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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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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Critical Review of Maurice Casey’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus

Cover image of Mauruce Casey's new book About Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?So far only two contemporary books have been written in defense of the historicity of Jesus (nothing properly comparable has been published in almost a hundred years). They both suck. Which is annoying, because it should not be hard to write a good book in defense of historicity. And to be “good” I don’t require that it be successful, or convincing (though I would welcome that!), just worth reading, honest, accurate, informative, well-organized, well-sourced, giving mythicism the best shot possible, and being as self-critical as anyone would want mythicists to be. But alas, what we have are two travesties.

I already exposed all the egregious errors of fact and logic in Bart Ehrman’s sad armchair failure at this. Which evidently provoked him to repeatedly lie about what happened, which I then also documented. I consider him disgraced as a scholar. If you have to tell lies to save face, rather than admit a mistake and do better, you are done in this business. Or certainly ought to be. Anyway, I’ve already summarized that sorry story, with links and summaries (Ehrman on Historicity Recap).

Now we have Maurice Casey’s book defending the historicity of Jesus, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (T&T Clark, 2014…if you want to spend less or have a searchable text, it’s also available on kindle). It’s hard to compare the two books. Ehrman is at least a talented writer and mostly coherent thinker. In Jesus, Casey is neither.

The best way to describe this book is to imagine a rambling weirdo running into a grove of orange trees with a hammer and in a random frenzy smacking half the low hanging fruit, and then beating his chest and declaring proudly how the trees are now barren. Indeed. This book consists of a wandering, disorganized stream-of-consciousness of half-intelligible pontificating that very much reminded me of Eric Jonrosh. Except Jonrosh was eloquent. Indeed, the first two chapters almost read like a junior high schooler’s meandering rant on a sleepover, a total he-said-then-she-said gossip fest, where for long bouts all he does is clutch a fluffy pillow and trash talk people and obsess over Stephanie Fisher, while waiting for his friend’s mother to bring the smores. You might think that surely I am being unfair. No. Seriously. Read it.

(And BTW, when I say obsessed with Stephanie Fisher, I mean obsessed. He references or quotes this wholly unpublished graduate student seventeen times. He also copiously fawns on her in his Preface, which by itself would have been sweet.)

Here I’ll first summarize my more in-depth take on the book in a few more paragraphs, then catalog some common themes that render the book simultaneously amusing, insufferable, and useless, then analyze its contents in greater detail. Those who don’t want to labor on through the more detailed analyses may be satisfied with only the following summary…

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On Bermejo-Rubio’s Dispassionate Plea for a Historical Jesus

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio is one of the most impressive new scholars in biblical studies. His work on the “quests” for the historical Jesus is paradigm-challenging and superb (see The Fiction of the Three Quests). It is thus no surprise that he would publish the only defense of the historicity of Jesus against its opponents that is actually worth reading. Usually such tracts are awash with errors, distortions, a substitution of assumptions for facts, or blatant fallacies, or bundles of all of these–even when coming from experts who ought to know better (like Erhman, McGrath, and so on and so on and so on–and on and on–even Goodacre, a little, who otherwise did the best job I know short of Bermejo-Rubio, and indeed the two together make the strongest case overall).

Biblical scholars often read the online trade periodical The Bible and Interpretation (I have published with them myself, and have cited other articles there on my blog before). It’s somewhat informal, but run and read (and usually only contributed to) by serious scholars. Respected bible scholar Phillip Davies (himself a historicist) published his plea to take the question of historicity more skeptically there. Now, Bermejo-Rubio has published his best defense of historicity there: Prolegomena to a Dispassionate Plea for the Historicity of Jesus the Galilean. It’s not the best conceivable (since it isn’t comprehensive in the way I’d want the best defense to be), but it commits far fewer errors than any others I know.

I had read this months ago, but could only find time now to write about it (evidence of my backlog). But for anyone keen on hearing my response to his case, here you go.

