On Bart Ehrman Being Pot Committed

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.

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Zindler-Price Anthology: Contra Ehrman

Frank Zindler and Bob Price have edited their own anthology of “responses” to Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? For this project Zindler bought the rights from me to include a special summary edition of my blogging on the same subject (see Ehrman on Historicity Recap). This anthology is now available through American Atheist Press as Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (also available on kindle).

The rights to my contribution were procured through a single-payment contract, so I won’t be getting any royalties from the sale of this book (if you want to buy it and still want me to get a cut, then you can buy it through the above link, which is to the respective sales page in my Amazon store, where I get a kickback on any sale). I also had (and have) no editorial control over this book or its publication. My contribution does contain some new material not included in my blogging, but the most important addition (quotations from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts) will be included in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and the rest is pretty much already what’s available online (either in or linked from Recap), although I made various improvements in wording throughout.

I required a disclaimer to be included (in the Foreword generally and in the first paragraph of my chapter specifically), since I do not endorse much of what gets said elsewhere in this book. I was sure of this even before I read it, but having at last read it I can now confirm my expectation was correct. In fact, I consider much of it terrible. But it is fair enough to say that each chapter represents the best of what you can expect from each contributor of late. So if you want to see what each mythicist author is most often like in their manner of argumentation and quality of research, this is the anthology for you, although at 567 pages from disparate authors, it can be a challenge to get through.

That’s the sum of it. But those who want to know more can read on… [Read more...]

Paging Dr. Pander Hyperbole

Christianity is the most amazing thing ever. Or not.

In clearing my by-the-desk bookshelf of books I’d been using to complete On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, I came across Bart Ehrman’s excellent Jesus Interrupted again, which is still the standard book I recommend to anyone who wants to get up to speed on what the widest mainstream consensus is on the state of New Testament Studies (the ideal analog to The Bible Unearthed for Old Testament Studies). It’s definitely a book every atheist should own and have read (it has errors, but they are few).

I’ve been thumbing through all these books, re-checking my marginal notes to make sure I’m not overlooking anything before relocating them to more rarefied cubbies in my vast household array of bookshelves. Doing the same for Jesus Interrupted, I came across this, the very last line in the second to last chapter. Immediately one of those cartoon &?#$& thingies appeared above my head (as clearly it did the first time, since I see I wrote a pithy note in the margin after it):

The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention–in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.

Boing! Wha?

Are You Serious? (Davis Silverman Meme)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My note written below it:

What about democracy, science, philosophy, logic, [formal] mathematics, and human rights?

(Indeed, what about electricity or the internal combustion engine or the computer or the solar panel or the light bulb?)

You know. As for example.

That was obviously just off the top of my head, probably while kicking back on some couch somewhere. Revisiting the notion in just a few seconds, I thought of a few others I could have jotted in there (vaccination, birth control, radio, the satellite, women’s suffrage … &?#$&). Feel free to post your own list of “arguably the greatest inventions in the history of Western civilization [that are damn well more important than Christianity]” in comments here.

I’ve addressed the “Christianity saved the universe” baloney before, of course. In my chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 396-420) and online in “Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy” (or human rights blah) and Christianity didn’t invent everything (see Flynn’s Pile of Boners) and the “Stirrup of Jesus” didn’t save Western civilization and whatnot (see Lynn White on Horse Stuff) and Jesus was not the greatest philosopher in history (he doesn’t even rank; see my summary On Musonius Rufus and Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher, in which Christianity supposedly invented feminism, too).

I don’t mean to pick on Ehrman. Or that book (it’s otherwise mostly great). And I’m not attributing all this nonsense to him. It’s just that at the end of the day, re-reading that remark just made my head spin. So I had to vent a bit…and remind people these kinds of remarks are really, really absurd. Like I said of something else in one of the above links: this is not nonsense on stilts…it’s nonsense on twirling rockets to the moon.

Ehrman on Historicity Recap

This is a summary of the current state of the debate after the mini blog war between myself and Bart Ehrman over his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, which attempted to argue against various scholars (both legitimate and crank) who have concluded, or at least suspect, that Jesus never really existed, but was an invention in myth, like Moses or King Arthur or Ned Ludd. Some of this exchange involved other people, or were tangential to Ehrman’s book. But I will give a state-of-play for everything.

In one case I have concluded I was too harsh. But in every other case my criticisms have stood without valid rebuttal. Most were simply ignored (and thus no rebuttal was even attempted). For others, attempts to rebut them have only generated increasingly ridiculous errors of facts and logic to waggle our head at. Which in the end has only made historicists look just like the hack mythicists they rightly critique. This is not the way to argue for the historicity of Jesus. [Read more...]

Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round Two)

As promised Friday, here I shall reply to Ehrman’s longest reply to me to date (in Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier, mostly responding to my critique of his book). I won’t rehash the points I already addressed in my previous response (see Round One). Here I’ll just cut to the chase:

 

Was Pilate a Procurator?

Ehrman finally does what he should have done originally (take note of this trend: it confirms the entire point of my original critique), and asks an expert. But what he didn’t do was read the scholarship I pointed him to (my article, which references the most definitive literature on the point: in fact it is rather important to this whole debate and my subsequent remarks here that we read my paper’s section on what a procurator was in the time of Jesus).

The view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted (most conclusively by the work of Fergus Millar; contrary to what Ehrman’s quotation might seem to suggest, the PIR his colleague translates the Latin of on this point is a modern source, not an ancient one, and thus represents an outdated scholarly assumption and not what anyone in antiquity actually said). For example, Herod the Great was appointed procurator of Syria, before Claudius was even born, and even Cicero attests the practice of prefects being simultaneously appointed procurators. The surviving evidence extensively confirms no province or district was ever governed by a procurator who was not also a prefect, at least to the end of the second century (as Millar and others document).

In the paper I linked to above I extensively document all of this, including the sources and scholarship establishing that (a) many prefects were simultaneously also procurators, well before Claudius, and that this was especially the case for major provincial prefects (as we know most conclusively for the prefect of Egypt, neighboring Judea, and I also list evidence the same was true of Pilate), and that (b) this has been known to modern specialists in Roman imperial administration for at least forty years.

In fact, procurator is not a government office, but a private one (it means business agent), and prefects were often simultaneously appointed imperial procurators so they could handle the private affairs of the emperor using the legal apparatus of state power (precisely through holding the prefecture). I discuss this at length, and reference the scholarship on it, in the article that I summarize on my blog (and link to above), to which I directed readers in my critical review of Ehrman. I would ask that Ehrman have his informant read that piece (the specific link I provide above; he only need read the relevant section of the academic article, which that link will take him to directly), and then relay what they say in reply. Notice what happens.

 

Did Ehrman Overlook Tacitus Scholarship?

When discussing his failure to mention that the mythicists had some scholarly support for their questioning of the passage on Christ in Tacitus, Ehrman misrepresents my argument in various ways. For example, he says:

Carrier says this is “crap,” “sloppy work,” and “irresponsible,” and indicates that if I had simply checked into the matter, I would see that I’m completely wrong.

First, I did not say he was completely wrong. In fact I said very much the opposite. Here is what I actually wrote (emphasis now added):

That the overall consensus of scholarship, myself included, sides with Ehrman on the conclusion is true (I am sure the passage is authentic and has not been relevantly altered), but that does not change the fact that readers are being seriously misled by Ehrman’s characterization of the matter. For him to claim that mythicists “just made this up” because it was convenient for them is false. But more alarming to me is the fact that this demonstrates that he didn’t even check. And again, if he didn’t check this, what else didn’t he check? This kind of sloppy work, the failure to check his facts, to do any basic research we should expect of a scholar, and consequently to misrepresent his opponents and their position, and misinform the public about the debate, is the same kind of crap we get from the bad mythicists.

Notice. I did not say he was completely wrong, but that he was mostly right, and was only misleading readers by giving the impression that mythicists were on their own here. I also did not mean that this particular incident makes the book crap. To the contrary, if it were only a few cases like this I would barely make an issue of it. Rather, as you can see from the quote above I was saying this kind of thing, repeated throughout the book, is the same crap Ehrman himself calls out mythicists for. In other words, I am saying it is the number of cases like this that made his work sloppy. Not just this instance. Because just one instance wouldn’t (nor even two).

I ended every section of my review with similar remarks, explaining why I was presenting each example as one instance of a pervading trend. In fact earlier on I said:

[O]ne or two mistakes like this would be excusable. We all make them. And we can’t all know everything. But my point is that this is an example of a pervasive number of similar errors throughout the book…

Ehrman now makes it seem like I was saying just this one Tacitus oversight makes his work “sloppy” and the same “crap” he convicts the bad mythicists of (and yet he, too, made his point about them by just selecting a few examples, just as I did). That was not my point at all. My point was the same as his: we find so many things like this, that we must dismiss their work as unreliable. Ehrman mischaracterizes my argument in order to avoid it, turning it instead into just a few nitpicks, which if that were an acceptable defense, he would have to accept it from the mythicists he dismisses, too.

On the charge of irresponsibility, this is what I actually said (emphases now added):

This is important, because part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.

In other words, his argument depends on there being no scholarly basis for the mythicists’ doubt of the passage. This is why his new defense doesn’t address my point. Ehrman says now, “my point is that I was not trying to make a statement about the history of Tacitus scholarship; I was stating what scholars today think.” This I would credit as a fair statement (assuming, again, that he checked), but it’s not what he says in the book (nor does he now mention whether Benario’s subsequent surveys document anyone rebutting the scholarship he summarized on this passage before; just because the topic didn’t come up in later years doesn’t mean it has been universally rejected, or even rebutted, a fallacious kind of inference that typifies Ehrman’s continual shortcomings in logic). In fact, if all Ehrman meant were that no current Tacitus expert doubts the passage, then his book’s argument doesn’t hold up. He would have to change that argument to make this new premise work.

It must also be noted that Ehrman still doesn’t admit that he tars the competence of mythicists when he tells his readers (and regardless of what he meant, what his readers will take him to mean is the issue: because it is that that I have to constantly correct and therefore makes the book bad) that no competent expert would ever agree with them and that they are the only ones coming up with these ideas. But if serious qualified experts had the same notions, that seriously alters the entire impression of the matter. It’s not a crazy idea coming out of left field anymore. It’s just wrong. And the difference is huge. This should be particularly clear to someone who acts like such criticisms are personal attacks and unfair. Ehrman made his opponents look crazier and less competent than they are. That is much more of an unfair personal attack than what Ehrman is putting up with from me (since unlike him, I am accurately representing what he said). That he doesn’t even see this plank in his own eye while complaining about the splinter in ours is ironic coming from an expert on Jesus.

But more importantly, this change in the point (from “no scholar says” to “no scholar today says”) also significantly changes how Ehrman must argue: now he can’t say the mythicists are making this up and have no scholarly support, but he must argue instead that though there are published scholarly arguments for their conclusion, they have been rejected, which requires him to show that they have been (that no one has since published on it, pro or con, does not mean the issue is dead or that no living scholar is at least agnostic on the issue), or else that they have been because of x, y, and z (whatever the arguments are that lead scholars not to be convinced by the previous work challenging the passage; which would require Ehrman to actually find out what those are–in other words, it would require him to do his job).

It is for these reasons that this book sucks. Ehrman has to make excuses for repeatedly saying misleading things, and for not having checked to confirm the things he claims. I am not convinced Ehrman even knows why most scholars are convinced the Tacitus passage is authentic. But I wouldn’t care about that. All he had to say was that few scholars accept the notion that the passage is inauthentic in any way. That would be a fair enough point. Instead he gave the impression that no expert would ever think that, that only mythicists came up with it. And again, do not mistake this for a one-off goof. This is typical of how Ehrman treats the mythicists; I only gave representative examples of each kind of error. And that was my review’s central point.

Of course, a thorough investigation would require more, such as actually examining the reasons for and against accepting the passage and arriving at a conclusion therefrom. Ehrman might have legitimately avoided that labor by saying what I would say (and do say), that I welcome anyone making that case in a new peer reviewed article, but until then I have to side with the broadest contemporary consensus of experts where I myself see no good reason to reject it. This would at least be honest. Instead he made it look like mythicists have no support from published scholarship and are the only ones thinking these things. And it’s that that is the problem.

 

Are There Dying and Rising Gods?

Ehrman argues:

It is true that Osiris “comes back” to earth to work with his son Horus … Literally, he came “from Hades.” But this is not a resurrection of his body. His body is still dead. He himself is down in Hades, and can come back up to make an appearance on earth on occasion. This is not like Jesus coming back from the dead, in his body; it is like Samuel in the story of the Witch of Endor, where King Saul brings his shade back to the world of the living temporarily (1 Samuel 28). How do we know Osiris is not raised physically? His body is still a corpse, in a tomb.

Of course the same is most likely true of Jesus (as I and several scholars have argued: see my Empty Tomb FAQ; even conservative scholar N.T. Wright has suggested the possibility), and obviously this is in fact how Jesus was originally believed to have appeared (in visions, not a walking reanimated corpse), so there is no clear difference from the Osiris case even as Ehrman describes it.

But even granting the difference, this is precisely the kind of distinction that isn’t relevant to the point: Osiris is a dead god who still “lives again” and visits and converses with the living. Like all the gods that do this, they do it in their divine resurrection bodies, which have replaced their flesh and blood corpses. This is explicitly stated in the sources for many gods, such as Hercules (see Empty Tomb, p. 137); and many Jews believed the same thing about their own resurrection (and Paul appears to say exactly that in 1 Cor. 15:35-49, declaring that the body that dies is not the body that rises; Josephus describes a similar body-exchange theory as apparently a common view of resurrection among Jews, and we have many examples of both Jews and Christians advocating it: see Empty Tomb, pp. 109-13, 136-37). This is not like the “witch of endor,” precisely because these are gods, and gods have divine bodies. That’s what makes them gods (and not just impotent spirits). The Jewish view of resurrection was essentially the same view, only extended to humans, who would all become like gods. (A view that actually came from the Zoroastrians, and thus is not uniquely Jewish: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 3.)

Insofar as even the first Christians, or certainly later ones, believed Jesus rose from the dead in the same body that died, that would be an element of syncretism with the Jewish belief in corpse reanimation (held by many but not all Jews), or even an adaptation of other pagan views of gods that experience the same kind of resurrection (most clearly, Zalmoxis and Inanna, and perhaps Inanna’s consort Tammuz, i.e. Adonis, since as her consort in the same myth, his celebrated resurrection is not likely to have substantially differed from hers, we just don’t have the portion of the text that describes it, only external references to it being part of the same cult’s myth). Even if the later Christian idea did not come from these pagan same-body resurrection myths, a pagan body-exchange resurrection (returning to earth after their deaths in an immortal glorious resurrection body, as Romulus does, for example) combined with a literalist Jewish resurrection still gets you the version of dying-and-rising god that we meet with, for example, in the Gospel of John. But that’s still just a variant of the same mytheme: a god who dies and is then celebrated as having risen again, in a more glorious body than they once had. That’s why Osiris is said to have returned to life and been recreated, the exact terms for resurrection, as even Ehrman admits Plutarch freely uses to describe what happened to him.

On all of this take note: Ehrman says his views are the standard in the field, but in defense of the claim he still only names one advocate (Smith). In the link above, in support of my view, I name eight. And in my chapter on resurrection bodies in The Empty Tomb I cite more, including abundant primary evidence. So you decide who to follow on this point.

 

Did Ehrman Fail to Mention that Some Sources Attest a Christian Belief That Jesus Died a Century Before Pilate?

Yes, he did. Ehrman doesn’t deny this. He simply claims that when he said “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (on p. 251) he didn’t mean all of our sources that deal with the matter at all. (See a trend here?) Even if we believe Ehrman “knew” that all those sources existed and date Jesus as they do, and he just chose not to mention them (even though they are directly pertinent to the hypothesis Wells was arguing), because he was “only” referring to the sources he had previously enumerated (even though the Talmudic passages were one of those sources–see pp. 66-68–so his excuse doesn’t even hold up on his own internal logic), even granting all that (which I find hard to do), he still mislead his readers into thinking no such sources exist, and that Wells was just pulling this idea right out of nowhere. Which kind of thing happens repeatedly throughout his book. And that still makes his book an unreliable failure.

Ehrman also (again) deploys an argument in his reply that should have been in the book: that he discounts those sources on this point because they are late; which is in itself a fallacy, since late sources can preserve early tradition, and therefore you have to make an argument for why this is not occurring in this case. Indeed, that this was the belief of what appears to be (a) a pre-Pauline sect of Christianity (the Nazoreans still being Torah observant and having a name similar to what Christians were sometimes called in Paul’s time, if we are to trust Acts 24:5) and (b) the only sect of Christianity apparently known to the Babylonian Jews, argues against this being some recent novelty. Even the late existence of such a tradition is hard to explain on Ehrman’s theory of Jesus’ historicity (how could such a tradition have arisen?), and thus requires explanation, it can’t just be ignored. Ehrman would prefer to ignore it. Possibly he would even prefer you not to know of it.

 

Did Ehrman Tell Everyone the Romans Kept No Records That Would Have Been Relevant to Studying Jesus?

Yes. Once again, he even attempts to stand by this one, although contradicting himself…at one point saying he meant only that we shouldn’t expect such records to survive (precisely what I said he should have said in the book, but didn’t), and at another point saying that he does indeed deny “any indication that there ever were Roman records of anything” in Palestine. But his arguments here are an embarrassment of fallacies.

Ehrman now says that (at least in Egypt) such records existed and were kept (something he definitely does not tell his readers in his book), but “most of these are not in fact records of Roman officials, but made by indigenous Egyptian writers / scribes.” This is twice fallacious (even setting aside his strange assumption that “indigenous Egyptians” could not be Roman officials or in their employ): first, “most” is not “all” (so his point is moot…formally, we call this a non sequitur); second, what he doesn’t tell you is that even the private records are frequently the personal copies of government records (e.g. the tax receipts I once translated would be a private citizen’s copy of the very same receipt that would enter the government archives). Thus, the fact that we have only the copies, albeit made under official circumstances, often at the same time as the originals, is again moot to the point as to whether the government kept such records. Indeed, that private citizens sought and kept copies of state records precisely proves my point that Christians could have done this, too…had they wanted to, which requires explaining why they didn’t.

Ehrman then says he only meant that Romans kept no such records in Palestine. He doesn’t actually provide any evidence to back this claim, of course, and it’s obviously absurd, the kind of implausible armchair assertion I expect from Christian apologists. Obviously Romans kept the same records in every province that they kept in any.

There might not have been a record of Jesus’ birth at the time of his birth (that would depend on where he was really born and whether, instead, any state or local Jewish administration kept such records, e.g. Josephus implies having records of his own ancestry), but if he or his family ever paid Roman taxes, there would be records of that, and if his family was ever the subject of any Roman census at any time while Jesus was alive, there would be a record of that, and along with it a record of his birth, age, and family relations (Tertullian claimed such records existed, although he is unlikely to have really checked). And certainly, there would have been a record of Jesus’ trial, of Pilate’s ruling, of the execution, and any recorded witness affidavits. There would also be ancillary records, e.g., other trial records or official correspondence (akin to the letter of Claudius Lysias) discussing Christians and their tussles with the Jews or attempts to get them prosecuted in Roman courts, which would certainly have to mention the historical Jesus and information about him.

All we can say is what I myself said, that (as Ehrman correctly phrases it now, but not in his book) we have no reason to expect such records to survive. Although that requires admitting that no early Christians ever had any interest in preserving or using them.

