Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Did Jesus Exist?" (9) Ehrman's Response to Carrier

Bart Ehrman has responded to Richard Carrier's review of Did Jesus Exist? in a couple of posts on his blog here and here. Happily he responded in the Public Forum so anyone can read them. He admits to a couple of mistakes, insists that he is right and Carrier is wrong about a couple of points, and insists that Carrier is misinterpreting his statements or taking them out of context in a couple of cases. Unfortunately I don't have the expertise to evaluate the substance of all these disagreements, but I do know what I want and expect out of a book by Ehrman.

For me the important issue is how well informed about mythicism someone will be after reading Did Jesus Exist? I knew nothing about textual criticism prior to reading Misquoting Jesus. After reading it I found that I could follow reasonably sophisticated discussions of the topic, ask intelligent questions, and generally spot the difference between someone who knew their stuff and someone who was just bluffing. I have had many debates with internet apologists using Ehrman’s works as a reference and I don’t think that I have ever been caught short due to having an inaccurate picture of the evidence and arguments on either side of a question.

My standard for evaluating all of Carrier’s criticisms and Ehrman’s defenses is whether someone who entered an argument with a mythicist using Did Jesus Exist? is likely to wind up with egg on his face if he relied on Ehrman in the way that I have relied on him in arguments with Christian apologists.

(1) Tacitus: Carrier says that Ehrman got some nitpicky details wrong about Tacitus. Ehrman says that his statements are correct.

Edge: Ehrman. The main thing is that none of this is likely to come up in an argument with a mythicist.

(2) Pliny: Carrier says that Erhman got some nitpicky details about Pliny wrong. Ehrman admits he made a mistake in citation but says that there was no need to go into the other nitpicky details.

Edge: Ehrman. Once again, none of it this is likely to matter in an argument with a mythicist.

(3) Roman records: Carrier says that Ehrman was wrong about what kind of records the Romans kept. Ehrman says Carrier is talking about records that were kept in Egypt and he was talking about what we might expect to find in Palestine.

Edge: Carrier. The general propensity of the Romans to keep records is clearly relevant to the kind of records we might expect to find regarding Jesus of Nazareth. I interpret Ehrman to be saying that Romans didn't keep the relevant type of records at all. “If Romans were careful record keepers, it is passing strange that we have no record, not of Jesus but of nearly anyone who lived in the first century.” (p. 29) I think a person could wind up looking very foolish arguing this point with a mythicist if he didn't know that there were such records kept in Egypt.

(4) The Peter priapus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about a penis-nosed statue of Peter in the Vatican’s collection. Ehrmans says the statue isn’t of Peter.

Edge: Carrier. It is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting the existing evidence or inventing evidence from whole cloth. Ehrman makes it sound like the mythicists are inventing things: “There is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this which love to make things up.” (p.24) Little is more embarrassing than having someone produce a piece of evidence that you have just accused them of inventing.

(5) Earlier Jesus: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong about whether any sources ever had Jesus living in the early 1st or 2nd century BC rather than the early 1st century AD. Ehrman says that all he meant was that those sources weren’t relevant to Paul's understanding.

Edge: Carrier. Once again, it is important to know whether mythicists are misinterpreting existing sources or inventing stories from whole cloth. Ehrman wrote "[T]he logic of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection show[s] that he thought that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events. I should stress that this is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251). I think that Ehrman is clearly saying that no such source exists rather than that no such source was available to Paul.

(6) Earl Doherty: Carrier says Ehrman was wrong to say that Earl Doherty fails to acknowledge that the scholars he cites don’t agree with his ultimate conclusion. Ehrman says that Doherty “often gives the impression that the scholars he quotes agree with him on a point when they expressly do not.”

Edge: Carrier. Ehrman is often criticized unfairly by Christian apologists for the "impression" he gives rather than for what he actually says, e.g., "Ehrman makes it sound like we can't know anything at all about the text of the New Testament." Although this wouldn't come up in a debate, it is very disappointing to see Ehrman trying to justify a misstatement about someone else on these grounds.

(7) Dying and rising gods: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the dying and rising Gods. Ehrman says he got it right.

Edge: Too close to call (for me). This is obviously a very important issue for the mythicist argument and it comes up many times in the book. I don’t understand the issue well enough to say who’s right, but it doesn’t look to me like Ehrman is as dogmatic as Carrier implies so I don’t think that I would make any blanket statements based on Did Jesus Exist?, and hence I would not wind up with egg on my face when arguing with a mythicist.

(8) Carrier's credentials: Carrier says Ehrman is wrong about the degrees he holds. Ehrman admits the mistake and says he doesn't know where he got the erroneous information.

Edge: Carrier. Although this is never going to matter in a debate, I cannot see any excuse for Ehrman not checking this and the information is easy to find on the internet.

Overall, I have to agree with the substance of many of Carrier's criticisms, although I think that the tone of his review probably left something to be desired.


