Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Disproving History: Carrier takes on the Gospels I

Proving History, the first part of Richard Carrier's bold two-volume attempt to demonstrate that Jesus never lived, or at least that asserting that he never lived is intellectually respectable, is easily the best of Carrier's books I have read so far.  Why I am Not a Christian (which I will review shortly) is embarrassing.  Sense and Goodness is much better, but still suffers from that cockiness and careless prodigality of opinion on a universe of topics that apes virtuosity as Sunday insert travel journalism apes really knowing a foreign land.  But in this book, Carrier keeps to a focused topic, on which he has read and thought a good deal, and banishes self-praise to the margins of coy implicity.  

Not that Carrier claims to prove much about Jesus in this book, which claims to mainly offer a foundation for the argument to follow in Volume II. 
The subject here is historical methodology, and how best to "search for the historical Jesus."  Carrier thinks the methods commonly employed need reform, or perhaps revolution is a more apt term.  His main goal in this book is to demonstrate that the received methods do not work as usually applied -- and then to point us to the Straight Path, that is, Bayes Theorum.  His secondary goal is to begin showing why his methods are going to take out tradition arguments for Jesus' historicity, still more for the reliability of the gospels -- knowing the kids can't wait for supper, and need some snacks of raw meat beforehand.  (Tis the season for Thanksgiving analogies.) 
This book roughly consists of three parts: (1) Carrier's general theory of how to do history; (1) his attacks on the criteria that are used to establish Jesus, or the use of those criteria to do so (most of his time is spent on the Criteria of Embarrassment), and (3) a defense of using Bayes to make historical arguments. 
I will not analyze Carrier's use of Bayes in this review.   There are mathematicians who seem to have issues with that, and I see no need to poach on their territory.  I personally have no problem with applying Bayes to history, to the extent that I follow the discussion.  The devil, as usual, is in the historical details.  I will explain why I find his logic, and treatment of history, defective at times in the first two parts of this work, then go after three major issues, that threaten to ruin Carrier's project.   
But first, let me say that that does not mean the book is not worth reading, or that Carrier makes no valid or interesting points.  We need our critics.  In a sense, as a Christian I think Carrier is doing helpful work, here.  He is offering the strongest challenges he can think of, taking skepticism in some ways beyond where it has gone before, beyond the Jesus Seminar that I rebutted long ago, to fling the most ingenious arguments he can get his hands on at the citadel of faith, like the siege-works of Mordor advancing on Gondor.  Behind him, however, lies history itself, including history that Carrier himself has in the past argued for, debunked along with the gospels, as collateral damage.  And I believe his assault on Gondor, too, begins to fail already in this first volume, as new resources of historicity come raging into the field from hills and river, trumpets blasting. 
Having gotten the Tolkien out of my system, let's get down to specifics.  I'll begin with details, then move on to three big issues. 

Selective Nit-Picking
The first hundred pages or so of Carrier's book attempts to establish a series of principles for testing history.  There is a lot of this that I agree with.  Carrier obviously respects the discipline of history, as he understands it, pointing out for instance that science itself depends to a large extent upon historical reports.  Carrier is at his best when he takes his Gnu pugilist hat off, and puts his philosopher of history hat on.  Unfortunately he cannot always resist tossing peanuts to the peanut gallery:
11. "Apart from fundamentalist Christians, all experts agree the Jesus of the Bible is buried in myth and legend."

Carrier surely knows that scholars who fit no reasonable definition of "fundamentalist" (Luke Johnson, NT Wright) would strongly disagree with this statement, and that many whom he might try to pigeon-hole into this category (Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington) have gained credibility in, and made marks on, the scholarly world far beyond what he or any Christ mythicist have yet achieved. 
23. "Compared to, for example, Richard Nixon or Mark Twain, the documentation for Jesus and the origins of Christianity is extraordinarily thin and problematic.  And yet even knowing all we'd like to know about Nixon or Twain is impossible, as even for them the evidence is neither complete nor unproblematic; for Jesus and the origins of Christianity, vastly more so.
"Anyone who rejects this conclusion is not an objective scholar, but a dogmatist or propagandist whose voice needn't be heeded by any respectable academic community."
I wonder what respectable community Carrier has in mind.  Is it the community that overwhelmingly rejects mythicist conclusions about Jesus?
And why, in researching Jesus, should one reference Richard Nixon, about whom many of us already know than we wish?   Compared to the historical King David, who certainly did live, documentation for Jesus is extraordinarily robust and diverse.

