Friday, February 09, 2018

Gullotta, Carrier, and Rank Raglan

In On The Historicity of Jesus, Richard Carrier differentiated between the historical evidence for a claim, say "Jesus lived," and the prior probability that such a claim would be true.  One rightly does this with all claims.  If you say, "I flew to Los Angeles last week," and if I perceive you as a generally honest person, not suffering from dementia, and have nothing particular to gain (say, an alibi in a murder trial), I won't ask to see your ticket stub.  But if you say, "I flew to Mars last week," I'll just chuckle and wait for the punchline.  In both cases the evidence is the same -- your word for what you yourself allegedly experienced in the recent past -- but while lots of people fly to Los Angeles (for some reason), Mars is a long ways off, and I doubt anyone has made the journey yet.  (And given present technology, it would be more than a week if they had.)  So aside from historical evidence per se, we also need to consider prior probability for any claimed event.  
So far, so good. 
But then Carrier deduces the prior probability of Jesus' existence by claiming that Jesus belonged to a mythological type which he calls "Rank Raglan," after (supposedly, but see below) its two inventors, Otto Rank and Lord Raglan.  He thinks that belonging to that class makes it more likely a priori that Jesus was also a myth, not an historical person.  He argued that Jesus met at least 20 of 22 criteria for a Rank-Raglan myth in the Gospel of Matthew.  He claimed that "hundreds of millions" of real historical persons lived in the ancient world who did not satisfy these criteria, while all the figures we know who did, belonged to the mere thousands of ancient myths.  This makes it far more likely that Jesus, too, was a fictional being.  He claimed that it didn't matter if Matthew was later than Mark, as he insists elsewhere, because even if a person is reduced to this type long after his alleged life-time, even being placed in that fraternity after your "death" makes it far more likely (before we examine the historical evidence) that you are no more than a legend (apologies to Will Smith) as well.  
In Jesus is No Myth, I found fault with almost everything about this argument.  I pointed out that while Carrier claimed Mark was the earliest account of the Jesus story, he concentrated mainly on Matthew apparently because it seemed to better support his theory.  I questioned the fairy-tale logic of this procedure, which assumes that the work of later writers can somehow cast its spell on the historicity of earlier records.  I pointed out that Carrier's argument depends on knowledge we don't have: Carrier cannot know how many RR traits those hundreds of millions of people whose lives he has not examined, really exhibited.  We can only compare Jesus to people whom we actually know about and have sufficient evidence for.  
I further argued that by Carrier's own definition of "myth," the ancient world would in fact have produced hundreds of billions not just thousands of myths.  Also that many of the RR qualities Carrier pointed to lay within the infancy narratives.  Good historical method should differentiate distant accounts that would be less well-reported (infancy stories) from later accounts that would have been publicly observed and more widely known (Jesus' ministry).  Carrier's RR argument fails to make that distinction properly. 
Furthermore, I showed that even if you analyze the 22 traits Carrier lists "rigorously," as Carrier demands, in fact not even in Matthew (including the infancy narrative) does Jesus meet that many of them.  RR is an almost complete failure in relation to the ministry of Jesus in Mark, which for most scholars, is the material within the gospels that is closest in time to the events it records.
"If we focus on Mark, or ignore the birth narrative (in Matthew), Jesus meets only two or three criteria."   
And that is meaningless.  For instance, one criteria that Jesus really does meet is that "he dies atop a hill or high place."  So what?  Where else were Romans supposed to crucify people to terrorize the local population, in a cave?  Such details do nothing whatsoever to undermine the earliest accounts of Jesus' life.  
One thing I did not do: I did not question that Carrier represented Rank and Raglan accurately.  Perhaps naively, perhaps lazily (RR was obviously toast anyway), I took the fact that Carrier had accurately represented some combination of Rank and Raglan's criteria for granted.  Maybe he had adjusted them a little for the sake of clarity.  I even praised Carrier, compared to Reza Aslan whose work I had dissected in an earlier chapter, for finding a way to avoid subjective confirmation bias, for latching onto a set of fixed criteria by which to evaluate the gospels (as I would do myself, in more credible detail I think, later in the book): 
"The argument, I concede, does enjoy one virtue.  Rank-Raglan brings a mostly predetermined set of criteria to the table, rather than indulging in the ad hoc cherry-picking that has bedeviled our search so far.  This is the first search for 'parallel gospels' or 'parallel Christs' we have discussed in which most of the traits to compare are set in advance." (31)
Sadly, I wrote too soon.  
Gullotta argues that in fact, Carrier radically reworked the criteria created by Rank and Raglan to make those criteria more closely conform to the New Testament blueprint.  
