James Lindsay on the Historicity of Jesus

Philosopher James Lindsay (not to be confused with CFI Director Ron Lindsay), author of God Doesn’t; We Do has written an interesting piece about my book, On the Historicity of Jesus, but tangentially, i.e. he isn’t reviewing the book but responding to the way some people might use it. See Why I Really Don’t Care If Jesus Existed or Not.

Notably I have long agreed with his overall thesis: objectively, the historicity of Jesus is no more important than the historicity of Socrates, and is really only an interesting question in history. It’s not an earth-shattering thesis in counter-apologetics. It would be only if we had smoking-gun scale evidence against historicity, and we don’t, due to the paucity of evidence survival and its hugely compromised state (OHJ, chs. 7 § 7 and 8 § 3-4 and § 12; also chs. 4, Element 22, and 5, Element 44). For example, if Christianity were based on the belief that a flying saucer was found at Roswell and alien bodies recovered from it and autopsied by the government, the evidence against that even having happened would certainly be exhibit A in any refutation of Christianity. But we have in the Jesus case nothing like the survival of evidence we have in the Roswell case. Hence I’ve made the point before: Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy.

My interest in it is because I’m a historian, whose specializations include ancient religions and the origins of Christianity, I was paid with a research grant to study the issue, and the way Christian dogma and faith beliefs have infected even secular study of the subject is a serious issue long overdue for a correction. Exactly as happened for the Patriarchs: Christian dogma and faith beliefs infected even secular study of that subject until a serious corrective effort was launched in the 1970s which has resulted in what is now a mainstream consensus among non-fundamentalist experts that the Old Testament Patriarchs are mythical persons who almost certainly never really existed. Christianity was not thereby overthrown. But the shift was nevertheless necessary to maintain the respectability of biblical history as an honest profession. The same is now true of the debate over the historicity of Jesus, as even historicity advocate Philip Davies has said.

The end result has been, I believe, a lot of increased clarity and discovery concerning many issues in the origins of Christianity, and not just the target issue of how certain we can be that Jesus was even a person. Readers of my book will notice that every chapter has wide utility for counter-apologetics without even having to mention much less affirm the non-existence of Jesus; you will recognize a lot of cherished Christian apologetical shibboleths being demolished there, and the citations of sources and scholarship extremely useful to anyone taking them on. But even apart from counter-apologetics, our understanding of ancient religion, ancient culture, ancient politics, and earliest Christianity, is significantly advanced and made more coherently clear by the effort. Which is as it should be. That’s a historian’s job.

So some corrections are still warranted to Lindsay’s analysis.

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List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus

Now that my new book On the Historicity of Jesus has finally become available, for convenience I will be collecting here links to all the responses I’ve published to defenders of the historicity of Jesus. So this article will be continually updated with new entries, and I will keep the order alphabetical by last name of the scholar responded to (when I know it). I have also sorted them into generic debates, and responses to my books specifically.

If anyone sees responses or reviews (in print or online) to my books on this topic (On the Historicity of Jesus or Proving History), please direct me to them in comments here. Please also remark upon any merits you think the response has (or if you think it’s rubbish). I won’t bother replying to all of them. But I’d like to keep a running collection in any case.

-:-

Replies to Generic Defenses of Historicity

Akin, Jimmy (conclusion: argues by assertion rather than evidence).

Bermejo-Rubio, Fernando (conclusion: thoughtful, but circular, and argues from credulity).

Casey, Maurice (conclusion: grossly illogical, probably insane).

Craig, William Lane (conclusion: dishonest and illogical Christian apologetics).

Crook, Zeba (conclusion: good effort, but doesn’t quite get there).

Crossan, J.D. (conclusion: only two premises, one factually dubious, the other illogical).

Ehrman, Bart (conclusion: makes major factual and logical errors, then lies about it).

Goodacre, Mark (conclusion: relies on premises he didn’t know were false).

Horn, Trent (conclusion: gets the text wrong, flounders on weak arguments).

MacDonald, Dennis (conclusion: muddled and not well thought-out).

-:-

Replies to Criticisms of Proving History

Antony, Louise (conclusion: doesn’t understand math).

Brown, Kevin (conclusion: standard Christian apologetics).

Fisher, Stephanie (conclusion: didn’t read the book, lies about it; doesn’t understand math; probably insane).

Ian of Irreducible Complexity (conclusion: pedantic; retracted all substantive criticisms).