179.  " . . . any true content gets simpler and less detailed over time . . . "
That's not what happened when I wrote a little biography of my father for our family, after he passed away.  The stories began simply, from what I personally remembered, or what one other family member told me.  Then as I interviewed more people -- about events, mind you, often much further in time than the writing of the gospels was from Jesus' public ministry -- the stories tended to grow, become more detailed, as different people recalled different parts of what happened.  All in all, my experience writing that biography affirmed my trust that human memory can provide solid evidence, and the possibilities of turning memory into accurate biography.  Again, at a longer distance by decades, in some cases, than Mark was from the events of his gospel. 
Problem One: Is Carrier acting as Historian, or Prosecuting Attorney?

Carrier gives Matthew 10: 5-6 and 15:24, in which Jesus tells his disciples to preach only to Jews, a bizarre but perhaps revealing read.  He claims that Matthew was struggling against a community of Gentile Christians, whom he wanted to discredit, and that may be why he invented these sayings. (171)  He finds evidence for the idea that these sayings were indeed invented by Matthew, in the fact that Paul is never depicted at having to answer Christians who cited Jesus restricting evangelistic efforts to just Jews.

Yet at the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to "Go into all the world, and make disciples!"  Carrier points that passage out himself, and remarks:
"On the other hand, Matthew's seemingly contradictory endorsement of a mission to the Gentiles (in Matthew 28:19) is no more likely to be unhistorical because it fails to cohere with what we know from Galatians -- because Matthew does not mean what Paul was doing (converting Gentiles straightaway, without first converting them to Judaism through circumcision and dietary laws) . . . . "
This is an argument worthy of Rube Goldberg. 
First, where is the supposed "contradiction?"  If a coach tells his offensive team to get out on the field after the ball has been kicked off to their side, does that "contradict" him telling them to sit on the bench after they have kicked off?  Nor is there any "contradiction" in Jesus telling his team to do one thing at one point, obviously tied to a particular mission, and something else later.

Nor did Jesus say anything anywhere in these Matthew passages about dietary laws. 

And Paul knew first-hand that Christ wanted him to preach the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 13:47).  Why in the world would Luke record Jews making objections that had not been written down yet, and that when written down, would be narrowly focused and contain their own universal negation in the Great Commission?  (What does it say, "Go into all the world and make Jews, getting out your knives and cutting . . . ?")  
Carrier is inventing problems for the NT texts with the glee of a rich Roman merchant setting gladiator slaves at one another in the Coliseum.  The New Testament account is at this point sensible and straightforward: Carrier works overtime to introduce problems into it so as to undermine its credibility. 

And that is the stance not of objective history (if there is such a thing), but of a prosecuting attorney.  Fine, good to know what we're facing here. 

