Gary wins Comment of the Week for this, re: “Free Thought” blogger and internet date-beggar Richard Carrier:
Assaulted with the glut of dorky shit like this inundating the net, I feel a certain geek fatigue taking hold. The guy is a lampoon waiting to happen, but I can’t seem to work myself into a satiric mood. All I can muster is a kind of weary disdain at the whole spectacle.
But at the risk of lightening the gloom’n’doom for which I am famous (among our three regular readers), I think we can make some lemonade out of this particular lemon. Cruising over to Carrier’s “Free Thought Blog,” we find that he glories in a PhD in Ancient History from Columbia. We also find this book, on the historicity of Jesus:
Carrier finds the…theory [that Jesus didn’t actually exist] more credible than has been previously imagined. He explains why it offers a better explanation for all the disparate evidence surviving from the first two centuries of the Christian era. He argues that we need a more careful and robust theory of cultural syncretism between Jewish theology and politics of the second-temple period and the most popular features of pagan religion and philosophy of the time. For anyone intent on defending a historical Jesus, this is the book to challenge.
Here’s Aspie psychology at its finest. Let’s start at the top: If one were to advance the proposition “Christianity is False,” this is the way to do it. After all, the truth of the Christian message depends on the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — a real man, living flesh, returned from the dead. Disprove that, and Christianity must collapse. St. Paul says as much (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Now, most people would pick the softer target — the “resurrection” bit. (Maybe Jesus was in a coma or something). But not Dr. Carrier. He’s going for the quadruple axel, so that even the French judge will have to give him a 10.
And with that, we’re already deep in the Kingdom of the Spergs. Y’all know you can’t prove a negative, right?
And make no mistake, that’s what Carrier is trying to achieve. Otherwise, what’s the point of a book like this? Unlike, say, here (where “you can’t prove Washington said that!” is just a tic of troll OCD), there would be enormous real-world consequences if a substantial number of people accepted the proposition that Jesus didn’t really exist. Carrier’s preaching to the “Free Thought” choir, yes, but it’s clear that he also expects a legion of neckbeards to charge into online battle against the forces of the Magic Sky Fairy armed with his tome.
There’s a name for compulsive activity that’s doomed to fail, and it’s not a sign of psychological health.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After all, it’s not really that surprising that a man who begs his blog readership for dates is a little unclear on how the real world works. For our purposes, the more interesting phenomenon is Carrier’s abuse of his degree.
One is supposed to assume that, because Carrier has a PhD in “Ancient History,” this is a heavy scholarly work, and that his ex cathedra pronouncements on the validity of historical evidence represent the baseline knowledge in the field. That’s not just wrong, but willfully, maliciously misleading.
For one thing, doctorates don’t work like that. When you finish your PhD, you’re the world’s expert in your subject…. but said subject is microscopically small. Carrier’s PhD dissertation, for example, is titled “Attitudes toward the Natural Philosopher in the Early Roman Empire (100 B.C. to 313 A.D.)” In other words, it’s a content analysis — he rounded up everything ever written (painted, sculpted, graffiti-ed) about a type of person, and looked for patterns. It’s exhausting, and you can learn a lot from it, but
- it’s hella interpretive, and
- the source base, even at its broadest, is very small.
An example: Aristophanes’s play The Clouds makes fun of Socrates as a buffoonish old man who is forever lost in trivial speculations (at one point, if I remember correctly, he’s staring at the sky, ruminating, and a bird craps on him). If The Clouds was frequently staged at Rome in the early 1st century A.D., we could reasonably claim that it’s likely that theatergoers thought birds crapping on Socrates is funny. From there, we can infer that they have an irreverent attitude towards philosophers in general.
And this is how you have to do it. Smoking-gun statements like “I think natural philosophers are great” or “As you know, Bob, I think Socrates was full of hooey” just don’t exist for most time periods. It’s certainly legit if done right, but these conclusions are always provisional (maybe Emperor Nero was a big fan of The Clouds, and frequently ordered it staged, in which case the likelier conclusion is that audience was just there to suck up). There’s been more than one dissertation torpedoed by new evidence coming to light a few days before publication.
