Learn the Basics of New Testament Scholarship & How to Make Good Use of It!

Photo of the aged title page an old 19th century English translation of the New Testament; reads: The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Newly translated out of the Original Greek: and with the Former Translations diligently compared and revised.By popular demand! I am teaching my course, Introduction to Biblical Scholarship on the New Testament online in June. This is for anyone (you don’t have to be an expert) who wants to be better equipped to debate the Bible or understand the Bible. You will learn in it a lot of useful and surprising facts and skills (more on that below).

So if this is something that interests you, click above to register. And if you know anyone who you think would love to take a brief, affordable course like this, let them know about it!

The only required course text (which students should purchase as soon as possible) is my anthology Hitler Homer Bible Christ (available in print or kindle). We will use its contents as springboards for learning and discussing all manner of issues related to textual, historical, and literary analysis in New Testament studies. All other course materials (articles and/or video lectures) will be provided for free, including research papers by various scholars we’ll discuss, and excerpts from critical scholarly editions of the Bible in the original Greek (no prior knowledge of Greek will be required), public online tools, and other readings and resources.

Starting June 1 (2016).

So what exactly will be covered?

Official Course Description:

Richard Carrier (Ph.D.), who has years of training from Columbia University in paleography, papyrology, and ancient Greek, will teach anyone the basics of how to investigate, criticize, and study the New Testament from the perspective of how its text is constructed from manuscripts, as well as how to work from the original Greek without learning anything more than the Greek alphabet and the international terminology of grammar, and how to investigate and make the best use of academic and peer reviewed biblical scholarship.

Students will learn how to: locate words in the Greek text of the Bible, and find their definitions using online resources, and to use that skill to critically examine English translations; check if the manuscripts disagree on what the text says at that point, and what to make of that if they do; talk and reason about disagreements in the manuscripts, as well as the differing valences of words between modern translations and ancient originals; discern what kinds of errors and deliberate alterations are common in the biblical manuscripts; and how to use scholarship on the New Testament critically and informedly.

This course will also be a basic introduction to the contents of the New Testament and its composition, textual history, and assembly. After a month you will have a much better understanding and skill-set for studying, discussing, and arguing over, the content and history of the Christian Bible, as well as learn fascinating and interesting things about ancient history and how we know what we know about it from the perspective of how all ancient writing has been preserved yet distorted in transmission.

As usual, these courses are one month long, and you learn at your own pace and on your own time, and participate as much or as little as you want (many just lurk and read the assigned readings and resulting discussion threads).

There is also a special discount available this year, too. If you are on the staff or an active member of any nonprofit organization, you can receive a coupon code for $10 off the registration. All I need is an email from an officer of the organization (also CC’ing you) confirming you are an active member and would like to receive the discount. I’ll then send you the discount code to use during registration. So let everyone you know who is working for or participating in a nonprofit org about this discount!

Dykstra on Ehrman & Brodie

Rene Salm has clued me in to another important new peer reviewed journal article, by Tom Dykstra (M.Div.; Ph.D. in Russian History), who is best known for his critically acclaimed book on how the Gospel of Mark is built out of the Epistles of Paul (Mark, Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel, reviewed by Neil Godfrey at Vridar). His new article is “Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship,” published in volume 8.1 of the Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies in 2015.

Comparing the books pro and con historicity by Thomas Brodie and Bart Ehrman, Dykstra makes many remarks critical of both authors, but especially Ehrman, and like Philip Davies, argues for greater caution and humility from historicity defenders. He also dismantles Ehrman’s arguments for historicity. Not always effectively (his treatment of the “Brothers of the Lord” argument is conspicuously weak; and he is, IMO, too sympathetic to the all-Paul-as-forgery thesis), but still often illuminatingly.

Dykstra also opens with a good brief on the Thomas Thompson parallel (which ended in the field’s acceptance of OT mythicism), illustrating how Ehrman’s (and McGrath’s) threats to destroy the career of anyone who even tries arguing against historicity in the field have a frightening precedent in biblical studies that scholars today are still embarrassed by. Even more material on that comes up later as well (pp. 20-21).

Two Interesting Observations

But what I noticed the most about this thirty pages (almost all of it well worth reading) are two things in particular worth calling special attention to.

[Read more…]

Appearing in Charleston, South Carolina!

Logo for the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, showing the humanist human symbol in blue, straddled by the blue letters S and L, over a peach colored shape of the state, against a yellow background.I will be in South Carolina this February 21st (Sunday) speaking on the subject of applying Bayesian reasoning to the question whether someone existed…you know, someone like, say, Jesus. I’ll be speaking at 4pm in Gage Hall (4 Archdale Street, Charleston, SC). Open to the public. I will be selling and signing copies of my books (including for the first time a new printing of Proving History that is physically smaller and lighter, but still a hardback). We will all be having dinner after at Tasty Tai and Sushi.

