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Apr 22 2012

Richard Carrier is my new favorite Bible scholar.

For a very long time, I had considered Bart Ehrman to be the foremost Bible scholar, especially as pertains the question of an historical Jesus. I thought Ehrman’s position, that it’s impossible to separate the historical man from the mythological parts, and therefore completely unnecessary, to be the most nuanced and all-encompassing position to take. His disdain for mythicists like the guys behind the terrible movie Zeitgeist (the one perpetuating the amythological myth, to coin a phrase, that Mithras was a virgin birth who was killed and resurrected) was well founded, and therefore he was the first guy I would turn to, if ever anyone asked me about the existence of Jesus as a real person.

Not any more. Richard Carrier, fellow FtBer, just tore apart Ehrman’s latest book Did Jesus Exist? for being a sloppily researched and off-the-cuff rebuttal of the “Jesus is nothing but myth” crowd, with such a poor understanding of the original texts, that I’m almost embarassed for Ehrman.

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.

This makes me want to read Proving History quite a bit. I realize that this is essentially a pissing contest between two Bible scholars, and that as someone only slightly interested in Bible history I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, so I might find the book dry or otherwise difficult to get through. But when I see someone for whom I had held such a high opinion get royally and rightly smacked down for terrible research, I can’t help but rethink my personal pantheon of atheist scholars.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    pipenta

    This is why I’ve never followed this stuff overly much. I did my share of wading through the bible when I was younger and I found it all to be a colossal waste of time. It was either creepy or boring and seemed to be a mishmosh of bronze-age ravings. As I don’t believe in any gods, then I don’t believe the bible has any profound messages.

    Average American Christian, find the bible is more useful, as an emotional prop and a banner to rally behind, if they don’t read a lot of it. The drivel in the text is not going to inspire confidence in anyone who is intelligent and sane, not unless they are brainwashed. Being brainwashed means that someone with an agenda has been working to undermine your understanding of reality, in other words, your sanity.

    I don’t feel the need to know the details to argue with believers. It is enough to know that it is a nasty book, that it is inconsistent and toxic. Learning it, getting into the headspace of someone who is wrapped up in bible-thumping culture, is as squirmy as trying to get into the head of a psychopath. Ew. Ick. Yuck. I don’t wanna go there. It makes me queasy.

    I don’t think it is helpful to know the details to argue with believers. Magic isn’t real. The bible is isn’t true. The best arguments against the bible are found by standing on the firm ground of reality which exists outside of the bible, not up to your waist in the middle of the nasty swamp of that pathological mythology.

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Not so sure. I see only one putative contestant doing any pissing.

  3. 3
    James Sweet

    I’m sorta proceeding cautiously on this one. A lot of Carrier’s review seemed to be either focusing on nitpicks, or else was excoriating Ehrman for taking a position which, for better or worse, is relatively mainstream among historicists (i.e. it is fair to dispute the mainstream position, but it’s not fair to pretend like Ehrman is some wacko out of left-field because he holds the same position as most of his other fellow historicists). A few of the problems Carrier pointed out did seem more serious, however. e.g. I think Ehrman really owes D.M. Murdock an apology over the dick-beaked bird thing. It is fine to question both the provenance and the interpretation of the alleged artifact, but to say that Murdock just “made it up” is as false as it is insulting. Ehrman could argue that Murdoch’s sources are bad, but to imply that she had no sources (when that is clearly not the case) is unacceptable.

    I have not read either book, so it is difficult for me to judge beyond that, to point out that at least some of Carrier’s criticisms were fair and on point, and at least some of his criticisms were unfair; but I don’t know nearly enough about the topic to judge the balance of them.

    It always confuses and fascinates me how acrimonious this particular topic can be among non-believing historicists and mythicists. It seems to me that this is a question for which the answer will always have relatively high error bars, barring the emergence of striking new evidence which I think nobody is anticipating at this point. It has become clear that the historicists will not be able to make a knock-out argument, as too much of the evidence they would like to rely on has simply been lost to the sands of time (or never existed in the first place, if you are a mythicist). And the possibility of a knock-out argument for mythicism was always remote, because of the difficulty of proving a negative. Any sufficiently justified conclusion will have to be probabilistic in nature, e.g. “The Biblical Jesus is probably based on a man who lived in Judea and” blah blah blah.

    Maybe it is that very feature that makes the debate so intense? It is much easier to tolerate your opponents’ wrongness if you believe that they will be proven wrong shortly. But if you know that neither side can never prove their case to the others’ satisfaction, well, perhaps then it is time to resort to slander and insinuation? heh…

  4. 4
    RW Ahrens

    James,

    From what I’ve read of Carrier so far, he doesn’t excoriate Ehrman for taking a position as much as he smacks him around for using the same invalid METHODS as the mainstream does.

    Which is the whole point of his first book – to show how valid methods can change the dialog from he said/she said shouting matches into a more scholarly dialog based on evidence and matching methodology.

    Ehrman seems to want to keep on with the shouting matches, including the ad hominems so popular with scholars who suddenly find that their precious bedrock beliefs are sitting on shifting sand!

    I’d have had a lot more respect for Ehrman if he’d waited for Carrier’s second book- the one with the actual mythical theory’s evidence and arguments before attacking Carrier. That way, he’d have had Carrier’s entire argument and could have even used Carrier’s own methodology in that discussion.

    Instead, he looks like some spoiled child who had to get in the first word, and is having a temper tantrum when he’s called on it.

    Not the way to win friends and influence people.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    I think RW Ahrens’ take is the closest to my own. I had a ton of respect for Ehrman, most of which he wasted by not taking the scholarship of some folks seriously. Yes, there are mythicists like Acharya S and the Zeitgeist folks who get so much wrong as to be an embarrassment to the idea, but that doesn’t mean the idea that Jesus is a myth is invalid in and of itself. These folks could very easily be right for all the wrong reasons. Ehrman does the scholarly debate a grave disservice by dismissing it out of hand, and by doing so with such poor methodology.

    I strongly agree that Ehrman should likely have waited for Carrier’s book, given that they are professional academic rivals and that Carrier was as excited as he was to point people to Did Jesus Exist? before even reading it himself. I think Carrier was terribly disappointed by Ehrman’s offering, and rightly so. And I think Ehrman’s current dismissal of Carrier’s objections as “mean” is simply wrong-headed, given how many sources Carrier cited.

    But like I said, I’m a layman when it comes to this Bible scholarship stuff. I’m on the outside looking in, and while I’m interested in the academic debate, I don’t have a lot of knowledge about it insofar as I’ve never studied it academically myself. I have only what information I’ve gleaned from watching these fights. Given that one side is making sweeping dismissives and the other is citing sources, the landscape of this debate is a little one-sided — thus, I have to agree with F that only one side is doing any pissing. The other appears to be merely denying the existence of any urine.

    That’s, in my estimation, the right way to win someone over to your side, by presenting evidence and citing sources. Dismissing them out of hand without proffering anything better in return is petulance, not debate.

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