Problem Two: Disproving History

One of Carrier's chief goals in Proving History is to undermine the historical criteria frequently used to defend the Gospels.  In the second major part of the book, he thus goes after these famous criteria in a D-Day landing style chapter of 86 pages, entitled "Bayesian Analysis of Historical Methods."  Unfortunately, in the process he accidentally wipes out all ancient history along with the gospels. 
The attack Carrier launches on the "Criterion of Embarrassment" is especially energetic.  He argues that the criterion is self-contradictory: "Surely if anything was actually embarrassing about Jesus, we can fairly well assume it would not survive in the record at all," because it would have been edited out. (135)  So we must assume the authors had some positive reason for including such "embarrassing" facts as Jesus' death on the cross, his cry of despair from the cross, and so on.  In fact, one can often find (or imagine) excellent reasons why the evangelists would have included this or that embarrassing fact even if it wasn't true.  Mark, for instance, would have read prophets like Daniel who as much predicted the death of the Messiah.  And even when we don't have access to such opposing motives, our very ignorance defeats us: we would have to be aware of the author's thinking, his assumptions, the theories he was arguing against, and so on, to be sure that what he recorded truly did upset his apple cart.  Furthermore, Carrier argues that all religious texts record events that might be deemed embarrassing -- should we accept them all?  Sometimes here, Carrier seems to just throw mud against the wall to see what sticks:
"The incest and immorality of the gods in Homer was embarrassing to Plutarch and Plato, for example (they chafe at it constantly), yet no one today uses that fact to argue that Homer's stories of the gods must therefore be true." (129)
Of course not.  Plato doesn't claim that Homer's stories are true, so why should anyone use his skepticism about already ancient tall tales to argue that they really happened?  Still less does Plato claim, as Luke does, to have carefully researched the historical facts, before describing how Zeus appeared as swan or bull to chase fair maiden.  Homer wrote some two to four hundred years before Plato.  These are basic and obvious considerations, that Carrier too often just fails to consider. 
After taking his shots at the Criteria of Embarrassment, Carrier asks, "What are we to do?" (158)  He admits that in practice, this criterion "often finds successful use in every historical field," and even "I've relied on it myself."
So he has.  (And so, for that matter, have some of America's most famous skeptics have employed it against me.) 
In Sense and Goodness Without God, Carrier argued that Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC is much better attested than the Resurrection of Jesus.  Carrier offered what he there called "counterbiased corroboration" for the crossing.  He explained:
"A Counterbiased source is someone who is actually notably biased against the event being reported, so that if even they admit it happened, there is a good chance it did.  And so, we find that many of Caesar's enemies, including his nemesis Cicero, refer to the crossing of the Rubicon, as did friends and neutral observers . . . " (SBWG, 243)
Here we apparently have an example of how the Criteria of Embarrassment should be used.  But see what Carrier demands of proper use:
"First, you must reliably know if the statement in question very probably did go against its author's interests, that the author actually perceived that it would, and that the statement did not serve other interests the author had which he may have regarded as outweigh any other consequences he perceived to be likely.  And that means you must reliably know what an author's interests actually were, and not just in general, but that particular author in that particular book, in that particular scene (and in that particular community at that particular time, and you must reliably know what the author perceived the consequences of his statement would be . . . you must reliably know how that author would have weighed the pros and cons he was aware of at the time . . . And if you can establish all that, you're not done.  For you must also reliable know if the author was even in a position to know the statement was actually true . . . You also need a specific theory as to why the questionable statement was included at all.  And then you need to test that theory against other theories of what it may have been included"
Nor is that all!
"But that requires explaining why that author could not omit it or even change it (and why no one else could in all the decades before." (PH, 158-9)
Now did Richard Carrier "establish" all this about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC?  For that matter, could anyone ever establish it about anything?  Or are we artificially raising the barrier to proof so high that not only the gospels, but no one ever, could possibly surmount it?
Where in Cicero does Carrier claim he spoke of Caesar crossing the Rubicon?  Extant works of Cicero may be as old as 350 AD, but that still leaves a lot of time for anonymous scribes to do their dirty work. 
Plutarch, who tells the story of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, was born more than a century after the event, and the manuscripts for his Lives arrive in our hands almost a thousand years later. 

Carrier rebukes Marcus Borg for supposing that if we have at least two early and independent versions of a saying, that is good reason to think it "goes back to" Jesus.  Carrier responds to Borg:
"It is an equally good reason for thinking that the gist of it goes back to an originating myth (or even a revelatory dream or vision), or an earlier storyteller's innovation." (174) 
Carrier fails to notice that this destroys his argument for Caesar crossing the Rubicon, too.  Cicero does not claim to have witnessed Caesar's horse getting his hooves wet.  (And if he had, given the hundreds of years down which his accounts descend, there were plenty of opportunities for fabrication.)  His account, if any is actually given anywhere (Carrier does not cite his source), can be explained as the reflection of an  earlier originating myth which also reached Plutarch's ears, maybe part of the Herculean mythological motif about crossing the River Styx to regain a beloved from Hades. 