McGrath, James (conclusion: didn’t have much to criticize; and what he did, got wrong).

-:-

Replies to Criticisms of On the Historicity of Jesus

Covington, Nicholas (conclusion: poses a methodological question, answered in the book).

Hallquist, Chris (conclusion: makes horribly embarrassing mathematical mistakes).

Lataster, Raphael (conclusion: valid concerns, already dealt with in the book).

Ramos, F. (conclusion: dishonest and illogical fundamentalist apologetics).

Rosson, Loren (conclusion: almost persuaded, remaining objections addressed).

-:-

Knitting Fans, Behold Some Awesome Ancient Roman Tech!

There’s this guy, you see, who knitted his way to a solution to an infamous problem in Roman history. This might be a bit premature (since academic journals haven’t weighed in yet), but I am persuaded that the mystery of the ancient Roman dodecahedrons has been solved. And why I’m persuaded affords a handy example for teaching how Bayesian reasoning works in making good historical inferences.

A What?

Photograph of a bronze dodecahedron recovered from the ancient Roman Empire, described in the text.I suppose I should begin by explaining what a “mysterious ancient Roman dodecahedron” is. It’s not just any dodecahedron from ancient Rome (I’ll show you an unrelated example shortly), but a very peculiarly consistent oddity that no one has been able to explain (mainly because no writing survives mentioning it). It’s a common object. Some hundred or so have been found, originating in the 2nd century A.D. and spanning a couple of centuries afterward. But only in France and northern and eastern Europe. It’s weird looking. And has peculiar features. Some are of stone manufacture, but most are cast bronze.

Another example like the one above, this one lacks the grooves mentioned in the text.Some typical examples (one from Wikipedia, another from the Birmingham Musem) are shown to the right. Each is a twelve-sided hollow object, the sides generally symmetrical (an isohedron, so it looks a little like a twelve-sided die, something old-school role-playing-gamers will recognize), but every side has a circular hole in it, and the holes are different sizes, but the pattern of sizes (the sequence and arrangement) is the same on every object, even though the size of the object (and thus size of the holes) varies considerably, from kind of tiny (one and a half inches total diameter) to about the size of what would have then been a large adult fist (a little over four inches). The holes also sometimes have a sequence of parallel carved rings around them (sort of like gutters or guidelines in the face of the object), but many do not, so these appear to be a decorative flourish (a typical accent found in Roman tech of the time, where common utilitarian objects can be prettied up with some artsy flourishes like that).

But importantly, every corner of these objects has a solid knob sticking out of it, a bollard narrower at its base than at its tip (many of these just look like attached spheres), for twenty knobs in all. This most of all prevents the twelve-sided die analogy from quite being right, that plus the fact that the holes being of different size means each face has a different weight. They also aren’t inscribed with anything…a fact that is far more crucial to determining their purpose than you might at first think.

Just search “Roman dedocahedron” in Google Images and you’ll find dozens of examples. And yet…

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I Am on Wired Magazine’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Logo for the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, the title in 3D letters floating in a 1950s style cartoon version of outer space and Saturn.Bible scholar Robert Price and I were asked about our thoughts on the movie Noah on the Geek’s Guide to the Universe podcast, sponsored by Wired Magazine and hosted by David Barr Kirtley.

The episode (108) first features an interview with author Christopher Moore, who has been rewriting and merging Shakespeare tales from the perspective of different characters in them. This guy does a lot of interesting research for his fiction, and discusses that and how it led to the form of his latest book, The Serpent of Venice, a bizarre comedy-monster-bondage-erotica-horror novel blending Othello and the Merchant of Venice…not kidding, you might want to listen to this half of the show. They also touch on a lot of other things, like the aesthetics of hiding political values in fiction. They even talk about the Noah story a little (between minute 38:40 and 42:10), because Moore wrote Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (which the host says is taught in seminaries, although that seems odd).

Our panel starts at 42:52 and goes a little over an hour from there. We laugh a bit and talk about everything Noah. Whether it was a good movie. How far it deviated from the Old Testament story. Where on earth the changes came from, or what the point of them was. What myths are for and how best to react to them. Why Christians who repudiate the film might be showing their true colors a bit more than they intend. You’ll get all kinds of info and analysis from both of us on how the writers of the film took genuine germs of ideas from the apocrypha and Talmud about the Noah tale and expanded them with their own creative additions. Want to know why there are rock monsters? Or why Noah is a militant vegetarian environmentalist? Or where the idea of that exploding crystal came from? Or where on earth they got the idea of Methuselah burning a million soldiers to death by shoving a sword in the ground? Or how the film is actually more Christian than the Bible story itself? Sci-fi and fantasy geeks will be especially amused.

