don’t want to look like a fringe idiot by denying the hard work of the experts, who know more than you do” and then something to the effect of “we have documents written by people who knew him, and by people who knew his brother.”
[This paraphrase turns out to have been fairly accurate. See bottom of this post for an exact transcript from the video, which became available after I originally wrote this.]
Of course, the first statement is false and he ought to know by now that it is false, and the second statement is disingenuously circular (as it is only true if you assume it is true–the evidence itself is ambiguous: Paul never says anyone he spoke to “knew Jesus” in any way differently than Paul did, and he is not at all clear that he met actual biological brothers of Jesus), and deeply problematic. I cover what’s wrong with these claims in chapters 1, 2 and 12 of OHJ (and his whole argument from consensus is further challenged by chapters 1 and 5 of Proving History). I won’t make too much of this because brief remarks during Q&A can often omit nuance, and [when I originally wrote this I didn't] have his exact words anyway. But the questioner was apparently shocked at how rudely and defensively Ehrman reacted to their question; apparently it seemed a button had been pushed and emotion got the better of him.
This is telling because I have heard a number of stories like this: whenever Ehrman is asked about me or my book he flips his lid and rants about how awful a person I am because I use words like “sucks” (note: that is an ad hominem fallacy), and how dare I accuse him of lying and of making serious mistakes. But the curious thing is that never in any of these explosions does he ever mention or address the evidence I presented that in fact he has lied and that in fact he has made serious mistakes (I documented at least thirty, including serious mistakes of both logic [from the most to least serious: items 28, 5, 10, 4, 7, 8, 26, 2, 6, 9, 1, 12, 27, 3, 25, and, of course 30 and 31, and indirectly, 29 and 23] and fact [from the most to least serious: items 13, 11, 15, 19, 18, 16, 22, 17; item 14 I retracted as being an unfair criticism, and item 21 is to date the only error he has publicly corrected and apologized for that I know of], and directly contradicting himself twice in the same book [items 20 and 24].
Ehrman’s practice has always been to snipe at minor points, and not even mention the major errors I caught him at, or his lies. Indeed, he consistently pretends that I made no other points, and that if he can explain away a few minor points, then he has fully responded to me so why don’t I shut up already. (He is evidently unaware that this is a scientifically established cognitive error: the illusion of thinking that if you can defeat the weak arguments in a collection of weak and strong arguments, that you have also defeated the strong arguments as well–a mistake Christians and politicians make all the time; see The Christian Delusion, p. 68.) Most telling is his pretending that I never caught him lying, that I merely “accused” him of lying, as if I had not presented damning evidence of it but was just making a baseless accusation. It is his refusal to admit his dishonesty, correct it, and apologize for it that most of all damns him in my eyes. I consider him disgraced as a scholar. His colleagues just haven’t taken the trouble to look at the evidence damning him. If they did, I suspect most would agree with me his behavior is genuinely disgraceful and he should be ashamed of it (the remainder would try to defend him with even more embarrassing apologetics, like we get from James McGrath [items 4 and 5]).
This is all most elegantly demonstrated in his latest “response” to me, which he begrudgingly and angrily spewed onto his blog just a few months ago: “Attacks from the Other Side: An Ill-Tempered Richard Carrier” (21 April 2014). Much of it is behind a paywall, so when I quote later portions of it those who don’t want to pay to read the original will just have to rely on my quotations. It begins with self-congratulatory smugness that requires no comment, laced with hyperbole like that I have “shown more vitriol, hatred, and mean-spiritedness toward [him] than almost any of the fundamentalists who attack [him] from the other side,” a remark that suggests Ehrman doesn’t actually read most of what fundamentalists write about him. By contrast, this and this are the worst things I’ve said about him, which is what he is calling “vitriol” and “hatred” and “mean-spiritedness,” as an excuse to avoid admitting it is all entirely true–excepting one criticism I’ve agreed was, though true, nevertheless unfair. Instead Ehrman implies I said things like “Ehrman is an idiot!”, evidently thinking up more vulgar and insulting ways to say what I actually said, and then claiming I’m therefore the one being vulgar and insulting. Right.
