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

This is the final part of my review of Richard Carrier’s book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

All in all, I found this book to be pretty mediocre. Richard Carrier states in his bio on his blog that he is a specialist in Christian origins and with this book he has tried to make a name for himself in the field. But he has failed. Abysmally. This book only goes to demonstrate Carrier’s lack of familiarity with the field he is trying to navigate.

I wasn’t convinced that Bayes’s Theorem is relevant and effectual when dealing with the complexities of historical data, and I really don’t think it is going be useful to historical Jesus research. But even if Bayes’s Theorem truly is a useful heuristic tool and a constructive approach for the study of the historical Jesus and Christian origins, we would need someone who possesses an actual understanding of the field to be able to fruitfully utilize it. This rules Richard Carrier out. He does not possess an expertise in the relevant areas of knowledge (e.g. Second Temple Judaism, New Testament, History of Religion). Thus, he lacks the knowledge required to be able to wield Bayes’s Theorem profitably and any numbers he comes up with to plug into the equation will not hold water.

The author is following this volume with a sequel which shall deal more fully with the historical Jesus (yes this book was just a prelude to whet our appetites). In an earlier part of this review I expressed my concern for how the author will be able to competently handle the composite Jesus traditions and texts. For instance, when it comes to the crucifixion of Jesus, I bet we will not see anything mentioned about how Q portrays Jesus’ death in light of Deuteronomistic theology, whereas the later Matthew instead emphasizes an expiatory nature of Jesus’ death. In fact, I could almost guarantee we wouldn’t see such a thing considering that Carrier says in this volume (pg. 139) that such a view of Jesus’ death (i.e. as an expiatory sacrifice) was not a post-hoc rationalization but something already expected by Jews (yet another example of Carrier’s fundamentalist reading of the Bible).

Furthermore, a little while later he mentions in a footnote that he is “increasingly convinced there was no Q in the traditional sense, but the designation still conceptually defines some source, even it if turns out to be Matthew or some lost Gospel”. Apart from the fact that this doesn’t make much sense (Q is the corollary to the Two-Document Hypothesis and is the material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark, so if Q “turns out to be Matthew” then you are actually talking about the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis, not the 2DH and Q), there is also the disconcerting possibility that Carrier will just wind up dismissing Q, or at least rating the 2DH and Q as being improbable, which will then make such issues (e.g. the portrayal of Jesus’ death in Q) irrelevant. This is important because if Carrier considers the initial tradition of Jesus’ death to have already been expiatory in nature, then I’m sure this will be used to increase the probability that Jesus’ death could have been created out of thin air (because Carrier wrongly believes there was already an expectation for the eschatological messiah to be executed as an atonement for sin due to his fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament). He does says that he will revisit the question of Q in the next volume, but I am not holding my breath for an in-depth and well-informed analysis.

I am hoping that the second volume will provide us with filet mignon, but Mr. Carrier is ill-equipped for such a task and will only be able to give us rump roast.

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