Home > Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus, New Testament > Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (2)

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (2)

This post continues from the previous post in this series. In this post, a number of criticisms of Ehrman’s book made by Carrier are examined with reference to Ehrman’s response and Carrier’s reply to Erhman’s response.

The bronze statue of ‘the cock, symbol of St. Peter’

Mythicist Dorothy Murdock (pseudonym ‘Acharya S’), displayed in her book a drawing of a bronze statue she claimed to be a symbol of ‘the cock, symbol of St. Peter’ (‘The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold’, 1999). Ehrman disputed this claim in his book, stating ‘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). In his response to Ehrman, Carrier said ‘Ehrman evidently did no research on this and did not check this claim at all’, noting that ‘Murdock quickly exposed this by providing numerous scholarly references, including actual photographs of the object’.

Defending his original statement, Ehrman replied to Carrier that ‘my offhand statement about this particular one was that the Vatican does not have a statue of Peter as rooster with a hard cock for his nose’. Carrier’s rejoinder was ‘I believe there is reason to suspect he is lying about the Priapus statue’. Despite Ehrman’s claim that his original statement was intended to mean that the statue was not of Peter, it does read naturally as a claim that the statue does not exist at all. I believe Carrier’s criticism of Ehrman’s original statement is valid, and Ehrman is requesting an unreasonably generous interpretation of that statement.

However, whilst agreeing with Ehrman that the statue has nothing to do with Peter (contrary to Murdock’s claims), Carrier went further. Saying ‘At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it, before arrogantly declaring no such object existed and implying Murdock made this up’, he defended Murdock’s claim that the statue was at the Vatican using these words:

Richard Carrier: Some commentators on his [sic, for ‘this’] site have also tried claiming the statue was never at the Vatican, but their misinformation and mishandling of the sources is thoroughly exposed in an extensive comment by an observer at Murdock’s site.

Impressed with what he referred to as ‘numerous scholarly references’ provided by Murdock,  Carrier ironically decided to trust Murdock’s claims, and the claims of one of her supporters, without checking them. He certainly did not contact the Vatican himself. In fact he did not even check her references at all. An examination of them shows that Murdock failed to provide ‘numerous scholarly references’, contrary to Carrier’s claim.

Murdock’s misrepresented sources

1. Walker, ‘The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects’ (1988): This is not a scholarly work at all. Walker is not even a scholar; her academic qualifications are in journalism, and the only subject in which she is recognized as an expert is knitting. Walker’s book is full of unsubstantiated personal claims deriving largely from her own imagination. Walker cites a 1972 reprint of a work by Knight, ‘An Account Of The Remains Of The Worship Of Priapus : Lately Existing At Isernia in the Kingdom of Naples: In Two Letters’ (1786). Knight is a witness to the existence of the statue, but unlike Murdock he says absolutely nothing about it being anything to do with Peter.

2. Knight, ‘An Account Of The Remains Of The Worship Of Priapus: Lately Existing At Isernia in the Kingdom of Naples: In Two Letters’ (1786): Since Murdock had already cited a work citing Knight, listing Knight independently was redundant. Murdock was inflating artificially the number of works she cited, a fact which Carrier appears to have overlooked. Knight was tutored at home and was never awarded a university degree, so he was not a scholar.  However, his wide experience with antiquities as a collector of ancient coins and bronze statues at least means he was more educated on the subject than Walker the knitting expert.

3. Williams, ‘A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature’ (1994). This is a scholarly work on a completely different subject. It refers to the existence of the statue, citing a work by Fuchs, ‘Geschichte der Erotischen Kunst’ (1908), so it is not an independent source.

4. Fuchs, ‘Geschichte der Erotischen Kunst’ (1908). Murdock had already cited a work citing Fuchs, so listing Fuchs independently is redundant; Carrier again overlooked the fact that Murdock was inflating artificially the number of works she cited. Additionally, Fuchs had a law degree, no qualifications in the field in which he was writing, and never held an academic appointment, so this is not a scholarly source.

5. Erlach, Reisenleitner & Vocelka, ‘Privatisierung der Triebe?’ Sexualitat in der Fruhen Neuzeit’ (1994): This work cites an unidentified ’18th C. engraving’ (p. 206, mistakenly referred to by Murdock as p. 203),  which is almost certainly Knight, so this is not an independent source. Published in 1994, this source says that the statue is ‘still housed in the Vatican’s secret collection’ (p. 206), but as we shall see there is no evidence it was ever in the Vatican ‘secret collection’. Murdock has clearly never read this book herself, and failed completely to identify it properly; she wrongly attributes authorship to ‘Peter Lang’. In fact, Peter Lang is the name of the publisher. This is another error in Murdock’s list of what Carrier referred to as ‘numerous scholarly sources’ which Carrier failed to identify. It is clear he hasn’t read the book either, and neglected to check any of Murdock’s references.