But watch what happens in this latest blog post of his–the only response he has made (to my knowledge) since I summarized dozens of claims he still has never responded to: he responds to only one of those items, and that one of the least important (and notably, not one of the two I showed he later lied about).
The following is in reference to my point that we do not have any references to Pontius Pilate in any (non-Christian/non-Jewish) pagan sources of the first century – a point I make in order to put into perspective the fact we don’t have any reference to Jesus in any non-Christian/non-Jewish sources of the first century (my point being that if the most important figure – historically, culturally, politically — in all of Palestine during Jesus’ adult years, the Roman governor of Judea, is never mentioned, what are the chances that Jesus would be? This point is made to counter the common but erroneous claim that if Jesus really existed, a lot of sources would have mentioned him. Really? When they don’t mention even someone like Pilate???) Read Carrier’s critique, and then read the statement beneath it taken straight from my book, Did Jesus Exist.
He then quotes one small paragraph from my argument in my critique of not his book, but his Huffington Post article, which came out before I read his book, and in which I explicitly said his book might do a better job–and indeed after I reviewed his book, I agreed it did indeed do a better job on this point. But notice that here he asks you to compare my critique of the HuffPo article to what he wrote in his book! This is one of the most dishonest things I’ve seen him pull. And I know it’s dishonest because the article he pulls my quote from explicitly says:
Perhaps these aren’t mistakes, and just very, very, very badly worded sentences. When I receive his book in a few days I’ll be able to check. Possibly he does a much better job there, and gets his facts right. We’ll see. But for now, I have to address this article…
Yep. And in my critique of his book, I do not in fact say this error is in it. The error is only in the article…and indeed, it is in that article (and so far as I know remains uncorrected to this day, despite that being in a news periodical, in which factual corrections should be ethically expected). He also gets to accuse me of misrepresenting his book, by quoting me correctly representing his article, and then forgetting to tell his readers that I did not make this claim against his book but even admitted the error is not in the book, and indeed in my very critique of the article he is quoting I even allowed that that might be the case!
This is scholarly dishonesty on his part, by any objective measure.
Ehrman does note that “to be fair to Carrier, his comment was posted on his blog about a short piece that I wrote for the Huffington Post,” and repeats in his defense the same appallingly disingenuous argument McGrath attempted for him, that he didn’t mean by (quote) “Roman sources of his day” Roman sources of his day.
Many Romans wrote in Greek, and Philo was a Roman, twice over: a subject and inhabitant of the Roman empire, and a Roman citizen. As was Josephus. And, of course, Pilate himself, who not only attested his own existence to us directly, but even in Latin. And, BTW, Jews can be Romans as easily as they can be Germans or Americans…being Jewish doesn’t delete your nationality, citizenship, or geographical residence, any more than being Christian or Zoroastrian would. So for him to claim he did not consider Pilate, Philo, or Josephus to be “Roman sources” now makes him look even more incompetent, or even more deceptive, than his original article did. He now looks like a pathetic apologist trying to weasel out of a mistake with specious semantics, throwing the general reading public under the bus…because, I guess, “fuck ‘em if they don’t know that ‘no’ Roman sources actually means three Roman sources and therefore there is more evidence for Pilate than for Jesus, negating the whole point of my using Pilate as an example in the first place.”
Who thinks that is acceptable behavior? Using the word “sucks” (or any particular language or dialect) does not negate one’s status as a scholar. Acting like a disingenuous weasel, though, kind of does.
Ehrman now smugly says “But if [Carrier] had simply waited to read my book before blasting off at me, he would have seen what I meant,” evidently not getting the point that the article as written remains grossly erroneous and misleading to the public, and I was commenting on the article not the book, and that the article should therefore have a correction issued. And also ignoring that the very article he is complaining about actually already said “perhaps these aren’t mistakes, and just very, very, very badly worded sentences” and “possibly he does a much better job…and gets his facts right” in the book so that we should wait and see, “but for now, I have to address this article.” And then I did. For him to complain about my ethical standards here is appalling. I was diligent in being careful about what I said. He is not.