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Strange Notions: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus

The Catholic website Strange Notions asked me to write two brief articles on why questioning the historicity of Jesus is more plausible than commonly assumed. I was asked to respond to two earlier challenges to that thesis on their site, written from the perspective of Catholic apologetics: Did Jesus Exist? An Alternate Approach by Jimmy Akin and Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed by Trent Horn.

My first article, responding to Akin, is Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. My second, responding to Horn, is Defending Mythicism: A New Approach to Christian Origins. Together these have accumulated almost two hundred comments, often long and thoughtful, which sadly I haven’t the time to read through. (If anyone has the gumption to do it and would like to summarize the whole thread and/or report to me which comments might be worth my attention or blogging a reply, feel free to post anything like that in comments here.)

Akin then replied to me in Jesus Did Exist: A Response to Richard Carrier. And then Horn replied in Four Reasons to Believe in Jesus: A Reply to Richard Carrier. Here I shall respond to those… [Read more...]

Is Attacking Rape Apologetics Rape Apologetics?

It’s strange to see even atheists convert hyperbole into fact in the span of just hours or days. That’s supposed to be what religious people do. When I wrote an article attacking rape apologetics in the discussion of the allegations against Michael Shermer, I was accused of engaging in rape apologetics (examples cataloged here, here, here, and here). But only by making false claims about what I wrote in my article.

This has started now to become lore. In comments on Stephanie Zvan’s recent article on the BlockBot I was weirdly even accused of “victim blaming” in an article against victim blaming that actually defends victims from being unfairly blamed (lest this not be believed, I will document the actual contents of my article below), and a scenario I explicitly described as reprehensible and as victimization and worthy of condemnation, one commenter said I described as “kinda cool” and “what a rapist would like to believe,” which is the exact opposite of the actual facts in the case, yet this version of events is then endorsed by another commenter. Meanwhile, in comments on the same article described as “what a rapist would like to believe,” I had to debate actual rape apologists (or at least folks who didn’t know that’s what they were doing). Which in context is surreal.

It’s unclear how the myth arose that something I condemned I called “kinda cool.” And perhaps the lore varies from person to person. But throughout, from what I’ve read, I have found there are some failures of fact and reasoning to address. [Read more...]

The Moral Truth Debate: Babinski & Shook

I’ve been sent two links of responses to my article last week, “What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?” Technically they are responses to Harris. But insofar as I am defending the same core thesis, and the links were sent to me, and both are by authors whose opinions I respect (even if I don’t always agree with them), they warrant a response here. These responses I think should be read by everyone, since they are common mistakes and misunderstandings, and my responses will clarify things you might need clarified…especially in the closing epilogue of this post.

First of the replies is Ed Babinski, who posted his own entry for the Harris contest on Facebook. Second is John Shook, who posted a reply on his blog at CFI.

In both cases, I must first reiterate the whole gist of my article:

One reason Harris is not the best one to use as your straw man in this debate is that doing that is lazy. It allows talking past each other far too easily. To avoid that I created a formal deductive proof of his core thesis (all the way back in 2011…and that was in development well before that, even before I read his book or even knew he was writing it–which means it is only a proof of “his thesis” in retrospect, since I had been developing the same thesis independently since 2004). What I asked people to do is find a logical invalidity or a non-demonstrable premise in my syllogism. Because that will prevent vagueries and misunderstandings and get right to the heart of who is correct. To do that, I told everyone to read my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity (indeed I said in last week’s article, quote, “the syllogisms you have to prove invalid or unsound are on pp. 359-64″). Hereafter I shall refer to that as TEC.

To keep avoiding this is to just lazily act like armchair problem solvers who can’t be bothered to actually look up the best version of the argument they are criticizing. Stop that. No more straw man fallacies. Address the best and most rigorous form of the argument. And do it correctly, i.e., actually identify an actual fallacy in those syllogisms or identify a premise in them that is false (or which you can prove we do not know is true).