In short, everything I said originally remains the case. Ehrman has no actual rebuttal.

 

Did Ehrman Libel Doherty?

Yes. Ehrman tries to completely reinterpret what he said on this point, but in this case the direct quotation of Ehrman I provided in my review conclusively rules out his entire attempt to claim to have said something else, so no further reply is needed from me. Just compare my quotation of Ehrman, with what Ehrman now wants you to think that meant, and no reasonable person will conclude with Ehrman on this one: Ehrman wrote “he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis” and now claims that that sentence meant “I am not denying that Doherty sometimes acknowledges that scholars disagree with him.” You do the math on that.

Ehrman’s comment about Doherty’s use of Morna Hooker in particular has already been rebutted by Godfrey  and Doherty, and I would add that reading what Doherty actually wrote in context, it’s obvious he in no way implied Hooker said Jesus became flesh in outer space; he quotes her on a different point altogether (that Jesus became what we are so that we may share in what he now is; a statement, by the way, I doubt Ehrman has any disagreement with). But even despite that, picking isolated quotations like this is moot anyway, because Ehrman stated a blanket generalization that Doherty never says something that in fact he frequently says–even explicitly about the whole issue of whether any scholar he cites agrees with his overall thesis (his introduction is quite clear about this, and covers all cases). Ehrman simply lies about this–or, again, is such a godawful writer he accidentally said the exact opposite of what he meant to say, and thus completely misrepresents Doherty and misinforms the reader.

 

Did Ehrman Screw Up His Citation of Pliny?

Here Ehrman agrees with everything I said and insists it was just a typo and he knew everything I said already (that he was referring to two completely separate letters, and he should in each case have said “a” letter in “book” 10 that contains all of Pliny’s Trajan correspondence and not have called both letters “letter” 10, and that neither letter connects the two contexts, only modern scholars do). But he still failed to say any of this to his readers (thus even his excuse does not rescue the book from the charge of misinforming the public and therefore being unreliable).

More importantly, I do not believe he’s telling the truth here. Because the wording in the book does not look even remotely like he knew that two different letters were being discussed, or that their connection was a scholarly inference and not something directly revealed in the context of “the letter” he twice references. I’ll just quote the relevant section in full [skipping only incidental material] and leave this one for you to decide (emphasis added):

…Pliny is best known for a series of letters that he wrote later in life to the Roman emperor, Trajan, seeking advice for governing his province. In particular, letter number 10 from the year 112 CE is important, as it is the one place in which Pliny appears to mention the existence of Jesus. The letter is not about Jesus himself; it is dealing with a political problem. In Pliny’s province a law had been passed making it illegal for people to gather together in social groups… The law applied to every social group, including fire brigades….and so villages were burning.

In his letter 10 to the emperor Pliny discusses the fire problem, and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering together. As it turns out, it was the local community of Christians.

So you tell me. Is Ehrman now lying about what he actually thought when writing the above?

 

Conclusion

In the end Ehrman ducks behind the “it was just a pop book, you shouldn’t expect it to be all accurate and the like” defense. This requires no reply. The reader can judge for themselves whether that excuse only makes the whole matter worse. (Can you imagine him accepting that excuse from any of the mythicists he attacks?) He also tries to play the victim card and claim I violated my own principle of interpretive charity. But in fact I did not. I gave him the benefit of a doubt everywhere an innocent explanation was conceivable, exactly as my principle requires (for example, I assumed that when he wrote “Justin of Tiberius” for Justus of Tiberias on p. 50 that that was a mere typo). But my principle also states (exactly as he himself quotes it) that when no such interpretation is plausible, we ought to point that out, so the author can correct their error. Which is exactly what I did.

Thus, his attempt to twist a rule of interpretive charity into a monstrous absurdity doesn’t cut it, and only exposes how poor a grasp he has of logical reasoning. Authors don’t get to say the exact opposite of what they meant and then claim it is our responsibility to telepathically know that that is what happened. Authors don’t get to say things that clearly indicate they badly mishandled their sources, and then claim we are always to assume they never do that. Authors don’t get to say things that clearly indicate they didn’t check their facts, and then claim we are always to assume they nevertheless did. Indeed, as his own quote of me says, if you cannot reconcile a contradiction or error in my work, you should call me on it so I can correct myself. Well, I called him on it.

Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One)

Bart Ehrman has finally composed an extensive response to my critical review of his book. But before that came out, he composed two briefer responses, one to my review of his Huffington Post article and another to my subsequent review of his book. He also briefly punted to another blogger, R.J. Hoffman. In this post I’ll address those latter items. Next I’ll reply to the longer piece (I’ve nearly finished my reply to that, but as I’m now at the  Madison Freethought Festival with tons of amazing speakers and excellent liquor, I won’t be able to proof that and post until Sunday evening).

The strangest thing about those latter items is not the alarming-enough fact that they ignore nearly every substantive point in what they are responding to, and focus each on only a single issue, and that one of the least importance (the Hoffmann piece likewise doesn’t address anything I actually said). That is strange. But stranger still is that they do not look entirely honest to me. But I’ll just present the evidence and you can decide.

 

The Deflection Tactic

Ehrman does appear to want to hide the substantive errors and mistakes and fallacies I document, and one strategy he uses to do that is to deflect it all by reframing the debate as being about personal attacks and my being mean to him (when he was so nice to me). This of course has nothing to do with what really matters and just serves the purpose of trying to convince people that all my substantive points about his scholarship are really just personal attacks and since personal attacks are fallacious (being the fallacy of ad hominem), all my points can be dismissed as fallacious. Which may be the first time I’ve ever seen an actual ad hominem fallacy used to rebut a non-existent ad hominem fallacy. He attacks me personally, by claiming I attacked him personally, which I didn’t, and has the gall to then say (correctly) that personal attacks can be ignored as fallacious. Yeah.  Think about that for a minute.

As Dan Finke (Camels with Hammers) observes in “Ehrman Evades Carrier’s Criticisms,” “Ehrman is misrepresenting Carrier’s criticisms as merely personal in nature,” when in fact they were all professional in nature. I pointed out failures of wording, failures of fact, and failures of logic, and showed why these all entail his book cannot be trusted, that his research and writing of it was sloppy and careless, that it fails at its every professed aim, and that he (professionally) doesn’t know what he’s doing here–ironically, considering how much hay he tries to make over the point that the rest of us can’t know what we’re doing because we have the wrong degrees (see the very next point on the Thompson Affair: making hay of this is practically the whole point of that post).

 

The Thompson Affair

In “Richard Carrier on The Huffington Post Article (1)” (I can no longer find an active link) Ehrman accuses me of being outraged by his daring to defend historicity, which is silly (it’s not like I was surprised he was going to, or that I haven’t read such defenses before from scholars no less prestigious; to the contrary I was, as I said, happily anticipating a really good defense of historicity). This I suppose cures his cognitive dissonance by allowing him to pretend I wasn’t outraged by what I actually said I was outraged by, which was his factual errors and gross misstatements, and how these ensure his article can only seriously misinform the public, the one thing a scholar should aim never to do and should care most about correcting. That he won’t even own up to his errors says more than my article did about our ability to trust him on this issue.

But the main thrust of his piece is an extended chastisement for suggesting Thompson was a New Testament scholar. Let me quote to you Ehrman’s exact words (and those of you who read my article might already notice something odd about this; emphasis added):

Me: “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.” Carrier: Ehrman’s claim “is false: mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria.”
 So on a very simple level, one might just ask: is it true that Thomas Thompson teaches NT or Early Christianity at an accredited institution? Well, no, he does not. He is an expert on the Hebrew Bible. His books are on the Pentateuch, the history of Israel in the Bronze Age, the alleged lives of the Jewish patriarchs. Now, I suppose someone from outside the field of NT or Early Christian studies might mistake someone with those kinds of expertise as being qualified to address, authoritatively, something having to do with early Christianity. But no one actually in the field would make that kind of mistake. Carrier too, of course, is not trained in these fields and is an outsider to them, so possibly that is why he doesn’t understand the difference.

Okay. Get his point? Now, read the sentence he quotes from me…the full sentence, including the half he mysteriously left out (I have marked it in bold; I provide the rest to show the context, which was more than just this sentence):

[M]ythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically. And I know Ehrman knows of him. So did he just “forget” when he says he knows of no one who meets his criteria? Or is he being hyper-hyper specific and not allowing even professors of Jewish studies to have a respectable opinion in this matter?

So Ehrman writes an entire article attacking me for not knowing a difference that in fact I explicitly stated in my article and thus clearly fully understood; and Ehrman predicates this attack on a quotation of me that conveniently omits the very material that proves his point moot, or at least misdirected.

Perhaps he has deliberately misquoted me, to make me appear to not know something that in fact I actually stated. My alternative hypothesis is that he misspoke and (yet again) really meant to say that I did indeed recognize and concede this diffence and had instead asked Ehrman for why we should dismiss everything Thompson says on such an account, to which this article is Ehrman’s answer to that question. But then he repeats his misrepresentation of my credentials, suggesting I don’t know the period in question, or the languages, or the documents or the literature on early Christianity. Which is all false. I am adequately trained in all of these. And it is disingenuous of Ehrman to assume Thompson is not, simply because he has a different specialty than Ehrman.

Indeed, contrary to Ehrman’s claim, every historian in my field that I know publishes on all manner of diverse subjects. The idea that (to use Ehrman’s own example) hyper-specializing in “Herodotus” disqualifies you from being competent to research and publish on other authors or subjects is ridiculous, and easily refuted by perusing the teaching subjects and cv’s of prominent historians like W.V. Harris, Erich Gruen, Alan Cameron, or, to pick actual specialists in Herodotean studies, Donald Lateiner or James Romm. Romm, for example, is a specialist in Herodotus and Arrian (among much else), authors 600 years apart, one Greek, one Roman. According to Ehrman, we should ignore Romm’s work on Arrian as being out of his field. Which would be news to Arrian specialists, who all value Romm’s work. When my dissertation advisor, William Harris, wanted to publish a book on Roman anger, he did not say to himself “I have never published on that before, or taught it before, and did not specialize in it when I got my degrees, therefore I am not competent to research and publish on this subject so I should just shut up then.” No, he applied his skills, degrees, and background knowledge to the task of thoroughly researching the subject and publishing a major authoritative work on it. That’s what ancient historians do.

What is alarming is that Ehrman doesn’t know that. For him to claim I don’t “know” that it’s the other way around is just appallingly rich: he is simply proving my point for me, that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and prefers instead to disparage almost all modern scholarship in my field because it is produced by people who don’t specifically teach those subjects and have not gotten hyper-specific degrees in them. His depiction and denunciation of nearly the whole of historical academia is simply absurd. All in his desperate attempt to justify the fact that he misleads his readers and misrepresents his opponents, all in defense of a dogma that he is certain cannot possibly be false, therefore he doesn’t need to take us seriously (despite pretending to). If Romm can do good work in both Herodotus and Arrian, Thompson can (in principle) do good work in both OT and NT studies (the study of the OT does, after all, involve knowledge of second temple Judaism, the very context in which Christianity arose).

Never mind, of course, that all this looks like one big evasion: choosing to respond to my rebuttal to his HuffPo article by addressing this and only this point, which wasn’t even a major point I raised but merely a single aside in my remarks about Ehrman’s chilling remarks against academic freedom (the issue of that section, how his remarks can threaten academic freedom, he completely ignores). What is most galling about this is that my article demonstrates that it is Ehrman who hasn’t done the work necessary to be qualified to discuss this question competently, and unlike Ehrman I did not base this conclusion on what degree he has (I think his degrees should be fully sufficient to make him competent to research and write authoritatively on this), but on the actual evidence of his incompetence. In other words, he has the qualifications, he just didn’t use them. His book is carelessly and irresponsibly and illogically written. But instead of addressing my evidence and arguments proving that, Ehrman keeps harping on the matter of what degrees people have, making distinctions that do not carry his point, and now making claims about the publishing practices of historians that aren’t even true.

Whether he is honest and well meaning or not, he’s just digging his grave deeper with this kind of reply. It is making him really look like he doesn’t know what he is talking about, can’t reason logically, avoids every substantive issue possible, and isn’t keen to accurately represent what his opponents have said. At least he redeemed himself by publishing a subsequent fuller reply to my review of his book; but still nothing in reply to my critique of his article,* which far more people will read, and thus whose mistakes and misstatements will do far more damage to public understanding of the facts and issues.

 

The Priapus Affair

In his second reply he addressed one single point in my review. And here I believe there is reason to suspect he is lying about the Priapus statue. In my review of his book I called him out for saying (certainly very clearly implying) that Murdock “made up” the statue at the Vatican that she presents a drawing of and says is a symbol of Peter. He clearly did not call the Vatican about it or research the claim at all. Because if he had, he would have said what any responsible scholar would have said, which is that yes, the statue she depicts is real and the drawing she provides is reasonably accurate, but her argument that it symbolizes Peter is not credible. It’s just a pagan statue of the god Priapus.

Now in his reply on this point, in “Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”),” he claims I misread him, that he never denied the statue existed nor implied that Murdock made it up. Now let’s look at what he actually wrote in the book. You be the judge:

[Acharya says] “‘Peter’ is not only ‘the rock’ but also ‘the cock’, or penis, as the word is used as slang to this day.” Here Acharya shows (her own?) hand drawing of a man with a rooster head but with a large erect penis instead of a nose, with this description: “bronze sculpture hidden in the Vatican treasure of the Cock, symbol of St. Peter” (295). There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up.

That’s the sum total of what he says about this. It is quite evident to me that when he wrote this, he doubted the drawing came from any source, and believed (and here implies to the reader) that she just made it up. There is no such statue. That is what he is saying. But you can judge that for yourself. Certainly, the one thing this paragraph doesn’t say is that the statue she references does exist, is (or at one time was) at the Vatican, and looks essentially just as her drawing depicts it. It also does not say that she is merely wrong to interpret this statue as being of Peter. To the contrary, all it says is that there is no such statue, she made this up. Which is false. And betrays his failure to even check.

But he now claims he did check. Sort of–he says he saw her citations and assumed there were priapic statues; he did not actually say he checked her sources, or contacted the Vatican. Some commentators on his site have also tried claiming the statue was never at the Vatican, but their misinformation and mishandling of the sources is thoroughly exposed in an extensive comment by an observer at Murdock’s site. The object may have been moved (as I implied was possible in my original review), but Ehrman said it didn’t exist anywhere, so its location is moot. And I should add, this is precisely the kind of source analysis that Ehrman should already have worked through and be able to discuss informedly, yet in comments there he said the original commentator’s findings were “very interesting” and “very hard to get around” (and he likewise mistakenly affirms they are correct in his subsequent post), indicating he didn’t in fact do any of this research and isn’t familiar with the source materials on the statue.

Of course he now claims that he never said the statue didn’t exist. He only said a statue of Peter didn’t exist. That’s right. He parses his words hyper-literally to argue that he said the exact opposite of what he said. You see, when he said the statue didn’t exist, that it was made up, he meant a statue of Peter, and since the statue that Murdock references and presents a drawing of isn’t a statue “of Peter,” the statue doesn’t exist. Get it? This is an amusing case of faux metaphysical deepness being used as an excuse to read a sentence as saying a statue simultaneously does and doesn’t exist, depending on what one calls it. Even if that is really what he was doing when he wrote the book, this is just a variant of a masked-man fallacy (“The statue exists. She says it is a statue of Peter. No statues of Peter exist. Therefore the statue doesn’t exist.”).

It’s bad enough that, even if this is true and he really meant to say the opposite of what he appears to say, he obviously wrote it so badly he not only sucks as a writer but can’t even tell that he sucks as a writer (indeed only after repeated goading in comments did he confess that “maybe I should have phrased it differently”). But trying to use the “I suck as a writer” defense against the much worse crime of careless scholarship requires him to claim the masked man fallacy isn’t a fallacy but a perfectly reasonable way to argue. Which only convicts him (yet again) of not understanding how logic works.

Before I get to the punchline, I really must emphasize this point: even granting his excuse, the fact that the wording is completely misleading and will misinform the public still confirms my point in citing this example, that we can’t trust his book. If he so badly miswrote here that he meant the opposite of what he said, then how many other sentences in this book are as badly written and mean the opposite of what they say? Indeed, that he had to be repeatedly goaded before even admitting that this sentence does that, means he is not even capable of detecting when a sentence he has written says the opposite of what he meant. That entails we should trust his book even less. Because whatever filter is supposed to prevent him making these kind of mistakes is clearly not working in his brain.

As Kim Rottman says, an observer of this whole affair:

The issue is what the average reader of Ehrman’s book is going to think he means. Ehrman’s statement may be strictly true but I sincerely doubt that a lay person reading that sentence is going to take it to mean something like “there is such a statue but it’s not a statue of Peter.” They’re going to think he means there is no such statue. Period. They’re probably also never going to see Ehrman’s rebuttal of Carrier’s review and thus never know he corrected himself. … Then he acts like this is representative of all the examples Carrier gave; as if the rest can also be explained away as poor wording and that none of them were anything that’s relevant to his overall argument. This response wasn’t successful at all. If anything, he’s dug himself in deeper.

Indeed. Ehrman is basically saying “I was never wrong. I’m just such a phenomenally lousy writer that things I wrote appear to say what they don’t, and everyone who reads this book will often be misled in result.” Others have noted the problem entailed by his repeatedly careless and irresponsible wording of things, which can completely mislead lay readers of his book. Ophelia Benson (Butterflies & Wheels), for example, found many problems with the way Ehrman’s choice of words misleads, as well as his questionable logic (see: What Ehrman Actually Says, The Unseen, A Small Town Guy).

But I fear it may be worse than that. Because I don’t actually believe him when he says he didn’t mean to say the statue didn’t exist. I suspect that is a post-hoc rationalization that he cooked up in an attempt to save face, after his careless and irresponsible scholarship on this matter was exposed. I suspect this not only because his excuse is implausible on its face (read his original paragraph again, and ask yourself how likely it is that someone who wanted to say “the statue she depicts does exist, but it’s not a statue of Peter” would say instead what he did), and not only because he still doesn’t claim to have researched her sources or contacted the Vatican (in other words, to do what he should have done), but also because, as several people have since pointed out to me, he said in a podcast (before my review and before Murdock herself exposed him on this) that the statue did not in any sense exist.

That’s right. On Homebrewed Christianity, April 3 (2012), “Bart Ehrman on Jesus’ Existence, Apocalypticism & Holy Week,” timestamp 20:30-21:10: at this point in that podcast, Ehrman says Acharya talks about Peter the cock and shows a drawing of a statue with a penis for a nose and claims this is in the Vatican museum, at which Ehrman declares, with laughter, “It’s just made up! There is no such s[tatue]… It’s just completely made up” (emphasis mine). In context it is certainly clear he is saying there is no such statue of any kind, that her drawing is not of any actual object. (Note that I put the word “statue” in partial brackets because he speaks so quickly he didn’t complete the word but started saying what is obviously the word “statue”; he doesn’t pause to correct himself, though, he just quickly segues to the next phrase in animated conversation.)

Now, I must leave it to you to decide what’s going on here. From both his own wording in the book and this podcast, it certainly seems that Ehrman had no idea the statue actually existed, until Murdock and I hammered him on it. Notably, I had emailed him about this weeks before my review, asking what his response to Murdock was, because I was concerned it didn’t look good. I had not yet read his book, so I didn’t know the whole thing would be a travesty of these kinds of errors. Ehrman never answered me (even though he has in the past). Only after my review did he come out with the explanation that he meant to say the statue existed but wasn’t connected to Peter. And on that point I suspect he is lying.