We also ponder what the aesthetic point might have been behind various decisions the filmmakers made (director Darren Aronofsky, who co-wrote with Ari Handel), and compare how they treated this story with how other films treat mythical tales that are safely pagan (and thus no one notices or cares when they change everything). We even touch on the criticism that went around (like Greta Christina wrote about a while back) that the casting might have been a tinge racist.

Near the end (starting around 136:41) we go a little into my work on Bayesian method and the historicity of Jesus, and an unusual new project Robert Price is involved in that is well worth learning about, and whatnot. Check it out!

Magical Earthquake Ray Beams Caused the Shroud of Turin

Oh, yeah, baby. Someone pointed out to me in a comment on another post that people are circulating a story now that some Italian scientists have “proved” that the Shroud of Turin is authentic because its carbon date was altered by neutron radiation from a giant earthquake in Judea in exactly 33 A.D. (which they also know to have been exactly 8.2 on the Richter scale, thanks to, uh, ancient Roman seismometers or something). This claim even appears, without any skepticism, at Science Daily. And somehow, upending the whole world order, the duly skeptical report on this tale comes from Fox News! The original study claiming these absurd things is A. Carpinteri, G. Lacidogna, and O. Borla, Is the Shroud of Turin in Relation to the Old Jerusalem Historical Earthquake? Meccanica (February 2014).

That is either a joke article, or these Italians at the Politecnico di Torino are some of the goofiest cranks in human history (it appears to be the latter, but it’s hard to tell–if this is a Poe, it’s pretty good; whereas the paper’s lead author appears to be an established crank). [Read more...]

Hitler Homer Bible Christ: A Surprise New Book by Richard Carrier

While waiting for Sheffield to finish and release On the Historicity of Jesus (the book everyone is waiting for, presently projected for late March or early April), I decided to produce my own anthology of all my published papers on history. That volume, Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, is now available, in print and kindle.

The publication description reads as follows (emphasis added):

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., philosopher, historian, blogger, has published a number of papers in the field of ancient history and biblical studies. He has also written several books and chapters on diverse subjects, and has been blogging and speaking since 2006. He is known the world over for all the above. But here, together for the first time, are all of Dr. Carrier’s peer reviewed academic journal articles in history through the year 2013, collected with his best magazine articles, research papers and blog posts on the same subjects. Many have been uniquely revised for this publication. Others are inaccessible except through libraries or paywalls. Twenty chapters include his seminal papers on the scandal of Hitler’s Table Talk, the Jerry Vardaman microletter farce, and the testimonies to Christ in Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus, as well as Carrier’s journalistic foray into ancient pyramid quackery, his work on the historical & textual errancy of the bible, and more.

Cover of Hitler Homer Bible Christ. Olive or brown with dark greek falling leaves is the only graphic. The rest is just the title, subtitle at the top, and author at the bottom all in white lettering.The biggest attraction will be the fact that my peer reviewed paper showing that the reference to Christ in Tacitus is an interpolation, which is slated to appear in the academic journal Vigiliae Christianae later this year, is included in this volume, as well as my two other peer reviewed, academically published papers on the historicity question, the one on Thallus not having mentioned Jesus, and the other on the two references to Jesus in Josephus being interpolations (the one deliberate, the other accidental), published in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, respectively.

Also included is my brief but now hard-to-find article for The History Teacher published years ago, and all the articles I published in The Skeptical Inquirer (on the FOX special promoting pyramidiocy, and the two articles on the Jerry Vardaman microletters debacle), and most interestingly for some, my game-changing, peer-reviewed article in the academic journal German Studies Review, exposing the dubious nature of the still-only English translation of Hitler’s Table Talk, largely bogus quotes from which make Hitler look more atheistic than he was. Of particular value to anyone who keeps seeing those quotes repeated and wants ready access to the definitive take-down. I have also included a new afterword on the impact that paper had on Hitler studies, and expanding the analysis to include all the passages you’ll find cited from the Table Talk (and even some quotations elsewhere) to argue Hitler was godless.

All of the above are hard to find or get. I only have the rights to publish them in an anthology of my own works. So I did.