My talk this time is “Applying Bayes’ Theorem to the Historicity of Jesus and Its Lessons for Critical Thought.” For the first time I will discuss both Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus and what I have “learned from interacting with critics over adapting Bayes’ Theorem to the task of analyzing the evidence for Jesus, and how such lessons become a window to understanding Bayesian reasoning and its application to all areas of critical thinking.”

More details here.

Tucker’s Review of Proving History in the Journal History & Theory

Cropped view of the cover of a recent issue of the journal History and Theory. Subtitled: Studies in the Philosophy of History.As I recently mentioned, a Harvard University philosopher, Aviezer Tucker, just published a review of my book Proving History for the academic journal History and Theory (Vol. 55, February 2016, pp. 129-140), titled, The Reverend Bayes vs. Jesus Christ. Tucker is an expert in the methods and philosophy of history, so his review carries some weight. It’s significant, therefore, that he endorses the program of my book—that historians need to start using Bayes’ Theorem, as effectively as they can, to resolve questions in their field—and that in fact even when he criticizes my book, he does so by suggesting improvements that are either already in that book (and he merely overlooked them) or in my subsequent application of its program in its sequel, On the Historicity of Jesus. This is almost the best assessment one could expect. It lacks merely noticing that much of what he suggests, I already did. What I provide below is an analysis of his review that helps understand his points, and relates them to what I’ve already written. [Read more…]

We Are All Bayesians Now: Some Bayes for Beginners

Cartoon with the title (Yet another) history of life as we know it... It then shows stages of ape evolving into hominid evolving into humans etc., walking increasingly upright, then suddenly hunched over a computer, and the five stages are humorously named Homo Apriorius, for the ape, Homo pragmaticus, for the hominid, Homo frequentistus for the cave man, Homo sapiens for the human, and then Homo Bayesianus for the equally naked computer user. Thought bubbles are shown emanating from each, showing a mathematical representation of how they think, which roughly translates to, for the ape, they just assume hypotheses are true, then for the hominid they just think about evidence and not hypotheses, and the cave man makes predictions of the evidence from hypotheses, then the human just asserts evidence with hypotheses, while the Bayesian correctly asks what hypothesis is likely given the evidence.Two things happened recently. I was thinking about better ways to teach Bayesian thinking with minimal math in my upcoming class on historical reasoning (which starts in two days; if you want in, you can register now!). And I just finished reading an advance copy of the first proper academic review of my book Proving History, which is the main textbook I use for my course. That review is by fellow Bayesian philosopher of history Aviezer Tucker, which will appear in the February 2016 issue of the academic journal History and Theory.

The review is an interesting mix of observations. I’ll comment on it in more detail when it is officially released. The abstract of his review is available, but it’s not a wholly accurate description of its content. In fact the review is mostly positive, and when critical, Tucker proposes what he thinks would be improvements. He’s uncertain whether a Bayesian approach will solve disagreements in Jesus studies, and he mentions some possible barriers to that that weren’t directly addressed in Proving History, but he is certain Bayesian methods do need to be employed there. The question becomes how best to do that. He makes some suggestions, which actually anticipate some aspects of how I did indeed end up arguing in Proving History‘s sequel, On the Historicity of Jesus (which Tucker hasn’t yet read, so he was unaware of that, but it’s nice to see he comes to similar conclusions about how to examine the evidence). He takes no side in the debate over the conclusion.

Both events converged. Tucker’s review reminded me of some ways to better discuss and teach Bayesian thinking. In truth, Everyone Is a Bayesian. They might think they’re not. Or they don’t know they are. But they are. Any time you make a correct argument to a conclusion in empirical matters, you’re argument is Bayesian, whether you realize it or not. It’s better to realize it. So you can model it correctly. And thus check that all its premises are sound; and be aware of where you might still be going wrong; and grasp all the ways someone could validly change your mind.

Bayesian Reasoning in a Nutshell

Here is just a basic guide for simple Bayesian reasoning about history… [Read more…]

February Course: How to Critically Assess Claims about History!

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.I shall again be teaching my online course on historical methods in the coming month (February 2015): Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory. Why not join in! Or recommend it to anyone you know who might be interested.

Learn how to question and investigate claims about history. Learn not only the logic of historical reasoning and argument, but also a lot of the practical tips and tricks real historians employ to test and check claims. And hone your skills of skeptical and critical thinking about history.