I can give more leeway to a podcast interview, where we often forget to say things or say things incorrectly, and we don’t get to re-read and revise to improve accuracy and clarity (though this excuse doesn’t hold for a book). But here this does not look like an accidental omission or a slip of the tongue. He really does appear to think (at the time of that podcast) that the statue was completely made up, and that certainly appears to be what he says. Did he really also “mean to say” in that podcast that the statue wasn’t “completely” made up, that in fact it existed, but that Murdock was only wrong about what it symbolized? In other words, did he once again say, as if by accident, exactly the opposite of what he meant? You tell me.

[P.S. After publishing this post, it occurred to me to mention as well, that in fact he gives no argument at all in his book for why Murdock is wrong to conclude this is a statue of Peter. His only argument is that the statue doesn't exist. Which only makes sense as a rebuttal if indeed he meant the statue wholly did not exist. Otherwise, why is she wrong to conclude it symbolizes Peter? Ehrman doesn't say. This seems to me strong evidence that he is now lying about what he really thought and meant when writing the book. Because surely he would give a reason why she is wrong. So what reason did he give?]

 

The Hoffmann Madness

While still composing his fuller reply to me, Ehrman punted to R.J. Hoffmann. Ehrman evidently doesn’t know that in my opinion Hoffmann has gone insane. I’ve documented the evidence of this before. Hoffmann has a history of lying about me, for example once claiming I am in the financial employ of his enemies and was paid to attack him (arguably an outright libel). Hoffmann also has a history of reversing his opinions without explanation. He praised and loved my work before, but now says the very same work sucks. With no acknowledgment of having changed his mind or why.

Quoting myself from my previous blog on the Hoffmann matter:

It’s strangely amusing (and exactly how he started behaving once I started criticizing him–he never acted this way toward me before) that he now slags off my chapter as vacuous and irrelevant when in fact he invited me to deliver that very talk at the conference, read it in advance of the talk, and it received a standing ovation at the conference, with nary an objection from him. Quite the contrary: his response was to say “I think personally you should be the conscience or historiographer in chief!” (email of 10 Dec. 2008) and “It would be to my liking if you would take the lead-role in the historiography area…in my opinion we need someone with fresh ideas who can keep them honest about the kind of history they (often) are doing” (email of 18 Dec. 2008). (The conference was held the weekend of December 5.) He never said a negative word until now.

Hoffmann also once insisted Jesus didn’t exist. In a podcast of 2007, talking to D.J. Groethe about the Jesus Project (on Point of Inquiry), Hoffmann said “I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist–I happen to believe that” (timestamp 22:44; see also his remarks at timestamp 14:13-16:15). Now he insists such a notion is absurd and no respectable scholar could believe it (which evidently means he wasn’t a respectable scholar five years ago). He also in that podcast defended the dying and rising god mytheme: “gods and sons of gods populating the world, dying, rising, saving the world, which we’ve known about now for the better part of 200 years…it’s not new” but is established scholarship (timestamp 4:20).

In the post Ehrman punts to, Hoffmann tells another lie about me, a really weird one in fact: “He [i.e. me] is about to re-publish (he had vanity published it already) his ‘research’ on this subject with Prometheus Books.” I can’t fathom what book he means, as there are only two he could mean: one (On the Historicity of Jesus Christ) that hasn’t even been completed and won’t be published until next year (I have never published a book arguing Jesus didn’t exist; that will be my first one), which does not consist of material I have published before but is almost entirely new research; and Proving History, which was scheduled for late April release but dropped early and is available now.

If he means the first of these, he would be lying about its contents, since he has no way of knowing what those contents are, or that they duplicate anything I’ve published before (and since I haven’t published on the historicity of Jesus before, that would be impossible). If he means the second of these, then he is really shooting himself in the face here. Do you know what the “vanity press” was that previously published my work before I published it with Prometheus? Prometheus. That’s right. And you know what book that was? Sources of the Jesus Tradition. Do you know who edited that book, and selected the chapters to include in it? R.J. Hoffmann.

Yep. That’s right. Do the math on that. That chapter was also, incidentally, a paper I delivered at an academic conference organized by R.J. Hoffmann and to which I was invited by R.J. Hoffmann.

It’s shit like this that convinces me Hoffmann is off his rocker. Ehrman might want to steer clear of him in future.

 

Rhetoric as a Means to Avoid Argument

In his article on the Priapus case, Ehrman says things like this:

One of the things Carrier laments is that I don’t deal with the various mythicists all at length – even (this is a special point he presses) those who cannot be taken seriously (he names Freke and Gandy). My view is that there is no reason to take seriously people who cannot be taken seriously: a few indications of general incompetence is good enough.

First, note that about his scant treatment of bad mythicists I actually said “That alone I could live with (although I would have rather he not addressed them at all if he wasn’t going to address them competently).” Notice how the paragraph above assumes I didn’t say this, and fails to address what I actually said (that if he was going to just dismiss them so briefly, he should have done so competently or not at all).

But then notice how he asserts a principle in his own defense (“a few indications of general incompetence is good enough” reason to dismiss an entire book as unworthy of further attention) which is precisely the principle I applied to his book (I found more than a few indications of general incompetence). Which leads me to wonder: does he regard his treatment of them as an inappropriate personal attack that they didn’t deserve? Or as simply a demonstration that the books he examined are incompetently researched and incompetently written, a perfectly valid thing to point out and say, and exactly what I did (but that he in his response attacks me for doing).

But even more alarming than his misrepresenting what I said, avoiding answering what I did say, and applying a double standard in his own defense, is the rhetorical trick he just pulled here. Did you notice it? Let me walk you through it. He says “One of the things Carrier laments is that I don’t deal with the various mythicists all at length,” and then adds an aside that I “even” say so regarding the bad mythicists (although, as we just saw, that is not exactly what I took him to task for). Then he gives a defense for not addressing the bad mythicists (beyond cursorily). And then…he moves on. Wait a minute. Where is his defense for failing to properly address the good mythicists?

Here is what I said, regarding the good mythicists:

He treats our arguments only selectively, never comprehensively, and I never once saw him actually engage directly with any single mythicist case for their theory of Christian origins–as in, describing the theory correctly, listing the evidence its proponent offers for each element, and then evaluating that evidence and the logical connection between it and their conclusion. You won’t find this done once, anywhere in this book, for any author.

On his failure to do that, Ehrman has nothing to say. But the one failure of this book I said I could live with, that he defends. Really.

Is this where historicity is going? Is this how we are to be treated? And Ehrman has the gall to say we are the ones behaving inappropriately?

 

Closing Nonsense

Ehrman ends his defense of the Priapus debacle with some rather astonishing remarks. First, he says:

Let me say, in addition, that this comment of mine was made very much in passing.  No major point was being made, other than that Acharya S was not a scholar who could be trusted (in part because she is not a scholar) in the context of eleven rather egregious mistakes that I picked out, more or less at random, in her book. Carrier does not object to any of the other ten. Which means that he appears to be on board with all eleven. That means that his cavil has no effect on my overall argument at this point.

First of all, dismissing this as a remark in passing that didn’t make a major point is extremely disingenuous. It is not a passing remark but an integral piece of evidence he produces to argue a conclusion so significant it justifies him dismissing the rest of Acharya’s work. That is not only a major point, it’s the major point of his entire treatment of her. Secondly, I explicitly said I was only producing examples, not comprehensively vetting every statement he made, so for him to conclude I agree with everything else he said about Acharya is obviously fallacious reasoning, and again demonstrates he doesn’t know how logic works.

I actually found two other misleading statements among his list of evidence of Acharya’s incompetence. I do agree with his conclusion (I do not think her work can be trusted on this subject, as I also conclude now of Ehrman’s work on this same subject), but I am already well known for saying that, and that wasn’t the issue I was raising in my review. Rather, my point was that, if he was going to treat the bad mythicists at all, we needed a book that did a competent job demonstrating the unreliability of work like this. And he did not give us one.

Since he brings it up, let me list the other problems I found here (written in the margins of my copy of his book, p. 24):

(1) Ehrman’s statement that there weren’t “many councils” to decide the NT canon is, read literally, false. There were in fact several councils ruling on the canon, and indeed the canon was never truly settled until the 16th century. Someone who tutored under Metzger, who extensively documented these facts, should know that. I can only assume he meant to say that the canon proposed by Athanasius in 367 (in a letter, not a council ruling) was repeatedly affirmed by every subsequent council convened to decide on the canon (although the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it). Acharya’s own characterization of the matter might also be accused of being misleading. But Ehrman’s wording is going to seriously mislead and misinform the public even more, not only as to the actual history of the canon, but also as to Acharya’s knowledge of the facts.

(2) Ehrman correctly says the Acts of Pilate was never canonized, but this conceals from the reader the fact (which could be what Acharya’s argument was actually premising) that it was by many regarded as authoritative. Tertullian, for instance, cites it as authoritatively establishing facts about Jesus, which is late second century, and thus relevant to the matter of how well Christians could be trusted at the time to really tell the difference between reliable and unreliable source materials when aggregating their canon. Thus here Ehrman doesn’t say anything that’s literally false, but his statement does mislead the reader on the most relevant point Acharya may have actually been making.

Note also that these are just details I detected right away. His other remarks against her are true as stated, but I did not actually check in each case whether he accurately represented what she said. From my experience here and with the whole book, I cannot implicitly trust that he has. Which only further illustrates the overall point of my review.

Ehrman concludes with this:

Carrier appears to want to show that he is very much a better historian than I am. This is a repeated theme throughout his scathing critique. I, frankly, did not realize that this was supposed to be a contest between the two of us, and am not interested in the question of who wins. My interest in the book is to discuss whether Jesus existed. I give mounds of evidence to show why he did, and to show why mythicists’ views are almost certainly wrong. The majority of Carrier’s ”errors in fact” are this kind of cavil, in which he sees trees (often incorrectly) while missing the forest.

Notice the rhetorical trick here: “the majority” of my points are a list of errors, therefore I missed the point of all the evidence he presented. Go read my review. You will notice I made a particular point of addressing the latter by demonstrating the doomed fallacies in his methodology. So in fact I did not miss the forest. I deal with the trees in part one, the forrest in part two, all in the same post. He says nothing about that. You decide who then to trust on this issue.

It is also amusing that he uses the quantity of my examples of his mistakes as an argument to dismiss them as taking up too much of my article, when in fact I am sure he would have accused me of having too few examples if I’d given fewer. In other words, I made a general point about the unreliability of the book and gave a large enough number of examples to make sure the point was solidly proved. And he then charges this as a failing in my review. Once again demonstrating that he doesn’t know how logic works.

He also returns to the ad hominem deflection here, by alleging I am making this into a pointless contest over who is the better scholar. Yet he is the one who made it about that. As we saw in his article about the Thompson affair (and as I showed regarding his HuffPo piece), he attacked my credentials and argued that he is qualified to discuss this issue and I am not (likewise Thompson and others). For him to now say he is not interested in this comparison is massively disingenuous. It’s his comparison, which he has pressed several times, and it was that that forced me to respond by pointing out that the facts seem to point to the reverse. For him to claim I am the one who brought this comparison up is simply absurd. All I did was take his own argument and defend it properly: instead of making fallacious and irrelevant points about the hyper-specifics of what degrees we have (as he did), I tested the comparison he himself started by actually looking at the quality of our work on this subject. A comparison in which he came out very badly.

I do not see this as a competition between us as to who is the better scholar, but as simply a matter of who to trust: someone who presents carefully researched, carefully worded, carefully reasoned work on this subject, with a minimum of mistakes (because as I’ve said, I make them, too), or someone who doesn’t.

[For my reply to his "fuller response" see Round Two.]

* After I wrote this, he responded in April of 2014 to one trivial item, and that disastrously.

Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic

Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.

 

Overall Impressions

I was certain this would be a great book, the very best in its category. And I said this, publicly, many times in anticipation of it. It’s actually the worst. It’s almost as bad, in fact, as The Jesus Mysteries by Freke & Gandy (and I did not hyperlink that title because I absolutely do not want you to buy it: it will disease your mind with rampant unsourced falsehoods and completely miseducate you about the ancient world and ancient religion). I was eagerly hoping for a book I could recommend as the best case for historicity (but alas, that title stays with the inadequate but nevertheless competent, if not always correct, treatment in Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament and Theissen & Merz’s The Historical Jesus). I was also expecting it to be a good go-to rebuttal to the plethora of bad mythicism out there, so I could just refer people to this book every time they ask me why (for example) Freke & Gandy suck.

But I cannot recommend books that are so full of errors that they will badly mislead and miseducate the reader, and that commit so many mistakes that I have to substantially and extensively correct them. Did Jesus Exist? ultimately misinforms more than it informs, and that actually makes it worse than bad. Like the worst of mythicist literature, you will come away after reading it with more false information in your head than true, and that makes my job as a historian harder, because now I have to fix everything he screwed up. This is why I don’t recommend anyone ever read bad mythicist literature, because it will only fill your head with nonsense that I will have to work harder to correct. Ehrman’s book ironically does much the same thing. Therefore, it officially sucks.

The most alarming irony that struck me is that part of his failure is apparently a matter of professional qualifications. I say ironic because it’s something he makes so much of: we supposedly can’t do competent work because we don’t have degrees “specifically” in early Christian history (though in fact I and Robert Price do; Ehrman falsely claims my degree is only in “classics,” a strange ploy I’ll remark on later); but it is his incompetence in classics (e.g. knowledge of ancient culture and literature) and ancient history (e.g. understanding the methodology of the field and the background facts of the period) that trips him up several times. In the next part of this article I will document several examples.

This book is also badly written (I’ll give some examples of that, too) and almost useless in its treatment of mythicist authors (even when he’s right). The latter failure I find the most disappointing. Almost none of this 361 page book is a critique of the “bad” mythicists. He barely even mentions most of them. Indeed, if he mentioned Atwill even once it was in passing at best, and for the few authors he spends any time discussing (mainly Murdock and Freke & Gandy), he is largely dismissive and careless (indeed, his only real refutation of them amounts to little more than nine pages, pp. 21-30). I was hoping for a well-researched refutation of these authors so I could recommend this book to students, so they could see what sound scholarship looks like and to correct the errors in their heads after reading authors like these. But this book simply doesn’t do that.

That alone I could live with (although I would have rather he not addressed them at all if he wasn’t going to address them competently). But even his treatment of the “good” mythicists (which comprises maybe half the book) is weak to the point of useless. This would be (principally) myself, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, G.A. Wells, Thomas Thompson, and (perhaps) Frank Zindler. He treats our arguments only selectively, never comprehensively, and I never once saw him actually engage directly with any single mythicist case for their theory of Christian origins–as in, describing the theory correctly, listing the evidence its proponent offers for each element, and then evaluating that evidence and the logical connection between it and their conclusion. You won’t find this done once, anywhere in this book, for any author. He just cherry picks isolated claims and argues against them, often with minimal reference to the facts its proponent has claimed support it.

The next most alarming thing about this book is its astonishing plethora of blatant logical fallacies and self-contradictions. An attentive reader, who was aware of the actual facts, would come away from this book believing historicity can only be defended by deploying a methodological framework that would produce absurd conclusions if applied to any other subject in the history of myth and religion (I’ll demonstrate what I mean in the last half of this article). I wrote Proving History in part to bring to public attention the fact that even specialists in the methodology of Jesus studies have all concluded that its methodology is logically fallacious and urgently in need of replacement. But Ehrman not only uses that fallacious methodology (completely unaware of any of the literature in his own field refuting it), he makes the field’s methodology look even worse, routinely resorting to the most egregiously illogical arguments for his positions, yet with such absolute confidence one might not think they are reading the work of a careful and cautious scholar but a wild sensationalist, like some Christian apologist or the whackiest of mythers.

Like Freke & Gandy, Ehrman is occasionally right. For example, that many mythicists are incompetent or do not argue their case well; or that they are often fanatically unmoved by evidence and logic and won’t abandon their theory no matter what is presented them. But historicity proponents are sometimes just as guilty of these faults–Ehrman included, as I’ll demonstrate below. Ehrman will also decry bad mythicist literature, quite rightly, as “filled with patently false information and inconsistencies” (p. 27), but as we shall see, this sentence also describes Ehrman’s book. In fact, there are so many errors and fallacies and questionably worded statements in his book that documenting them all would produce a monstrously long article. So I will restrict myself to explaining several key examples, which are representative of countless other defects throughout the book. I might catalog more examples in future blog posts (and if I do I will link to them here). But I need to get on with doing what I must do here, which is give evidence for all that I have claimed above.

[For those who want more examples, there are other reviews that address the flaws in this book, from the Preliminary Overview of Thomas Verenna to the extensive rebuttal series of Earl Doherty and Neil Godfrey. I am interested in any others you deem worth reading, so post any you know of in comments later and I might include them here. Also, for those who read my critique of Ehrman's Huffington Post article, and my response to his inept defender James McGrath, who want to know if Ehrman's book repeats the same errors as his article, the answer is technically no, it treats the same issues somewhat less erroneously/fallaciously, although the mistakes he made in that article remain relevant evidence of his carelessness and unreliability on this issue, and my responses to it likewise illustrate many elements of the mythicist case that are misrepresented or not even addressed in Ehrman's book.]

 

Errors of Fact

This is just a selection, to collectively illustrate a general point:

The Priapus Bronze: In response to D.M. Murdock’s claim that there is a statue of a penis-nosed cockerel (which she says is a “symbol of St. Peter”) in the Vatican museum, Ehrman says that “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (p. 24). Ehrman evidently did no research on this and did not check this claim at all. Murdock quickly exposed this by providing numerous scholarly references, including actual photographs of the object (see The Phallic Savior of the World). Most important of these is Lorrayne Baird, “Priapus Gallinaceus: The Role of the Cock in Fertility and Eroticism in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Studies in Iconography 7-8 (1981-82): 81-112. It does not have the name “Peter” on it (Murdock never claimed it did; that it represents him is only an interpretation), but it apparently exists (or did exist) exactly as she describes.

At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it, before arrogantly declaring no such object existed and implying Murdock made this up. I do not assume Murdock’s interpretation of the object is correct (there is no clear evidence it has anything to do with Christianity, much less Peter). But its existence appears to be beyond dispute. She did not make that up. The reason this error troubles me is that it is indicative of the carelessness and arrogance Ehrman exhibits throughout this book: like Freke & Gandy, he often doesn’t check his facts, and clearly did little to no research. This makes the book extremely unreliable. A reader must ask, if he got this wrong, what other assertions in the book are false? And since making sure to get details like this right is the only useful purpose this book could have had, how can we credit this book as anything but a failure? I needed this book to do a good job of refuting bad mythicism. Because if it doesn’t do that, it’s useless.

The Doherty Slander: Ehrman says Earl Doherty “quotes professional scholars at length when their views prove useful for developing aspects of his argument, but he fails to point out that not a single one of these scholars agrees with his overarching thesis” (p. 252). This claim is so completely false I cannot believe Ehrman read the work of Doherty with any requisite care. Neil Godfrey documents the fact (in Devious Doherty or Erring Ehrman?) that Doherty repeatedly points out exactly what Ehrman claims he doesn’t. This is actually a typical error I found in Ehrman’s book. He often makes blanket false statements that make mythicists look incompetent, thus the reader is misled into thinking they are.

