Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nigel Barber and Philip Perry Prove Mythicism

Image result for blind leading blind
Skeptical New Testament scholarship in a nut-shell. 
Tis the season to pop bubbles.  Some people tell six year olds, "There is no Santa Claus."  (All right.  I plead guilty.)  Others tell 60 year old bishops  (say, N. T. Wright):

"Terribly sorry, old man.  But a growing number of historians and bloggers has determined that YOUR chap -- the fellow you learned all those languages and historical methodologies to study, whom you actually do worship, the 'reason for the season' and all that -- have determined that your man never even lived.  A cipher, a null, a hole in the wall, mytheo-poetry, and all that rot.  Go get a job as a department store Santa, and don't waste another minute studying fairy-tales!"

"A growing number of historian and bloggers."  Yes, that is now an actual phrase, invented by one Philip Perry on a site called Big Think, to debunk the historical reality of Jesus.   (And borrowing heavily both from the historian Richard Carrier, and the blogger and psychologist Nigel Barber.)  This phrase "historians and bloggers" was hatched, and took flight in the Year of Our Lord (as they used to call it) 2016, the year in which it became obligatory that major party candidates strike "10s" on the Richter scale of Telling Fibs.  (In which a seven is ten times the liar as a six.)

Perry's article went viral, with more than ten thousand shares.

I, for one, am now convinced.  I have converted.  All those thousands of Christmas-time Facebook shares prove there is something to Barber and Perry's critiques.

I must now officially come out of the closet, and declare myself a mythicist.  

Oh, I don't mean in regard to Jesus.  I'm not about to repudiate my new book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God, which offers overwhelming evidence not merely for the historicity of Jesus (even the Jesus Seminar figured that one out), but that the gospels tell the essential truth about who he was and what he said and did.  (And which continues to get great reviews from historians and philosophers -- I am less concerned about bloggers.)

But it is a myth, apparently, that Big Think means "smart think," or "informed think," or anything other than the most puerile and witless prattling about important topics of which the author is extravagantly ignorant.

It also seems to be a myth that all psychologists strive as Socrates was told to "know thyself."  Because if Nigel Barbor knew himself, he would know better than to "open his mouth and remove all doubt," as they say, with this epitome of rank ignorance, showing that he has little concept of history, the gospels, or the limits of his own expertise.

It is also appears to be a myth that atheists, at least those that populate the Internet care about evidence and are committed to following the truth wherever it leads, as they often tell one another.

And in view of page shares for these two on-line articles, I am wondering if it might also be a myth that there is even intelligent life on this planet.

Nick Peters has already debunked Perry's article pretty thoroughly.  And this is all shooting fish in a barrel anyway.  But it's Christmas time.  If the fish insist on jumping into the eggnog, getting "tanked" as they say and ruining the flavor for everyone else, they must suffer the consequences.  And thanks to that rude habit, cleaning out the eggnog barrel has also become an annual Yuletide tradition.  Might as well enjoy the chore.

We'll do this in four parts: each article in turn, followed by double-barreled de-mythicizing.

I. "Jesus Never Existed at All!"  Nigel Barber, "biopsychologist," blogger, The Huffington Post, May 5, 2016.  

In an earlier post, I argued that the historicity of Jesus was doubtful. Some religion scholars questioned one of my sources. Now, recent scholarship comes as close as possible to settling the issue (a).
Personally, I have no ax to grind so far as the historical existence of Jesus is concerned.  If anything, I would prefer to believe that the life of Jesus, painstakingly learned in childhood (b), was connected to history rather than a fiction.
Unfortunately, much of what one reads on this question is biased whether by religion scholars, and religious believers, who promote the historical Jesus, or atheist writers intent on debunking him. (c) 
Richard Carrier’s 600-page, note-filled tome, On the Historicity of Jesus belongs in the second camp but it poses a challenge that academic proponents of the historical Jesus seem unlikely to overcome. (d)
Jesus as a No-Show in History 
There are many technical issues that historians must grapple with in determining whether some personage is historical, or fictitious. One is whether the Biblical gospels can be regarded as historical sources. 
In general, historians discount written sources that were committed to paper more than a century after the events they describe. (e) Moreover, they prefer the authorship to be clearly established and for the writer to have a direct connection to what is recorded.
The Biblical gospels do not cut it as history in these terms. (f +g + h) Only St. Paul is thought to qualify in chronological terms. Yet, Paul had almost nothing to say about Jesus as a man and seems to have conceptualized him as a rarefied celestial being. (i)
For these reasons, most of the weight falls on Roman scholars and historians  (j) . . . 
If Jesus cannot be convincingly documented as a historical figure, then where do the New Testament narratives come from? Carrier offers a very detailed working out of the theory that instead of being a historical person, Jesus was a mythical hero analogous to Jason, Hercules, or Oedipus. (k)
Mythical Jesus
The hero-type of a divine king was described by scholars Otto Rank and Lord Raglan who established 22 distinctive features that range from virgin birth to death atop a hill and disappearance of the body.
Jesus has 20 of the 22 features (according to the Gospel of Matthew, 14 according to the Gospel of Mark) (l), compared to 22 for Oedipus, 19 for Dionysus, 17 for Hercules, and 14 for Jason . . .

