Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Another Response to Richard Carrier's Scholarship (sigh)

I'm not sure who (introduction, please?) but someone keeps asking me to refute various comments Richard Carrier has made about the historical Jesus.  I'm happy to be of help if I can.  But with a few stipulations: (1) I don't want to watch any videos; (2) or budge in on an argument between, say, Carrier and Tim O'Neill; (3) or discuss what I regard as trivial details, like how much of Josephus' famous two passages on Jesus are really from him.  Also (4) I may not have time to answer everything!  

And since I have already proven Carrier's flaws as a scholar pretty thoroughly, I think, I don't want to beat that dead horse too much, either.  Also, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels makes my positive case not only for the historicity of Jesus, but for the accuracy of the earliest accounts of Jesus' life.  Carrier attacked that book with amusing futility: I got the impression he skimmed it while drunk, and wrote his "rebuttal" at 3:00 the next morning, with an aching hangover.  (Or, I theorize elsewhere on this site, while green, having metamorphized into Hulk Carrier.)

I may shoot from the hip a little here.  But let me see what I can do, before getting back to class prep:  

"It begins with Mark having Jesus say literal stories that are false are told to keep the secret allegorical truth hidden that will only be told to initiates. Just as Plutarch says the Osirians did with the biographies of Osiris."

These comments are too occult for me to attempt to tease any sense out on a sunny day.  Carrier seems to be viewing some obscure connection in his head, but not explaining it clearly: let it rest there for the moment.  

"Then Matthew “embellishes” Mark’s technique by adding allusions to the things he is saying fulfilling scripture, thus further disguising the truth but making it now look like scripture."

This is confused.  To offer allusions to a text is not to make your work "look like" that text.  Augustine's Confessions are chock-full of allusions to Scripture, which does not turn a psychological autobiography into, say, a gospel or an epistle to the Corinthians.  Matthew obviously does not "look like" the stories in I King about David.  Carrier misunderstands what an allusion is and does. 

But Carrier's implications are clear.  He thinks Matthew must be making stuff up, because he keeps on saying Jesus fulfills Scripture.  But that begs the question: 

(1) What if Jesus really did fulfill Scripture? 

(2) Mark says he did, too, after all, and so did other early Christian writers.  

(3) I show, in True Son of Heaven, that Jesus also fulfills Chinese Culture.  Carrier tried to answer a few of my arguments, but just showed he doesn't know much about China.  If Jesus could fulfill Chinese culture, that shows that fulfillment does not demonstrate something is made up for that purpose.  Early Chinese like Lao Zi were not, of course, writing to show Jesus fulfilled the core images and truths of Chinese tradition, and yet he does.  

(4) Can Carrier point to any other text that employs the "fulfillment motif" in such detail and depth as Matthew shows Jesus fulfills the Jewish tradition?  I wonder if that would even be possible.  I wonder if Carrier has even realized just how rich that motif is in Matthew.  In Fulfillment: A Christian Model of Religions, I describe twelve such pervasive patterns in Matthew alone.  (Not twelve details, but twelve patterns, most of which contain multiple instances.) 

"Then Luke takes this a step further and instead of making the allegory look like scripture, he makes it look like actual history, using all the markers of historical writing, but still never explicitly saying that what he is preserving is literally true rather than the correct allegory (the correct version of “the parable” of Jesus)."

The confusion here drops further into the deep. 

In fact, the very first chapter of Mark is already chock full of the sorts of details one finds in historical records: we have historical locations (Judea, River Jordan, Capernaum, Nazareth, Galilee), known historical characters from outside the Bible (John the Baptist, Herod is coming up, and of course Jesus), customs and texts from the place and time (Isaiah, baptism, synagogues) and concrete, realistic activities (fishing on the Sea of Galilee). 

So the sequence begins, not ends, in what appears -- and I show that it appears far more deeply after being tested forensically -- to be history, not "allegorical truth to initiates."  The rest of this is all empty bloviating.   

"Then, for the first time ever, John comes along and outright says it’s not allegory, it’s literally true, and you’d better believe it because it’s literally true."

Hogwash.  Mark places Jesus in historical time, with historical figures, doing historical things.  Matthew pays closer attention to Scriptural links, but adds more depth which, I show, increases the historical credibility of the story in many ways.  Luke is an intellectual who has probably read Thucydides, maybe Polybius, and uses those historical tools to tell a story he says he has researched to ensure accuracy.  

Then John is the first to claim "literal truth" for the story?  How absurd!        

"That’s the sequence of events.  The story gets more concretely historical over time."

