Ottawa Historicity Debate: A Commentary

Video of my debate with Zeba Crook (an atheist professor of New Testament studies) on whether Jesus historically existed is now available online as Jesus of Nazareth: Man or Myth? A Discussion with Zeba Crook and Richard Carrier (produced by AtheismTV). I announced and discussed that here. But now you can watch the debate itself. The AV quality is not very good, but it’s manageable. As I note in the video, there was no way to respond to every point made, for want of time. Indeed, by the time I got to state my first rebuttal, I had to answer thirty minutes of Dr. Crook in just ten minutes. But I think both sides got to state their best case, and left the debate where further discussion is needed but at least moved beyond a lot of the usual sidetracking nonsense.

I shall place here below, and expand, what notes I had jotted down as the debate went on but didn’t have time to get to at the podium, including some comments on Dr. Crook’s final closing, which left loose ends unfinished, since he only at that point had any opportunity to respond to my rebuttal (at which point, he had five minutes to answer my ten, putting him at the disadvantage). Those notes I wrote in my own kind of abbreviated shorthand, but here I just spell them out in full sentences, with connecting sentences and whatnot (so don’t imagine I wrote all those words as-is during the debate; I captured those ideas in a much more abbreviated notation). Some of those notes will repeat what I said in rebuttals, some will expand on them, and some will be things I didn’t have time to talk about.

Certainly ask questions in comments here about anything you didn’t find resolved in the debate, or any arguments Crook made that you think I overlooked or didn’t adequately address (especially things that came up in Q&A, since I didn’t write notes then). But please first read the commentary below. It may already answer your question. In which case I’ll just tell you to read it.

Preliminaries

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Appearing in Sacramento Area…with David Fitzgerald!

Next week I will be in a double header with David Fitzgerald discussing different aspects of the historicity of Jesus. The event is Thursday night, May 29 (2014), at UC Davis (in the Sacramento area, California), brought to you by the Agnostic & Atheist Student Association. We will also be selling our books and taking Q&A.

I am writing this from the jungles of Costa Rica, on an iPad, so with considerable difficulty the best I can do is just link you to the event’s Facebook page where you can get all the details: The Historicity of Jesus with Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald. Please help them out and RSVP there if you will be going.

It will be entertaining!

On the Historicity of Jesus: What Would You Look Up?

Here’s a request to those keen to see my next book: since I am nearing completion of my subject index for On the Historicity of Jesus (the scripture index is long since finished and submitted), and the publisher wants to release it in June (at that link you can also see the book’s description and a detailed table of contents), it occurred to me that it couldn’t hurt to ask everyone who is interested: what would you look up in the index to such a book? Don’t worry whether I’ve already thought of it. If you are keen to, just list anything in comments here that you would expect, or hope, or want, or need to be there. And if you know anyone interested in this book, let them know to come here and weigh in if they want to.

For the purposes of this post only, all I want in comments are words and names you’d like to see in the index (or attempts to describe such, if you aren’t sure how something would be indexed). No other questions or commentary, please. I have plenty of other posts on the subject where those can be submitted. Thanks!

On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus

I have often been asked how we should evaluate arguments from consensus. That’s where someone says “the consensus of experts is that P, therefore we should agree P is true.” On the one hand, this looks like an Argument from Authority, a recognized fallacy. On the other hand, we commonly think it should add weight to a conclusion that the relevant experts endorse it. Science itself is based on this assumption. As is religion, lest a religionist think they can defeat science by rejecting all appeals to authority–because such a tack would defeat all religion as well, even your own judgment, since if all appeals to authority are invalid, so is every appeal to yourself as an authority (on your religion, or even on your own life and experience).

And yet, it is often enough the case that a consensus of experts is wrong (as proved even by the fact that the scientific consensus has frequently changed, as has the consensus in any other domain of expertise, from history to motorboat repair). And our brains are cognitively biased to over-trust those we accept as authorities (the Asch effect), putting us at significant risk of false belief if we are not sufficiently critical of our relying on an expert. It’s only more complicated when we have warring experts and have to choose between them, even though we are not experts ourselves.

So what do we do?

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Secular Organizations Can Get Free Course Admission

Are you part of a secular, atheist, humanist, or other organization? Or know someone who is? Let that org’s leadership know that before this July they can get a deal for access to any course this year we are gradually building to teach online at SecularActivism.org. “An organization, large or small, gets a certificate for one of its leaders to take a free course during 2014, if 30 members join the email list before July 1st. Just mention the organization name when asked how you heard about us.” They just need to contact John Shook to inquire.

