Home > Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus > Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (3)

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (3)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Records in 1st century Roman Palestine

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:

Richard Carrier: ‘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). Although his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity), his premise is false. In fact, I cannot believe he said this. How can he not know that we have thousands of these kinds of records? Yes, predominantly from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond.’

The first point to note is that Carrier acknowledges that Ehrman’s conclusion is completely unaffected by this issue, and agrees with Ehrman that ‘we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity’. Ehrman’s responded by saying Carrier had taken his words out of context:

Bart Ehrman: 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)

Carrier also noted that such records as are available are ‘predominantly from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond’. Ehrman himself made the same point, saying ‘What Carrier is referring to is principally the documentary papyri discovered in Egypt’, and ‘We do indeed have many thousands of such documents – wills, land deeds, birth records, divorce certificates, and on and on — from Egypt’.

Carrier then responded by criticizing Ehrman, despite the fact that Ehrman had just made exactly the same point as Carrier himself:

Richard Carrier: Ehrman now says that (at least in Egypt) such records existed and were kept (something he definitely does not tell his readers in his book), but “most of these are not in fact records of Roman officials, but made by indigenous Egyptian writers / scribes.” This is twice fallacious (even setting aside his strange assumption that “indigenous Egyptians” could not be Roman officials or in their employ): first, “most” is not “all” (so his point is moot…formally, we call this a non sequitur); second, what he doesn’t tell you is that even the private records are frequently the personal copies of government records (e.g. the tax receipts I once translated would be a private citizen’s copy of the very same receipt that would enter the government archives).

Carrier errs here. Ehrman did not say that indigenous Egyptians could not be Roman officials, he was simply differentiating between private and official records. Carrier’s reference to the fact that such private records were ‘frequently the personal copies of government records’ is irrelevant to the point Ehrman is making, that regardless of the fact that private records often copies of official records, the majority of the records found are the private copies, not the official records.

Carrier then made another mistake, attributing to Ehrman a statement he had never made:

Richard Carrier: Ehrman then says he only meant that Romans kept no such records in Palestine.

Ehrman did not say that he only meant the Romans kept no such records in Palestine. Here are his words:

Bart Ehrman:   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.

Ehrman is speaking explicitly of the Roman records which are currently extant, ‘I denied that we had Roman records of much of anything’ (emphasis mine). A final misrepresentation of Ehrman by Carrier is this.

Richard Carrier: Did Ehrman Tell Everyone the Romans Kept No Records That Would Have Been Relevant to Studying Jesus? Yes.

In fact Ehrman did not say that the Romans kept no records that would have been relevant to studying Jesus, and this was not even the original issue on which Carrier faulted Ehrman. Here is Carrier’s original objection:

Richard Carrier: ‘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). Although his conclusion is correct (we should not expect to have any such records for Jesus or early Christianity), his premise is false. In fact, I cannot believe he said this. How can he not know that we have thousands of these kinds of records? Yes, predominantly from the sands of Egypt, but even in some cases beyond.’

Note that the original objection looks nothing like the new claim, that Ehrman said the Romans kept no records that would have been relevant to studying Jesus. Carrier is not only over-stating his case, he is introducing a new objection and claiming it was his original objection.

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  1. May 20, 2012 at 1:57 am

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