Sunday, October 05, 2008

Infidelity for dilettantes

Last Spring, Richard Carrier was banging his tip cup to drum up donations for a book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ:

Let’s review some of the highlights:

The book I propose would take the approach of arguing first and foremost for a logical historical method that all reasonable people could agree on, which would allow any objective investigator to ascertain whether Jesus probably did or didn't exist, simply by plugging in the facts known to them.

“Objective investigation”? “A logical historical method that all reasonable people could agree on”?

But if you mouse over to his “official website,” you run across statements like the following:

Dr. Carrier's book Sense and Goodness without God defends a complete philosophy of life called Naturalism, the view that nature is all there is, with no supernatural powers or beings.

Since the NT presents Jesus as a supernatural being with supernatural powers, how can Carrier “objectively investigate” the historicity of Jesus Christ if he automatically denies the existence of supernatural powers or beings?

And what “logical historical method” can all “reasonable” people agree on if your historiography automatically excludes the supernatural as a factor in historical causation? Carrier’s philosophy of history is directly and deliberately at odds with the historical outlook of the Bible.

Continuing with his fundraiser:

The reason I can complete this project in four months (working on it full time) is that I already have a lot of the research done, and copious notes on every element, and I don't intend the book to be a comprehensive end-all-be-all on the subject: I will only focus on what I believe to be the essential issues and most relevant facts. Hence I won't be attempting "to overthrow everything ever done in NT scholarship," but only proposing that such an overthrow is or is not likely (and how, methodologically, either result would be determined) unless some surprising new facts or analysis arrives on the scene.

Contrary to your misreading of the situation (or deliberate misportrayal?), the funding I am asking is not for something I haven't already researched. It's for fact-checking to conclusion what I have already researched, and then organizing and presenting it as a book, in a fashion that will have scholarly merit and be of considerable use to both sides of the debate.

We’ll see about this. For now, I quote him to draw attention to his overweening self-confidence.

All of them want to see where the evidence leads, and want someone qualified and unbiased who can find out for them, no matter how it turns out, and lay the case out objectively. I have explicitly offered nothing else.

“Unbiased”? “Where the evidence leads”? But doesn’t he approach the evidence for Jesus with the presupposition that there are no supernatural powers or beings?

Otherwise, if the religious want to avoid facing the evidence and argument by dismissing it all as atheist-funded propaganda, that only betrays their irrationality, not the value of my work.

Why would “the religious” want to avoid facing the “evidence and argument” unless Carrier has already arrived at an irreligious conclusion? Looks like Carrier is tacitly conceding that the results of his “unbiased” investigation are a foregone conclusion. And, indeed, didn’t he just admit that “It's for fact-checking to conclusion what I have already researched”? In that event, why go through the motions?

If he’s going to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without prior bias, then why assume the “evidence and argument” would upset “the religious” rather than “the irreligious”? Surely he’s not conducting his “unbiased” investigation with his mind made up in advance of the fact. Why, that might raise questions about his “objectivity.”

I don't think a foreword from Dawkins would be appropriate for a book on the historicity of Jesus. Someone actually in that field would suit (Ehrmann, for example, since he needn't be a mythicist himself to say that the book nevertheless deserves to be read and pondered over).

Why would Ehrman write a foreword for Carrier’s book if Carrier doesn’t know where the evidence will lead? How can Carrier predict that Ehrman would like his book? If Carrier ended up writing a book like The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Blomberg or Dethroning Jesus by Bock and Wallace, do you really suppose that Ehrman would write a favorable foreword? His protestations of neutrality notwithstanding, it seems as if Carrier keeps tipping his hand.

I know Christian authors get well financed this way. Even J.P. Holding, I once heard, gets tens of thousands of dollars in donations every year. Can atheists support an author they like, at least as well? It would be a shame if not.

That’s odd. Why is Carrier soliciting donations from avowed atheists if he’s an unbiased investigator who will follow the evidence wherever it leads? Are they donating funds on the assumption that he might just as well produce the sort of work that Darrel Bock or Craig Blomberg would produce? I don’t think so.

Carrier also posted a progress report:

A few more highlights:

The two most annoying examples of this (though not the only ones) are in dating the contents of the New Testament and identifying their authorship and editorial history. There is no consensus on either, even though standard references (like Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and The New Interpreter's Bible) tend to give the impression there is.

That’s his idea of research? The first two titles are single volume, read-reference works. They’re useful for quick information, but this hardly represents in-depth research. It’s the sort of thing a high school student might use for a class paper.

As for The New Interpreter’s Bible, this is an intermediate level series which ranges all along the theological spectrum, depending on which commentator is writing for which book of the Bible. It’s not as scholarly as some series, and it’s not where you’d go for both sides of the debate on any particular book of the Bible. It’s a lottery.

