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 by 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?

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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!

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

By popular demand! I am teaching again my online course, Introduction to Biblical Scholarship on the New Testament. This is for anyone 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 there 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 October 1 (2015).

So what exactly will be covered?

Official Course Description:

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Tim Hendrix on Proving History

Tim Hendrix wrote a critical analysis of my book Proving History two years ago, and recently made it available online. Coincidentally I also just discovered a review of the book in College & Research Libraries Reviews, which had been published in June of 2012 (pp. 368-69). That was only one long paragraph, but I was surprised it understood the book and took a positive angle on it, concluding:

The use of a mathematical theorem to establish reliable historical criteria can sound both threatening and misguided. However, Carrier describes and defends the theorem in layman’s terms, demonstrates that historians actually think in terms of probabilities while rarely quantifying them, shows how all other axioms and rules in historical methodology are compatible with the theorem, and then gives it a practical workout on recent studies on the historicity of Jesus … [in which] Carrier shows how the criteria for judging whether or not Jesus was a historical figure (coherence, embarrassment, multiple attestation, contextual plausibility, etc.) are replaceable by Bayes’s Theorem, which “if used correctly and honestly . . . won’t let you prove whatever you want, but only what the facts warrant.”

Hendrix (who has a Ph.D. relating to Bayesian studies) gives it a much closer look on its technical aspects in applying Bayes’ Theorem. There are some issues of grammar that suggest English might not be Hendrix’s first language (he also uses British spelling conventions), but his writing is good enough to work around that (most of the time).

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Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?

Ad poster for Joseph Loduca's soundtrack for the Starz TV show Spartacus, displaying the actor playing Spartacus all covered in dirt and blood and holding a sword and looking menacing.It’s always something. First it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for the contemporary emperor Tiberius.” Matthew Ferguson annihilated that one. Then it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Alexander the Great.” Which I annihilated in On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 21-24). Or it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Socrates.” Which I also annihilated in OHJ (Chapter 8.2, “The Socrates Analogy”). Or it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Pontius Pilate, the guy who allegedly killed him.” Which I’ve also annihilated. And then it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar.” Which I just annihilated. Now the claim going around is, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Spartacus,” the enslaved gladiator of Thrace (now mostly Bulgaria) who led a nearly successful slave revolt against the Romans in Italy in 73-70 B.C.

Just like Julius Caesar (as I explained in my last post about this), and everyone else in these comparisons, when it comes to determining the probability of historicity, Spartacus differs from Jesus in two respects:

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The Historicity of Paul the Apostle

Face of Paul as found in a Renaissance painting by Albrecht Durer.I am often enough asked what evidence there is for the historical existence of Paul that a summary write up would be handy to refer people to. This also has use as some scholars ignorantly claim that any standard that would deny the historicity of Jesus would entail denying the historicity of Paul (like that renowned fool James McGrath). Such a statement can only be uttered by someone who stalwartly doesn’t know (or is stubbornly refusing to hear) why the historicity of Jesus is said to be improbable.

The best formal attempt to argue for the non-historicity of Paul is that of Hermann Detering (see The Fabricated Paul). I cannot ascertain his qualifications in the field. But his writings are well-informed. They just trip over logic a lot. His case is not sound. Nor is anyone else’s I’ve examined. They falter on basic methodology (like ignoring the effect prior probability must have on a conclusion, or conflating possibility with probability) and sometimes even facts (e.g., Detering seems to think self-referencing signatures commonly appear only in forgery; in fact, they are commonly found on real letters—I’ve seen several examples in papyrological journals).

By contrast, the following is a basic run-down on why the historicity of Paul is actually, unlike Jesus, highly probable… [Read more…]

Join My New Course This April: Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory

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.Back by popular demand, I am teaching my online course on historical method this April (just a few weeks away): Thinking Like a Historian: Historical Methods, Practice and Theory.

Learn how to question and investigate claims about history. Study 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. Learn the particular 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

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Live, This Sunday, on Atheist Analysis!

Advert for the episode of Atheist Analysis, graphically representing the basic info in the post, plus a picture of Richard Carrier editied to have him holding Bayes' Theorem in his hand.The vidcast Atheist Analysis, which streams live at 10pm Eastern this Sunday (Feb. 22) and takes questions from the audience during the show, will be interviewing me. The topic: why Bayes’ Theorem is awesome. (Also, of course, what Bayes’ Theorem is, how non-mathematicians can understand and use it, and especially how it models reasoning about claims in history.) After me they are interviewing FtB founder Ed Brayton, to talk about his comedy, and efforts to make the atheism movement more inclusive and ethical. And then up is Michigan activist Mitch Kale (I think they mean Mitch Kahle) and (I presume) his local fights for church state separation. So it sounds like a pretty good show to catch!

Tune in!