Probably nothing in ancient history, and very little in modern history, can survive the level of skepticism Carrier brings to the gospels here.  One can seldom "reliably know" that a statement could not have served "other interests," still less what a given author "perceived the consequences" of him saying something would be.  It may be that, supposing Cicero to actually have said that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (I have found no such record, yet), he thought telling the story would make Caesar look bad.  Or maybe he thought it would make Caesar look good, but now that Caesar was dead, he wanted to assuage that Roman faction against Mark Antony and the assassins.  Or maybe he heard a false rumor of the crossing.  And Caesar might have gone by sea.  One can think of an infinite number of sillier possibilities -- maybe one of Caesar's generals was holding a knife to Cicero's throat as he wrote.  Maybe he wrote "Caesar did NOT cross the Rubicon" and the word "not" was swallowed in a manuscript crease.  Indeed, the whole train of manuscript history is vulnerable to attack at thousands of points.  (Exponentially more vulnerable than the manuscript history of the gospels, which is centuries shorter, with many times as many early manuscripts.) 
So must all ancient history be declared bunk? 
Not at all!  Sometimes these fragile trains of evidence come to be verified by more direct evidence, even physical evidence that archeologists dig up from the very time and place that the original writing was about.
For instance, the Chinese historian Si Maqian (d. 86 BC) recorded the sequence of Shang Dynasty rulers more than a thousand years before his time.  (Some of whom lived in the city I'm going to be moving to shortly, Zhengzhou.)  These reign periods were widely questioned by skeptical historians, until archeologists found the names of most rulers at Anyang, a later Shang capital, and other archeological records that generally confirmed Si Maqian's late account. 
Carrier wants us to believe that having four gospels that generally confirm one another's stories, is no advantage at all.  This is extreme.  The gospels would seem to be vastly more secure than the single late record of Si Maquian, which was put into hiding by his daughter, and finally "published" by his grandson, with a few alterations.  The first manuscript of that work only appears half a millennia or so later.  Yet if you believed Si Maqian in the face of all that long transmission and storage with all those people you had never met and never were given the lie detector and mind-reading tests Carrier seems to demand for reliable history, so as to dissect their every thought and intent -- you would know something about a long stretch of Chinese history, that you would otherwise not have known. 

So something seems wrong with Carrier's ultra-critical methods. 

Let's look again at the Criteria of Embarrassment.

Carrier seems to suppose that if a writer finds a reason within his greater authorial purpose for inserting an incident into the story he is telling, then that incident is no longer "embarrassing."  But this seems simplistic.  The gospels record how the disciples' expectations were shattered.  Upon that shattered foundation, a new foundation of partial understanding was erected. 
By analogy, consider the story Deborah Layton tells in her autobiographical Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.   The story she tells about Jim Jones includes three kinds of elements, roughly speaking: (1) positive elements, reflecting her original high impression of Jones as a spiritual man who fought for racial justice and to help the downtrodden (let's call that Model A); (2) negative elements, reflecting her growing understanding that Jones was evil, manipulative, and dangerous (Model B); (3) neutral elements related simply because they were important to her story. 
That story is full of incidents that are obviously painful to Deborah personally, and also to both her first and her second models of the Reverend Jones.  She has to tell how Jones seduced her and other women in the cult.  One need not nail down all possible alternative motivations with certainty, as Carrier seems to demand, to suppose that she found this embarrassing.  There are people who make up lurid sexual adventures, but these incidents are so humiliating, and not very titillating, and she does not seem to be that kind of person. 
As for Carrier's claim that the disciples are too stupid and willful to find credible, Deborah notes:

"It's hard to explain why I didn't realize something was seriously wrong; why I stayed deaf to the warning calls ringing in my ears.  I ignored my doubts and my conscience because I believed that I could not be wrong, not that wrong." (69)
This is how Deborah realized that Jones was vicious and amoral: incidents that embarrassed her former beliefs occurred.  Her stories mark the transition from Model A to Model B.
So should we toss out her story, because it now fits Model B?  That would be a strange thing to do. 
Layton forthrightly tells stories that were terribly painful, and remained deeply embarrassing.  In her literary reconstruction, she does fit it all into a "myth," an overweening interpretive narrative, a story line by which she interprets what happened.  But that does not in any way draw the intellectual power of her story, any more than the palpable realism of Mark's story.