Apart from simply not doing that (which is the biggest flaw in these replies, reducing them both to a classic straw man fallacy), here is also what’s wrong with the Babinski and Shook rebuttals… [Read more...]

Craig vs. Law on the Argument from Contamination

In a recent attempt to rebut a peer reviewed philosophy paper by Stephen Law on the methodology of Jesus studies, which challenges the historicity of Jesus (hence my interest), William Lane Craig comes up with something so awful it would be worthy of a young earth creationist website. Maybe I’m just losing my patience with Craig’s specious, fallacious and dishonest method of arguing. Or maybe he really is getting worse at this.

The article I’m talking about is Craig’s recent Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth (n.d.). Which is supposed to be a response to Law’s Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus (which was published in Faith and Philosophy 28.2 [April 2011]: 129-51). In his inept reply, Craig gets Bayesian reasoning wrong and conceals key facts from his readers. It looks more like a con than a sincere attempt to educate. [Read more...]

A Childish Book Review: Stephanie Louise Fisher and the Travesty of Not Getting It

Another baffle clearing for today, I’m finally getting to an embarrassingly childish review of Proving History by Stephanie Louise Fisher (a doctoral student in biblical studies). Her review (published through that nutter R. Joseph Hoffmann’s website…and I’m not throwing “nutter” around lightly, I genuinely think he might be insane) is ironically titled An Exhibition of Incompetence: Trickery Dickery Bayes. Ironically, because she betrays her incompetence in logic and mathematics and reading comprehension throughout, and yet is claiming I’m the one who is incompetent. Her review is also close to libelous and on at least two occasions overtly dishonest.

The immaturity of the review, with its gratuitous insults and intemperance and slanders and complete failure to actually engage with the book, gave it a low priority for me, since it really just discredits itself to any mature reader. But now I have time to cover it. Even right off the bat, a review written like this demonstrates no sense of irony in its author who opens with the claim that they are the one “drawing attention to [my] unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.” Her absurdly repetitious claims of my alleged incompetence characterize the whole thing, despite my having a Ph.D. in the history of ancient religion and philosophy from a top ranked university, and a published background in mathematical arguments (in peer reviewed journals no less), as well as official training in statistics, calculus and electronics engineering…and despite my book having been formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics and a professor of biblical studies. (Note that Fisher, at present, and so far as I can discern, can claim none of these qualifications.)

Certainly, claims of incompetence have to be backed up with considerable evidence in the face of such conditions and qualifications. Fisher provides none. Let’s look at what she does argue. [Read more...]

Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History

My latest book Proving History has been negatively reviewed by Kevin Brown (a Christian book reviewer [he has since deleted that post] who confesses he is “not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard,” although I must note that one only needs strong primary school math to understand and evaluate the concepts in the book). Although he doesn’t actually have anything bad to say about the overall thesis of the book (the application of Bayes’ Theorem to history generally and Jesus studies specifically, it’s many discussions of method, and so on, beyond vague expressions of uncertainty). His objections are more of a Christian apologetical bent: he doesn’t like certain conclusions about a few random minor points made throughout the book, which he cherry picks because he thinks they are egregiously false, and he uses this to build a comforting narrative for himself that I must not know what I’m talking about, if I don’t agree with him on those few scattered items.

You can get an idea of his bias when he tells you my other book Why I am Not a Christian is “appalling tripe” and “by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism” and other colorful things, all because he despises the most commonsensical of atheist arguments (that a God who wanted x would do what was needed to achieve x). Brown is not a great thinker. And his intemperance and lack of objectivity show here. So when he gets to reviewing Proving History, you can expect a less than objective approach, and a similar sense of hyperbolic contempt. Indeed, for not liking the book (for no actually good reason, as we’ll see), he appears to be more obsessed with attacking it than than with any other book he has ever reviewed (he has so far written six articles on Proving History, where his previous record for any other book is only four, and that only once in twenty or thirty titles). [Read more...]