II.  Some Problems -- if lack of wings is a problem for badgers who wish to circle the earth at 30,000 feet. 

(a) Gee, I wonder what brilliant polymath at Oxford or Harvard has "finally settled" the question of Jesus which has troubled so many of the world's greatest geniuses for so many centuries?   And have those geniuses conceded?

Oh, Richard Carrier.   Knock me over with a feather.

No word of concession from top-rank historians, yet, though.

(b) The key word fragment here, I suspect, may be "pain."

(c) A grossly false dichotomy.  It is not "religious believers and scholars" who promote the existence of Jesus, it is historians of all views, by the thousand.

Everyone is biased.  But almost no Jesus scholar, whether evangelical, Catholic, liberal Christian, agnostic, atheist, or Muslim, thinks it his or her job to either prove that Jesus existed or did not exist, anymore than the existence of the moon is something cosmologists lose sleep over.  (Correct me if you are a cosmologist and you stay up nights worrying whether the moon is really there, or are an historian and can't figure out whether the most famous, influential, and unique person who ever lived, actually did live.)

(d) "Academic proponents" of the historical Jesus will never "overcome" Carrier's challenge, only because they will not read it.  Having read it myself, the best I can say is that as sophists go, Richard is more inventive and clever than most.  But his argument is not merely a house of cards, it is a house of floating mountains like those on Pandora, held up by nothing more than imagination, which could not exist in the face of real-world logic, facts, or sound historical methodology.  If he doubts that, let Barber have a crack at my Amazon review (or lengthier rebuttal in Jesus is No Myth): 572 comments on the former so far, some quite vitriolic, yet not one of my many criticisms has been seriously challenged, I don't believe.  (Carrier himself, though he blew up over my previous posts in that forum, played this one cool and did not respond, so far as I know, though he did respond at length to an Amazon reviewer who deferred to me for expertise.)

(e) Now we come to the howlers, which show that Barber is to the practice of history roughly what badgers (the kind that live under rocks) are to the development of aviation:

"In general, historians discount written sources that were committed to paper more than a century after the events they describe."

In fact, historians generally agree that Arrian's The Campaigns of Alexandria are the best source we have for the life of Alexandria.  Indeed, the first sentence on the back cover of the Penguin Classics version of that book (amply seconded and justified within) reads 

"Although written over four hundred years after Alexander's death, Arrian's Campaigns of Alexander is the most reliable account of the man and his achievements we have."

And of course, to this day one can write good biographies of people who lived long before Christ, if one chooses to do so.  

What Barber no doubt meant to say (before he fell into the egg nog barrel) is that historians discount works which are based purely on oral tradition after a century.  I don't know what his source for that generalization would be (they didn't teach me this rule when I studied history), and it appears that some oral sources accurately preserve content for centuries or even perhaps an entire millennia.    

But all this is academic -- in a sense that does not conflict with "complete amateur rubbish" -- because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the gospels . . . 

(f) For as everyone except Nigel Barber knows, the overwhelming scholarly consensus is that all the gospels were written in the First Century.  Probably the first gospel is Mark, probably written before Jesus' young followers would even have passed middle age.  Since most of the events in the gospels occurred about 30 AD, in fact the gospels had already started coming out much less than half a century after the events they record.  Many of Jesus' first followers would have been alive and kicking when Mark wrote his gospel.  

(g) Richard Bauckham, a scholar several rungs up the totem pole from Richard Carrier, argues in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that in fact, the authors of the gospels DID have "some connection to" the earliest witnesses, indeed very close connections.  Barber has apparently never heard of Bauckham, or of the many eminent scholars who endorse his book, and thinks Carrier (whom in my experience top-flight scholars tend not to have heard of) on the radical fringe of a fringe, a far more credible source.   

