Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Carrier-Ehrman Smackdown

Some time ago I got interested in the question of whether Jesus ever, in fact existed. I read all of the mythical-Jesus books I could find, as well as the scholarly defenses of a historical Jesus - at least, all I could get my hands on. The latter were somewhat thin on the ground. It was clear that in scholarly circles this was a non-question, or rather, a settled one: nearly everyone agreed that there was a historical person at the root of Christianity. The mythicists were flying in the face of this consensus, and flying none too professionally. At least, so it seemed to me, as an amateur. In spite of some initial plausibility, mythicists never seemed to put together a convincing picture of how Christianity had come about without a founding personage.

It was a time-consuming and frustrating process. In the absence of a good scholarly source that addressed the mythicists point by point, I had to try to piece together what their response might be should they choose to give it. The results of my efforts, for what they are worth, can be found via the link above.

But now, the game has changed. Two recent books by respected scholars lay out the evidence for a historical Jesus, and guess what? They come to opposite conclusions.

In this corner, representing the scholarly establishment, is the renowned Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is professor of religious studies at UNC, and is a widely published scholar of both professional and popular works. An agnostic, he has no apparent dog in the fight. I haven't read the book, but he promises to show the flaws in the most popular mythicist views.

In the other corner, representing the disestablishmentarians, is the scrappy young Richard Carrier. Carrier's book came about in an unusual way. Though only a student, he had already earned an internet reputation as a rational voice and as someone sufficiently knowledgeable about Christian scholarship to be able to answer anything the religious shock troops could throw at him. A number of his fans began asking him to investigate the historical Jesus and write up a convincing case for whatever conclusion he reached. He said he would do it if enough people contributed enough money to make the (considerable) effort worth his time. He has since completed his Ph.D. (Columbia, ancient history) and the first volume of two he wrote in response to the requests.

I have a lot of respect for Richard. He writes well and argues clearly. His contribution to The Christian Delusion was probably the best of the lot. So I had great hopes when he decided to take on this project. I haven't read this book, either, but some of what I've heard gives me pause.

For one, he mentions The Jesus Puzzle as one of the sources for his (tentative though it is) mythicist conclusion. This book I have read, and found it less than impressive. Though Doherty is probably the most scholarly of the mythicists (until Richard came along), his version, in my opinion, just doesn't cut it. It doesn't even come close.

Too, Carrier says he wrote this first volume because New Testament scholarship was in such a disastrous state that he first had to put everything right before he could proceed. Now, having slogged through some of this stuff myself, I have some sympathy for Carrier's claim here. There do seem to be points where, for instance, certain assumptions have become so common that they are accepted as fact (I'm thinking of the standard dating of the Gospels as an example). But for a newly-minted Ph.D. to barge into another field, announce what a mess it is, and proceed to lay down the law about how it should be done right - well, that seems a bit of chutzpah. But that's not enough for Richard: he's also going to show how "all valid historical argument is and must be Bayesian, and any methods or arguments that are not, are not logically valid or sound." So he's going to revolutionize the methods of general history as well.

Call me slightly sceptical. But at any rate, if you are interested in the question at all, you don't need to slog through a couple dozen books to try to get at the root of the issue, the way I did. You can pick up these two (well, three) books, written by Genuwyne Scholars Tee Em, and learn about the arguments on both sides.

Me, I'm feeling all been-there-done-that. I'll get to them, eventually.


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