This is a serious error, because it makes Ehrman’s book into nothing more than falsified propaganda. It is his responsibility as a scholar to have read these writings and accurately represent them to his readers so they don’t have to read them themselves. That he doesn’t do that erases any scholarly value this book could have had. Here, for example, the key point is that Doherty engaged himself like a competent scholar, used mainstream scholarship extensively, and correctly identified where his conclusions and interpretations differed from the scholars he cites and from mainstream scholarship generally. Ehrman hides this fact from his readers, and even misleads his readers by declaring exactly the opposite. Where else does Ehrman completely hide and misrepresent the views, statements, and methods of the mythicists he criticizes? If we cannot trust him in this case (and clearly we can’t, since what he says is demonstrably exactly the opposite of the truth), why are we to trust anything he says in this book?

The Pliny Confusion: Ehrman almost made me fall out of my chair when he discusses the letters of Pliny the Younger. He made two astonishing errors here that are indicative of his incompetence with ancient source materials. First, he doesn’t correctly cite or describe his source (yet in this particular case that should have been impossible); and second, he fails to understand the difference between a fact and a hypothesis. Ehrman says that Pliny discusses Christians in his correspondence with emperor Trajan in “letter number 10,” and that “in his letter 10 to the emperor Pliny discusses” the problem of the imperial decree against firefighting societies in that province, “and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering,” the Christians (pp. 51-52). This is all incorrect, and demonstrates that Ehrman never actually read Pliny’s letter, and doesn’t even know how to cite it correctly, and has no idea that the connection between Pliny’s prosecution of Christians and the decree against illegal assembly affecting the firefighters in Bithynia is a modern scholarly inference and not actually anything Pliny says in his letters.

In fact, Pliny never once discusses the decree against fire brigades in his letter about Christians, nor connects the two cases in any way. Moreover, neither subject is discussed in “letter number 10.” Ehrman evidently doesn’t know that all of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is collected in book 10 of Pliny’s letters. His letter on the fire brigades is, in that book, letter 33; and his letter on Christians is letter 96 (and therefore nowhere near each other in time or topic). On their possible connection (which I do believe scholars have correctly inferred), see my discussion in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 418-22). But Ehrman has still gotten the context wrong. The law against illegal assembly was not a special law in that province, but had long been a law throughout the whole empire, and it was not targeted at fire brigades. Existing law required all social clubs to be licensed by the government, and many clubs were so licensed (including religious and scientific associations, burial clubs, guilds, and, of course, fire brigades). What was unique about Pliny’s province was that the state had been denying these licenses even to fire brigades, and Pliny asked Trajan to lift that injunction (and in letter 34, Trajan denies Pliny’s request, citing recent unrest in that province).

The connection between the Bithynian fire brigades and Christianity is not that there was any special injunction against Christians (Trajan, in letter 97, explicitly says there wasn’t), but that in letter 96 Christianity appears to be treated by Pliny like any unlicensed club, and both letters (96 and 97) make it clear there was no specific law or decree against Christians. Therefore, modern scholars conclude, the same law is probably what was being applied in both cases (prosecuting Christians and banning firefighting associations). And that’s kind of what Ehrman confusingly says (except he is evidently unaware that this is a modern conclusion and not actually stated in the source).

Ehrman’s treatment of the sources and scholarship on this issue betray the kind of hackneyed mistakes and lack of understanding that he repeatedly criticizes the “bad” mythicists of (particularly his inability even to cite the letters properly and his strange assumption that both subjects are discussed in the same letter–mistakes I would only expect from an undergraduate). But if even historicists like Ehrman can’t do their research properly and get their facts right, and can’t even be bothered to read their own source materials or understand their context, why are we to trust the consensus of historicists any more than mythicists? And more particularly, how many other sources has Ehrman completely failed to read, cite, or understand properly?

The Pilate Error: In the past I have noted that I don’t trust G.A. Wells to be sufficiently competent in ancient history because he makes mistakes that exhibit ignorance of basic background knowledge of Roman history. The example I often give is his argument that Tacitus’ passage about Christians cannot be from a reliable source because it “incorrectly” claims Pilate was a procurator, when in fact everyone knows he was a prefect. This betrays ignorance of the fact that provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators, and from his treatment of the scandal of this fact throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact here (see my discussion in Herod the Procurator, particularly the section “So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?”). In other words, Pontius Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect. And the recent literature on the subject confirms this, as would any consultation with an expert in Tacitus or Roman imperial administration.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Ehrman making the same argument, that “Tacitus is precisely wrong” in saying Pilate was a “procurator” (p. 56). Like Wells, Ehrman doesn’t understand his source (why Tacitus would choose to say “procurator”) or the historical context (why prefects were often also procurators). Moreover, he speaks with absurd hyperbolic certainty: Tacitus is “precisely” wrong; as opposed to, say, Tacitus “appears” to be or “might” be wrong, or “according to Wells, Tacitus is wrong,” or any of a dozen other more accurate and suitably cautious remarks one would expect from someone who ought to know he is out of his element when treating Roman imperial administration or sources (like Tacitean literature) that he is not well versed in. If I cannot rely on Wells because of this error, this means I cannot rely on Ehrman, either.

Now, one or two mistakes like this would be excusable. We all make them. And we can’t all know everything. But my point is that this is an example of a pervasive number of similar errors throughout the book that indicate Ehrman doesn’t actually know what he is talking about. And since a lay reader won’t know that, they will come away from this book with more false information in their heads than true. And as I said, that makes this book worse than bad.

The “No Records” Debacle: Ehrman declares (again with that same suicidally hyperbolic certitude) that “we simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other kinds of records that one has today” (p. 29). Although his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity), his premise is false. In fact, I cannot believe he said this. How can he not know that we have thousands of these kinds of records? Yes, predominantly from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond. I have literally held some of these documents in my very hands. More importantly, we also have such documents quoted or cited in books whose texts have survived. For instance, Suetonius references birth records for Caligula, and in fact his discussion of the sources on this subject is an example I have used of precisely the kind of historical research that is conspicuously lacking in any Christian literature before the third century (see Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 182-87).

From Ehrman’s list, “birth notices” would mean census receipts declaring a newborn, tax receipts establishing birth year (as capitation taxes often began when a child reached a certain age), or records establishing citizenship, and we have many examples of all three; as for “trial records” we have all kinds (including rulings and witness affidavits); we have “death certificates,” too (we know there were even coroner’s reports from doctors in cases of suspicious death); and quite a lot else (such as tax receipts establishing family property, home town, and family connections; business accounts; personal letters; financial matters for charities and religious organizations). As one papyrologist put it, “a wealth of papyrus documents from the Graeco-Roman era have come to light on the daily lives of ancient people in Egypt, including their love letters and marriage contracts, tax and bank accounts, commodity lists, birth records, divorce cases, temple offerings, and most other conceivable types of memoranda, whether personal, financial, or religious” (see Greco-Roman Papyrus Documents from Egypt).

That Ehrman would not know this is shocking and suggests he has very little experience in ancient history as a field and virtually none in papyrology (beyond its application to biblical manuscripts). Worse, he didn’t even think to check whether we had any of these kinds of documents, before confidently declaring we didn’t. Instead, Ehrman only demonstrates how little we can trust his knowledge or research when he says such silly things like, “If Romans kept such records, where are they? We certainly don’t have any” (p. 44). He really seems to think, or is misleading any lay reader to think, that (a) we don’t have any such records (when in fact we have many) and that (b) our not having them means Romans never kept them (when if fact it only means those records have been lost, because no one troubled to preserve them; which leads us to ask why no one in Jesus’ family, or among his disciples or subsequent churches, ever troubled to preserve any of these records, or any records whatever, whether legal documents, receipts, contracts, or letters).

We can certainly adduce plausible answers for why we don’t have any of these documents for Christianity, answers that do not entail Jesus did not exist. Which is what a competent author would have done here: admit that we have lots of these kinds of records and know they once existed, but due to factors and conditions relating to where Christianity began and how it developed, it would be unreasonable to assume any of these records would be preserved to us (see my discussion of the corresponding logic of evidence in regard to the trial records under Pontius Pilate in Proving History, pp. 220-24). But we have to accept the consequences of any such answer we give.

For example, we cannot claim the Christians were simultaneously very keen to preserve information about Jesus and his family and completely disinterested in preserving any information about Jesus and his family. An example is the letter of Claudius Lysias in Acts, which if based on a real letter has been doctored to remove all the expected data it would contain (such as the year it was written and Paul’s full Roman name), but if based on a real letter, why don’t we still have it? It makes no sense to say Christians had no interest in preserving such records. Moreover, if a Christian preserved this letter long enough for the author of Acts to have read it, why didn’t they preserve any other letters or government documents pertaining to the early church, just like this one?

I personally believe we can answer these questions (and thus I agree with Ehrman that this argument from silence is too weak to make a case out of), but not with this silly nonsense. A good book on historicity would have given us educationally informative, plausible, and thoughtfully considered answers and information about ancient documents and the total Christian failure to retain or use them. Instead Ehrman gives us hackneyed nonsense and disinformation. Again, the relevance of this is that if he failed so badly in this case, how many other statements and claims of his are misinforming us about the evidence and the ancient world? And if he didn’t do even the most rudimentary fact checking (“Let’s see, do we have any Roman documents?”) and didn’t know so basic a background fact as this about the field of ancient history (that we have tons of these documents, as any ancient historian cannot fail to know because she will have worked with them many times, even in graduate school), then how can we assume any of his work in this book is competently researched or informed?

The Tacitus Question: Ehrman says “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55). Now, I agree with Ehrman that it’s “highly unlikely” this passage wasn’t what Tacitus wrote; but the fact that he doesn’t know of the many classical scholars who have questioned it suggests he didn’t check. See Herbert W. Benario, “Recent Work on Tacitus (1964–68),” The Classical World 63.8 (April 1970), pp. 253-66 [and in 80.2 (Nov.–Dec. 1986)], who identifies no less than six classical scholars who have questioned its authenticity, three arguing it’s an outright interpolation and three arguing it has been altered or tampered with [correction: he names five scholars, one of them arguing in part for both--ed.]. This is important, because part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.

That the overall consensus of scholarship, myself included, sides with Ehrman on the conclusion is true (I am sure the passage is authentic and has not been relevantly altered), but that does not change the fact that readers are being seriously misled by Ehrman’s characterization of the matter. For him to claim that mythicists “just made this up” because it was convenient for them is false. But more alarming to me is the fact that this demonstrates that he didn’t even check. And again, if he didn’t check this, what else didn’t he check? This kind of sloppy work, the failure to check his facts, to do any basic research we should expect of a scholar, and consequently to misrepresent his opponents and their position, and misinform the public about the debate, is the same kind of crap we get from the bad mythicists. Why, then, are we now getting it from a prestigious historicist? Can we speculate that it’s because Ehrman is simply defending a dogma, and as such is simply a priori “certain” he is right and therefore “doesn’t need to check”? What credibility can arguments against mythicism have, when they rest on this kind of arrogantly dogmatic and irresponsible thinking?

The “Other Jesus” Conundrum: Ehrman says the fact that “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events” is “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251). This is false. And it’s astonishing that he would not know this, since several other scholars have discussed the sources that place Jesus in the reign of Jannaeus in the 70s B.C. Ehrman seems to think (and represents to his readers) that G.A. Wells just made this up (pp. 247-51). In fact, Wells is discussing a theory defended by others, and based in actual sources: Epiphanius, in Panarion 29, says there was a sect of still-Torah-observant Christians who taught that Jesus lived and died in the time of Jannaeus, and all the Jewish sources on Christianity that we have (from the Talmud to the Toledot Yeshu) report no other view than that Jesus lived during the time of Jannaeus. Though these are all early medieval sources, it nevertheless means there were actual Christians teaching this and that the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity.

This is indeed a strange curiosity, since it is hard to explain how a religion that taught from its inception a Jesus who lived and died under the Romans, and Pontius Pilate specifically, could ever evolve a sect that placed him a hundred years earlier, or how this sect could become so ubiquitous east of the Roman Empire that the Jews there had not heard of any other. Make of that what you will. My point here is that Ehrman falsely claims no sources say this (when in fact several do) and misleads readers into thinking Wells just made this up, when in fact others have made the same argument, including:

  • Alvar Ellegård, Jesus: One Hundred Years before Christ (Overlook 1999)
  • Michael Wise, The First Messiah (Harper 1999)
  • Frank Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew (American Atheist 2003)
  • John Marco Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Prometheus 1984).

These are all arguably “fringe” scholars, and they may well be as wrong as Wells or even more so. I am not defending anything they argue (I do not believe Christianity originated in the 70s B.C.). I am merely pointing out that Ehrman misleads his readers (and demonstrates his shoddy and careless research) by not even mentioning any of this (neither the many other scholars nor the primary sources), but in fact even arrogantly and ignorantly declaring the contrary (that there are no sources that say this), as if he checked (which is what a naive reader will assume he did).

That Dying-and-Rising God Thing: Case in point. Regarding the claim that Osiris “returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead,” Ehrman insists that in fact “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods)” (p. 26). He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false. In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).

Although Plutarch does say that in the private teachings Osiris’ death and resurrection took place in outer space (below the orbit of the moon), after which he ascended back to the heights of heaven in his new body (not “the underworld,” as Ehrman incorrectly claims on p. 228), that is irrelevant to the mythicist’s case (or rather, it supports it, by analogy, since this is exactly what competent mythicists like Doherty say was the case for Jesus: public accounts putting the events on earth, but private “true” accounts placing it all in various levels of outer space: see my Review of Doherty). In fact the earliest Christians also believed Jesus was resurrected into outer space: he, like Osiris, ascended to heaven in his resurrection body, appearing to those below in visions, not in person (see my survey of the evidence in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-232; the same is true of many other dying-and-rising gods, like Hercules). The notion of a risen Jesus walking around on earth is a late invention (first found in the Gospels).

That these kinds of beliefs about Osiris’ death and resurrection long predate Plutarch is established in mainstream scholarship on the cult: e.g. S.G.F. Brandon, The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Greenwood 1963), pp. 17-36 and John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (Brill 1980). But we hardly need point that out, because there is already zero chance that the entirety of Isis-Osiris cult had completely transformed its doctrines in imitation of Christianity already by 100 A.D. (I shouldn’t have to explain why such a claim would be all manner of stupid). Ehrman’s claim that Plutarch is making all this up because he is Platonist is likewise nonsense. Ehrman evidently didn’t check the fact that Plutarch’s essay is written to a ranking priestess of the cult, and Plutarch repeatedly says she already knows the things he is conveying and will not find any of it surprising.

So regarding the death and resurrection of Osiris, Ehrman states what is in fact false. And this is most alarming because much of his case against mythicism rests on this false assertion. But worse, Ehrman foolishly eats his foot again by hyperbolically generalizing to all possible gods (he repeatedly insists there are no dying-and-rising gods in the Hellenistic period). Which is really bad, because that proves he did no research on this subject whatever. I shouldn’t have to adduce passages such as, from Plutarch, “[about] Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes, they narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections” (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi 9.388f-389a). That looks pretty cut and dried to me. But it’s worse than that. Because for Romulus and Zalmoxis we undeniably have pre-Christian evidence that they actually die (on earth) and are actually raised from the dead (on earth) and physically visit their disciples (on earth). And likewise for Inanna, a clear-cut death-and-resurrection tale exists on clay tablets a thousand years before Christianity (she dies and rises in hell, but departs from and returns to the world above all the same).

I was very alarmed to see that Ehrman never once mentions Romulus or Zalmoxis or Inanna. Thus demonstrating he did no research on this. He didn’t even read my book Not the Impossible Faith, even though he claims to have and even cites it. I know he can’t have actually read it, because I document the evidence, sources, and scholarship on these gods there (pp. 17-20 and 85-128), yet his book shows no awareness of these gods or any of the evidence I present for their resurrection cults. As well as many others, besides those I’ve just here named. (Do not mistake me for supporting false claims in this category, however; Mithras was almost certainly not a dying-and-rising god, and Attis only barely was.)

Even if Ehrman had done any responsible literature review on this, he would have found the latest peer reviewed scholarship establishing, for example, that vanishing bodies as elements of resurrection tales were a ubiquitous component of pagan mythmaking: Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129.4 (2010): 759-76. And thus a dying-and-rising hero theme was incredibly ubiquitous, even if highly flexible in the different ways this theme could be constructed. To be fair, Ehrman does address Tryggve Mettinger’s work on pre-Hellenistic dying-and-rising gods, dismissing it as questionable but ultimately admitting he might have a case for there being such gods (Ehrman arguing instead, albeit implausibly, that they can’t have influenced Christianity). But Ehrman doesn’t address any of the evidence for these same (much less other) gods in the Hellenistic period, the period actually relevant to Christianity, which proves he did no checking, and isn’t even aware of such evidence, nor even thought it was important for him to be.

Again, Ehrman exposes himself as completely uninformed, and incompetent as a scholar (like any hack, trusting a single biased scholar and not checking any of the evidence or reading any of the other literature), and as consistently misinforming his readers on the actual facts, and thus hiding from them almost everything that actually adds strength to the mythicist thesis. That he does this on a point so central and crucial to his book’s entire argument is alone enough to discredit this book as worthless.

The Baptism Blunder: Ehrman says “we don’t have a single description in any source of any kind of baptism in the mystery religions” (p. 28). That is outright false, and one of the most appallingly incompetent statements in this book. Apuleius gives us a first person account of baptism in Isis cult, which he describes as a symbolic death and resurrection for the recipient, exactly as Paul describes Christian baptism in the NT (see Not the Impossible Faith, p. 376; and e.g. Romans 6:4), a fact that surely undermines Ehrman’s entire argument and makes the mythicist case look significantly stronger. So this is certainly important for him to know (and yet he would know it, if he actually read my work, which as we’ve seen, he did not), and crucial for the reader to know. Evidence of baptism in Osiris cult (and that it granted eternal life) exists in pre-Christian papyri, and several other sources: see Brook Pearson, Corresponding Sense: Paul, Dialectic, and Gadamer (Brill 2001), pp. 206-18, 312-29.

We also know that something like baptism into eternal life was a feature of the cult of Bacchus-Dionysus, and we know this not only because Plato mentions it (Plato, Republic 364e-365a, where we’re told of Orphic libations “for the remission of sins” that secure one a better place in the afterlife), but also from actual pre-Christian inscriptions (that’s right, words actually carved in stone). See examples in Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Fortress 1975), pp. 275-76, n. 116. Both sources (Plato and inscriptions) also confirm the Bacchic belief that one could be baptized on behalf of someone who had already died and thus gain them a better position in the afterlife. It cannot be a coincidence that exactly the same thing, baptism for the dead, is attested as a Christian rite in Paul (1 Corinthians 15:29). We have hints of baptismal rituals in other cults (Tertullian, for example, in On Baptism 5, describes numerous pagan rituals of baptism for the remission of sins, clearly understanding it to be a common practice everywhere known). Sure, in many of these cases the baptism was part of a larger ritual (perhaps involving prayer or incense), but Christian baptisms were not free of their own ritual accoutrements, so those hardly matter to the point.

This also undermines Ehrman’s claim that there is no evidence that the death of Osiris (or any other god) “brought atonement for sin” (p. 26). We know Egyptian afterlife belief made the physical weight of sin a factor in deciding one’s placement in the afterlife, and that (as just shown above) baptism into the death and resurrection of Osiris washes away those sins and thus lightens the soul to obtain the best place in heaven. It is hard to imagine how this does not entail that the death and resurrection of Osiris somehow procured salvation through remission of sins (and clearly a similar belief had developed in Bacchic and other cults). One could perhaps get nitpicky as to what might be the exact theology of the process, but whatever the differences, the similarity remains: the death and resurrection of Osiris was clearly believed to make it possible for those ritually sharing in that death and resurrection through baptism to have their sins remitted. That belief predates Christianity. Ehrman is simply wrong to say otherwise. And the evidence for this is clear, indisputable, and mainstream. Which means his book is useless if you want to know the facts of this matter. Or any matter, apparently.