I have also included several online articles, from my blog and elsewhere, many revised for this volume, to produce a handy collection of my best and most useful work in the field of history. The table of contents reads as follows:

– Doing History –

1 :: The Function of the Historian in Society

2 :: History Before 1950

3 :: Experimental History

4 :: B.C.A.D.C.E.B.C.E.

– History Done –

5 :: Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming

6 :: Herod the Procurator and Christian Apologetics

7 :: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?

8 :: On the Dual Office of Procurator and Prefect

– Debunking the Bogus –

9 :: Flash! Fox News Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!

10 :: Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s Magic Coins: The Nonsense of Micrographic Letters

11 :: More on Vardaman’s Microletters

12 :: Hitler’s Table Talk: Troubling Finds

– The Vexed Bible –

13 :: Ignatian Vexation

14 :: Pauline Interpolations

15 :: Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth

16 :: Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication

– The Troublesome Evidence for Jesus –

17 :: The Nazareth Inscription

18 :: Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death

19 :: Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200

20 :: The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44

In all, Hitler Homer clocks in at 395 pages.

I already have a contract to produce an audio version of Hitler Homer. Recording will likely begin in a month or so. The audiobook will thus be available probably mid-year. (Meanwhile, I spent most of last week in the studio finishing the recording of Proving History, which you can expect to be released on audio in just a few months. Sheffield wants to do an audio edition of On the Historicity of Jesus but so far hasn’t discussed arrangements with me, so alas, I have no idea when that will be available.)

Some Good Reads on Ancient History vs. the Gospels

I blogged a while ago about Matthew Ferguson’s brilliant takedown of the 10/42 apologetic. That’s the argument that springs off the ridiculously false claim that we have better sources for Jesus than for Emperor Tiberius…why 42 against 10 even! Not. Oh, so not. See Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan. (Just this year I had a Christian in Q&A try to “get” me with the 10/42 apologetic, so it’s still making the rounds, even after such a decisive refutation that more than one Christian apologist admitted they’d boned it. I was so glad I had that article to refer my questioner to. It masterfully educates.)

Anyway, Ferguson (a doctoral student in Classics at UCI) has been blogging a lot since, in ancient history, counter-apologetics, and philosophy. But I thought my readers would be especially interested in a recent fine article of interest to historicity buffs: Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament. I have often written about the same subject (such as in Not the Impossible Faith, ch. 7; Sense and Goodness without God IV.1.2.6, pp. 246-47; and my analysis of Xenophon vs. the Gospels and the two sections after that). But Ferguson does a really good job building even further on all this, adding examples and clearly explaining the significance of each point, and going beyond even the points I’ve made. Any history buff will find it interesting. It’s just gravy that it has its uses in combating Christian apologetics as well. I’d even say it’s required reading for any layman who wants to get up to speed on essential common knowledge in the field of ancient history that often isn’t known by Christian apologists. This is the thing to read if you want to take on the absurd C.S. Lewisism that the Gospels don’t “read like” myth. They actually don’t read like history. Ferguson explains why.

Ferguson also composed a really good combo discussion of historical method and philosophy–in particular, epistemology of the supernatural, that subject wherein Christians keep accusing us of “bias against the supernatural” without quite comprehending the difference between bias and logically valid inference. Called Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup, he presents probably one of the best articles I’ve seen on “what it would take to convince a reasonable skeptic of a miracle (like the resurrection of Jesus).” My most avid readers might notice he is building a lot on my work, but that’s the beauty of it. He develops and expands on what I’ve argued exceptionally well. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to see happen. He also makes use of Greg Cavin’s recent excellent presentation on Bayesianism, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus (already a legend in the counter-apologetics field, Cavin’s 434 page slideshow is actually quite educational, and spot-on almost top to bottom). Ferguson’s article also made me laugh. More than once. It’s kind of a wink-wink take down of the entirety of Christian apologetics. All without explicitly claiming to be. Check it out.

Other top articles by Ferguson in the same vein are Outside Corroboration as a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence and Methodological Approaches to Ancient History.

 

 

The Star of Bethlehem: The Definitive Takedown

Cover of Aaron Adair's book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, showing a star to the left, the milky way as viewed from earth to the right, part of an astrological horoscope to the bottom right, and the stock bible image of the magi on camels in shadow at the bottom.An astrophysicist has just done a bang-up job debunking the Star of Bethlehem and its affiliated fawning scholarship. All in just 155 pages (in fact, really only 128 if you skip the appendix, glossary, and bibliography). The author is Dr. Aaron Adair. The book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (also available on kindle). Like any responsible amateur, he sought the help of historians, classicists, and specialists for composing his sections on the literary and historical arguments, and for translating the original Greek (even though he has some competence in the language himself). His research was exhaustive. His key arguments fairly conclusive. He explicitly sets aside many eye-rolling side-debates like dating the death of Herod the Great, yet even then he mentions them and his reasons for not delving further into them. And his command of the astronomical arguments is, of course, unmatched, being directly in his field of expertise.