In other words, not only is there no consensus, but there are dozens of positions, and arguments for each are elaborate and vast. It was only after over a month of wasting countless hours attempting to pursue these matters to some sort of condensable conclusion that I realized this was a fool's errand. I have changed strategy and will attempt some sort of broader, simpler approach to the issues occupying my chapter on this, though exactly what that will be I am still working out.

So he devoted a month to the literature on dating and authorship before he decided it was too much effort. That’s his idea of scholarship?

But in New Testament studies, the fact that the evidence only establishes termini for Matthew between A.D. 70 and 130 isn't something you will hear about in the references. Indeed, I say 130 only because the possibility that the earliest demonstrable terminus ante quem for Matthew may be as late as 170 involves a dozen more digressions even lengthier than this entire post. Because all the relevant issues of who actually said what and when remains a nightmare of debate so frustrating that I actually gave up on it mid-research, seeing it would take months to continue to any sort of conclusion, and not even a clear conclusion at that. Mind-numbing, truly.

i) First off, AD 70 is not the lower threshold for the composition of Matthew. So this is an example of Carrier’s lopsided investigation.

ii) And, once again, he gave up because it would take months to arrive at any sort of conclusion. Well, Richard, there’s a word for that: scholarship. Real scholars do spend months on issues like this. It’s tedious, but if you’re serious about historical reconstructions, then you’re committed to trudging through the evidence.

Now, let's suppose there is some brilliant response to this observation that explains everything and makes historical sense of these letters again. To find it and evaluate it--not just all the evidence and merit opposing this perplexing observation but supporting it as well, to give each side of the debate a fair shake--is a time-consuming task of no small order. And that's just one of literally dozens of objections to the authenticity of the Ignatian letters. But if they aren't even authentic, their date is no longer secure (even if it ever had been).

Yes, historical investigation is a “time-consuming task of no small order.” Carrier thought he could be an instant patrologist or instant NT scholar. When he overestimated himself, he gave up. Pretty impressive, Richard!

We could still argue for a terminus ante quem for these letters if they are all forgeries (since it wouldn't matter if they were, as a forged quotation of Matthew is still a quotation of Matthew) by observing that Polycarp, at some unspecified time in his life, wrote his own letter as a preface to the entire collection of Ignatian letters, and Polycarp was martyred sometime between 155 and 168. Or so we think. In actual fact the evidence is problematic and some scholars argue his martyrdom could even have been as late as 180. Again, resolving that issue would require mountains of research (which, I must keep adding, might not in fact resolve the issue at all but merely demonstrate conclusively that it cannot be resolved on present evidence). And all that just to establish a terminus ante quem for the letters of Ignatius, just to establish a terminus ante quem for the Gospel of Matthew. (Oh, and remember, that's just one Gospel. Multiply all this by Mark, Luke and John and you will only begin to touch the depths of my vexation in all this).

If you presume to write a scholarly work on the historicity of Jesus, then, yes, you have to investigate the date and authorship of each Gospel, not to mention other NT documents. Of course, many scholars have already done the spadework. But it’s too much for Carrier to even consult the secondary literature.

Now sure, everything above can be debated endlessly. But an endless debate on one detail, multiplied by a dozen details, multiplied by a dozen problems, multiplied by a dozen documents (since the Gospels aren't the only vexations among early Christian documents, not by a longshot), you end up with nearly two thousand endless debates. Even supposing you can fit an eternity into a day and thus nail a conclusion on any one point in under ten hours, ahem, two thousand days still works out to more than seven years (as you'll surely be taking weekends off at least--to drink yourself into a stupor, if nothing else). And at the end of it, you have perhaps only a few pages to show for it all, since that's all that will be needed to summarize your conclusions regarding the basic facts of your evidence before moving on to the actual topic of your book. A handful of pages. Which took seven years of soul-crushing tedium to compose. No thanks.

Here’s a guy who fancied that he could dash off a book on the historical Jesus in four months because that’s all the time he’d need “for fact-checking to conclusion what I have already researched.”

Carrier is an intellectual toddler who thought he could splash around in the wading pool with his rubber ducky. But as soon as he dove in, he found himself way over his head, and couldn’t keep his silly little head above water.

BTW, is Carrier going to refund the $20,000 he solicited from his gullible contributors under false pretenses? Carrier is a secular faith-healer who knows how to work the crowd of credulous unbelievers.

1 comment:

  1. Well argued and presented!

    And one more myth--that authors like Darrell and I get big money for the books we write (well, Darrell did "luck out" with the Da Vinci Code response because it captured the popular market), but I've averaged about $1000 a year in royalties for Historical Reliability of the Gospels! Not that I'm complaining--by the time you have 16 works in print, the supplementary income is very much appreciated, but it doesn't even pay half of my daughter's annual private college expenses!