(h) "The biblical gospels do not cut it as history in these terms."  

Barber has, to this point, mentioned three criteria by which to evaluate the gospels.  In Jesus is No Myth, I describe 30 separate criteria which render the gospels historically credible.  Barber has considered only one of those (chronology), and gotten that one comically wrong.  

In other words, Barber has not considered the historical case for Matthew, Mark, Luke or John at all, yet.  He has not even noticed the grounds for that case.  

(i) "Paul had almost nothing to say about Jesus as a man and seems to have conceptualized him as a rarefied celestial being."
Barber is again borrowing his (gross mis) understanding of Paul from Richard Carrier.  Carrier bends and twists to obscure a few clear references in Paul to the historical Jesus.  

(j)  "For these reasons, most of the weight falls on Roman scholars and historians." 

Again, Barber simply ignores dozens of internal characteristics that support the historicity of the gospels, as well as external evidence.  He does not so much as mention the 84 historical facts which Colin Hemer shows that Luke hits out of the park in the last 16 chapters of Acts, or how (as Bauckham demonstrates) the gospels get Palestinian names dead on, just to mention a couple bodies of evidence of which our moonlighting shrink seems as ignorant as a skinny-dipping frog is of fine apparel.  

The weight of evidence for the gospels emphatically does NOT fall on "Roman scholars and historians."  This is why I barely mention Josephus or Tacitus in Jesus is No Myth.  But since Barber has not even noticed any of the real evidences for the historicity of the gospels, his opinion counts for nothing. 

Here I delete several paragraphs from Barber's argument, in which he uncritically repeats Carrier's attacks on famous passages in Josephus and Tacitus.  Who cares?  While most mainstream historians disagree with Carrier on those passages, I find the issue too trivial to bother with.  The evidence within the gospels themselves is more than sufficient not just to demonstrate Jesus' historicity, but the general truth of what they say about him.  

Again, I believe I demonstrate this point clearly in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  

But the point to stress here is that while Barber credulously accepts Richard Carrier's arguments, though he has little credibility among historians generally, and no academic position, Barber seems never to have so much as heard of Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener or N. T. Wright, still less dealt with the overwhelming evidence they (and I) offer.  

It is like writing an on-line screed attacking modern notions of cosmology by quoting some free-lance crank, and ignoring Einstein, Carroll, Davies, Gamow, Guth, Hawking, Penrose, and all that lot.   

(k) "Jesus was a mythical hero analogous to Jason, Hercules, or Oedipus."  

Anyone who has read Jason and the Argonauts should, at this point, simply laugh out loud.  After you're done laughing, try analyzing Jason according to my set of 30 criteria which support the historicity of the gospels.  Jason passes practically none of them, and literally none of the most important criteria.  Nor, of course, do Hercules or Oedipus.  Such comments are  sign of rank desperation.  (Well, OK, let's be fair -- of rank ignorance.) 

(l) No, Jesus does not meet the Rank-Raglan criteria.  And Carrier should stop twisting facts (like substituting Matthew for Mark, turning from political to metaphorical kingship, and so on) to make it seem that he does.  Nor is it clear to most scholars what it would mean if he did, since the logic of Carrier's argument is shaky at best, and shamelessly anachronistic. 

While this first article didn't lay a glove on the gospels (the evidence for which Barber clearly has never encountered even in his dreams), it does support one mythicist position.  It appears that the self-congratulatory talk you hear among many glib atheists (no offense to those who are less foolhardy) about how much they care about evidence, love critical thought, and the like, truly is a myth.  After all, if Barber really wishes Jesus (whom he took such pains to learn about) really existed, as he claims, why does he only read so fringe a scholar as Richard Carrier, and blindly accept his arguments, without bothering to read rebuttals?  (Mine had been prominently posted on Amazon for almost two years before Barber wrote his piece, and had gained a lot of attention there.)  Why doesn't Barber read established scholars like Wright, Keener, Bauckham, Blomberg, or even the old Jesus Seminar (with all their manifold faults), and consider the evidence they offer?  

How is it that Barber doesn't even know that the gospels were all written much less than a century after Jesus' death - as basic a fact as one can find in this field, which would take three minutes of "research" on Wikipedia to uncover?  

And why was Barber's manifestly silly and ignorant piece "liked" by some 3900 readers, and shared some 560 times?  

That may, indeed, be good evidence for the mythicist position -- the view that intelligent life on this planet, at least in the Internet Era, has sadly become a myth.  