The Dying Messiah Question: Ehrman declares “there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought Isaiah 53 (or any other ‘suffering’ passages) referred to the future messiah” (p. 166), yet he does not even mention much less address the Dead Sea pesher (11Q13) or the 1st century targum that both explicitly evince this belief. And he knows about all this, so I cannot explain why he doesn’t even attempt a rebuttal, or even in fact mention this evidence, which can only misinform the reader, who will think there is none, and mistakenly conclude his assertion has not been disputed. That is simply irresponsible. See my discussion of this in The Dying Messiah Redux [updating and correcting my earlier article The Dying Messiah, which I know he had read well in advance of publishing his book, so it appears like he is suppressing arguments and evidence presented by mythicists, in order to make our claims look weaker than in fact they are.]

Besides his false (or at least debatable) statement, there is a logical fail here as well, since he bases his conclusion that no Jews would develop a belief in a dying messiah on the premise that no Jews had a belief in a dying messiah, which apart from being a circular argument (all novel beliefs start somewhere; you can’t argue that x would not arise because x hasn’t arisen), and apart from the fact that the inference is refuted by the fact that Jews later did develop such a belief (independently of Christianity, as I also demonstrate in the preceding link) so clearly there was no ideological barrier to doing so, but besides all that, his premise requires knowing what all Jews, of all sects, everywhere, believed or imagined, which knowledge Ehrman doesn’t have (not even close: see my discussion of what I and other scholars have said about such preposterous claims to omniscience in Proving History, pp. 129-34). He even knows his own inference is illogical, because he makes the exact same argument I just did (on p. 193): “how would we know this about ‘every’ early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?” Substitute “Jew” for “Christian” and Ehrman just refuted himself. (This is not the only instance in which Ehrman contradicts himself in this book; I will cite another egregious example below.)

The Matter of Qualifications: I could list dozens more of these kinds of serious factual errors. They plague the book, cover to cover. But I will end my sample of them with this, because it’s indicative of both his carelessness and his skewed attempts to distort the facts in his favor:

Twice Ehrman says I have a Ph.D. in “classics” (p. 19, 167). In fact, my degrees are in ancient history, with an undergraduate minor in Classics (major in history), and three graduate degrees (M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D.) with four graduate majors (Greco-Roman historiography, philosophy, religion, and a special major on the fall of Rome). One of those, you’ll notice, is in the religions of the Roman empire–which included Christianity (and my study of Christianity featured significantly in my dissertation work). I shouldn’t have to explain that the classics and ancient history departments aren’t even in the same building, much less the same major. Although I did take courses from each and studied under both classicists and historians, and have a considerable classics background, it’s a rather telling mistake of his to think (and then report) that I am just a classicist and not a historian, much less a certified historian of Christianity (and, incidentally, its surrounding religions, ignorance of which we have seen is Ehrman’s failing).

Ehrman can’t have learned my degree is in classics from any reliable source. He can only have invented this detail. I am left to wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to diminish my qualifications by misrepresentation. Or if he is really so massively incompetent it never even occurred to him to check my CV, which is on my very public website (he also has my email address, and we have corresponded, so he could even have just asked). Did he not even think to check? Why? And if he didn’t check, why did he decide to say my degree was in “Classics”? Where did he get that notion? This is important, because Ehrman makes such an absurd issue out of exactly what our degrees are in, so for him to even get it wrong is again damaging to his reliability.

 

Why These Factual Errors Matter

I also notice that Ehrman ignores a larger category of historians: historicity agnostics. He insists no historians of Christianity with professorships in the history of Christianity exist who doubt the historicity of Jesus, but I happen to know of at least one: Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD. At the Amherst conference in 2008 Droge said publicly that he had no idea whether there was a real Jesus, and gave a presentation using Ned Ludd as an example of a quickly historicized fictional person, around whom a whole movement grew, which Droge argued demonstrated that we could not be confident the same thing hadn’t happened to Jesus. Here we have someone who meets all of Ehrman’s hyper-specific requirements, yet who does not share Ehrman’s certitude about the historicity of Jesus. I suspect there are many more like him. Droge simply hasn’t published on this. How many other scholars are there out there, who likewise have not published an opinion in the matter, but nevertheless are far more skeptical than Ehrman?

At any rate, competence to argue a case on this issue cannot be decided by precisely what degrees one has (whether they are in “ancient history” or “ancient Judaism” or “classics,” or as he desires, “Christianity” specifically), or where one works (whether someone holds a professorship is wholly irrelevant). No. This will be decided by the quality and informedness of one’s work. And on that score I would ask that Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? be compared with my latest on the same subject, Proving History. Just compare the extent and content of our endnotes alone, much less the way we argue, the difference in our attention to method and its logical soundness, the diverse range of scholarship we cite. Even my book Not the Impossible Faith is superior on all these measures, and it was a deliberately colloquial book designed to be entertaining. Both undoubtedly have occasional errors (as all scholarly work does)–but I doubt anything even remotely like what I have documented above (in degree, quantity, and cruciality).

Proving History also illustrates how Ehrman is out of touch with the extensive work in his own field discrediting the very methods he assumes are still valid (and naively relies on throughout). As I said before, every expert who has published a study of these methods has concluded they are invalid. Ehrman doesn’t seem to be aware of any of this literature, even though it is now quite extensive. Proving History also refutes many of his specific arguments for historicity (such as that Christians would not invent the baptism by John or a Nazareth origin for Jesus), on every point citing peer reviewed scholarship or presenting clear logical demonstrations from primary evidence. So it is already an adequate rebuttal (even though I will not actually defend the thesis that Jesus didn’t exist until my next book, which is nearly completed: On the Historicity of Jesus Christ). But as you can see from my many examples above, Ehrman’s book is so full of egregious factual errors demonstrating his ignorance, sloppiness, and incompetence in this matter, it really doesn’t even need a rebuttal. It can be thrown straight into the trash without any loss to scholarship or humanity. It is, quite simply, wholly unreliable.

 

The Methodologically Absurd

I could end with that. But it’s crucially important to address another side of how Did Jesus Exist? fails at its central task: the bankruptcy of Ehrman’s methods. Even with sound methods, to start with dozens of false facts (which this book does, as just demonstrated with a sample of them) will produce false or logically unsound conclusions. Which is why that is enough to discredit the book. One needn’t even question his methods. We know he made so many factual errors, we can’t trust any of his factual claims. And in light of that even a perfect method couldn’t have rescued this book. But the failure of his methods remains important precisely to the extent that other historians in this field might be fooled into trusting them and continuing to use them. And lay readers might similarly be duped into trusting and using them themselves.

I will not address here the one aspect of his methodology that the scholarly literature has already soundly refuted (the “method of criteria”). My book Proving History already does that, in meticulous detail. Instead, I will here address his strange method of inventing sources and witnesses.

I could call out many examples of his use of ordinary fallacies and self-contradictions, too, but I will have to leave those for perhaps a later blog (if I even care to bother). I will just give one example that simultaneously illustrates both: Ehrman attacks Robert Price for using the “criterion of dissimilarity” negatively (on p. 187), insisting that’s a “misuse” of the criterion, and then defends using it negatively himself (on p. 293), a blatant self-contradiction. It is also fallacious reasoning. Price was using it “negatively” (in Ehrman’s sense) to show that the case for historicity from the Gospels is weak because for every story about Jesus the Christians had a motive to invent it, which is a logically valid way to argue: he is rebutting the contrary claim (that some of these stories must be true because they didn’t have a motive to invent them) and thereby removing a premise that ups the probability of historicity, which necessarily lowers the probability of historicity (by exactly as much as that premise being true would have raised it). Ehrman outright denies this (on p. 187) which betrays a fundamental ignorance of how logic works. Perhaps what Ehrman meant to say was that this argument cannot alone prove Jesus didn’t exist, but Price never says it does.

As bad as those kinds of self contradictions and fallacies are (and there are more than just that one), far worse is how Ehrman moves from the possibility of hypothetical sources to the conclusion of having proved historicity. He argues that because Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas (yes, Thomas) and various other documents all have material the others don’t, that therefore we “have” a zillion earlier sources, which he sometimes calls by their traditionally assigned letters like M, L, and Q (he is irrationally dismissive of Mark Goodacre’s refutation of Q, and claims no one is convinced by it but cites not a single rebuttal; I myself find Goodacre’s case persuasive, well enough at least to leave us in complete doubt of the matter). We don’t in fact have those sources, we aren’t even sure they exist, and even if we were, we have no way of knowing what they said. To illustrate why that matters, take a look at the second redactions of the Epistles of Ignatius and ask yourself how you would know what the first redactions of those epistles said if you didn’t in fact have them (then go and look at those first editions and see if you guessed successfully!). Just try that, and you’ll see why Ehrman’s entire procedure is methodologically ridiculous.

According to Ehrman’s method, the material added and changed in the second redaction of the Ignatians had a “source” and therefore we can rely on it. But that’s absurd. The material added to the second redactions of the Ignatian epistles is made up. It did not “have a source.” The same is true of most if not all the material unique to any given Gospel. The miracle at Cana is something John just made up. He did not “have a source” for it. And even if he did, that source made it up. Obviously. That’s why no one had ever heard of it before, or anything even remotely like it before, and why it involved a patently impossible event (the transmutation of matter; or if you have a rationalist bent, a deceptive magician’s trick that would make no sense in context and could not have any plausible motive). There is no argument for historicity here. The story is false. And false stories cannot support the existence of real people. And yet Ehrman repeatedly cites false stories, even stories he himself confesses to be false (indeed, even false stories in forged documents!) as evidence for the existence of Jesus, which is the most unbelievably illogical thing I could imagine any historian doing.

Ehrman’s examples of finding hypothetical “Aramaic sources” exemplify this fallacy.

(1) He cites Jesus’ cry on the cross, which Mark gives in Aramaic and translates, as evidence Mark was using an Aramaic source (p. 88). Well, yes. His source is the Bible. If he was not translating the Hebrew into Aramaic himself, then he was using a targum (which would explain the biblical citations in the Gospels to verses that we can’t find in our Bible, like Matthew’s Nazarene prophecy: Mt. 2:23; because the Aramaic targums often altered the text, and we don’t have most of the targums that were then in use). Everyone knows this. Scholar after scholar has pointed out that the entire crucifixion scene is created out of material extracted from the Psalms, this specific cry on the cross in particular, which is a quotation from Psalm 22 (see my discussion of the evidence and the scholarship in Proving History, pp. 131-33). Ehrman doesn’t mention this (misleading his readers already, by concealing rather crucial information that undermines his point). But notice what happens when we take it into account: Mark dressed up a scene by borrowing and translating a line from the Bible, and Ehrman wants us to believe this is evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Really. Think about that for a moment. Then kick his book across the room to vent your outrage.

(2) Mark does the same thing (puts a sentence in Jesus’ mouth in Aramaic, then translates into the Greek) in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, which Ehrman again cites as evidence that Mark was using Aramaic sources (p. 87). Apart from the fact that we should sooner suspect Mark drew this line from the same targum (and we just don’t have that targum to confirm), the bigger problem is that everyone knows the Jairus story is fabricated. It didn’t happen. It’s a literary creation, a reworking of an Old Testament story (a targum of which may have contained, for all we know, the very line quoted by Jesus), with obvious puns, and a symbolic and allegorical purpose (see Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, pp. 65-67). It’s possible it was invented in Aramaic, but why would that matter? How does a story being fabricated in Aramaic prove the characters in that story existed? Jairus (whose name means “he will awaken [or be enlightened]” ; get it?) is most likely a fictional character. So why couldn’t Jesus (whose name means “savior” [lit. "God saves"]; get it?) be just as fictional? But even the notion that the story originated in Aramaic cannot be proved. If Mark is an Aramaic speaker, then he may simply be translating his own Aramaic thoughts and ideas into Greek. And even if he is using an Aramaic source (and that source is not simply a targum), then that source made this up. And made up stories cannot be used as evidence for the existence of the characters in them. Yet that is what Ehrman does with them.

Consider how his “method” would work if we applied it to the nativity stories (which Ehrman himself concludes are fiction). According to Ehrman’s methodology we have six independent sources for the miraculous birth of Jesus: Matthew, Luke, the Protevangelion of James, Ignatius (Ephesians 19), Justin Martyr, and Q (because some elements of the nativities in Luke and Matthew are shared in common). And there are probably others. Now, we know these are all made up. Not a stitch of them is true. But Ehrman’s method would compel us to assert that we have undeniable proof of the miraculous birth of Jesus. For example, every one of these attests that a miraculous star or light from heaven attended his birth.

These are all different stories, written in different words, so (by Ehrman’s logic) they “cannot” have been influenced by each other; except where they are nearly identical, then (by Ehrman’s logic) they corroborate each other. This is actually the way Ehrman argues for the historicity of Jesus. That his very same method produces absurd conclusions (“a miraculous star or heavenly light attended the birth of Jesus”), demonstrates its logical invalidity. He is simply not allowing for the obvious fact that all the new material in these stories is made up (even if they used now lost sources; the material is still made up, it was just made up in those sources), and that people can use a source by completely rewriting it in their own words and changing any detail they please (which is why nearly every specialist I have read on the Gospel of John disagrees with Ehrman’s claim that John did not use Luke as a source: see The Christian Delusion, p. 312, n. 11; I think Ehrman is not nearly honest enough with his readers about this).

Someday I might compose a blog applying Ehrman’s method to prove a flying saucer crashed at Roswell and alien bodies were recovered from it. Because I have a dozen independent sources (which by Ehrman’s method I can convert into several dozen sources, by inventing a “Q” for material two sources share but change up, and an “M” for material unique to one source but not in the others, and so on), which contain stories written in the original language of the time and place the event happened (namely, American English; because analogously, Aramaic, you see, was not only spoken in first century Judea; it was spoken in parts of Syria and to an extent across the diaspora, continually for centuries, so “Aramaic source = Judean source written in the 30s A.D.” is a ridiculous inference, yet Ehrman uses it again and again), all written within fifty years of the event (thus an even better source situation than we have for the historicity of Jesus!). If I limited myself only to material written by “believers” and people quoting them or relying on them alone as a source, then by Ehrman’s method I would have to believe a flying saucer crashed at Roswell and alien bodies were recovered from it.

Needless to say, Ehrman has no logically credible method. Is this really the only way to defend historicity?

 

Faking It

Omitting mention of these kinds of facts is irresponsible. Because most readers won’t know these things. Yet concealing this information from them makes Ehrman’s case seem stronger than it is. His readers should rightly feel betrayed by this. It also seems to me that Ehrman did not do any discernible research into ancient literary or educational methods. And to illustrate this (this being another glaring error of omission; these are by no means the only ones) I will close with just one example:

Ehrman appears to be blithely unaware of the routinely fabricatory nature of ancient biography, as documented throughout the literature on the subject (which is cataloged under his despised category of “classics,” a section of the library Ehrman seems never to visit), which demonstrates that things an author said or wrote (even fictionally) were often converted into stories about them, and these legends then spread and were collected by biographers and became the ancient pagan equivalent of “Gospels” for such luminaries as Euripides, Homer, or Empedocles. Lest you think I’m making this up, here is a bibliography to get you started:

The significance of this is that it demonstrates Ehrman’s naivety when it comes to interpreting ancient literature and source materials and tradition formation. He is evidently not a competent classicist. And yet understanding how the Gospels likely came together requires being a competent classicist: you have to study and understand how ancient literature operated, especially comparable literature like this (for example, knowing that schools of the time specifically taught students to redact and alter stories in their own words–contrary to Ehrman’s baseless assumption that John cannot be a redaction of Luke because it does not follow Luke verbatim).

If things a person said were routinely transformed into stories about them (for example, Euripides occasionally made remarks about women in his plays that were transformed into a story about his troubled marriage–a completely fabricated story, that nevertheless became a standard element of his biography), doesn’t this change substantially how we view the possible tradition history behind the stories in the “biographies” of Jesus? Especially considering how many times we have caught them fabricating! (As even Ehrman admits several times in this book.) Biographies were also written of non-existent people (like Romulus, Numa, Coriolanus, Hercules, and Aesop). And we know for a fact Jesus said all kinds of things to the earliest Christians in revelations. And Ehrman concedes this is true. So we don’t have any need of a historical Jesus to get sayings of Jesus out of which to construct a life of Jesus.

The book of Revelation itself is an example of how easily Christians believed this: Jesus even there dictates whole letters from heaven, yet no one would argue that this is therefore evidence of a historical Jesus. Paul in his own letters frequently talks about revelation as a source of Jesus’ teachings. Again, Ehrman even agrees that some of the teachings of Jesus were probably “learned” that way. But if some, why not all? Paul never once mentions any other source (except scripture: Romans 16:15-26; e.g. Hebrews 10:5-7 records a saying of Christ, which is in fact simply Psalms 40:6-7, so evidently Christians were also learning the “teachings” of Jesus by reading them as hidden messages in scripture). Even in Galatians 1, Paul is explicitly denying not only that he received any human tradition, but that such traditions would even have any worth to him or his fellow Christians.

When we combine that fact, with what we know of the literary practices of the time, in the way stories and biographies were fabricated from sayings by (or even just attributed to) famous people (which often included nonexistent people), the mythicist case does not look as improbable as Ehrman portrays it. Which I find to be yet another example (among the great many I have already cataloged here, which again are just the tip of the iceberg) of how Ehman didn’t do his job as a scholar, and doesn’t inform (but in fact substantially misinforms) his readers, and comes to silly conclusions based on exactly the kind of naive ignorance of the relevant scholarship that he accuses mythicists of.

 

Conclusion

It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.

 

[For my reply to Ehrman's responses to this review see Ehrman's Dubious Replies (Round One) and Ehrman's Dubious Replies (Round Two).]

McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman

James McGrath responded to my reply to Ehrman’s intemperate and badly worded assault on the theory that Jesus was mythical (McGrath: Responding to Richard Carrier’s Response to Bart Ehrman), and as such represents exactly what is wrong with defenders of historicity: carelessness, post hoc rationalization, and factual error. I shall examine these flaws in detail, because they are important: they demonstrate how bankrupt historicity is as a position (or at least “unyielding” historicity…a historicist who allowed for the possibility of myth is a creature I rarely meet).

McGrath’s overall thesis he asserts in his conclusion: “Ehrman did not make mistakes in his piece.” Except that he did. In every respect I documented. McGrath actually couldn’t refute that (not in one single instance did McGrath even purport to correct any factual claim in my post), so he has to try other tactics to get a success out of a fail.

Making Excuses

McGrath begins by trying to make excuses for the atrociously inaccurate wording of Ehrman’s article by claiming the editors did it, and that this is normal. That is simply false. I have written for numerous periodicals as well as other websites as guests, and always I am given a proof and asked to correct any errors in it. Consistently, they correct any errors I say there are, including confusions of wording. And I have never had an editor edit my wording so egregiously as McGrath’s argument requires (the only thing that comes close is a religious organization “editing” an essay of mine without my consent). It is in fact a fundamental requirement of journalistic ethics to ensure that an article accurately represents the true thoughts of the author. My publishers have always been very concerned with this, and with making sure I fully approve of what posts.

