Home > Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus, New Testament > Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (1)

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (1)

Recently there has been considerable interest and discussion concerning a confrontation between New Testament scholar Professor Bart Ehrman, and historian Dr Richard Carrier (currently without an academic post). An article in the Huffington Post by Ehrman (preceding the publication of his book ‘Did Jesus Exist?‘), was criticized heavily by Carrier.

After Ehrman’s book was published, Carrier posted a critical review, to which Ehrman made two replies (here and here), which Carrier criticized in turn (here and here). Various other commentators (professional and amateur), have entered the dispute on either side. The purpose of this series of posts is to examine some of the claims and counter-claims by both Erhman and Carrier.

For reference, the term ‘Mythicist’ is being used here to describe those who believe in the ‘Christ myth‘ theory’ that Jesus was not a historical person but a religious myth.

Carrier’s review: how substantial are the criticisms?

Carrier’s review of Ehrman’s book listed several main criticisms, but they are mitigated by Carrier himself, diminishing their importance.

1. Carrier objects that Ehrman doesn’t spend enough time criticizing the ‘bad’ mythicist arguments: ‘Almost none of this 361 page book is a critique of the “bad” mythicists. He barely even mentions most of them’; ‘for the few authors he spends any time discussing (mainly Murdock and Freke & Gandy), he is largely dismissive and careless (indeed, his only real refutation of them amounts to little more than nine pages, pp. 21-30)’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘That alone I could live with (although I would have rather he not addressed them at all if he wasn’t going to address them competently)’. In fact Ehrman spends about as much time dismissing these ‘bad’ Mythicists as Carrier himself has in his own works.

2. Carrier objects that Ehrman was wrong to say (or at least imply strongly), that the statue claimed by Mythicist Dorothy Murdock (pseudonym ‘Acharya S’), to be a symbol of ‘the cock, symbol of St. Peter’ (‘The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold’, 1999), does not exist : ‘Ehrman says that “there is no penis-nosed statue of Peter the cock in the Vatican or anywhere else except in books like this, which love to make things up” (p. 24)’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘I do not assume Murdock’s interpretation of the object is correct (there is no clear evidence it has anything to do with Christianity, much less Peter)’. Thus Ehrman’s error does not invalidate the point he is making, that Murdock was wrong to claim the statue has anything to do with Christianity or with Peter (a point with which Carrier agrees). See additional comments here.

3. Carrier objects that Ehrman was wrong to say that the law concerning fire brigades in letter 33 of Pliny’s correspondence with the emperor Trajan was the same law referred to in Pliny’s letter 96 to Trajan: ‘He made two astonishing errors here that are indicative of his incompetence with ancient source materials’, ‘In fact, Pliny never once discusses the decree against fire brigades in his letter about Christians, nor connects the two cases in any way’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘modern scholars conclude, the same law is probably what was being applied in both cases (prosecuting Christians and banning firefighting associations). And that’s kind of what Ehrman confusingly says’. Ehrman was therefore not in error here; he drew the same conclusion concerning the relationship of these two letters, as standard scholarship, a position with which Carrier himself agrees.

Carrier was right to point out that Ehrman wrongly referred to two different letters of Pliny as ‘letter 10′, when the correct citation should have been ‘book 10, letter 33′ and ‘book 10, letter 96′ respectively. But this error is hardly ‘indicative of his incompetence with ancient source materials’ nor ‘demonstrates that Ehrman never actually read Pliny’s letter, and doesn’t even know how to cite it correctly’, two hyperbolic claims made by Carrier.

4. Carrier objects that Ehrman was wrong to say ‘We simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other standard kinds of records that one has today’ for people living in the first century: ‘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)’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity)’. Thus Ehrman’s error does not invalidate the point he is making, that we should not expect to find the kinds of records of Jesus that Mythicists such as Freke and Gandy claim should exist. See additional comments here.

5. Carrier objects to Ehrman’s comment concerning the authenticity of a comment by Tacitus (Roman historian), about Christians: ‘Ehrman says “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55)’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘That the overall consensus of scholarship, myself included, sides with Ehrman on the conclusion is true’. Therefore, the fact that Ehrman doesn’t know of ‘know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome’ who think this passage is a forgery, does not affect his argument that the passage is not a forgery; Carrier even agrees with Ehrman’s argument himself. See additional comments here.