6. Jones, ‘The Secret Middle Ages’ (2002): Murdock quotes Jones referring to the ‘notorious Albani bronze said to be held in the Vatican Museum’ (p. 75), emphasis mine. Here is a scholarly work striking a note of caution concerning the popular story of the statue being held at the Vatican, and now the story is that it is said to be held in the ‘Vatican Museum’, not in a ‘secret collection’. Jones provides no source for the story, and says nothing about the statue having anything to do with Peter.

7. Stephens, ‘Public Characters of 1803-1804’ (1804): Murdock quotes text from this book referring to a print of the statue in question in ‘De la Chaussee’s Museum Romanum, printed at Rome, in folio, in 1692’ (p. 127). This text quoted by Murdock was contained in an letter printed several times previously, originally written by John Almon and published in his book ‘A Letter to J. Kidgell, Containing a Full Answer to His Narrative’ (1763). The book by Stephens which Murdock quotes is not a scholarly work, and nor is the letter by Almon (who was a journalist). Almon says nothing about the statue ever being in the Vatican and nothing about it having anything to do with Peter.

8. De la Chausse ‘Museum Romanum’ (1692): Murdock provides an image of the text on page 75 (volume 1), describing the statue in question. However, De la Chausse was not a scholar, he was a collector and cataloger of antiquities; furthermore, he does not say anything at all about the statue ever being in the Vatican.

9. Middleton, ‘The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Conyers Middleton’ (1752): Middleton was a clergyman, this is not a scholarly work, and it says nothing about the statue ever being in the Vatican and nothing about it having anything to do with Peter. His only source for the statue is De la Chausse, whom he cites (volume 4, p. 51).

10. Carlobelli, ‘The Image of Priapus’ (1996): Murdock quotes Carlobelli citing De la Chausse as an early source for the illustration of the statue (p. 67). However, apart from the fact that this is not an independent source (again we find De la Chausse is the source), Carlobelli says nothing about the statue ever being in the Vatican, and nothing about it having anything to do with Peter.

11. Wall, ‘Sex and Sex Worship (phallic Worship): A Scientific Treatise on Sex, Its Nature and Function, and Its Influence on Art, Science, Architecture, and Religion-with Special Reference to Sex Worship and Symbolism’ (1922): Murdock quotes Wall referring to ‘the representation of a bronze figure of Priapus which was found in an ancient Greek temple’ (p. 438), a photograph of which is shown in the book. Wall says nothing about the statue having ever been in the Vatican, and nothing about it having anything to do with Peter. The image in the photograph differs from the sketch in De la Chausse’s work, prompting Murdock to comment that this is ‘a photograph of what appears to be the original bronze statue (or at least its twin)’. Wall was a pharmacist with no scholarly qualifications; this is not a scholarly source. Carrier claimed Murdock presented ‘actual photographs of the object’, but this is actually the only photograph Murdock shows, and even she expresses uncertainty that it is a photograph of the actual statue to which she is referring.

12. A source is cited by Murdock as ‘Studies in Iconography (7-8:94), published by Northern Kentucky University’: The work is a journal to which Murdock clearly had no access, since she omits the name of the author and title of the article in the journal, whilst linking to the snippet view of the work available on Google Books. Murdock quotes text saying ‘This object was published under papal and royal authority, exhibited for a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is now said to be held inaccessible in the secret collections of the Vatican’, but without broader context it is impossible to see if the author cited any source for the claim. Nevertheless, again we find scholarly caution; the statue is ‘said to be held inaccessible in the secret collections of the Vatican’.

Assessing Carrier’s claim

Examining what Carrier referred to as ‘numerous scholarly sources’, we find:

* Half of them are not scholarly sources at all: Walker, Knight, Fuchs, Stephens, De la Chausse, Middleton, Wall

* Only two are independent sources: De la Chausse, Knight (and Knight is dependent on De la Chausse for the illustration he presents his own book); the other sources either cite one of these two, or cite no source at all

Carrier was wrong to say Murdock cited ‘numerous scholarly sources’, an error he made because he failed to check the facts. Murdock’s work itself was anything but scholarly, and Carrier (with academic qualifications Murdock lacks), should at the very least have checked Murdock’s sources before describing them so enthusiastically. If he had checked them, he would have realized how wildly inaccurate her claims were, and how poor her research was. This failure of Carrier’s was unfortunate in the context of him criticizing Ehrman for neglecting to check sources and verify claims.

Murdock’s key source contradicts Murdock’s claim

If Carrier had taken the time to check Murdock’s claims against her own sources, he would have discovered that they contradict her. Murdock claimed that the statue is a ‘Bronze sculpture hidden in the Vatican treasury of the Cock, symbol of St. Peter’. But in a book which Murdock does not quote, Knight (the only original source cited for the claim that the statue was ever in the Vatican), states explicitly that the sculpture was displayed publicly in the Vatican palace, not ‘hidden in the Vatican treasury’. Speaking of the illustration in De la Chausse, Knight says ‘The original, from which it is taken, is an antique bronze, preserved in the Vatican palace, where it has been publicly exhibited for near a century, without corrupting any one’s morals or religion, that I have heard of’)’; ‘The Progress of Civil Society: A Didactic Poem’ , p. xxi (1796), emphasis mine.