Here at Freethought Blogs we have several contributors to The Huffington Post, and they actually tell me that HuffPo editors do little to no editing, in fact only reinforcing standards and practices and correcting for typos and suggesting improvements for readability. They don’t rewrite your articles. They certainly don’t rewrite them and publish them without even consulting you as to the accuracy or acceptability of the result first. As our own Chris Rodda told me by email:

I’ve been a blogger on HuffPost for nearly four years, and they have almost never edited any piece that I’ve written, and on the rare occasions when they did they were very minor edits (grammar and spelling corrections, breaking up long sentences, etc.). Out of all the many, many pieces I’ve written there, there was only one where the editors wanted to make any significant changes, and in that case they contacted me first and sent me a draft of their proposed changes for my approval prior to publishing the piece. So I do not believe for a minute that HuffPost would edit anyone’s piece in the way they’re being accused of.

That McGrath would attempt such an absurd and bogus defense suggests that he, too, is very worried about how badly worded and inaccurate Ehrman’s article is, but can’t bring himself to admit it. I have to wonder why.

Wait, What Was That about Academic Freedom Again?

McGrath says my post will only persuade mythicists, and thus completely dismisses my defense of the principles of academic freedom. It is most strange that McGrath says nothing in favor of academic freedom, not even to insist he supports it and wouldn’t dare think of doing the things Ehrman’s post intimates their industry does or would do to suppress it, not even to agree that it is inappropriate to ridicule and assault the character of qualified peers in an attempt to intimidate others from supporting them. In short, he doesn’t even acknowledge that historicists ought to agree with everything I said about that. No, my defense of academic freedom “will only carry weight with people who desperately want there not to have been a historical Jesus.” That’s disturbing. Particularly as it actually proves everything I said. Thanks, James McGrath.

Wait, Why Does the Order of Evidence Matter Again?

McGrath then launches into a rebuttal to my remarks on the evidence. The weirdest thing about this is not that he tries the fallacy of “poisoning the well” (and that the very first thing he does, which is indeed a recognized tactic: it’s exactly how a dishonest opponent is supposed to use that fallacy! Nice, James McGrath) by intimating that I am engaging in the nefarious and dishonest “tactics” of the crank mythicists (and thereby implying I am no different than them, as if my methods and motives and qualifications were no better). No, the weirdest thing is that he turns a logical order of discussion into evidence of evil nefarious purposes:

Carrier engages in a common mythicist tactic also used by promoters of other forms of pseudoscholarship: begin with the less strong evidence and sow doubt, in the hope that when you get to the stronger evidence, your audience will be inclined to accept your implausible dismissal of it. Carrier describes as “Ehrman’s only evidence” Paul’s reference in Galatians to having met “James the brother of the Lord.”

What he means to say is that the James passage is his strongest evidence (I appreciate his admitting this, because it helps my point), and so I put that last, and lead with the other stuff, to “sow doubt.” (“Sowing doubt” meaning what anyone else would call arguing a case.) Rather than the actual reason I did that, which was to hold off the longest digression and the most disputed question until the end, so I could wrap up the easy stuff first and keep readers engaged. It is a perfectly logical sequence to address the clear points first, then close with the strongest point of debate. Instead of acknowledge that, he uses my ability to organize essays as evidence of my evil (and therefore disreputable) intentions. This dastardly scholar is trying to corrupt your mind with a wicked use of logical order.

The irony is, this is the kind of tactic I’d expect from a fringe myther. McGrath, like Ehrman, has become the very thing they despise: a logic-dismissing conspiracy theorist. I will get back to this James thing. Once again, last.

Wait, Why is Being a Roman Author Relevant Again?

McGrath amusingly argues that Ehrman made no mistakes, then assiduously attempts to explain all his mistakes (so, which is it, did he make mistakes that require an explanation, or is everything he said unmistaken?). For example, McGrath astonishingly attempts this defense of Ehrman:

Ehrman points out that Roman sources do not mention Pontius Pilate. Presumably he does not mean writers of the Roman era, but Roman authors in the strict sense, since there is no way that Ehrman could possibly be unaware that Philo and Josephus made reference to Pilate.

But Pilate references Pilate. Pilate is a Roman source. So, fail. But that’s not even the most pertinent point: the distinction McGrath is attempting here makes absolutely no sense in the context of Ehrman’s argument. What does it matter whether a source is Roman or not? A source is a source. Ehrman gives no explanation of why someone being a Roman matters to his point–nor could he have, since it doesn’t, and never logically could. It’s just worse that in fact Philo and Josephus were Romans (Josephus was certainly a Roman citizen and lived in Rome itself for part of his life; and, as I explained in my article, Philo was almost certainly a Roman citizen as well). So is McGrath saying Jews can’t be Romans? That would seem to mean Jews can’t be Americans, either. And even if such a strange thing were true, it would again be irrelevant. Yes, Philo and Josephus were not descended from Italians nor native speakers of Latin…so? McGrath’s whole argument here is fantastically illogical, and reeks of desperation. The more so as it ignores the fact that Pilate is descended from Italians and a native speaker of Latin (and a Roman government official), and he attests his own existence as an eyewitness thereto, by one of the best pieces of evidence historians of antiquity can ever have.

McGrath just can’t bring himself to admit that Ehrman so badly miswrote that he stated in a public article that will be read by millions of people a factually false claim. I agree that is not a lie or evidence of ignorance. It’s just terrible, terrible, terrible writing. Which is just as incompetent, just as careless, and just as warranting a correction.

Wait, What Was That about Only Officials Erecting Inscriptions?

McGrath betrays his ignorance and incompetence as a historian of antiquity with his next monstrous foot-in-mouth gaffe:

Carrier’s mention of inscriptions leaves off the obvious reason why we have no inscriptions referring to Jesus: prefects and procurators and governors and kings made inscriptions, as did other public functionaries. When, where, and why would a figure like Jesus have made an inscription, or had one made that referred to him? Mythicists regularly and frustratingly fail to compare like with like.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that. (And not because I didn’t say Jesus would erect an inscription; read my article again, James.) McGrath’s claim about who erected inscriptions in antiquity is false. Now, it is bad enough that McGrath didn’t know that. What makes him incompetent is not his ignorance, though, but the fact that it didn’t even occur to him to check this claim before making it. This is a classic example of a very error many mythicists make that annoys McGrath, yet here he is, doing the exact same thing.

Okay. Epigraphy 101: Who erected inscriptions in antiquity? Nearly every kind of person with money. Yes, government people and public functionaries erected inscriptions. But the vast majority of ancient inscriptions were made by private citizens. Not just in graveyards, either. But we do have those, tens of thousands of funerary epitaphs, by all manner of not just wealthy but also middle class folk, celebrating their freedom from slavery or their profession or even, in many cases, their philosophy or religion. But leave those aside; I’ll also exclude graffiti; or marks on tombs or ossuaries (as the Jesus Tomb nuts…notably, historicists, not mythicists…keep claiming we have for Jesus). Even after leaving all those out, we still have inscriptions by practitioners of nearly every major religion in antiquity: pick your god, there is probably an inscription somewhere, by someone, celebrating them (the inscriptions attesting the miracles at Epidaurus, commissioned by those healed there, is just the most famous example; but we have thousands of inscriptions by Mithraists, and likewise by those of other cults, including Jews, e.g. the Revelation of Gabriel is one of those most recently discovered, and is an example of precisely the kind of thing we have from a fringe Jewish cult that we don’t have from Christianity); we also have inscriptions by philosophy enthusiasts, celebrating and broadcasting their philosophy to the public (something you’d think Christians were most keen to do, being evangelistic missionaries and all).

To give you just three pertinent examples (of dozens I could discuss):

(1) Diogenes of Oenoanda, a private citizen, commissioned a massive public inscription detailing his salvific philosophy for the good of mankind, declaring as its purpose “to help those who come after us” by publicizing “the remedies of salvation.” This was an Epicurean, who didn’t even believe in an afterlife or a coming end of the world to warn people about, yet he spent his own money to publish his gospel. Obviously Christians would be unable to do this in Judea, but they would have been free to in pagan cities for at least two centuries (contrary to the usual claims, Christianity was not actually outlawed and was rarely persecuted by Romans, as Acts routinely demonstrates and as we can tell even from Tacitus’ account, in which Christians had to be accused of arson to finally prosecute them; see Not the Impossible Faith, ch. 8, pp. 219-20).

They never erected any, for at least two centuries. Well, except heretics: evidently a Valentinian in the late second century finally got around to it. But no one else? Never for a hundred and fifty years? (I shouldn’t have to remind you that that latter inscription is a direct refutation of McGrath’s generalization that no Christians would ever do this. How is it that he didn’t hear of it? It was quite a big news item in our field last year.) And please, let’s not hear fallacious rebuttals to the Diogenes example (e.g. don’t tell me a Christian inscription was unlikely to be as elaborate and expensive as that of Diogenes; I am not saying it would be). And again, please, don’t ignore what I already said about this (in my original post I already listed reasons why such an inscription might not have been commissioned; that it “definitely would be” is not what I’m saying).

(2) We have an inscription (at Lanuvium, Italy) stating the rules of a private dinner club; these were religious associations that represent one of the models that early Christianity followed (and which they could even have done legally, had they wanted), in which members would have their burials charitably assured by their membership (among other charitable aims from the pooling of member resources), and in which they often shared fictive kinship (they were brethren), and shared communion in the form of regular divine meals (often of fish, bread, and wine) in celebration of a savior god. The Lanuvium inscription preserves the rules of order for one of these, which notably reflect some of the same concerns Paul faced with his dinner clubs (those rowdy Christian eucharist parties: see 1 Corinthians 11:16-34), and for which Paul voiced some of the same solutions, which (like at Lanuvium) must only have become more elaborate and codified over subsequent decades.

No Christians, in a hundred years of practicing, across seventy or more churches, ever once thought to write up their rules on a house wall, like pagan dinner clubs had? Nor even so much as to carve or scrawl “Jesus is Lord” on anything, anywhere? Note that I did not say we should necessarily expect them to; I listed many reasons why they might not have gotten around to it (and any such inscription would not have been as elaborate as at Lanuvium, which followed the law and sought a license to operate from the state, and so on, so I am not implying they would be identical, but that the same purpose would be served by minimally equivalent behavior). But for McGrath to give a reason they wouldn’t do this that is actually blatantly false (‘only state officials did that’) simply illustrates why historicists just aren’t thinking rationally, nor acting like careful scholars in this debate. Which tells you something about the merits of their position: it is more based on careless, irrational thinking than on careful, logical arguments.

(3) In chapter 4 of his excellent history of Christianity in its pagan context (Pagans and Christians, sadly out of print), Robin Lane Fox discusses an example of a private cult erecting an inscription to record the fact that they had recently been having a spate of revelations from God (and had consulted an oracle about it and were publishing its reply). This was in the city of Miletus; the cult was that of Demeter; and the celebrant who commissioned it was Alexandra, who was in a position similar to that of Peter: the inscription reads (in part) “Ever since she has taken on her priesthood” the “gods have been appearing in visitations as never before” either to or in the form of “girls and women, but also, men and children.” The inscription asks, “What does such a thing mean? Is it the sign of something good?” (the oracle’s answer was basically yes).

Here we have visions, seen as an exciting new event, being celebrated in stone. Christians could easily have done the same, erecting all manner of messages, in honor of their god, or to advertise their gospel, or to warn people to repent, and many other possible things. To suggest only “public functionaries” could do this is simply false. I have given talks in which I use two other examples illustrating the same point: a brief inscription by the wizard Harnouphis celebrating a “manifestation” he had experienced of the goddess Isis; and the Memnon inscriptions, where a famous moaning statue in Egypt became covered with privately-commissioned inscriptions celebrating each witness’s experience of the miracle (even dating when it happened).

Of course by the third century onward we have Christian inscriptions and artwork in the catacombs as yet another example. But they would not have been limited to that location or medium. To argue that private citizens and religious adherents didn’t erect inscriptions pertaining to their religions is simply ridiculous, and one of the most boner mistakes I’ve yet seen from someone claiming to know what he’s talking about.

Wait, What Does the Word “Have” Mean, Again?

McGrath attempts to salvage Ehrman’s disastrously misleading wordage by claiming it wasn’t misleading at all. Which would suggest McGrath is a lousy teacher, as anyone who instructs students or deals with the public would be appalled by Ehrman’s sloppy phrasing, knowing full well how misleading it would be, and how badly it will miseducate those who hear it said. McGrath says:

Carrier makes much of the statement “we have” but once again there is no sense in which Ehrman could reasonably be thought to be claiming that he has a copy of Q, for instance. His meaning is not ambiguous, nor is it mistaken.

Experts like McGrath and I know that “Ehrman could not reasonably be thought to be claiming that he has a copy of Q,” but all other readers of that article won’t know that. Exactly as I said originally: I am now going to be met with people for years and years who repeat to me that Ehrman said we have “multiple” Aramaic sources dating to the 30s A.D. That was a massively irresponsible way to word his sentence. McGrath won’t even admit that. Even though it was obvious to dozens of readers, as confirmed in comments on my blog and elsewhere. McGrath would never accept this kind of misstep from a mythicist. Nor would he accept his own excuse for it. So once again McGrath becomes the very thing he opposes.

Fact is, Ehrman’s wording is ambiguous. In fact, worse than, because it literally says what Ehrman did not mean to say. That’s not ambiguous; it’s false. The only saving grace is that Ehrman cannot have intended it that way. But that’s what makes his writing here atrocious to the extreme. What is actually ambiguous is the fact that it’s not even agreed that Q ever existed (likewise anything else he could have meant). Ehrman gives no hint whatsoever that that is true, but instead declares this source exists with absolute certainty and beyond any doubt. But it’s worse than that even, because, as I pointed out, Ehrman went on to declare that this non-existed document whose existence is still debated amounts to amazing proof of the historicity of Jesus, which is not in any possible sense a logically correct inference to make. Indeed, he even confidently declares that it dates within a “year or two” of Jesus! That is the exact kind of obfuscatory triumphalism McGrath loathes from the mythicists. But as soon as a historicist commits the same sin, now it’s not an error in even the slightest possible respect. See where this is going?

 Not Getting the Point

That covers most of McGrath’s failed attempt to rehabilitate Ehrman’s article. But before I get to the last item, I have to pause to discuss how McGrath routinely fails to get the point of what I’ve said. Here is a good example of what I mean…

He quotes me saying this:

The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.

To which McGrath responds:

This is (apart from the very last clause, perhaps) a wonderful statement of the very point Ehrman is seeking to make, as Carrier seems to realize. Yet for some reason, Carrier aligns himself against Ehrman and mainstream scholarship even when articulating the evidence in favor of its conclusions.

Thus demonstrating he completely missed the point. He at least gets that I actually agree with Ehrman that silences are not alone sufficient to demonstrate Jesus didn’t exist (I have always made this point, for years now, and McGrath surely knows this). But my point here is that Ehrman’s dismissal of silences as irrelevant to any conclusion about historicity, by suggesting we would never have any attestation outside the Bible, throws the baby out with the bathwater. Ehrman is actually destroying the very argument McGrath is here trying to rehabilitate: that such silences are indeed significant. In precisely the way I state, and McGrath affirms: they argue “against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels” and we therefore must “conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus.” That conclusion does not follow if we accept what Ehrman says about silences in other sources. Do you see the problem? Ehrman is actually attacking the very premise of McGrath’s own argument. I do not believe Ehrman intended to do that, but in his intemperate zeal to mock arguments from silence, he didn’t even notice that he was attacking himself.

McGrath does stuff like this many times, painting me with the same brush as all mythicists, when in fact he knows better. For example, I completely agree with him that Christianity is far more a product of its Jewish roots than its pagan inspirations. I have said this repeatedly for years now, and again I know McGrath knows this. So why does he write as though he is schooling me on that point, when in fact I have been schooling mythicists on it myself? He also knows that I argue Paul got his commandments “from the Lord” directly, by revelation (and in my post that he is replying to, I gave examples and referenced passages proving this). Yet he argues Paul quotes Jesus, therefore proving Jesus exists (even though I devoted a whole paragraph in my post to why that is an invalid inference; McGrath says nothing in response to it).

McGrath likewise says “Ehrman is clearly correct that there was no expectation prior to the rise of Christianity that a Davidic Messiah – i.e. the one who would restore the kingdom to the line of David”  (a distinction Ehrman did not make; you see, like a biblical fundamentalist, McGrath has to correct his oracle before claiming it is infallible) “would be executed by the foreign empire ruling over the Jewish people,” but this ignores the argument I actually made, that nevertheless a messiah who would die to atone for the sins of Israel was expected by some Jews (McGrath doesn’t even mention this or interact with any of my evidence or argument for it). You can’t push that fact under the rug with yet another no-true-Scottsman fallacy.

The irony is that as soon as McGrath introduces this element (of the role of a Davidic messiah), he destroys Ehrman’s argument: because Christians did believe in Ehrman’s messiah in that sense…for Jesus was on his way to do exactly what Ehrman says all Jews expected a messiah to do: destroy the enemies of God and reestablish home rule. You see, McGrath confuses Ehrman’s argument that no one would countenance a dying messiah, with the argument that Christians didn’t believe in a militarily triumphant messiah. They obviously did. Thus, McGrath’s attempted revision of Ehrman’s argument fails, and it fails precisely because Ehrman was wrong about Jews not imaging this messiah could die first.

McGrath thus routinely misses the point.

Another boner example is what he finally does say about academic freedom:

Carrier doesn’t address whether he thinks people ought to be allowed to pursue young-earth creationist or intelligent design research in mainstream academic contexts. But his argument is one that proponents of those views have used to argue precisely that.

This is a false analogy (the evidence for evolution is vastly greater, billions of times greater, than that for historicity), but more importantly, it ignores what I said in some detail: McGrath is committing the very sin I labored to explain Ehrman was, that of confusing a theory with a method. Should professors be free to pursue “creationist or intelligent design research” using valid methods? Yes! It would be completely wrong to reject all works submitted to peer review just because they argued for ID, even when their facts are correct and their methodology sound. Likewise it would be wrong to fire them or otherwise persecute them because they did that. It’s just that that hasn’t happened yet. No one has produced a pro-ID argument based on correct facts and sound methodology.

Which brings us back to that false analogy thing. Creationists want an exception to be made that allows their fallacious methods and false claims equal respect; I do not want that for mythicism. I want mythicism to be treated equally with all other theories about Jesus, by the same standards of method and argument. Ehrman’s sin is in acting like that is a priori impossible and therefore all mythicism is creationism. He is therefore setting up an untouchable dogma, all who even contemplate questioning it be damned–literally, by every institutional means available; McGrath agrees with Ehrman on that, because he just said we should be treated like Creationists. Whereas I made the crucial distinction that bad methodologies warrant that treatment, not debatable theories; McGrath epically fails to get the point.

Yet another example is where I actually agree with McGrath, and again it is worth pointing out why, because it reveals how badly he misses the point. McGrath says “if one is willing to posit interpolations where the manuscript evidence does not show evidence of such interpolation, then one can draw any conclusion,” so we can’t rely on that. I agree (see my previous comment on this; although McGrath is wrong to say one must have manuscript evidence, as even mainstream textual critics like Ehrman accept non-manuscript evidence; I can only assume McGrath was being hyperbolic, as otherwise he should know this). I did not argue the evidence should be dismissed because it could be an interpolation; I said the evidence was shaky because it could be an interpolation. That is, the probability of it being one (even if low, it is not vanishingly low) makes resting one’s entire case for historicity on this one single use of two Greek words in a document collection known for harmonizing and dogmatic interpolations, should be alarming, and not grounds for inviolable certainty. McGrath doesn’t seem to understand the weight of that point. But as David Hacket Fischer demonstrated (in Historians’ Fallacies), historians tend to be logic challenged.