But it gets worse, because two days ago, one of Barber's enthusiastic readers wrote his own, even more amateurish and laughable, summary of the "evidence against Jesus."  And that piece has gotten 11,500 shares so far!

Philip Perry describes himself as a "full-time writer and blogger."  I can feel the pain.  But as the Prophet Amos might have put it: 

"Let the silliness roll down like a river . . . "  

III. "A Growing Number of Scholars are Questioning the Historical Existence of Jesus," Philip Perry, Big Think, December 20, 2016. 

"Christmas is a time of year where people are supposed to put aside their differences and come together to celebrate in peace, love, and understanding.  Though few question the traditions of the season, many of them predate Christianity in Europe. A lot was borrowed from the Norse tradition of Yule—the celebration of the winter solstice. Others originate with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Ancient pagans brought pine branches into their houses, lit up the night with bonfires and candles, gave gifts, and burned the yule log.  
"Even Santa Claus comes from a variety of sources. Of course one of them is St. Nicolaus of Turkey. But earlier renditions look far more like the iconography associated with Odin or the Anglo-Saxon god, Woden.  Ancient proselytizers when converting the continent found it was much easier if people could keep their traditions, and merely put a Christian stamp on them.(a)  And that’s how these were incorporated into the season. Some even question whether or not Jesus was born on December 25(b) . . . 
"Today more and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed. (c)  Unfortunately, many of the writings we do have are tainted, the authors being religious scholars or atheists with an axe to grind. (d) One important point is the lack of historical sources. In the bible, whole chunks of his life are missing. Jesus goes from age 12 to 30, without any word of what happened in-between (e).  
"Historians have measures in terms of a burden of proof. If an author for instance is writing about a subject more than 100 years after it occurred, it isn’t considered valid. Another important metric is the validity of authorship. If the author cannot be clearly established, it makes the record far less reliable. (f) . . . 
(Cut:  various boring confusions, some repeated from Barber's article)  
"St. Paul is the only one to write about events chronologically.(g)  (cut, more echoes from Carrier and Barber about Josephus and Tacitus.)  
"Today, several books approach the subject, including Zealot by Reza Aslan, NailedTen Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald, and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.(h)  Historian Richard Carrier in his 600 page monograph: On the Historicity of Jesus, writes . . . According to Carrier, Jesus may be as much a mythical figure as Hercules or Oedipus . . . 
"The Rank-Raglan Mythotype is a set of traits that heroes across cultures share. There are 22 of them including a virgin birth, the audience knowing little to nothing about his childhood, being the son of god, dying on a hilltop, and the mysterious disappearance of his remains. Jesus meets 20 of the traits total. In fact, no one else meets the hero archetype quite as well.
"One biblical scholar holds an even more radical idea, that Jesus story was an early form of psychological warfare to help quell a violent insurgency . . . 
"Of course, there may very well have been a Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef (as would have been Jesus’s real name) who gathered a flock around his teachings in the first century. Most antiquarians believe a real man existed and became mythicized.  But the historical record itself is thin." (i)
I will subject readers to less of this second piece, not merely from Christmas charity.  Also, as I said, Nick Peters rebutted Perry's article already.  And many of Perry's points were covered in the first part of this article, or elsewhere on this site or in Jesus is No Myth.  But several promontories of particular puerility must be repressed promptly.  
(a)  "Ancient proselytizers when converting the continent found it was much easier if people could keep their traditions, and merely put a Christian stamp on them."
This is a simplistic and unfair gloss on the relationship between Christianity and pre-Christian traditions.  See my How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story for a richer account (Jaroslav Pelikan and Joseph Fletcher are also worth reading). 
(b) Does any Christian over eleven think that Jesus was actually born on December 25th?  
(c) Here you have it, the world's first use of the term "historians and bloggers alike."
What more such phrases might you hope to see in 2017?  
"Physicists and my mad Aunt Mabel think black holes emit radiation."  
"The elephant and the oxpecker that sat on the elephant together stomped the banyan tree into matchwood."  
But of course historians don't actually think Jesus was a myth.  Some bloggers do, obviously.  So "more and more historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether Jesus actually lived" actually sounds more like this: 
"Rock badgers and F16s love to do dogfights at Mach 4."  
"Physicists and Mad Aunt Mabel think rocks have feelings."  
(d) "Unfortunately, many of the writings we do have are tainted, the authors being religious scholars or atheists with an axe to grind."
This is a really weird sentence. "The writings" in the independent clause would seem to refer to the gospels.  But then the link in the dependent clause, for "atheists with an axe to grind," is to Barber's article.  It LOOKS grammatically as if "authors" refers to "the writings."  I can't make heads or tails of it, since that would mean that Nigel Barber wrote a gospel.  But apparently to make a living by writing in the Internet Era, writing comes second to "big thoughts," and what matters with the thoughts themselves is volume, not clarity.    
(e) "In the bible, whole chunks of his life are missing.  Jesus goes from 12 to 30, without any word of what happened in-between."
Strangely enough, while these two sentences do not at least give one cognitive whiplash, Perry seems to think they carry a point.  What could that point be?  That adolescence is the most interesting period in a person's life?  That unlike other ancient biographers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should have taken Diary of Anne Frank as their standard?  
(f) Perry passively accepts Barber's creative claim that historians have a "one hundred year rule" for sound reports, and passes it on to his many readers.  He doesn't stop to ask, "What does this shrink know about history, anyway?"  
Sorry, this, too, is a myth.  Wise diners do not really have a "three-second rule" for food scraps dropped on the table.  If the table is clean, the food will not be tainted by it.  But if you drop your dumplings onto a dead rat for just half a second, take my advice and order new dumplings!

