A Review of Proving History by Richard Carrier (Part IV)

Welcome to part four of my review of Richard Carrier’s book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. In his lengthy section on the criterion on embarrassment, Carrier discusses Jesus’ birth in Nazareth. Here is one remark that boggled my mind:

If Mark 1:9 is discounted as an interpolation (via contamination from, or harmonization with, the other Gospels, which we known to have been a frequent occurrence in their transmission), then Mark never actually said Jesus came from Nazareth. (143)

Of course, Carrier doesn’t provide any reasoning to support this verse being an interpolation, which is probably due to the fact that there isn’t any support for such an idea. But hey, why let a little detail like that get in the way. If you don’t like what a text says, just create an unnecessary conjectural emendation out of thin air and proclaim, “Interpolation!” Maybe, if we’re real lucky, Carrier will try and apply Bayes’s Theorem to New Testament textual criticism and come up with his own edition of the Greek New Testament!

Warning – Tangent Ahead: Maybe we could even apply Bayes’s Theorem to theology. I estimate a 5% chance that Mark 16.9-20 is original and thus part of the infallible Bible. Yet, when I take into account the fact that I had a friend called Mark in primary school, that I am old enough to know who Marky Mark is, and that I’ve seen Mark Ruffalo in a few movies, the odds are changed to making the ending of Mark almost certainly authentic and thus giving me an 80% probability that I could play with snakes (as per Mark 16.18) and survive a poisonous snake bite (cf. Acts 28.3-6). I like those odds.


Wish me luck!

Carrier provides a few alternative explanations as to how Nazareth came to be associated with Jesus. He says that there are “several plausible reasons why Jesus would be falsely contrived as a Nazarene” (142). As I said in part III of this review, giving a possible reason is not the same thing as providing a plausible one. Carrier anticipates this criticism by saying that, “Since no prior author mentions a connection between Jesus and Nazareth (Paul, for example, makes no mention of it), such developments are more than merely possible … these are viable possibilities, at least sufficiently probably to require us to rule them out first” (142). So since Paul makes no mention of Nazareth, the three alternative explanations he provides for the Nazareth connection are “viable possibilities”? Seems like quite a stretch, but nevertheless, even if we grant Carrier that, they are still far less probable (barring a brilliant piece of argumentation from Carrier in the next volume) than the notion that Mark is simply stating that, indeed, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mark 1.9).

One of the alternatives that Carrier mentions is that the Nazareth connection derives from Numbers 6 and the Nazarite vow. In discussing this option he says that, “a Nazarite vow was most typically of limited duration (a fixed number of days), consecrating oneself to God by certain rituals – most prominently, abstaining from wine (which Jesus indeed vows to do: Mark 14:25; Matthew 26:29)” (142). Yea… those Gospel references are to the last supper where Jesus says he will not drink again of the fruit of the vine. I don’t think his disciples would be terribly impressed with Jesus’ Nazarite vow if he made it the night before he was executed (at least, I doubt they would be impressed enough that they would then remember him as one who made a Nazarite vow). Perhaps a more pertinent passage for Carrier to have mentioned would have been Q/Luke 7:33-34 which depicts Jesus as one who did drink (and thus probably not someone who was under a Nazarite vow).


President Obama and McKayla Maroney are not impressed with Jesus’ Nazarite vow.

Carrier then demonstrates more of his fundamentalist reading of the Bible:

Yet Matthew even claims a Nazareth origin derived from prophecy – in fact, not the town, but the epithet, which could thus have been Mark’s source as well (see Matthew 2:23). Unless Matthew was lying, we are obliged to agree that Mark (or his source) could have had that same prophecy in mind. (144)

Carrier compares Mark’s reference to Nazareth with Matthew’s reference to Bethlehem. In other words, since Matthew wanted to have Jesus born in Bethlehem (in order to ‘fulfill prophecy’) and thus created an elaborate narrative which achieved this purpose, Mark likewise created the notion that Jesus came from Nazareth due to a (now lost) prophecy which Mark needed to be fulfilled. Note that Carrier says: “Unless Matthew was lying”!? Yes, the author of Matthew probably was lying. There was no prophecy concerning a Nazareth origin (James McGrath’s review of Proving History makes the same point). Carrier’s readiness to accept that Matthew was correct is like a fundamentalist Christian who does likewise (lest Matthew be a liar and biblical inerrancy a falsehood). But Carrier has an obvious agenda in this book and so has to clutch at whatever straw he can find, even if it includes ditching scholarship and reading the Bible like a fundamentalist.

Another display of ignorance from Carrier is his brief foray on how Mark presents Jesus speaking of “the Son of Man”. There is no mentioning of the possibility of an Aramaic Vorlage underlying the Greek phrase (ο υιος του ανθρωπου), making Carrier’s discussion on all this pretty meaningless. In a footnote he does list a few of the most recent scholarly volumes on the the issue, but evinces no real knowledge about this controversial topic. It’s like he searched Amazon for the phrase ‘Jesus Son of Man’, saw the recent volumes by Müller, Casey, Walck, Hurtado and Owen, and just threw them together in a footnote to make it look like he knows what he is talking about.

Following this is a discussion on the betrayal of Judas Iscariot (still in the context of the embarrassment criterion). In order to support a point he is making, he says: “‘Iscariot’ is (as many scholars believe) an Aramaicism for the Latin ‘Sicarius’” (154). Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention the other, more plausible, etymology of “Iscariot” (that it’s derived from “man of Kerioth”). Though he says he will deal with this again in the next volume, so maybe we will see something more substantial then.

On the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Carrier says:

The betrayal story also makes no historical sense. The authorities did not need Judas (much less have to pay him) to find or identify Jesus (Mark 14:10-11, 14:43-50). Given what Mark has Jesus say in 14:49 (and what Jesus had been doing in Jerusalem only days before), the authorities knew what he looked like, and they could have seized him any time he appeared in public. (153-54)

Yes they could have seized him in public at any time they wanted, especially if they wanted to risk a deadly skirmish. As Stephanie Louise Fisher points out in her review of Proving History, this sort of thing had occurred in the past during the time of Herod Archelaus.

Carrier then puts the icing on the cake with:

The fact that Jesus’ betrayer’s name essentially means “Jew” should already make us suspicious. (154)

The fact that Jesus’ betrayer has an extremely common name should make us suspicious?! Merciful Mother in heaven, someone buy this guy a clue. Or at least buy him the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, part 1: Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), and point him towards pages 112-25. Judas/Judah was a common name. Why? Geez, I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob being called Judah! There is nothing suspicious about Jesus’ betrayer’s name unless you’re Richard Carrier and trying your hardest to fantasize up some reason as to why the Judas betrayal story was a myth.

I think the author has been spending too much time on Fantasy Island with these guys.

I think the author has been spending too much time on Fantasy Island with these two guys.

Carrier then briefly deals with other criteria of authenticity such as coherence and multiple attestation. His discussion on the criterion of Aramaic context left a lot to be desired. Why? Because he pretty much just dismisses the possibility of the Greek text of the Gospels containing any Aramaisms, saying that any would just be the result of a Semitized Greek.

The last part of this review (a brief summary) will be posted tomorrow.

One response

  1. On a somewhat tangential point: I’ve done some research on
    the ending of Mark, and I suspect that if you were to read through
    it, you’d conclude that the chance that these verses were in the
    original text are a lot better than 5%. I’d be glad to send you a
    digital copy of the book; just send a request to james (dot) snapp
    [at] gmail dot com. Yours in Christ, James Snapp, Jr.

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