Primary topics: Best practices among historians; historical methods as modes of reasoning (both criteria-based and Bayesian); examples of flawed reasoning and bad arguments in peer reviewed history journals and monographs (and how to spot them as a layperson); and what to do to critically examine a claim using both immediate criteria and procedures for more labor-intensive inquiry…

[Read more…]

Speaking for Columbus Rationality Next Month!

Cover of Richard Carrier's book Proving History. Illuminated stained glass Jesus in darkened room as peered at through a cross cut-out in an iron cathedral door. Title and author name below.I will be speaking on Bayesian history and epistemology for Columbus Rationality and the Secular Student Alliance at OSU in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, November 16th, at 7:30pm in Lazenby Hall (room 021) on the OSU campus. Details here.

I Will duscuss Bayesian reasoning and its application and status in the field of historical research; and how the analysis of the methods actually used by historians today reveals it is all Bayesian, and can be improved and better understood by recognizing this. I will also discuss the role and contents of my book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (available in print, kindle, and audible); and likewise of supporting books by Aviezer Tucker, David Hackett Fischer, and C. Behan McCullagh.

I’ll have copies of Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus on hand.

Did Muhammad Exist? (Why That Question Is Hard to Answer)

Cover of Robert Spencer's book Did Mohammad Exist? with subtitle An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins, black cover with antique looking painted flames in which resides an image of Mohammad, face erased. Yellow title. White subtitle and author credit. Also tagline for the author says New York Times bestselling author.I get asked this a lot. “Why not apply your methods and skills to the question of whether Muhammad actually existed or not?” My answer is always the same: I will not likely ever be able to do that, because it would require getting a whole second Ph.D. in Medieval Arabic Studies & Languages (and those languages include not just Medieval Arabic, but also Syriac at the very least). And I must emphasize, I would need not just a good command of the languages (as I do the Greek and Latin required for studying the origins of Christianity), but also “a strong grasp of the historical, cultural, political, social, economic, and religious context” of the origins of Islam (Proving History, p. 18), and that happens to include numerous relevant yet distinct cultural contexts (not just of the Middle East and North Africa, but Byzantine as well).

And I’m not going to do that. Because that period bores the shit out of me. If I ever get a second Ph.D., it will be in contemporary philosophy, to improve myself even further in that area, or a modern science. But Medieval Arabic Studies? Sorry. No. I have all these skills with respect to the origins of Christianity, so I am well qualified to produce peer reviewed studies of the historicity of Jesus (hence my book On the Historicity of Jesus, published at the University of Sheffield). But not so for Islam. We need someone to do that who has parallel skills in that field. I can competently communicate the findings of experts in the field. But on this topic, those findings are confusing and disputed at present.

Okay. So. Lacking my ability to test the question myself, or fully vet anyone else’s case as an expert, can I at least answer whether there is any plausibility to the claim that there was no Muhammad, that he was invented by early Arabic military leaders to give a name to a text they cobbled together to inspire their soldiers and build a new civilization on? In other words, that he was invented in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons as the militaristic Jews invented Moses?

[Read more…]

Appearing in Wichita!

I’ll be one of the featured speakers for the Skeptics of OZ Conference on Saturday October 17 (2015), in the CAC Theater at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kansas). Details here. Lanyrd here.

I’ll be discussing my book Proving History, but in particular answering the general question of “How science and history can prove or disprove miracles, and how we could (in theory or in practice) establish supernatural things exist or happen,” if there really were such things. So I’ll be talking about my work in defining the supernatural as well as the logic and method of history and the foundations of historical knowledge.

Others speaking will include communications expert Jeffrey Jarman, ex-scientologist Chris Shelton, and Vyckie D. Garrison of No Longer Quivering.

My Online Course on the Bible Starts Next Week. Join in. Learn Cool Stuff!

How screwed up are the manuscripts of the New Testament? What aren’t Christian preachers and apologists telling the public? How can you know when they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes about what’s in the Bible…or if they even know they are reporting the facts correctly?

How can you tell which Bible translation is the most honest for any given passage?

How have books been transmitted to us from the ancient world two thousand years ago? Is their text reliable enough to trust? Why? Or why not?

Do the Gospels really disagree on when Jesus was born? Do modern Bibles really contain known forgeries? Has the Gospel of Mark been doctored after the fact?

Answers to those questions, and more, will be covered in this course.

But what questions do you have about the New Testament? Like about its formation and transmission, its survival and accuracy, how it’s translated, what Christians claim about what it says. Or any question in the subject of New Testament studies, or the study of Greco-Roman texts generally.

This is your chance to ask an expert and get as full a response as you want, with as much follow up as you want, within the month of February. So join this class and take advantage of it!

Only one course text is required (and you can get it on kindle): my anthology Hitler Homer Bible Christ.

See you there!