Neither do historians have a "100 hundred year rule" for books.  Many excellent historical sources -- in China, the most famous and important early sources, which as I show in Jesus is No Myth have sometimes been corroborated-- appear hundreds of years later than that.  Nor were the gospels written a hundred years after the facts.  How can even the Internet spawn such ignorance about the founding documents of their own civilization? 
(g) "St. Paul is the only one to write about events chronologically."  Huh?  Has this man ever even read the New Testament?  
It would, of course, be far closer to the truth to say, "St. Paul is the only one NOT to write about events chronologically."  (Though in fact, the New Testament also includes letters from other early Christian leaders, and Paul occasionally does slip into chronological narrative.)  Does Perry and his crowd of followers really not know that the chief chronological books of the New Testament are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts, and in a different sense Revelation -- not one of them penned by Paul?  
How stupid a comment does a skeptic have to offer for other skeptics to realize they're being had?  Does their gullibility go right to the core of the Earth?  This man makes Donald Trump's late-night tweets look profound and careful.  
(h) "Today, several books approach the subject, including Zealot by Reza Aslan, NailedTen Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald, and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman." 
Another truly bizarre comment.  Practically the only thing that Aslan, Carrier and Ehrman have in common is that I refute all three ("ACE") in Jesus is No Myth.  Of the three, only Carrier is a mythicist.  Aslan is a liberal Muslim, Ehrman seems to be an agnostic, and is also the only eminent scholar in the group.  (And he's frankly not a very good one, as I and others have shown.)  
Maybe another thing these three men, along with Fitzgerald, share in common, is that Perry has read all four.  (Plus Barber, but not apparently the New Testament!)  If so, he's not choosing well, but I applaud him for reading more than one book and one on-line article, as feared.  Let me suggest that someone get him a copy of the Holy Bible for Christmas.  Let him read the gospels and Paul to start.
 (i)  "Most antiquarians believe a real man existed and became mythicized.  But the historical record itself is thin."
What is thin is evidence that modern skeptics are still capable of reading old books and accurately recognizing their most obvious traits.  Things had not reached such a pass even when C. S. Lewis noted: 
"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.”
The scholars Lewis was complaining about did, at least, know which parts of the New Testament were chronological, and probably also knew that the gospels had been written within a hundred years of Jesus' life. 

Richard Carrier obtained a PhD in history from Columbia University.  Carrier is smart, creative, and well read.   His followers, who mostly lack those positive qualities, copy instead his quack ideas and cocky attitude.  And then those followers (the nearly unreadable Lataster is another) somehow become opinion leaders themselves, and the most patent nonsense goes viral at Christmas.  

It is times like these that I should perhaps thank God for my own relative lack of fame.  

The blind are still leading the blind, as Jesus put it.  But now the legions of the blind have elected as their leaders those who are also deaf and, especially, dumb.  The blind masses then pour like a flood into the chasm of historical nihilism, letting out a yelp like the primal scream of a primitive tribes at a war ritual as they slip over the lip and into the void.   It is not a pretty sight or sound.   

But at least now I, too, can jump into the tide and say "I, too, am a mythicist!"  


Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas David and let's all celebrate Jesus' birth on Dec. 25th :-) I have to tell you that once I got to this sentence "This man makes Donald Trump's late-night tweets look profound and careful." I couldn't stop laughing as I was trying to read the rest of your post.

Thanks for all you do.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you, too!