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.