6. Carrier objects to Ehrman’s claim that “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events” is “the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all” (p. 251): ‘This is false. And it’s astonishing that he would not know this, since several other scholars have discussed the sources that place Jesus in the reign of Jannaeus in the 70s B.C’.

However, Carrier acknowledges ‘These are all arguably “fringe” scholars, and they may well be as wrong as Wells or even more so. I am not defending anything they argue (I do not believe Christianity originated in the 70s B.C.) ‘. Therefore, the fact that Ehrman did not know of these other scholars does not affect his argument that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events according to what Ehrman describes as ‘all of our sources that deal with the matter at all’. Carrier even acknowledges that the scholars to which he refers are all arguably “fringe’, and may well be wrong anyway.


Later articles will examine these criticisms in more detail, but it is sufficient to note here that none of them actually affect Ehrman’s overall case in any way. Even if Ehrman was wrong on every one of these points, it would not have affected his case. These are not substantive criticisms of Ehrman’s case (in fact none of them address his case), and are a mere distraction from the real issues involved. For further commentary, see this article at Labarum.

  1. May 18, 2012 at 7:25 am | #1

    But perhaps they indicate that Ehrman was a little careless? And if Carrier had focused on carelessness rather than error, he may have had a valid (though minor) case, and not had to backtrack so much?

    • Fortigurn
      May 18, 2012 at 8:21 am | #2

      Yes they do. In my subsequent posts I’ll be identifying where Ehrman was careless, and where he was plain wrong.

  2. May 18, 2012 at 7:32 am | #3

    I think you’re too generous to Carrier on the ‘Roman records’ issue. This is what Ehrman said:

    • The Romans were “renowned for keeping careful records of all their activities, especially their legal proceedings,” making it surprising that “there is no record of Jesus being tried by Pontius Pilate or executed” (133).

    [If Romans were careful record keepers, it is passing strange that we have no records, not only of Jesus but of NEARLY anyone who lived in the first century.

    We simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates—or other standard kinds of records that one has today. Freke and Gandy, of course, do not cite a single example of anyone else’s death warrant from the first century.]

    My emphasis.

    Carrier misinterpreted this, as Ehrman later explained:

    When I denied that we had Roman records of much of anything, or any indication that there ever were Roman records of anything, I was thinking of Palestine. That becomes clear in my other later reference to the matter where I explain in detail what I was thinking, and that Carrier, understandably, chose not to quote in full:

    “I should reiterate that it is a complete “myth” (in the mythicist sense) that Romans kept detailed records of everything and that as a result we are inordinately well informed about the world of Roman Palestine [Note: I’m talking about Palestine] and should expect then to hear about Jesus if he really lived.

    If Romans kept such records, where are they? We certainly don’t have any. Think of everything we do not know about the reign of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea…” (p. 44)

    In talking about Roman records, I am talking about the Roman records we are interested in: the ones related to the time and place where Jesus lived, first-century Palestine.

    It’s a myth that we have or that we could expect to have detailed records from Roman officials about everything that was happening there, so that if Jesus really lived, we would have some indication of it. Quite the contrary, we precisely don’t have Roman records – of much of anything – from there.

    Ehrman’s original phrasing was poor, and he implied as much in his fuller reply to Carrier:

    I can see how my first statement on the matter could be construed (without my fuller explanation of what I meant some pages later) and how it could be read as flat-out error.

    But I would not call this an error on Ehrman’s part.

    • Fortigurn
      May 18, 2012 at 8:24 am | #4

      I agree with you; I don’t intend to concede this point entirely to Carrier, as I’ll make clear in a subsequent post.

  1. May 19, 2012 at 2:03 am | #1
  2. May 20, 2012 at 12:44 am | #2
  3. May 20, 2012 at 1:29 am | #3
  4. May 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm | #4
  5. May 21, 2012 at 6:05 pm | #5
  6. May 23, 2012 at 9:45 pm | #6
  7. May 25, 2012 at 4:13 pm | #7
  8. May 27, 2012 at 9:06 pm | #8
  9. June 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm | #9
  10. June 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm | #10
  11. July 27, 2012 at 12:11 pm | #11

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