But apparently that realism is not palpable to Dr. Carrier. 

Problem Three: Has Carrier Read the Gospels? 

I sometimes wonder, in his analysis of microfractures in the body of the gospels, if Carrier has lost the ability to read the texts as a whole.  Note:
"All we have are uncritical pro-Christian devotional or hagiographic texts filled with dubious claims written decades after the fact by authors who never tell us their methods or sources. Multiple Attestation can never gain traction on such a horrid body of evidence." (175)
I take it from this that Carrier either never reads genuine hagiography or devotion, or has not noticed what it is like.  More likely, he fails to recognize what the gospels themselves are like.  As C. S. Lewis, one of the best-read experts on fiction in modern times, put it, comparing the Gospel of John to various forms of fiction, "None of them is like this." (I demonstrate this point in detail in some chapters of Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.)
Likewise, critiquing the criterion of Multiple Attestation, Carrier offers another revealing comparison:

" . . . we should actually expect multiple attestations to be fabricated.  Hence the Infancy Gospels 'corroborate' that Jesus was a great miracle worker, yet we know full well this evidence is fictional . . . " (173)
But the example of the so-called "Infancy Gospels," too, shows remarkably inattentive reading.  Read the things!  Carrier doesn't seem to notice how startlingly different the alleged "miracles" in these works are from those in the real gospels.  (I describe some of the differences between real miracles and such fabrications in Jesus and the Religions of Man.)  
C. S. Lewis wrote of an affliction he found common among New Testament scholars:

"These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight."

That is also my impression of how Carrier reads the gospels, too.  He rips them to shreds analytically, but misses the essential character of the texts he purports to be analyzing.  This was proven to me in our debate, when he made the astounding claim that books like Apollonius of Tyana, the Book of Tobit, the Golden Ass, and Life of Romulus "share all the characteristics of the gospels."  I analyzed that claim here, showing that objectively analyzed, it was clear that nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, not one of them comes anywhere close to resembling a NT gospel. 

This post is just a short and preliminary brief for the defense, of a book that makes many good points, but that I think signals that Carrier's project is unlikely to succeed.  Indeed, while many of his historical principles are solid, and some of his criticisms of individual NT passages seem credible, I suspect the overall effect of his attack is likely to prove much like what John Earman says about Bayes Theorum:
"I trust I have managed to reveal one of the undeniably impressive properties of Bayesianism: the more it is attacked, the stronger it gets, and the more interesting the objection, the more interesting the doctrine becomes." (41)
Whether or not refuting Carrier's doctrine will make the Gospel appear stronger and more interesting, may depend partly on how good are the objections Carrier and his confederates can raise.  But Carrier is smart.  He is well-read.  He has searched high and low for parallels to the gospels, following a vast herd of mainstream but also skeptical scholars before him.   That is what makes such arguments worth considering. 

In the end, Kilimanjaro still rises above the Kenyan plains.   And the elephant, standing ten yards away in broad daylight, stamps his foot with justifiable impatience. 


steve said...

By stipulating such artificially stringent criteria for ancient history, Carrier forfeits the right to cite extrabiblical historical accounts to disprove the Bible, for he's discredited the extrabiblical accounts by the same preemptive criteria.

David B Marshall said...

Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. :- )

Brian Barrington said...

I think Carrier is making quite a silly argument. A non-Christian can fully accept that a person called Jesus probably existed, or that he could easily have existed - but that this person just wasn’t God. There is no need to make arguments about Jesus never existing. I mean, ok, maybe Jesus didn’t exist, but even if he did exist, so what? Lots of people exist.