  1. I haven’t been following too closely, but I would note part of the reason we have Egyptian records is the climate—Egyptian climate is conducive to papyri survival. Moist, clammy or divergent weather is not. The reason we have so much Egyptian material is NOT just that Egyptians happened to write a lot—their material happened to be preserved.

    Always dangerous (in my opinion) to read much into Egyptian records beyond what happens in Egypt.

  2. In his reply to Carrier, Ehrman points out that we shouldn't expect such records for Palestine because the climate was less conducive that it was in Egypt, but in the book he appears to be saying that we shouldn't expect such records because the Romans didn't keep them. At least that's how I read it.

    I'm not sure whether it ultimately impacts historicity or not, but I think its still valuable to understand the reasons why no records exist and whether there might once have been any.

  3. I want to do a review like this, but also evaluate the points that Ehrman has chosen not to engage. Are they just perhaps lesser misunderstandings as he would imply or not? Just glancing over it seems there's at least a few issues Ehrman shouldn't have ignored. Like method and circularity for example. I'll have more to say when I take a closer look.

    1. I can't help but wonder whether Carrier made a tactical mistake going after errors details of Roman history that most laypeople won't appreciate rather than concentrating on the major methodological flaws. Hindsight is 20-20.

  4. Yeah, I don't know how that could have played. Ultimately, say you read a book by an author you respect, but on this topic, they are really sloppy. To establish the claim, "This author is sloppy all over this book" requires either A: Pointing out every single trivial error which would take a post the length of which no mortal would read. B: Pointing out a decent sample of them. Since I'm familiar enough with Carrier, I know he thinks B is legit, but B has the political problem of looking obsessive no matter how true. And you have to put an excessive amount of pressure on the tidbits of info on your sample (as though you really care that much) in order for the *general* point to stick that many people are going to easily ignore no matter what you do.

    Of course, if you just focus on just the substance claims and ignore the sloppiness element of the book that you find important to point out, it looks like you are mindlessly slandering a book you don't like as "sloppy" without demonstrating it even though it is important. I'm sure Carrier's next response will bring this back into focus, but it is a difficult tight rope to walk.

    1. I'm sure Carrier's next response will bring this back into focus, but it is a difficult tight rope to walk.

      Exactly true. It's too early to judge the result and there's no way to know that a different approach would have worked better.

    2. Ehrman made sure that everybody knew the sloppy nature of his research.

      I am not sure where I got the wrong impression he was a classicist; I think when I first heard of him I was told that he worked in ancient history and classics, and the “classics” part just stuck with me, possibly because I have always revered the field.

      Before putting pen to paper, why not check your facts?

      It's called 'research'.

      It's something scholars do.

  5. Did you see Ehrman claim on his blog that Acts is a source which knows that James the church leader was a brother of Jesus?

    1. Yes, I did. Most curious.

    2. Bart now admits his mistake, on this rather basic matter.

      I thought he was supposed to teach this stuff. A lot of his book is about how he teaches this stuff, so is far more qualified to speak on it than mythicists.

      And now we find that hack bloggers have to correct him on basic facts about the New Testament.

    3. Then he falls back on "Acts doesn't say it because everybody knew it."

      Curiouser and curiouser.

      Ehrman has made his career putting long held beliefs under the microscope, but there seem to be some things that he still just takes for granted.

  6. “Everyone knew it” is a failed methodology. The Acts author narrows the “James” in 12:2 as “James, brother of John” and the “James” of 1:13 as “James of Alphaeus.” But this method alleges the author did NOT list “James” of 21:18 as “James, brother of Jesus” because everyone knew it? It would seem to follow, that meant no one knew who James, brother of John was. Or who James, son of Alphaeus was.

    Don’t forget, Luke/Acts knew Jesus had brothers, but does not list their names. Even though his source (Mark) DOES indicate there is a brother to Jesus named James. Under a straight reading of Acts, the better argument is that James of 21:18 is James, son of Alphaeus—NOT the unknown “brother of Jesus” who never is identified by Luke/Acts.

    See Also the author’s treatment of “Philip” in distinguishing between “Philip the Disciple” and “Philip the Evangelist” that equally shows a tendency to make distinctions for intended recipients.

    I’ve been on the fence regarding Ehrman’s scholarship in reading these reviews, but if he really did use the method “everyone knew it” for arguing the silence on James in Acts; I find this devastating to his credibility. This is Mythical Skepticism 101 stuff.

    1. You can check it out on Ehrman's blog.

      "Well, if everyone knew who James was, there may in fact be no reason to identify him — especially if it is his custom to identify some other James (son of Alphaeus) with an identifying marker precisely becuase he wsa *not* well known."

      I have been really surprised by several of the arguments he made in Did Jesus Exist?.

      Let's also not forget that Luke says that he is writing his gospel because earlier works were unsatisfactory. I think he expected his work to be the definitive account. When Luke/Acts departs from Mark, I think we have to assume that the author thought that Mark had gotten something wrong.

  7. So if everyone knew James as brother of Jesus, why did Paul have to identify him as such in Galatians? Can't have it both ways....