Go to SecularActivism.org to see the current course offerings. Many more will be developed and taught before the end of the year (possibly dozens). For example, besides my Naturalism 101 course that I’m teaching now, I will also be teaching courses this year on the science and philosophy of free will, on historical methods (theory and practice), on the historicity of Jesus, and more (I’m considering offering courses on ancient science, economics, and technology, on Bayes’ Theorem and counter-apologetics, and others; feel free to make requests in comments here for courses you’d take if I taught them). And I am not the only instructor on board. We are contracting more and more teachers of skill or renown, to teach far more diverse offerings.

I’ll Be at ReasonCon: North Carolina

Photo of the Crowne Plaza Hickory Hotel. Looks like a one-floor but fascinatingly modern structure, including a beautuful glass-enclosed arched walkway at front..Although it’s almost sold out already, I will be the keynote speaker at ReasonCon in Hickory, North Carolina, in early May. Details here (also tickets and wait-list options there). As I write, there are only VIP tickets left, and those include the VIP launch party Friday night (9pm, May 2, 2014). [Update: They got a bigger venue after I originally posted. As of 16 April, ninety new free tickets became available. Snatch those up while you can!]. Otherwise, the option exists to submit your name to a wait-list for a free spot at the one-day con on Saturday (9am-5pm, May 3, 2014, with an after-party that night for all, starting at 7pm).

If you still want to attend the conference, and can’t afford the VIP ticks or even they get sold out [and if you find the new free tickets are all gone, too], it can’t hurt to submit a wait-list request to tell them what the demand really was, so if they do this again next year they might be able to accommodate more people, or (less likely but a dim possibility) they might find a way to make room this year and let you know you can get in after all. They also might succeed in streaming it live or recording it for YouTube (that is still in development), but they could still benefit from hearing how many wanted to go but couldn’t. Otherwise, there is some VIP access still available. As I look this moment there are 26 of those left at $65 and 22 more at $100 (the latter comes with free booze, if you are of legal age to take advantage of that). I’ll be at the launch party if my flights meet no delays (although, all told, I will be arriving at the party almost exactly when it starts, after traveling the whole day, so I’ll be on my second wind!).

This event is being put on by the MythUnderstood Alliance, and is the brainchild of Atheists on Air with Cash and Love. It will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hickory (1385 Lenoir Rhyne Blvd SE).

What’s unusual about this event is that I am going to do a marathon Q&A on the historicity of Jesus (up to 90 minutes, unless the audience runs out of questions first), after another 90 minutes of presentation (or near to…don’t worry, there are some breaks in there). I shall be endeavoring to make the latter at least as engaging and entertaining as a bad movie. So it won’t just be dry lecture. I’ll be playing up as many of the funny bits of the bible and modern scholarship as I can. My focus won’t just be on the historicity question, but on the whole broader question of the origins of Christianity: its context, but also what it looks like really happened, what its founding Jews actually thought they were doing by inventing it, and what they invented it for.

And I’m just the keynote! Also speaking that day will be Tracie Harris (of Atheist Community of Austin, Atheist Experience TV show, and Godless Bitches podcast fame) and Ryan Bell (of A Year Without God fame) and teen cult escapee Phoebe Cahours (who has an amazing story of getting away from the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses–it seems her mother dragged her through several infamous Christian cults). Cash & Love will also have some things to say to the crowd. Overall it sounds like a very interesting and engaging day.

Appearing in San Luis Obispo

On Saturday, April 19 (2014), at 4pm (until 6pm), I will be presenting my case that a historical Jesus probably didn’t exist for Atheists United of San Luis Obispo (California), and taking questions from the audience. They say seats are limited, so it would help to join their meetup group and RSVP or let the organizers know you are coming (details for either here). Donations will be greatly appreciated (they rely on them to cover expenses). This will be held at the Senior Citizens Center-San Luis (1445 Santa Rosa Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401: map).

I will be selling and signing copies of Proving History and Hitler Homer Bible Christ. (Unfortunately On the Historicity of Jesus will not be printed until June.) Of course I’ll also sign anything you bring. See you there!

I’ll Be Debating the Historicity of Jesus in Ottawa, Canada

The Center for Inquiry Canada is hosting two events with me in early April in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), sponsored by CFI Ottawa.

The first will be a debate between myself and Zeba Crook, professor of religious studies at Carleton University, on whether it’s likely a historical Jesus existed. Details here. (Although, amusingly, we certainly aren’t debating whether “a man named Jesus live[d] in Palestine 2000 years ago,” since plenty of men named Jesus did; of course, we’re only debating the particular Jesus claimed to be the author of Christianity). The next day I’ll be taking questions and speaking on various matters of philosophy for the Philosophy, Phood, and Phriends meetup. Details here.

