We’ve all been waiting for Richard Carrier, an expert on history and a Biblical scholar, to respond to Bart Ehrman’s new book. Well, Carrier has—in an article called “Ehrman on Jesus: a failure of facts and logic” published on his website. And he doesn’t pull any punches from the outset:
Having completed and fully annotated Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Harper 2012), I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.
As you may know from the publicity and from Ehrman’s HuffPo precis, his book claims that there was indeed one historical person around whom the Jesus myth coalesced, though Ehrman rejects claims that this Jesus was the son of God, a miracle worker, or in any way divine. But he vigorously attacks “mythicists”—those who think that there was no one historical person on which Christianity is based—and goes after new atheists as well, whom he compares to fundamentalists in their dogmatism. (Carrier is a mythicist.) In general, Carrier faults the book not just for poor and selective scholarship, but for poor writing:
Carrier criticizes Ehrman’s book on several grounds:
- The book is filled with factual errors. Here’s one of several cited by Carrier:
The “No Records” Debacle: Ehrman declares (again with that same suicidally hyperbolic certitude) that “we simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other kinds of records that one has today” (p. 29). Although his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity), his premise is false. In fact, I cannot believe he said this. How can he not know that we have thousands of these kinds of records? Yes, predominately from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond. I have literally held some of these documents in my very hands. More importantly, we also have such documents quoted or cited in books whose texts have survived. For instance, Suetonius references birth records for Caligula, and in fact his discussion of the sources on this subject is an example I have used of precisely the kind of historical research that is conspicuously lacking in any Christian literature before the third century (see Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 182-87) . . . That Ehrman would not know this is shocking and suggests he has very little experience in ancient history as a field and virtually none in papyrology (beyond its application to biblical manuscripts). Worse, he didn’t even think to check whether we had any of these kinds of documents, before confidently declaring we didn’t.
Ehrman can’t have learned my degree is in classics from any reliable source. He can only have invented this detail. I am left to wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to diminish my qualifications by misrepresentation. Or if he is really so massively incompetent it never even occurred to him to check my CV, which is on my very public website (he also has my email address, and we have corresponded, so he could even have just asked).
- Carrier claims that his own level of scholarship is superior to Ehrman’s:
And on that score I would ask that Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? be compared with my latest on the same subject, Proving History. Just compare the extent and content of our endnotes alone, much less the way we argue, the difference in our attention to method and its logical soundness, the diverse range of scholarship we cite. Even my book Not the Impossible Faith is superior on all these measures, and it was a deliberately colloquial book designed to be entertaining. Both undoubtedly have occasional errors (as all scholarly work does)–but I doubt anything even remotely like what I have documented above (in degree, quantity, and cruciality).
- Ehrman’s historical methodology is flawed. Carrier dismisses Ehrman’s reliance on the “methodology of criteria” (whatever that is), which Carrier claims he refuted in his book Proving History. He concentrates instead on two others:
I could call out many examples of his use of ordinary fallacies and self-contradictions, too, but I will have to leave those for perhaps a later blog (if I even care to bother).[JAC he gives one example.] . . .
As bad as those kinds of self contradictions and fallacies are (and there are more than just that one), far worse is how Ehrman moves from the possibility of hypothetical sources to the conclusion of having proved historicity. He argues that because Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas (yes, Thomas) and various other documents all have material the others don’t, that therefore we “have” a zillion earlier sources, which he sometimes calls by their traditionally assigned letters like M, L, and Q (he is irrationally dismissive of Mark Goodacre’s refutation of Q, and claims no one is convinced by it but cites not a single rebuttal; I myself find Goodacre’s case persuasive, well enough at least to leave us in complete doubt of the matter). We don’t in fact have those sources, we aren’t even sure they exist, and even if we were, we have no way of knowing what they said.
I’m not an expert here, but if Ehrman doesn’t have those sources in hand, then he’ll have trouble convincing us not only that they exist, but that they say what Ehrman says they do. You’ll want to read Carrier’s take on these sources, as to me that bears heavily on Ehrman’s credibility. I am not equipped to judge matters like this, but I have to say that if Ehrman invokes independent evidence for Jesus that isn’t convincing, then I’d find his conclusions questionable.
- Ehrman cites ancient stories and biographies as if they were true, though many have proved to be outright fiction.
Ehrman appears to be blithely unaware of the routinely fabricatory nature of ancient biography, as documented throughout the literature on the subject (which is cataloged under his despised category of “classics,” a section of the library Ehrman seems never to visit), which demonstrates that things an author said or wrote (even fictionally) were often converted into stories about them . . . [Carrier then gives some examples]. . .. . . The significance of this is that it demonstrates Ehrman’s naivity when it comes to interpreting ancient literature and source materials and tradition formation. He is evidently not a competent classicist. And yet understanding how the Gospels likely came together requires being a competent classicist. . .If things a person said were routinely transformed into stories about them (for example, Euripides occasionally made remarks about women in his plays that were transformed into a story about his troubled marriage–a completely fabricated story, that nevertheless became a standard element of his biography), doesn’t this change substantially how we view the possible tradition history behind the stories in the “biographies” of Jesus?
It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.
Perhaps some of our concern comes from this: if we can show that there’s no historical Jesus, then the myth of Christianity tumbles down. That is, it’s no so much about convincing ourselves about the non-historicity of Jesus as convincing Christians. And it is the Christians who have the hard work ahead of them, for even if Jesus was demonstrated to be a historical person, they still must adduce independent evidence for all his divinity attested in scripture. And that’s why Ehrman is so important to the faithful—and perhaps why he seems to have gone soft on them)—for they think that showing there was a historical person somehow justifies all the mythology of Christianity. It doesn’t, and we know that.
But Christians don’t.
In other words, Ehrman’s book is important to Americans only insofar as it can be taken to support the tenets of Christianity. Since it doesn’t, even by Ehrman’s admission, I’m a bit baffled at the attention it gets. I conclude that all the kerfuffle rests on this: Christians conflate the existence of a historical Jesus with the existence of a divine Jesus.
And, of course, there are important questions about how one adjudicates ancient history.