[Note: I don’t know that Carrier actually did this (my days of slogging through dissertations are long over). This is a hypothetical, to illustrate the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a work of that title].
The sources themselves are also extremely problematic. I’m not an ancient historian, let alone at the PhD level, but I do know a little something about how historical evidence works. The further back in time you go, the more “accidents of survival” come into play. Just because it exists doesn’t mean it’s important, even if it’s the one and only thing we have to go on. Similarly, some extremely important stuff doesn’t exist at all. For instance, there are many books that must’ve been super-popular in the ancient world — they’re constantly referred to and quoted from — that nonetheless don’t exist anymore. And even the sources that we have in relatively complete form are often cobbled together from badly damaged manuscripts, plus interpolations from quotes in other sources (and when those quotes diverge, we make our best guess as to the “correct” version).*
The Bible actually stacks up really well in this regard. We have lots of surviving copies of most texts, and the copies mostly agree with each other, and they jive pretty well with quotes and references in other sources. This has always given atheists the seething red-ass.** One can certainly argue that the early Church ruthlessly purged a whole lot of stuff (I’m pretty sure no serious Biblical scholar denies this), but it’s hard to argue that they were working off dramatically different versions of the texts than the ones we know today.
Given that, the life of Jesus is actually extremely well-attested, by just about any standard a serious historian would accept. But since it’s easy to get dragged off into the weeds here (as proselytizing atheists are wont to do), let’s consider a counter-example. Here’s Carrier’s thesis in On the Historicity of Jesus:
Carrier contrasts the most credible reconstruction of a historical Jesus with the most credible theory of Christian origins if a historical Jesus did not exist. Such a theory would posit that the Jesus figure was originally conceived of as a celestial being known only through private revelations and hidden messages in scripture; then stories placing this being in earth history were crafted to communicate the claims of the gospel allegorically; such stories eventually came to be believed or promoted in the struggle for control of the Christian churches that survived the tribulations of the first century.
Now, let’s apply that to, say, Socrates. The “Socratic Problem” is well known, but notice that it starts by assuming that Socrates was a real person. How do we know this? He himself wrote nothing that survived, and almost all of our information on his life comes from — ahem! — four different sources, written at different time periods, containing divergent and contradictory accounts. Our chief source, Plato, was no stranger to constructing elaborate allegories to reveal metaphysical truths, and the Academy was an influential institution that was host to any number of significant power struggles down through the ages.
I hypothesize, then, that Socrates didn’t exist, and that this better explains the spread of Platonism in the ancient world than the existence of a real, ugly man cruising around the Agora, claiming to know nothing and questioning all and sundry about their beliefs.
See what I mean? We’re back to begging the question — we’ve “proved” that Jesus / Socrates didn’t exist, because we start from the assumption that Jesus / Socrates didn’t exist. The only way you’d fall for it — if you weren’t already convinced, and just looking for an excuse — would be if you didn’t know that much about historical methods, and were using Carrier’s PhD in “Attitudes towards the Natural Philosopher” as a stand-in for wide, deep knowledge that he can’t possibly possess.
If you were a credential-worshiper, in other words. A.k.a. a neckbearded internet sperg. Geek fatigue, indeed!
*If you want to see how all this stuff plays out, pick up a “critical edition” of an ancient text and read the scholarly apparatus in the intro and appendices. They’ll tell you all about how they arrived at the “definitive” version. It’s insanely complicated. This is also why, btw, editions published in different time periods sometimes radically differ. It’s not just a “new translation;” in many cases, there’s a whole bunch of new evidence that has come to light, significantly changing the meaning of the text.
**Though it must be admitted that a lot of contemporary Christian apologists go overboard the other way. No, all ancient copies of the Gospels are not letter-perfect, and no, their transmission is not unproblematic. But given accidents of survival on just about all other sources, they compare very, very favorably.