Having said that, a non-Christian doesn’t need to “disprove” the Bible. Consider a child who says, “I just saw a ghost” and when someone is sceptical about the claim the child responds, “Prove that I didn’t!” This is the argumentative fallacy known as shifting the burden of proof i.e. shifting the burden of evidence and proof away from the person making the positive claim about reality. The burden of proof and evidence, it should go without saying, is on the person making the positive claim about reality.

If someone objects to Carrier it would be better to say something like this: if you reject the Bible on Carrier’s grounds then, in order to be consistent, you would also have to reject most or all of ancient history - maybe everything that isn't based directly on archeology. I think that is a more plausible argument against Carrier. I would say that much of our non-archeological knowledge of ancient history is pretty uncertain, so we can’t be too sure of many of the claims made about ancient history - in particular, I wouldn’t want to bet my life on ancient reports about the specifics or details of this or that person’s life or about what they supposedly said.

David B Marshall said...

Well, I do say that. But the example of Si Maqian (and others, even Troy, and many in the New Testament, where archeology has confirmed doubted claims) show that ancient science often is at least roughly accurate. And I think there is much stronger evidence for the gospels, and for the reality of who Jesus is. I describe that in Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. That's the "bull elephant" which Carrier overlooks -- along with many more reasonable skeptics.

David B Marshall said...

I meant to say, "ancient history."

Derek said...

Carrier said:

"Anyone who rejects this conclusion is not an objective scholar, but a dogmatist or propagandist whose voice needn't be heeded by any respectable academic community."

It would have been easier for him to have just said, “Christianity is false, therefore the Gospels lie.” Woulda saved some paper.

“because Matthew does not mean what Paul was doing (converting Gentiles straightaway, without first converting them to Judaism through circumcision and dietary laws) . . . . "

It is interesting that Carrier thinks this “Paul” person existed. Why? Because someone said he wrote some letters a long time ago? How many ancient non-Christians talk about Paul before 200 AD? Didn’t some say he performed miracles? No one who lived before ipads could have done all the stuff he’s said to have done. They just weren’t smart enough.

Brian said:

“There is no need to make arguments about Jesus never existing. I mean, ok, maybe Jesus didn’t exist, but even if he did exist, so what? Lots of people exist.

After following this blog for the last few years, I have read many of Brian’s comments. He does nothing but parrot 18th-19th century metaphysical naturalistic/humanistic slogans. He has not heard that Christian thinkers buried Hume’s star almost as soon as it began rising into the sky (granted it took the wider academic community some time to notice this as well).

“Having said that, a non-Christian doesn’t need to “disprove” the Bible. Consider a child who says, “I just saw a ghost” and when someone is sceptical about the claim the child responds, “Prove that I didn’t!” This is the argumentative fallacy known as shifting the burden of proof i.e. shifting the burden of evidence and proof away from the person making the positive claim about reality. The burden of proof and evidence, it should go without saying, is on the person making the positive claim about reality.”

Carrier’s attack on rational historical epistemology shows what atheism does to knowledge. Carrier does not critically evaluate the Biblical data. The farther his mind willingly drifts from the true knowledge of God the more insane his ideas become. Can a blind person demand those who can see prove that rainbows follow rain when he is more willing to believe that rain is a myth too?

“everything that isn't based directly on archeology.”

Brian’s understanding of archeology is na├»ve. Does he really think that data is not filtered though the archeologists presuppositions? The reconstructions that they already have in place in their minds? Does he not know that historians would be utterly lost without textual data?

“I would say that much of our non-archeological knowledge of ancient history is pretty uncertain,”

No ancient historian cares what Brian “would say.” He arbitrarily attacks “ancient” history. When is the cut off? Why does he think moderns are any more reliable? Does he believe humans went, “Well gosh-darn they invented cameras, guess we can’t lie anymore”? The corrosive nature of atheism on display once again: “Historians of every stripe and creed have developed methods and principles for doing history? Excellent! What?! You say that these methods and practices give greater credence to Christian claims about Jesus?! Well…we know Christianity is false…So I guess our non-archeological knowledge of the ancient world is pretty uncertain…”