So I guess in ancient Rome, “Misser of Points” would be McGrath’s cognomen (I thereby dub him Iacobus Magrathius Amissoquaestio). In the same vein, McGrath also ignores maybe 90% of the things I said (facts, arguments, essential points). It’s always interesting to compare what a critic responds to, with what they ignore. It’s usually all the things that refute their claims and generalizations. Take a look for yourself: read his critique, then go back and read the article he is criticizing.

That leaves one last thing (that same thing I covered last the first time)

James the (Adopted/Biological?) Brother of the Lord

I argued that all Christians were “brothers of the Lord” because: (a) they were all adopted sons of God, (b) Jesus was an adopted son of God, and (c) that by definition made them all the adopted brothers of Jesus; and (d) Christians called each other brother, therefore they would have called each other brothers of Jesus, too. I also showed (e) that they believed Jesus had explicitly called them his brothers and (f) they explicitly said Jesus was only “the firstborn among many brethren.” Another important point I made is that Jesus became Lord at his adoption, so Christians would be brothers of the Lord specifically, a uniquely Christian concept (and one that could only have been uttered after the origins of Christianity; e.g., even if James was the biological brother of Jesus, he would never have been called “the brother of the Lord” until Christians invented that phrase for him).

McGrath does not challenge any of the above (which is fortunate, because it is all proved conclusively from passages in Paul, which I cited profusely). The argument then follows: all Christians were the brothers of the Lord; so it would be confusing to call James a brother of the Lord. Because which do you mean? The James who is the biological brother of the Lord, or the James who is the adopted brother of the Lord? And even if we can guess, why use the confusing phrase at all? Why would a phrase that was equally true of all Christians, ever be used to uniquely identify biological brothers? Christians would only do that if somehow they policed the phrase and prevented Christians from using it of themselves (even though it would be correctly used that way otherwise), and restricted it only to specify biology, and that somehow all Christians knew this (it’s ability to uniquely identify being the only point of Paul using the phrase at all, on the historicist thesis). Even though this goes against the Christian doctrine that all are equals, and no one has a special privilege from being biologically related to anyone.

I explored other possibilities, but McGrath is too easily distracted so I won’t reiterate those. He can only handle one argument at a time. So let’s do that. We have two theories: (1) that Paul is merely saying James is a Christian (hypothesis), because all Christians were brothers of the Lord (established fact) and (2) that Paul means to say James is a biological and not adopted brother of Jesus (hypothesis), because Christians policed the use of the phrase in such a way as to make that a practical way to indicate that distinction (not in evidence). The fact that (2) requires assuming something ad hoc, but (1) does not, makes (1) initially more probable than (2). To borrow McGrath’s own words, “the phrase is clear.” All Christians are brothers of the Lord, James is a brother of the Lord. You do the math. If we have to add to it something whose probability is not 100% (the assumption of policing behavior), the probability drops. For example, if that policing behavior has a 50% chance of being true, while Christians being the brothers of the Lord has a 100% chance of being true (as I proved it did), then P(1) = P x 1 and P(2) = P x 0.5. If we start without presuppositions, i.e. before examining any evidence in the case, (1) and (2) are equally likely. So if (2) is reduced by half, and (1) is not, (2) is initially half as likely as (1), so in total probability, the relatives priors for (1) and (2) are 0.67 and 0.33, respectively (if we assume no other theories have a significant prior probability). There is no getting around this. That is the logic of evidence.

Now, initially likely does not mean ultimately likely. We have to examine the remaining evidence. But there, if we reject the Gospels as myth (as well as much later legends), all we have are the letters of Paul. And nowhere in those letters does Paul mention Jesus having had specifically biological brothers. But he frequently talks about Jesus having adopted brothers: all Christians. That is exactly what we expect if (1) is true. But if (2) were true we would have some expectation the evidence would be different; it would not be a certainty, but there would be some probability that Paul would more clearly mention Jesus having biological kin. Therefore, the probability of the evidence we actually have on (2) is somewhat less than 100%. Let’s say it’s 90% (I’m just picking a number; it has to be something less than 1, the difference representing the probability that Paul would have mentioned this more clearly, in this arbitrary case I’m saying that probability is 10% or just 1 in 10). But the probability of the evidence we actually have on (1) is arguably 100% (or near enough). If we assume no other theories have a prior probability even near 1%, then this gives us a Bayesian result of P(2) = (.33 x .9) / [(.33 x .9) + (.67 x 1)] = .297 / (.297 + .67) = .297 / .967 = 0.31, only a 31% chance McGrath’s theory is correct, and a nearly 69% chance the mythicists are correct on this one. [And if we make a case that P(e|(1)) is less than 100%, as subsequent comments have attempted, then for this passage to be evidence for historicity, P(e|(1)) has to be less than 45%, but that's when e includes all evidence pertaining to the case, not just what's in Paul--and that's assuming P(e|(2)) = 90%, which is already unreasonable, especially when e includes all evidence pertaining to the case, not just what's in Paul.]

This is how James attempts to reply:

There is no evidence for any Jews in Paul’s time speaking of God having a brother, and so the most natural reference is to Jesus being the Lord here, as indeed Paul refers to him often with this title.

This doesn’t respond to anything I argued. I never said God had a brother, or that Lord meant God. I said Jesus is the Lord, and as such was the adopted son of God (not brother of God), and as such all Christians, who were also the adopted sons of God, were the brothers of Jesus (in his role as Lord). McGrath’s failure to even grasp my obvious point calls into question his ability to evaluate any arguments whatever.

Moving on…

Carrier then follows mythicists like Earl Doherty in trying to suggest that “brother(s) of” can mean the same thing as “brother(s) in.” But the two phrases are obviously distinct in meaning, and based on the evidence available, it was not the custom in this time to refer to Christians in general, or a specific subset of Christians, as “brothers of the Lord.”

McGrath is making things up here. There is no instance anywhere in Paul’s letters of him ever saying such a thing as “brothers in” anything (much less brothers “in the Lord” or in Christ or in Jesus; claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Yes, the two phrases are obviously distinct in meaning. Which is precisely why Paul would never use “brother in the Lord.” Christians were not brothers in the Lord, they were actually the brothers of the Lord.

McGrath seems to be confusing completely different phrases, that don’t relate here. See, for example, Romans 16:8-19, where Paul is describing the virtues of various brethren, but not once calling them by the appellation brother (or sister), except in verse 14, which conspicuously omits “in the Lord/Christ” despite that being commonly used in the other sentences. Notice how the meanings there don’t work the other way around: is Ampliatus Paul’s “beloved of the Lord”? No. Is Urbanus their “fellow-worker of Christ?” No. Is Apelles “the approved of Christ”? No. Are those in the household of Narcissus “of the Lord”? No. Do Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis “labor of the Lord”? No. Was Rufus “the chosen of the Lord”? No. In each case they are in the Lord (literally: see The Empty Tomb, pp. 144-47, e.g. Romans 8:1 and Romans 12:5 and 2 Cor. 5:17), or they are these things in respect to the Lord.

Let’s look at the very different case of kinship: are Christians only brothers in the Lord? No. That would mean they were all brothers of each other because they were physically in the body or care or bosom of the Lord (by having faith in the Lord: Gal. 3:25-29) but that they weren’t thereby the brothers of the Lord. Just as above: every time you are something because you are in Christ, this is because you are not that something of Christ. You do not share equality with Christ in that respect, you are simply a part of him. But this is not the case for kinship. Jesus calls Christians his brothers; Christians called Jesus the firstborn of many brethren; Christians regarded themselves as the adopted sons of God and regarded Jesus as also the adopted son of that same God. Thus all Christians were in fact the brothers of the Lord, not just brothers of each other in the Lord.

To suggest otherwise is to insist that Paul defied all conventions of the Greek language, all common sense, all literal truth as he understood it, and chose to avoid the natural expression “brother of” for some unexplained reason even when it was correct, without any evidence he ever did that, or would. McGrath somehow thinks that is a more natural way to read the text than what I just explained above. You decide.

It’s pretty clear to me. If the Lord said you were his brother, you were the brother of the Lord; why would it ever occur to any speaker of Greek to think or say otherwise? McGrath pulls the same stunt Ehrman did, and references on his behalf evidence that doesn’t exist: “it was not the custom in this time to refer to Christians in general, or a specific subset of Christians, as ‘brothers of the Lord’.” Custom of the time? Based on what? We only have the letters of Paul. How does McGrath know what the custom of the time was, except by reference to the letters of Paul? We can clearly infer from all the evidence I presented (notice all the verses I listed; McGrath lists not one) that this was in fact the custom of the time; and the evidence shows Christians were all called brothers, and believed themselves to be the brother of Christ, and the one thing that would distinguish their brotherhood from any others, was that they were his brothers. In fact Paul twice refers to Christians as “brothers of the Lord,” unless McGrath circularly assumes he doesn’t.

Thus, circular arguments, and generalizations based on no evidence, purporting to know the contents of sources we don’t have, to arrive at a conclusion contrary to obvious logic. That’s bad argument 101. This is what historicists attempt to stand on. And they are surprised they are losing clout with their audience?

[Ironically, amateurs have suggested better counter-arguments here than McGrath, although those also fail: see my comments on stylistic usage, generic usage, and objective reading]

The Succinct Conclusion

The irony is that, when we consider everything I examined above, McGrath proves he is the one who “is clearly and unambiguously trying to make a case for a predetermined conviction, not follow the evidence where it leads” (his own words, fallacious projected onto me, when they clearly describe himself…and Freud is smiling in his grave).

Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism

Yesterday Bart Ehrman posted a brief article at the Huffington Post (Did Jesus Exist?) that essentially trashtalks all mythicists (those who argue Jesus Christ never actually existed but was a mythical person, as opposed to historicists, who argue the contrary), indiscriminately, with a litany of blatant factual errors and logical fallacies. This is either the worst writing he has ever done, or there are far more serious flaws in his book than I imagined (Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Amazon just reported that it shipped my copy of his book yesterday as well, so I will be able to review it soon.

I am puzzled especially because this HuffPo article as written makes several glaring errors and rhetorical howlers that I cannot believe any competent scholar would have written. Surely he is more careful and qualified in the book? I really hope so. Because I was expecting it to be the best case for historicism in print. But if it’s going to be like this article, it’s going to be the worst piece of scholarship ever written. So stay tuned for my future review of his book. For now, I will address this brief article, not knowing how his book might yet rescue him from an epic fail.

Attacking Academic Freedom

I won’t address his appeal to the genetic fallacy (mythicists are all critics of religion, therefore their criticisms of a religion as myth can be dismissed) or his sniping at credentials (where he gets insanely and invalidly hyper-specific about what qualifies a person to speak on this subject [which as one reader pointed out is the no-true-Scottsman fallacy]), except to note that it’s false: mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically. And I know Ehrman knows of him. So did he just “forget” when he says he knows of no one who meets his criteria? Or is he being hyper-hyper specific and not allowing even professors of Jewish studies to have a respectable opinion in this matter? As Thompson’s book The Messiah Myth introduces the subject, “the assumptions that the gospels are about a Jesus of history…are not justified.” He says (my emphasis) that “a historical Jesus might be essential to the origins of Christianity,” but is not essential to the construction of “the gospels” (p. 8), not even the sayings in them come from a historical Jesus (pp. 11-26).

Thompson allows the possibility of a historical Jesus, but concludes that the “Jesus” of the New Testament is mythical, and calls for renewed study of the question of historicity generally. In his introduction to a recent anthology on the topic, which includes works by mythicists alongside historicists, Thompson (as co-author) concludes that “an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts” (p. 8 of Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus) and the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist “needs to be considered more comprehensively” than the dismissive attitude of historicists (like, as it happens, Ehrman) has allowed (p. 10). Currently all we have, Thompson concludes, is “a historical Jesus” who “is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship,” which “is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David.”

That’s a prestigious professor of biblical studies. Is Ehrman really pooh-poohing his qualifications? Because if he is, this article becomes a massive case of foot-in-mouth. Because in it, Ehrman commits some glaring factual errors that entail he is either the one not qualified to discuss this subject, or one of the sloppiest and most careless writers on earth. I’ll get to that. But first I must remark on the significance of all this. Ehrman intimates that any professor who entertains this hypothesis will be fired or otherwise never hired, that he will in effect suffer career persecution. He does not say this with sadness, but with glee, satisfaction even. Indeed Ehrman’s own article represents a variety of this persecution: ridicule and the slandering of credentials. Thompson may have only felt free to be honest about his views after he retired, when no one could fire him or persecute his career. I personally know a few professors who themselves also feel this way: they do not touch this topic with a ten foot pole, precisely because they fear the kind of thing Ehrman is doing and threatening. They do not want to lose their jobs or career prospects and opportunities. They do not want to be ridiculed or marginalized.

This makes Ehrman’s observation that no mythicist presently has a professorship (a distinction he did not make, but I am) a self-fulfilling prophecy: since Ehrman has all but explicitly stated that professors in “accredited institutions” do not have academic freedom, that indeed Ehrman opposes that freedom, verbally and institutionally, and endorses persecuting, verbally and institutionally, any who dare exercise it, who else do you think is free to challenge the consensus on this issue? Obviously, only outsiders can. The fact that that is what he observes is therefore not an argument against the merits of mythicism, but against the merits of attacking academic freedom.

Few other issues have this problem. You can challenge the consensus on almost anything else in Jesus studies, but this is sacrosanct, and if you dare, “we’ll ruin your career.” Such is Ehrman’s message. The fact that he then finds this a mark against mythicism betrays his circular reasoning. No, Dr. Ehrman, it is a mark against mainstream scholarship. You are acting like it is a religion, with dogmas that cannot be challenged, lest you suffer the consequences. Just imagine all the professors who find some mythicist theories plausible, reading your article. You have just successfully intimidated them into shutting the hell up. Or at least, apparently, you hope to have. That’s not admirable. And it’s not how an institution that values the pursuit of the truth should behave.

The only people who should be in danger of losing their careers in the field, and who should be criticized as such, are those who persistently fail to follow sound and defensible methods, or persistently demonstrate dishonesty or incompetence (James Tabor I fear might be going down that road; time will tell). Taking a controversial position and arguing a controversial theory does not rise to that level (much less merely considering or discussing it as a possibility). Thus, you should not attack mythicists as a group, for merely sharing a common position or theory, as if there were no distinctions among them as to capability and quality of work. That’s defending a dogma, not a method. Rather, you should attack particular and demonstrable failures of method and competence. And not just claim incompetence, but prove it. Anything else is just special pleading and ad hominem. To do it in the guise of shaming anyone who would dare side with us by denouncing in advance their competence and sanity and implicitly threatening their jobs only makes this despicable rather than merely fallacious.

I’m told Ehrman might make a cleaner distinction between quality and crank mythicism in his book. But many more people will read this article than his book. It’s therefore irresponsible of him to cast this nuance to the wind.

Factual Mistakes

An example of proving a specific instance of incompetence is to identify a factual error that no one who claims to be an expert on the issue in question could possibly have made. There are many other errors one can make, which don’t rise to that level, but I mean here errors of a very exceptional kind. Ehrman commits several, which I find astonishing, given his competence generally (his works in Jesus studies and textual criticism are among the best available, and I have and will always recommend Jesus Interrupted as the book anyone should read who wants to get up to speed on the current consensus in New Testament and Early Christianity, being a perfect parallel to The Bible Unearthed, which plays the same role for the Old Testament). A single error would be a minor lapse; but four in one brief article is a trend.

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…

Mistake #1: Ehrman says “not even … the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate” is “mentioned in any Roman sources of his day.” False. Philo of Alexandria was a living contemporary of Pilate, and wrote a whole book about him (or rather, against both Sejanus and Pilate, documenting the ways they had persecuted Jews contrary to prior imperial edicts, cf. Schürer and Eusebius, History of the Church 2.5, who had read this book), which we don’t have (it is one of the missing volumes of the Embassy to Gaius), but we do have Philo discussing one event involving Pilate in another book we do have, written in the 40s A.D., probably while Pilate was still alive, in his retirement (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 299-305).

We also have discussions of Pilate in Josephus’ Jewish War, written in 78 A.D., the same distance from Pilate’s life as the earliest Gospels are assumed to be from Jesus. But perhaps Ehrman is being hyper-specific again and only talking about contemporary attestation, although that would be disingenuous, since it is precisely this kind of early secular reference to Pilate that we don’t have for Jesus, and Ehrman is trying to say Pilate is an example of a famous person for whom we don’t have this–but, alas, we do. But even if we assume the disingenuous limiting of relevance to texts composed in “his day” we have Philo. If Ehrman is being hyper-specific as to his use of the word “Roman,” that would be even more disingenuous (as Philo’s cititizenship would hardly matter for this purpose; and at any rate, as a leading scholar and politician in Alexandria and chief embassador to the emperor, Philo was almost certainly a Roman citizen).

Forgetting (or not knowing?) that Philo attests to Pilate’s service in Judea is a serious error for Ehrman and his argument, because the absence of any mention of Jesus or Christianity in Philo is indeed very odd. In fact, the loss of his book about Pilate’s reign is a very curious omission–even though Christians preserved over three dozen other books of his, amounting to nearly 900 pages of multi-columned small type in English translation, Christians chose not to preserve the book on Pilate, and that despite preserving other volumes in the very same treatise. Why? Maybe the loss was just accidental (I suspect it was because no mention of Jesus was in it, but obviously we can debate that). Christians were evangelizing in Alexandria during Philo’s lifetime. If Acts is to be believed, Jewish leaders were very concerned to oppose this and took active effort to persecute Christians. If that is at all true, we can be certain Philo knew of Christians and their claims and stories, and thus knew of Jesus. He was a leading scholar, who wrote on various Jewish sects, and a significant political figure plugged into the elite concerns of Alexandrian Jews, who even chose him to lead their embassy to the emperor of Rome. (He also made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Philo, On Providence 2.64.)

The only explanation for why Philo never mentions Christianity is that it was not as important to Jews as Acts depicts, but was a tiny fringe cult of no significant interest to the Jewish elite. And that is an important conclusion. Mythicists will say he doesn’t mention Jesus because there was no Jesus, but that does not explain why he doesn’t mention Christianity. Certainly, if Jesus was as famous and controversial as the Gospels and Acts depict, then Philo’s lack of interest in either the man or the threatening and grandiose claims made about him becomes improbable, but if we accept that the Gospels and Acts hugely exaggerate his fame and importance, then Philo’s disinterest goes back to being probable again. The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.

But that is not the extent of his mistake. Forgetting (or not knowing?) about Philo (or even Josephus) mentioning Pilate is bad enough. Worst of all is the fact that Ehrman’s claim is completely false even on the most disingenuous possible reading of his statement. For we have an inscription, commissioned by Pilate himself, attesting to his existence and service in Judea. That’s as “Roman” an attestation as you can get. And it’s not just contemporary attestation, it’s eyewitness attestation, and not just eyewitness attestation, but its very autograph (not a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, but the original text, no doubt proofed by Pilate’s own eyes). And that literally carved in stone. How could anyone not know of this, who intended to use Pilate as an example? Even the most rudimentary fact-check would have brought this up. And one of the most fundamental requirements of Ehrman’s profession is to check what sources we have on Pilate, before making a claim that we have no early ones. Ehrman thus demonstrates that he didn’t check; which is an amateur mistake. I’ve occasionally made errors like that, but only in matters of considerable complexity. We’re talking about something he could have corrected with just sixty seconds on google.