The debate will be held on Saturday, April 5 (2014), at 7:30pm, at the Centrepointe Chamber Theatre (101 Centrepointe Drive, Ottawa, ON K2G 0B5; the theatre is located at the back). Admission is $15 (or just $5 if you are a CFI member; and new members can also get a free ticket). The format will be something like 20/20-10/10-5/5 (openings-rebuttals-closings), with the first to speak chosen at random on the day. Written questions will be taken from the audience.

The philosophy meet will be on Sunday, April 6 (2014) at 11:00am, in the CCOC Meeting Room (OPSEU Local 464, 2255 St Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa, ON K1G 6C4 464 Metcalfe St., near the Museum of Nature). $10 admission includes food and drinks ($5 for members of CFI). “Bring your questions–suggested topics include: metaphysics, naturalistic philosophy, morality, counter-apologetics.”

There may be copies of Proving History for sale at the first or possibly both events. But I will sign anything you bring (so you can buy any of my books online now and have them in time for that).

Appearing in San Jose Next Week

I will be speaking and taking questions on the best case to be made that Jesus didn’t exist, for the Atheist Community of San Jose next week, Wednesday, 2 April 2014, from 6:30 to 9:30pm (although I’d love to hang out later with anyone who’s free to do so, even though it’s a weeknight). Details here. We’ll be meeting in a banquet room at Harry’s Hofbrau (390 Saratoga Avenue, San Jose, CA).

Description:

Dr. Carrier’s new groundbreaking book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt is the first book extensively challenging the historicity of Jesus to be published by a peer reviewed academic press (through the University of Sheffield). He also has several peer reviewed academic papers on the subject, which are now reprinted (along with many other papers of interest) in his other new book, Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013.

Dr. Carrier will briefly summarize his thesis and argument, explaining why he suspects Jesus never even existed as a historical man but was always imaginary. He will then answer questions from the audience.

The latter as well as Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus will be available for purchase. The latter demonstrates the invalidity of the methods and arguments used to argue for historical facts about Jesus, and presents a more reliable and testable way to argue for historical facts, using Bayes’ Theorem (in a way explained for non-mathematicians).

I will of course sign anything you bring, too.

Unfortunately, Sheffield-Phoenix is running behind in its production, so I won’t have copies of On the Historicity of Jesus to sell yet. But I will be talking about it.

Minor Corrections to Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism

When Proving History came out, I had cited in it James Crossley’s well-known book Jesus in an Age of Terror as among several astute books criticizing the ideological biases of Jesus scholars–producing Jesuses that conveniently were just exactly what each scholar would have wanted, supporting contemporary political and religious opinions conveniently too well to be historically credible accounts of antiquity. As the abstract for Age of Terror summarizes it:

While owing much also to [a biased] Orientalist tradition, [the modern Arab-Israeli conflict] too is strongly echoed in scholarship of Christian origins where, for all the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and the first Christians, it is extremely common to find Jesus or the first Christians being better than Judaism or overriding key symbols of Judaism as constructed by scholarship, done, ironically, by frequent ignoring of relevant Jewish texts. The end results of contemporary scholarship are not dramatically different from the results of the anti-Jewish and antisemitic scholarship of much of the twentieth century.

Ouch.

But I was not yet aware that Crossley had produced essentially a sequel (as it came out at the same time as Proving History): Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. This time his study…

…ranges across diverse topics: the dubious periodisation of the quest for the historical Jesus [based on the brilliant analysis of Bermejo-Rubio; I concur--ed.]; [the rising phenomenon of] ‘biblioblogging'; Jesus the ‘Great Man’ and western individualism; image-conscious Jesus scholarship; the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus and the multicultural Other; evangelical and ‘mythical’ Jesuses; and the contradictions between personal beliefs and dominant ideological trends in the construction of historical Jesuses.

It was recently pointed out to me that this mention of ‘mythical’ Jesuses included some references to the recent debate over the historicity of Jesus, and even named me. But even besides that, this title would have made a perfect addition to my references on this topic in Proving History. So I bought it and have been skimming it for its utility.

In the process I caught a minor error that I should correct on the record for the benefit of posterity: Crossley cites my report on the Jesus Project conference in January of 2009 (Amherst Conference), and misreports something I said there, which in result misreports MacDonald’s position as well. I also find a problematic eliding of minority and female voices in the same chapter that is too commonly done when attempting to assess the New Atheism movement to go without comment. So I’ll say something on both.
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