Perhaps Carrier is afflicted with the same condition that many scholars of religion suffered from in the 19th Century: they could not help but read their evolutionary paradigms into the histories of religion.  Carrier wants to see development from "allegory" to "history," but Mark and Luke don't oblige his delusion for anyone who lacks his eyes of faith.  

"Which is the opposite of what we should expect. We should first have mundane memoirs and letters about Jesus and his impact and the controversies about him among those meeting or confronting him. Then this evolves into more elaborate mythical legends. Just as happened with Alexander the Great. Instead we get elaborate mythical legends right out of the gate. Skipping everything else. And then gradually those legends are wrapped more and more to look like history, and then finally are insisted upon as history."

I dare anyone to read the Alexander Romance, and claim it looks like any of the canonical gospels.  I analyze it in Jesus is No Myth.  That is, indeed, what a gospel should look like though, on the skeptical theory.  The desperation of skeptics looking for a credible fictional parallel to the gospels is actually rather touching, and amusing.  I also find this scramble through ancient texts quite helpful: all those unbelievers scurrying around proving the truth of Christianity, seizing on vain analogies that fall apart at the lightest touch of common sense, shows just how unique the gospels actually are.  I often suspect they are simply gambling that no one will read the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the Descent of Ishtar, or the "Gospel" of Thomas, and see how threadbare the analogies they grab at in futile desperation actually are.  

"No, Mario, the same standards do not lead to doubting the historicity of Alexander the Great.

"This has been extensively explained already. Read the damned book. It’s very affordable. If you keep making arguments showing you haven’t even read the book, and keep failing to respond to those arguments, I will permanently ban you from making blog comments."

I read it, and refuted it.  "Easy as turning over your fist," as the ancient Chinese put it.  Carrier's temper tantrums and complete inability to accurately read my rebuttal and show he understood it in response revealed how futile his thinking had become.    

"You’ve been warned.  Everything you just said, Mario, is false.  You’ll discover that fact when you read my section on the evidence for Alexander in OHJ.  But you won’t get to comment on it further here. You are banned for persistent misbehavior against repeated warnings."

Poor Mario.  Or maybe, lucky Mario.  Plumbing is a more profitable business than reading Richard Carrier, anyway, Mario.  

Monday, May 06, 2024

Richard Carrier Scrawls in Crayon on the Gospels

 I've been asked to respond to the following comment by Richard Carrier, historian (etc, etc):

"John is historicizing Jesus’s divinity. Mark allegorized it. Matthew turned it into a scripture. And Luke is the first to represent it as a history. And John is the first to insist everything he says is literally, historically true. That’s all fact. That’s the sequence. Denying it is denying reality.

"Meanwhile, John did not add anything not already in Paul. And Mark is based on Paul. So there was no progression 'to' John’s Jesus. The only difference between John’s Jesus and Paul’s is John is repeatedly insisting Jesus was really on earth. That’s it."

To be frank, this is skeptical baby-talk for the masses.  It the lazy, imperious, impressionistic scrawling of a crayon on a cathedral wall.  

(1) I refuted Carrier's argument against the historical reality of Jesus in a couple chapters of Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  That part of the book was easy; Carrier is sloppy and a vulnerable target, as were Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman.  After that chore, in the more important part of the book, I showed how thirty traits in the gospels, including Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, demonstrate their historicity in a deep and inimitable way.  

Then I controlled that main argument by comparing the gospels on those 30 traits to "alt-gospels" that skeptics, including Carrier, have claimed resemble the first four books of the New Testament.  It turned out that not one of those "fake gospels" remotely resembles the real ones when it comes to these historically-relevant traits.  The desperation even of renowned scholars in offering such poor analogies reveals how unique the gospels remain.  (Tim McGrew particularly enjoyed my take-down of Ehrman's attempt to find a parallel to Jesus in early-modern Poland, of all places!  Perhaps Ehrman was hoping no one would take the trouble of reading the chief early source for the life of the rabbi he foolishly picked as a potential Jesus clone!)  

The gospels are, one might say, a cathedral of words, patterns within patterns, parables and metaphors and quips, dramatic dialogues, frames, miracles rising from stone like living gargoyles, sculpted into forms quite different from the "wonder-works" of mystics or legends (Apollonius, Sai Baba, the apocryphal Jesus), with a dozen different kinds of link showing Christ as fulfillment of the Old Testament (not just in Matthew, but in all the gospels), simple, elegant words which have changed the course of civilization.  

Carrier's mythicism is a childish scrawl across those stones: "Nah-ah!"   