The lack of comparable inscriptions erected by any Christian churches or any wealthy convert at any time throughout the first century is indeed a curious thing. It can be explained (apocalyptic expectations, poverty, humility, the extremely small size of the movement). But it is still a fact, and it is not disingenuous to at least concede that we don’t have this or any comparable evidence. Explaining why we don’t have any evidence (like we have for Pilate: an inscription; a neutral contemporary text, and a neutral near-contemporary text) does not permit us to ignore the fact that we still don’t have it. And where evidence is missing, the possibilities multiply. Again, this entails things about early Christianity (whatever explanation you have for this lack of evidence, you must then accept as true about early Christianity as a whole, and that means accepting all the consequences of that fact as well).

So this certainly does not prove Jesus didn’t exist. Because we can retreat to the hypothesis that he was not anywhere near as famous as the Gospels portray, and the Christian movement not anywhere near as large as Acts implies. But Ehrman didn’t make that valid argument; he made the invalid argument instead, and premised it on amateur factual mistakes. Emotion seems to have seized his brain. Seeing red, he failed to function like a competent scholar, and instead fired off a screed every bit as crank as the worst of any of his opponents. Foot, mouth.

This is simply not how to argue for historicity. It’s a classic example of boner mistakes made by historicists, which calls into question their competence to speak on this issue. Usually I see this claim made of Socrates or Alexander the Great, for each of whom we have vastly more contemporary attestation than we do for Jesus, despite actual claims to the contrary made by Jesus scholars who incompetently didn’t bother to check. Thankfully Ehrman didn’t make that foolish a mistake. But making the same mistake in using Pilate puts him right in their company.

Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. The background to the creeds and sermons are even more conjectural (the creeds might go back to Aramaic sources, but none attest to a historical Jesus in the required sense of the term; and the sermons almost certainly do not go back to Aramaic sources, but are literary constructions of the author of Acts, writing in a Semitized Greek heavily influenced by the Septuagint; see Proving History, pp. 184-86 and Richard Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts, just for starters).

So what Aramaic sources do we “have,” Dr. Ehrman? Do tell. And on what basis do you conclude they were written down “within just a year or two of his life”? How can you be so precise? I can only assume this is an allusion to the origin of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (whose origin some scholars date to the formation of the cult), which we do not have in Aramaic, and could have originated in a Semitized Greek (and therefore we cannot be certain it began in Aramaic; and it certainly is not the words of Jesus). But when did it originate? When did it originate in that form? (Since it is not a given that it hasn’t changed; it obviously did, since Paul has added to it, attaching a reference to his own revelation at the end; how many other changes did it undergo on its way to him?) More importantly, that creed contains no reference to Jesus living on earth, having a ministry, or doing or saying anything in life. All it says is that scripture says he died, was buried, and was resurrected (it notably does not say anyone witnessed this, or when it happened or by whom, e.g. it does not say Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, a key component of later creeds) and only then this Jesus appeared to some people (in a fashion I know Ehrman himself agrees is not relevant to this debate: because a historical Jesus did not “appear” after his death, but a cosmic, revelatory Jesus, a product of the apostles’ imagination).

The fact that Jesus is not said to have appeared or taught or done anything at all before he died is not something to just brush under the rug. Nor also the fact that the only source being given for his death and burial in this creed is scripture, whereas the source for his “subsequent” (post-mortem) ministry is given as seeing him, and that only in “revelations” (Galatians 1:11-12, which then must be the same as all the others: 1 Cor. 15:5-8). Likewise, note that many mythical godmen “died, were buried, and resurrected,” or a near enough equivalent, thus Paul stating such a creed no more attests the historicity of Jesus than it attests the historicity of Osiris (or Romulus or Hercules or Inanna or Zalmoxis or Bacchus or Adonis and so on; Osiris is the only one of these who was explicitly “buried,” but similar stories were told of all these others, e.g. Hercules was burned on a pyre, and certainly before Christianity: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapters 1 and 3). None of this entails Jesus didn’t exist, but it certainly allows the possibility. If Ehrman doesn’t see that, then he is not being objective or reasonable.

Thus when he touts this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source (in fact he says sources, so we even have multiple imaginary attestation!), which in fact argues as much for the non-existence of Jesus as otherwise, as being comparable to a slam-dunk confirmation of his historicity, this is some very slipshod argument indeed. Had any of his opponents pulled that trick on him, he would not be at all kind in pointing out how fallacious it is. But alas, he cannot see that he is committing the very same fallacy, and in his effort to attack his enemies, has become just like them. That he actually says we have this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source is, by contrast, profoundly incompetent writing. I am certain he did not really mean to lie. In his emotional pique, he just didn’t proof his own article and thus didn’t notice how badly he misspoke. But that suggests he is driving on emotion and not reason or any careful process.

And yet one could easily mistake him for lying. Because he actually says of this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source that “historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.” You mean, not having a source is pretty astounding for an ancient figure? Stated correctly, his sentence makes no sense (there is nothing astounding about not having a source). Thus, it seems as if he really did intend the readers of his article to believe we have this source he is talking about (and indeed, many a layperson will make this mistake in reading it, and I fully expect to have people repeating to me that “Dr. Ehrman said we have multiple Aramaic documents dating to just a year or two after Jesus attesting his existence,” requiring me to correct them, an annoying phenomenon I usually have to deal with from mythicists, not proper scholars like Ehrman).

Altogether, these two sentences from him look more crank than anything he accuses mythicists of. A hypothetical source we don’t have is simply not “pretty astounding.” Indeed, if that’s the standard, then we have vast quantities of sources for other ancient persons. Really, if we get to count “hypothetical” sources like that, then in fact don’t we have such sources for all historical persons attested in antiquity?

Mistake #3: Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. (See my chapter on the origins of Christianity in The End of Christianity, ch. 2, pp. 53-74.)

Ehrman appears to be denying this, and as such is making himself look like a crank again–in fact like an ignorant Christian apologist spewing contrafactual propaganda. That makes him at the very least guilty of really terrible writing. What I suppose he means to say is the disingenuous, strictly literal thing, but as I already noted, that would be fallacious and thus logically incompetent. Religious syncretism is the process of combining ideas from several sources, often the most popular or useful ideas in the air, into a new whole, making for a new religion. All religions are produced this way. Christianity therefore certainly was as well (it would go against all prior probability to claim otherwise, and against all the evidence as well). Judaism had a prominent component of sacrifices atoning for a nation’s entire sins, a belief in the holy spirit making Jewish kings into the sons of god (see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 9), and a tendency toward ascetic denigration of sexuality. Paganism had a prominent component of dying-and-rising savior gods, who likewise offered ways to cleanse their followers of sins and thus procure them entry into paradise–not necessarily by their death, but always in some way, and in many cases through baptismal rituals long predating Christianity’s adoption of the same or similar ritual (see The Empty Tomb, p. 215, n. 210); and pagans had many traditions about virgin born sons of god. Note what happens when you combine the Jewish side with the pagan: you get Christianity. This is actually almost certainly what happened, and thus should not even be in dispute.

This does not equate to concluding that Jesus was a fictional person; rather, even if he was historical, the attribution to him of the properties of pagan deities had to come from somewhere, and cultural diffusion is the obvious source. Ehrman appears to be denying even that latter fact, which puts him at the far extreme of even mainstream scholarship. He is implausibly implying that it’s “just a coincidence” that in the midst of a fashion for dying-and-rising salvation gods with sin-cleansing baptisms, the Jews just happened to come up with the same exact idea without any influence at all from this going on all around them. That they “just happened” to come up with the idea of a virgin born son of god, when surrounded by virgin born sons of god, as if by total coincidence. (Can you imagine it? They independently think up the idea, then go preaching around Gentile cities and discover there are all these other virgin born sons of god…why, golly gee, what a coincidence! See Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 76-78, near the end of chapter 2, where Perseus is an example recognized even by early Christians as being “virgin born”; and to which can be added, in some traditions, the virgin birth of Romulus: Plutarch, Life of Romulus 3; Ra, in the tradition that had him born of the virgin Neith; Dionysus, in the tradition by which Semele is impregnated with a potion; etc.)

So does Ehrman mean we have no precedent who satisfied all those attributes at once? (A straw man.) Or does he mean we have no precedents for any of those attributes individually as available material for syncretism? (A false claim, of the most incompetent kind.) Either he is engaging in patently illogical argument, or disturbingly incompetent reporting. Neither makes him look like he’s the one to trust in this debate. Again, this makes him look like the slipshod crank.

Mistake #4:  This might not be a mistake, so much as an allusion to an argument in his book: he says “prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah.” He knows I have presented ample evidence refuting this, both as to the fact of it (Daniel 9:26 says a messiah will die, and the pre-Christian Melchizedek scroll explicitly identifies this passage as being about the messiah, or at least a messiah who would cleanse the world of sin), and also by demonstrating its irrelevance, since even Ehrman cannot deny later Jews taught and believed in a future messiah “son of Joseph” who would be killed by his enemies (as attested in the Talmud and other Judaica), and they certainly didn’t borrow this idea from the despised heretical sect of Christianity, which means the idea was not anathema to Jews and could easily be conceived by them (and likely predates Christianity, since both Jews and Christians imagining the dying messiah’s father as named “Joseph” seems otherwise a remarkable coincidence, but that need not be supposed to make my present point).

On all these points, see my essay The Dying Messiah. I can only presume Ehrman builds some sort of argument against my case in his book, which from our correspondence I predict will be fallacious (making a straw man of my evidence, selecting scholarship that agrees with him and ignoring scholarship that agrees with me, etc.). But in this article, to make so adamant an assertion, knowing full well there is a respectable case to be made to the contrary, is again crank behavior, not reasoned scholarship. Once again he is acting exactly like the worst of those he denounces.

His mistake here is two-fold, in fact, since it does not merely consist of a factually questionable assertion, and one that does not entail the conclusion he wants even if the assertion were true (since imagining a murdered messiah was possible for Jews, he cannot mean to argue Christians wouldn’t have invented it, when later Jews clearly had no problem inventing one), but he leverages it into a whopper of a logical fallacy: a self-contradictory assertion. Ehrman says “the messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy” (certainly, that was the most common view; but it is a fallacy of hasty generalization to assume that that was the only view, especially since we don’t know what most of the dozens of Jewish sects there were believed about this: see Proving History, pp. 129-34). From this fallacious hasty generalization, Ehrman then concludes “anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”

Now, I want to pause for a moment and perform a brief logic test. Before reading on, read that last quotation again, and ask yourself if you can see why that conclusion can’t be correct. Why, in fact, what he is suggesting, what he predicts would happen on mythicism, is impossible.

Answer: the only kind of messiah figure you could invent would be one who wasn’t like that. Otherwise, everyone would notice no divine being had militarily liberated Israel and resurrected all the world’s dead. This means the probability of that evidence (“anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that”) on the hypothesis “someone made up a messiah” is exactly zero. In formal terms, by the Bayesian logic of evidence (which I explain in Proving History), this means P(~e|h.b) = 0, and since P(e|h.b) = 1 – P(~e|h.b), and 1 – 0 = 1, P(e|h.b) = 1, i.e. 100%. This means that if “someone made up a messiah” we can be absolutely certain he would look essentially just like Jesus Christ. A being no one noticed, who didn’t do anything publicly observable, yet still accomplished the messianic task, only spiritually (precisely the one way no one could produce any evidence against). In other words, a messiah whose accomplishments one could only “feel in one’s heart” (or see by revelation, as the Corinthian creed declares; or discover in scripture, as that same creed again declares, as well as Romans 16:25-26).

This means Ehrman is definitely failing at basic evidential logic. This is one respect in which my book Proving History will school him.

Ehrman’s Only Evidence

Ehrman lists only one single item of evidence for Jesus’ historicity that survives basic review: the fact that Paul once refers to having met “James the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:18-20; Paul also mentions a generic “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Cor. 9:5). Ehrman slightly misrepresents the evidence when he claims that Paul met “Jesus’ closest disciple Peter,” since Paul never once calls Peter a “disciple” (in fact, no such term appears anywhere in Paul’s letters), and never mentions him being close to Jesus at all, much less his “closest.” But Paul does say he met the brother of the Lord, and mentions “brothers of the Lord.”

However, Paul does not say “brother of Jesus,” but “brother of the Lord,” which can only be a cultic title (one does not become the brother of “the Lord” until the person in question is hailed “the Lord,” thus the phrase “brother of the Lord” is a creation of Christian ideology). Yes, he may have earned that cultic title by actually being the brother of Jesus. But he could also have earned it by simply being a baptized Christian. Since all baptized Christians were the adopted sons of God, just as Jesus was (Romans 1:3-4), Jesus was only “the first born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), which means all Christians were the brothers of the Lord (or rather, all baptized Christians were, as there is evidence to suggest one did not become adopted until baptism, e.g. Romans 6:3-10, and Christians were not baptized right away, they had to undergo a period of initiation first). Though true in that sense, possibly one was not allowed to use that specific title until they had achieved full ascension through all the grades of initiation, and thus it was a title of rank, since there is evidence in Clement of Alexandria that one did not become fully a son of God until ascending several levels of initiation.

But one can question at what time that multi-stage process was begun, and exploring that would be too lengthy a digression. It’s enough to test the hypothesis that every Christian would be called brother of the Lord. The fact of it is true: as just shown, all Christians were brothers of the Lord, by their own religious conceptions; there are numerous passages in Paul that confirm this: Romans 8:15-29, 9:26; Galatians 3:26-29, 4:4-7; and Christians explicitly taught that Jesus himself called all of them his brothers in Hebrews 2:10-18, via a “secret message” in the Psalms (Psalms 22:22). They had obvious inspiration from what they regarded as scripture, the Psalms of Solomon 17:26-27, which Paul appears to reference, and which predicted that the messiah would gather a select people and designate them all the sons of god (and thereby, his brethren).

This is hypothesis (1); the alternatives are (2) that only actual brothers could use this title, even though all Christians were brothers of the Lord, which would entail some policing of the use of the phrase, which is not in evidence in Paul or (3) such policing was done, but to secure the title as one of rank and not actual biological kinship. Notably, (2) and (3) both require a practice of policing the use of the exact phrase, to prevent other brothers of the Lord from calling themselves or each other Brothers of the Lord. The probability that (1) or (3) is true is greater than the probability that only (1) is true, and only on (2) is this phrase evidence of the historicity of Jesus. So if we ignore (3) and only focus on (1), our conclusion against (2) will be even stronger when we include the possibility of (3).

So what happens when we compare (1) against (2)? Hypothesis (2) requires there to have been policing of the cultic title so that only biological brothers could use it or be referred to by it. Hypothesis (1) does not require that ad hoc assumption. This means (1) is the simpler hypothesis. It therefore has the greater prior probability (see Proving History, pp. 80-81). Furthermore, (1) is actually in evidence (we know all Christians in Paul’s time were brothers of the Lord in cultic fact, as all the passages above prove), whereas (2) is not (not one time in all of Paul’s letters does he ever say or even imply that this phrase means only biological brothers). (1) is therefore the most probable hypothesis. Which therefore means this phrase is not evidence for the historicity of Jesus. In Bayesian terms, this means: given the background evidence (the facts pertaining to Christians regarding themselves as all sons of God and thus brothers of the son of God), (1) has greater prior probability, and greater net consequent probability (since on [2] the probability can’t be zero that we would have better evidence against [1], whereas on [1] the evidence we have is 100% expected). [This conclusion could change if we verify that the claims in the Gospels (and subsequent sources) that Jesus had brothers are true, but that would first have to be done.]

The one argument left is to suggest that if (1) were true, it would be redundant of Paul to mention that James was a brother of the Lord (that would not, however, be the case in 1 Cor. 9:5), and redundant expressions are less probable (i.e. they are unexpected). But this fails a basic test: Paul often calls people “brother” along with their name even when the context makes this redundant (Philm. 1:1, 1 Thess. 3:2, Philp. 2:25, 2 Cor. 2:13 and 1:1, 1 Cor. 16:12 and 1:1, Romans 16:23). That he would on rare occasion use the complete phrase “brother of the Lord” would not be unexpected. The more so if Peter had a brother named James, as that would require Paul in this instance to distinguish the apostle James from James the brother of Peter, in which case saying just “brother” wouldn’t do, necessitating the full epithet “brother of the Lord,” i.e. not of Peter (because Paul says he met with “Peter” and no other apostle except this James).

[Nevertheless, after discussing this in comments, I do agree we should allow that his use of the phrase here nevertheless has some probability less than 100%, since it is not assured that he would have used it here. So we have to break the matter down into all competing explanations and work the numbers for each. And to argue a fortiori (Proving History, pp. 85-88) we might even lower that probability a lot, making this evidence for historicity rather than against. But these reasons are precisely why these conclusions have to be debated and not assumed.]

It is also entirely possible that “of the Lord” (tou kyriou) was a later scribal addition, aiming to turn this James into the brother of Jesus by harmonization with the Gospels and later legend. These kinds of harmonizing and retrodictive emendations to the text of the NT were common, and assuming they haven’t occurred in cases, like this, where they are most likely, is a dangerously weak platform to erect a theory upon (see the slideshow for my debate with J.P. Holding on the textual reliability of the NT, linked in Debates & Interviews and my post on Pauline Interpolations). Since this is literally the only evidence Ehrman has that Jesus existed, the weakness of it should be alarming to him, not cause for arrogant displays of unshakable certainty.

What’s Left?

Ehrman might answer “we have the Gospels” and “we have Paul relating sayings of the Lord” and “we have second century references” but none of these hold up, as he perhaps knows when he admits there is a lot of mythmaking in the Gospels, for example. But one myth is as good as another. To say that the Gospels contain a lot of myth, therefore they “can’t” be entirely myth, is not valid reasoning. They might contain a historical core, they might not. That has to be determined, and is at least an honestly debatable question. As Dr. Thompson admitted. I think on full analysis they come out as completely mythical (most of the attempts to argue otherwise fail on basic logic, as I demonstrate in Proving History, chapter 5). That should at least be a respectable position, even if Ehrman or anyone disagrees with it.

The second century references, meanwhile, cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels (e.g. the reference in Tacitus, even the Testimonium Flavianum, even if it were completely genuine–and it’s not–says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one), or to derive from any real source at all (e.g. the Infancy Gospels). And like any other mythic being, the Gospels would not be the earliest versions of the creed; many mythical demigods “died and were resurrected,” some were even “buried” or hung or burned or cut to pieces; that doesn’t make them historical. Thus, in Paul, that Jesus was created out of the “seed of David” (in fulfillment of prophecy) and “born of a woman” are claims that could just as easily be made of any mythical demigod (all of whom were born of a woman, and some of whom were “magically” born from the seed of their fathers, like Perseus, or even, as in the case of Dionysus, their previous corpses). They also said things–none of which were historical. Paul himself only identifies two sources for his sayings of the Lord: scripture and revelation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23 in light of Galatians 1:18-20). No historical Jesus is needed there.

That leaves nothing.

Obviously, saying all this is by no means sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t exist. There is still evidence to debate and logic to test. But it ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that this is at least a respectable theory to consider. As long as it is considered competently and with due attention to facts and logic and productive peer debate, why not?

 

[For a follow up to this post see McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman. For my reply to Ehrman's response to this review see Ehrman's Dubious Replies (Round One). And for my subsequent critical review of Ehrman's book see Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.]