Knight is the only independent source for this claim; there appears to be no earlier source, and all later sources cite Knight. Regardless of whether or not his claim is correct, the fact is that he contradicts Murdock completely, leaving her without any independent source for her claim that the statue is a ‘Bronze sculpture hidden in the Vatican treasury of the Cock, symbol of St. Peter’. However, there is further evidence that the statue is not in the Vatican, contrary to Murdock’s claims.

One reference Murdock did not cite is Panzanelli & Scholosser, ‘Ephemeral bodies: wax sculpture and the human figure’ (2008). This book refers explicitly to the ‘notorious “Vatican Bronze”‘ (p. 121), and the image shown is the very image cited by Murdock (p. 122), yet when we turn to the page on which the statue is described we find the image which Murdock claims is hidden in the ‘Vatican Treasury’ is in fact, ‘a phallic monument in the Gabinetto Segreto, Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli, supposedly recovered at Pompeii/Herculaneum’ (p. 122). Not only is there no reference to Peter, but we finally find that the the image is not hidden in the ‘Vatican Treasury’, but is in the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, the collection of sexual and erotic artifacts found in Pompeii.

Although the authors express scholarly caution as to whether the artifact was recovered among the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there is no doubt about their identification of its current location; the Gabinetto Segreto, not hidden in the ‘Vatican Treasury’. Murdock was not only wrong to claim it is ‘hidden in the Vatican treasury’, she was wrong to claim it is in the Vatican at all. This is another error which Carrier failed to identify when endorsing Murdock’s reply to Ehrman, and proves that despite saying ‘At the very least I would expect Ehrman to have called the Vatican museum about this, and to have checked the literature on it’, he did not carry out either of these checks himself.

Right or wrong?

Defending Murdock’s reply to Ehrman concerning the existence and location of the statue, Carrier made this additional claim concerning my own comments about the statue on his blog.

Richard Carrier: Some commentators on his [sic, for ‘this’] site have also tried claiming the statue was never at the Vatican, but their misinformation and mishandling of the sources is thoroughly exposed in an extensive comment by an observer at Murdock’s site.

In fact I neither misrepresented nor mishandled the sources I cited. Carrier  did not tell readers that the ‘observer’ on Murdock’s forum agreed with all of the key points in my argument (all emphasis mine).

* They agreed with me that the statue is not hidden in the Vatican treasury: ‘Mr. Burke was correct when he wrote “the image is not hidden in the ‘Vatican Treasury”’, ‘And with this we are agreed, for I have demonstrated Knight attesting to as much’

* They agreed with me that Knight is the only independent source that it was ever at the Vatican: ‘this leaves us with only one independent source affirming the fact that the statue was once located at the Vatican‘, ‘most likely that would be correct, as the later scholars stating as much do appear to be dependent on Knight

* They agreed with me that Murdock is wrong about it being currently hidden in the Vatican treasury, and her own source is evidence that she’s wrong about it ever being in the Vatican treasury, hidden or otherwise: ‘I agree with Burke‘, I even explicitly agreed with him on that‘, ‘I have already agreed more than once

The disagreements they had with what I wrote had no impact at all on my argument. The facts are that contrary to Murdock’s claims:

1. There is no statue of ‘the Cock, symbol of St. Peter’, either ‘hidden in the Vatican treasury’ or anywhere else.

2. The statue to which Murdock appeals for this claim does exist, but is not of ‘the Cock, symbol of St. Peter’, and is not ‘hidden in the Vatican treasury’.

3. There’s no evidence that this statue was ever ‘hidden in the Vatican treasury’.

4. The only source which says anything about it being anywhere in the Vatican says it was displayed publicly, not hidden.

5. The statue is nowhere in the Vatican, it is in the Segreto Gabinetto in Naples.

For further commentary, see this article at Labarum.

  1. May 19, 2012 at 8:23 am

    This seems to be very thorough, and you seem to have quite definitely shown that:

    1. Ehrman was careless and a little inaccurate.

    2. Murdoch exaggerated wildly and misrepresented the facts.

    3. Carrier, eager to trip Ehrman up on #1, wildly overstated the case himself and failed to do due diligence, and so ended up making far worse errors than Ehrman did. Had he focused on Ehrman’s actual minor error, he could have won on points, but now he appears to have lost in a TKO.

    Well done!

    • Fortigurn
      May 19, 2012 at 10:02 am

      Thanks, I’m glad you appreciated it. I agree with your summary.

  1. May 20, 2012 at 1:57 am

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