I was one of the experts who advised him on the project and I got to read an advance draft and was very impressed with the result. Hence you’ll see my promotional blurb on the book’s cover. I wrote:

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.

True that. His bibliography alone is of great value. Scientists will find the book especially heartwarming. Historians will as well. It even taught me a few things. In the foreword by astronomer and science writer Bob Berman, for example, I learned something I hadn’t even thought of, an example of Christianity seeping its way even into popular astronomy education. Berman writes…

[The Star of Bethlehem] has been a staple of holiday planetarium shows since the 1930s…[and my] very first column, published in Discover in December 1989, was a two-page spread about the Star of Bethlehem. Basically I summarized the various “explanations” shown to the public during planetariums’ annual “Star of Wonder” shows, then noted that Planetarium Directors–I’d interviewed quite a few–were well aware that each was impossible. Nonetheless, the shows remain popular, and have become such a tradition in and of themselves that no one seems bothered by such make-believe science being annually offered to the public.

Indeed.

Beyond that, however, I find this book of value not just because it will teach you a lot of cool things about history and astronomy with an economy of words, nor only because it has a great bibliography and is the go-to resource now for discussing this subject, but also because in the process of addressing astrological theories of the Star account, Adair deftly demonstrates a point I had long made myself but never had the time to demonstrate: ancient astrology was so wildly inconsistent and diverse that any astrological theory of either Christian origins or biblical accounts is probably beyond any possibility of demonstrating.

And this is relevant to the historicity debate. Not because proving the star account was a wholesale myth (and was inspired by no actual natural or supernatural event), as Adair does, entails or even implies Jesus didn’t exist (a historical man can have such myths spun around him easily enough), but because it shows why every Jesus mythicist who attempts to make an astrotheological argument for the origins of Christianity and (especially) the construction of the Gospels is just engaging in a Rorschach inkblot test. There was no consistent symbolism or system of allusions in ancient astrology, so any attempt to use one (or cobble one together) is just another multiple comparisons fallacy run amok.

That doesn’t mean astrotheological theories are necessarily false. But it does mean none can be proved even probable on present evidence, so the whole attempt should be abandoned.

To understand why, Adair’s book is a must-read. And that’s on top of all the other reasons I’ve summarized. So if any of this is your thing, check it out!

Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus

Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with. Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point. [Read more...]

Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Greece, Rome, China

Something unusual for today. Rummaging through my old papers it returned to my attention that I had never published my senior thesis. So I have put it on my website and am making it available: Richard Carrier, “Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming,” Senior Honors Thesis UCB (1997; rev. ed. 2004). For the entry at my publications page at Academia.edu I wrote this description:

Compares the language, depictions, and explanations relating to ghosts (as souls of the dead) in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese classics and finds connections between them and those cultures’ respective understandings of the ideal hero.

[BTW, anyone not already aware of my Academia.edu page might want to bookmark it, as it has become my main collection of entries for my more formal work online and in print; although just print publications I keep updated on my cv and publications list, which is the same list but without the rest of the cv. And all new publications I always announce, of course, here on my blog.]

In the paper itself, I explain the text now online with this leading remark:

The following essay was my senior honors thesis at UC Berkeley for the awarding of the Bachelor’s degree in History (minor in Classical Civilizations). It was originally written in 1997. In 2004 I reorganized and numbered its sections, updated its references, revised some sentences, and added some paragraphs, all with the intent to consider publication, but decided I was no longer confident in its core thesis. There are interesting insights and information here, but ultimately the evidence of afterlife beliefs and heroic ideals in ancient Greece, Rome, and China is a little more complicated than this. I am publishing it now only for the sake of what utility and interest in may have. But I no longer fully endorse all of its conclusions, and its treatment of the evidence is not adequately broad to be considered thorough. It’s quite good as an undergraduate thesis. It probably won me my doctoral fellowship. But it meets only minimum standards for graduate level work. — Richard Carrier, Ph.D.

To give you an idea of what’s in it, I will produce here a table of contents and some excerpts: [Read more...]