It is just all the richer that Ehrman concludes by insisting, “at the least I think Carrier should have retracted his vitriolic comments once he actually got around to reading my book.” Hmm. You mean like I actually did? Only, I did not have to retract what I said, because I already said in the original article that what I was saying there might not apply to his book. Hey. You know what should be retracted? His false statements in the Huffington Post article. All of them should be corrected, officially, in a paragraph following the article online, where retractions and corrections typically go, so that anyone who reads the article will no longer be misled…although the tens of thousands who already read it, and thus won’t have seen that correction, will just have to go on being wholly misinformed, and people like me will have to go on continually correcting them every time they tell me Bart Ehrman said there is no evidence corroborating Pilate’s existence “so why don’t I say Pilate didn’t exist?,” and then Ehrman will keep posting disingenuous garbage like this rather than admit he screwed up and miseducated the public (more of whom will have read his article than his book).
It is even richer when Ehrman says his “point is that it is very easy to take someone’s words out of context and then start sending in the nukes, if your goal is to ridicule those who have the temerity to disagree with you.” Because that is not what I did (as just demonstrated above). Rather, that is what he just did.
And the irony is lost on him.
Thus, while he pulls weaselly bullshit like this, and only addresses the least significant errors I’ve called him out for (this point is one of the few in his article that I pointed out he corrected in the book…and is thus not even close to the most serious of his mistakes), and instead avoids ever even discussing the serious errors I’ve called him out for (or, on two occasions, lies about not having made them), he is the one who tries to claim I am the one who is “not civil” and “not a generous scholar” and “mean-spirited and out for blood, the kind of scholar who prefers mockery to the reasoned exchange of ideas.”
Ehrman can’t comprehend how lying practically to someone’s face might piss them off. Or grossly misleading the public. Or horribly botching the facts. And then refusing to respond to, or even acknowledging, calls to correct them, and only discussing instead the relatively trivial, and being contemptuously disingenuous and misleading even then. Or how he is actually the one who launched the tirades against the competence and qualifications of what are actually in fact bona fide scholars, misrepresenting their credentials, misrepresenting their significance, and then lies about what they said, and lies to them about what he said, and threatens them. And now he has the gall to claim he is the one being mistreated. As if he is “shocked, just shocked” that I would voice my indignance over his contempt for the truth.
Update (October 2014): Video of the original exchange is now available. The exchange I talk about above starts at minute 51:16. The questioner asks, “I do not see evidence in archaeology or history for a historical Jesus.” He does get testy, and appears visibly agitated. He answers:
Well, I do. I mean, that’s why I wrote the book. Okay, yeah, I have a whole book on it! So, there is a lot of evidence. I mean, there is so much evidence, that … it is, it is not … look, I know, in the crowds you all run around with it’s commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside your conclave, there’s nobody who, I mean, this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. It is not an issue for scholars… There is no scholar in any college or university in the Western world, who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed. Now, that is not evidence. That is not evidence. Just because everybody thinks so doesn’t make it evidence. But, if you want to know about the theory of evolution vs. the theory of creationism, and every scholar in every reputable institution in the world thinks and believes in evolution, it may not be evidence, but if you’ve got a different opinion, you better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself.
The reason for thinking Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources. That’s why. And I give the details in my book. Early and independent sources indicate that, certainly that Jesus existed. One author we know about knew Jesus’s brother. And knew Jesus’s closest disciple Peter. He’s an eyewitness to both Jesus’s closest disciple and his brother. So, I mean, I’m sorry, but, again, I respect your disbelief, but I, I, you know, if you want to go where the evidence goes, I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism. Because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world. If that’s what you’re gonna believe, you just look foolish. You are much better off going with historical evidence and arguing historically, rather than coming up with the theory that Jesus didn’t exist.
Ironically, his answer to the next question, why fundamentalist biblical scholars can’t see reason, is almost an exact description of Bart Ehrman on historicity.