"Furthermore, Carrier changes Raglan's traditional list and does not inform his readers how and why he is doing this.  For example, Carrier changes the specificity of the 'hero's mother is a royal virgin,' to the more ambiguous 'the hero's mother is a virgin.'  He modifies that the hero's 'father is a king' to the far more open 'father is a king or the heir of a king' in order to include Jesus' claimed Davidic lineage.   He also excludes from his scale that the attempt on the hero's life at birth is 'usually by his father or his maternal grandfather.  Carrier adds the qualifying 'one or more foster-parents' when the hero is spirited away to a far country, while Raglan only states 'foster-parents.'  A significant change Carrier makes is that the hero is only 'crowned, hailed, or becomes king' whereas Raglan states that the hero 'becomes king.'   Another important change made by Carrier is that the hero's 'body turns up missing' whereas Raglan's list has that the 'body is not buried.'  After examination, it is clear that Carrier has modified Raglan's qualifications in order to make this archetypal hero model better fit the Jesus tradition."  
Frankly, I am surprised even Richard Carrier would stoop to making such changes without informing his readers.  And looking over those pages again, I find that he didn't. 
What is Carrier's reaction?  First he tries a little psychobabble and historical revisionism, poking at me:
"Finally, Gullotta takes aim at the Rank-Raglan argument that freaks out everyone else like him.  I've already rebutted their frightened obsession with this in my response to Christian fundamentalist David Marshall, notably also an adviser to Gullotta (as listed on the title note)."
It always amazes me how many errors atheist fundamentalists like Richard Carrier manage to pack into so few words (it is like a form of poetry): 
1.  I am not a "fundamentalist."
2. Gullotta did not cite me anywhere in the article. 
3. Still less did I "advise" him on anything.  (Though I have now.)
4. I am unsure in what sense I am like Mr. Gullotta, a PhD student at Stanford whose views about almost anything are left unclear in the one piece of his I have read. 
5. Carrier's response to my book was lame in the extreme: indeed, I am amazed that he still dares show his face publicly, after such a counter-factual hysterical outburst.   
6. But let me assure Richard, the fact that I wrote ten pages on this subject in Jesus is No Myth, one quarter of which were quotes from him (a practice he ought to emulate), or even that I'm mentioning the subject here again, neither constitutes an "obsession" nor a fear.  More on my real feelings and motivations for writing below.   
Carrier claims he was being generous to Jesus when he reworked RR:  
"I explain (on page 231) that by making the criteria even broader than Gullotta thinks Rank and Raglan had applied them, this should have increased the number of historical persons who score above half.  In other words, I set each criteria more general than specified.  Thus, it should be easier for someone who really existed to score.  That they don't, actually makes what I did a stronger argument for my conclusion, not a weaker one as Gullotta mistakenly claims." (Carrier's emphases)
If Carrier is going to rework the criteria so radically, why call it Rank Raglan?  Why not call it the Carrier, Richard Archetype for Mythology (CRAM)? 
But remarkably, in a footnote from 232 to 233, Carrier criticizes other people for "making the criteria even broader," (just as he does!) to include Alexander the Great and Mithradates of Pontus.  "They can only be inappropriately overscored by an inappropriately loose assignment of criteria."  Yet at the very same moment, Carrier himself is loosening the criteria without telling his readers, so as to "over-score" Jesus, along with all the other shenanigans he has cooked up, described above.  So it's right and proper to loosen criteria when it comes to Jesus, without mentioning the fact, but underhanded to do so with Alexander. 
And if that is how the game is played, expanding categories strategically to make general types fit individual cases better, imagine the conclusions we can reach:  
"An elf is a sentient being who lives in the woods, or gets its PhD at a university within walking distance of Central Park."
"An elf is capable of mild forms of magic, including sleight of hand with the premises of historical arguments."
"The hair on an elf's head resembles forest foliage, often curving like new ferns."
"Elves kill goblins and curse fundamentalist, math-deficient liars who spit in the face of Moses." 
"Therefore, Richard Carrier is Legolas' second cousin."  
All great fun.  But such sleight-of-hand spoils the one virtue I admitted Carrier's RR argument held: the use of pre-set criteria to check one's bias.  Carrier is back in cherry-picking land.   He is demonstrating the value of my own approach to the gospels, which is based on analyzing the original texts first, finding qualities that they share, and then rigorously comparing other texts to the gospels according to a clear list of pre-set criteria.  But he is demonstrating the value of good method by showing what happens when you use bad method -- twisting RR criteria AND the texts AND his own historical methods to make a poor case for nothing.    
"Listen to that rant!  How Marshall obsesses over my argument!  He must be cowering in fear!"