Carrier then "reviewed" my book in a long, rambling piece which got a hundred or so things wrong -- almost every single comment he made about it was completely off, even when he tried to describe my thesis.  He thought the book was about his own scrawling, not about the cathedral.    

2. Some analysts don't even think that was the order in which the gospels were written.   Carrier would, no doubt, dismiss their arguments contemptuously.  

3. I'm not sure what the distinction is supposed to be between Luke presenting the Gospel as history, and John saying it actually happened.  That sounds like the same thing, to me.  Luke clearly insists what Carrier says John is the first to say: that he had looked closely into the facts, and found them to be as follows.   

4. And how is Mark not telling history as well?  He names names, beginning with John the Baptist, who is known from Josephus as well as the gospels.  He describes locations, beginning with Israel's longest river, the Jordan, and with Galilee, and Capernaum, none of which is Wonderland or Middle Earth, but known features of the landscape in the Middle East.  He talks about a synagogue and fisherman.  He gives them names which we know from ossuaries were, in fact, common in the 1st Century in Palestine.  He describes customs which were common among the Jews of Palestine at that period.  All that, in the first chapter alone.  

That's history.  Carrier may not admit that it is true history, but even if Mark doesn't do any of the navel-gazing historiography of Thucydides or Polybius (as Luke does, to some degree), he is clearly at least pretending to tell a story about something that happened recently in real places to actual people.  Yes, he says Jesus does miracles, but those who study history closely, know that real people in real history (including some people I have known) also report miracles.  (As Craig Keener showed in two long books on the subject.)  

(5) The gloss "Mark is based on Paul" is, again, a child's crayon scratching marks on a cathedral wall.  

Carrier himself argues that actually, Paul never mentions the historical Jesus.  Paul mentions Jesus' brothers, but didn't mean biological brothers (he says), so that doesn't count.  And so on. 

How can a detailed description of the life, actions, teachings, death, and (yes, promised four times before that death) resurrection of Jesus be "based on" an author who allegedly never mentions an historical Jesus?  

One would, no doubt, need to read the rest of this particular scrawl to figure out how where precisely it begins in cognitive space.  But one does not need to trace every gimlet and hinky of a child's smear to recognize it as such.  Carrier is reducing Mark to an instantiation of something he finds in Paul.  So he simply wipes away all the concrete details of the book.  "Nothing to see here, folks!  Walk by quickly and don't look!" 

Which can be refuted merely by reading the book.  Gaze at the ramparts.  Watch the figures in light.  Here the life of the most vivid and powerful figure in history stands, for all to see, and no, you will not find this in Paul, as Carrier himself insists elsewhere.   

Or you can go more analytical, as I did in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.      

(6) The same is true of John's Gospel.  "John did not add to anything not already in Paul?"  What does that even mean?  Presumably Carrier means Jesus is presented as divine in Paul, then also in John.  That is true, and is true of all 1st Century Christian literature.  But obviously, John "added" lots to that skeleton, which is all that Carrier allows to Paul.  Even sensitive readers like AN Wilson are shocked to find John so concrete, detailed, and historically-credible, even as his Christology soars like a cathedral. 

John doesn't add anything to Paul?  Only the life, wisdom, miracles, death and resurrection of the most famous, startling, and transformative man in history?  

Surely one can find better sense in most children's scrawling!  

In short, I don't think these comments really need to be refuted.  Like other forms of reductionism, they may sound plausible at first sight, because simple theories have a kind of a jarring resonance, like the note of a bell.  Simple theories are always plausible so long as you simply listen to the ring, and ignore contrary evidence.  

I remember walking along a river in China where for more than a mile, great poetry of China and the world had been hung on the wall protecting the city from floods.  I caught a sudden scrawl, and recognized the style immediately, out of those hundreds or thousands of works: Chairman Mao!  

Mao, like Carrier, was a clever man, and his bold style, which ignored Chinese poetic convention for filling spaces, was distinctive and eye-catching.  But his reductionistic theories were too simple, and his revolution against Chinese tradition ultimately failed, because there was too much great stuff in that tradition for the Chinese to let go.  His scrawl proved eye-catching for a moment, but his revolution against the "Four Olds" and Chinese tradition ultimately failed.  

Richard Carrier has a bit of the same gift.  He cannot be mistaken for a great historian or philosopher, by those who read other poems.  But his claims are eye-catching.  They can even excite a mob temporarily, when people are in the mood to deface cathedrals.  But Carrier's childish scrawls can never take a Gospel down.