There you go again.  

"Freaked Out" by Rank-Raglan-Carrier?
Carrier further protests that Rank Raglan is not really so important to his argument, so why do people (apologists in particular) get so upset about it?  Do these hysterical Christians and historicists not demonstrate their frightened desperation by attacking an argument that, in the end, Carrier uses to only generate a fairly weak (on the low end) prior probability against Jesus ever walking the Earth?
Maybe I should buy a mood ring so Richard can tell my emotions. 
Sometimes when I begin reading a new book debunking Christianity, I do feel a slight tinge of fear.  Could this be the work that actually makes a convincing case?  I never end those books in that mood, though.  
I do not consider Richard Carrier, or even Bart Ehrman or the old Jesus Seminar, serious threats to the Christian faith.  Some people are talked out of their faith by such persons, so it is worthwhile rebutting their arguments.  More importantly to me, they often bring up facts and lines of reasoning that, when properly examined, strongly support the truth of Christianity.  And I find it fun to search for those treasures.  I debunk arguments like Rank Raglan not because I think them important, but partly for amusement, and partly because I find them symptomatic.   It is like working a rich mine that was dug by a miner with a burnt-out headlamp, who did the work of excavating some of the depths of the classical world, but missed huge gold nuggets and glittering sapphires shining from the very works he excavated. 
Richard Carrier is not a serious thinker or a very good historian.  But he is dedicated, and he is ingenious.  In all his fumbling, he does sometimes light on interesting texts, many of which (I show in Jesus is No Myth) prove pure gold for demonstrating the credibility of the Christian gospels, once you shine a proper light upon them.  


sparrish said...

David, regarding the virgin birth. J. Gresham Machen argued many years about that although supernatural birth accounts were common, actual virgin birth stories are very rare. I don't think that this has ever been refuted. Does this make a difference in the above?

David B Marshall said...

It might, to the historicity of the story. (Unless you believe one way or the other based on theological or atheological considerations, then historical evidence may not be so important.) But my point is simply that the ministry accounts are far more strongly supported historically than the birth narratives, for at least two reasons (but actually many more, if you read my book). It isn't that the latter didn't happen.

sparrish said...

My point is simply that the Rank Raglan test is faulty because, contrary to what it says, there really aren't many cases in mythology or history of alleged virgin births. The birth of Jesus is almost unique in that regard. See Machen's book, the Virgin Birth of Christ, which was first published in 1930, I believe. I don't think that it has ever been refuted.

David B Marshall said...

Oh, sorry, I did miss your point.

sparrish said...

My first post wasn't as clear as it should have been.

It does "bug" me that people still talk about numerous virgin births in myth and legend, while in fact there are virtually none besides Jesus, and that this was demonstrated nearly 100 years ago.

Anyway, this point further weakens Carrier's already very flimsy argument.

Good job on tearing it apart.