An Addendum to my Review of Proving History by Richard Carrier

Earlier today Prof. James McGrath linked to my recent review of Richard Carrier’s Proving History. A comment discussion ensued between myself and blogger Tom Verenna, in which he says that I’ve missed the point entirely with the book and that I engaged in polemical attacks. I was going to post this response in the comment discussion on McGrath’s blog post, but decided to post it on my own blog in case anyone reading my review likewise thinks that Carrier’s book went over my head.

I will first provide the comment discussion between Tom Verenna and myself:

Tom Verenna’s first comment to me (in which he quotes Carrier):

He is quite qualified. He writes, “Twice Ehrman says I have a Ph.D. in “classics” (p. 19, 167). In fact, my degrees are in ancient history, with an undergraduate minor in Classics (major in history), and *three  graduate degrees* (M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D.) with *four graduate majors*  (Greco-Roman historiography, philosophy, religion, and a special major  on the fall of Rome). One of those, you’ll notice, is in the *religions  of the Roman empire–which included Christianity* (and my study of  Christianity featured significantly in my dissertation work). I  shouldn’t have to explain that the classics and ancient history  departments aren’t even in the same building, much less the same major.  Although I did take courses from each and studied under both classicists and historians, and have a considerable classics background, it’s a  rather telling mistake of his to think (and then report) that I am just a classicist and not a historian, much less a certified historian of Christianity (and, incidentally, its surrounding religions, ignorance of which we have seen is Ehrman’s failing).”

My response:

Seems irrelevant to the point at hand. Learning about religions of Rome does not mean you specialize in Christian origins. If he did specialize in Christian origins, then he should have in-depth knowledge concerning more pertinent areas of knowledge e.g. Second Temple Judaism, Hebrew, Aramaic, biblical studies. However, he has revealed his staggering ignorance of such areas.

Verenna’s rejoinder:

We’ll have to disagree. You can take classes in those subjects and be formally trained without majoring in ‘Christian origins’–I’m double-majoring in Classics and Classical Languages and I’ve taken courses in religious Studies and Biblical Studies which count towards my majors. Your argument is a little presumptuous of what these majors entail and suggest you may not have first-hand knowledge of what these majors entail. If so, maybe you’re not qualified to speak on Carrier’s qualifications? =)

To which I responded:

I am not speaking about Carrier’s formal qualifications.

I am talking about the familiarity he has shown with areas of study most relevant to Christian origins.

Sure, knowledge of the religions of Rome is important. But it pales in comparison to other, more pertinent, areas of study (such as the few I mentioned in my last comment).

Perhaps Carrier did study such things as part of his majors. I don’t know. But I do know that on his blog and in his book “Proving History”, he reveals his staggering ignorance on such matters (no exaggeration). I mean, sheesh, he didn’t have the slightest clue as to what pesher was until Thom Stark schooled him on it. He couldn’t translate Daniel 9:26 to save his life. And there is a whole litany of other offenses he has committed against biblical studies.

I’m sure he is a very smart guy (his academic credentials testify to that). But when it comes to such things as early Christianity and its corollaries, he is simply out his league.

Leading to this comment from Tom Verenna:

I think you’ve missed the point entirely with his book. I appreciate your replies here, but I think the book went over your head a little. The point is to address the staggering problems in the field of historical research–including the basic concepts you lay out in your responses above. Carrier is aware of them, but he lays out the fact that for far too long arbitrary factors have played in theses about Christian origins, Second Temple Period, etc… because no one has taken into account factors which *should have been* considered before the studies in those areas were done. You may disagree with his conclusions, but his point is a valid one. Assuming this is Kevin from Diglotting, I do not approve of your polemical attacks in your review of his book either. Your other reviews have a professional feel–this one felt as though you were on the attack throughout. Maybe sensational amateurs deserve such treatment, but scholars like Carrier with strong qualifications in the field deserve more respect than that. And to be clear, I’ve defended Ehrman and James McGrath against their attackers on the same issue. Carrier and Ehrman and James deserve a level of courtesy for their work in the field, whether we agree or disagree with their arguments. It comes with earning their laurels. Those of us who haven’t should show respect.

I do not think I “missed the point entirely with his book”, but I can only leave that up to the reader to decide. Neither do I think the book went “over [my] head”. I understood the author’s thesis clearly. I am familiar with matters pertaining to early Christianity and so that is where the focus of my review was. I decided to not say terribly much about Carrier’s discussion of the math component of the book due to the fact that I am not familiar enough with this subject.

Regarding my polemics against the book. Yes, my review was definitely not in my usual style. But that is because the books I review are written by people who (even if I don’t agree with them) know the areas they are writing about. I occasionally read a book that I think is pitiful and when I do I will write a more acerbic review (e.g. see my review of Keller’s The Reason for God, I and II). If I find the book lacking, I see nothing wrong with my review being less than flattering (provided I actually say why I found the book displeasing). This is the category that Proving History falls into. I thought that a lot of what the author said concerning biblical studies was patently wrong and revealed a lack of knowledge in the area. Poor argumentation deserves no respect.

As I said in the final part of my review, even if Carrier’s Bayesian method is a brilliant new way to investigate the historical Jesus, we need someone to apply it who can deftly handle all the data. Carrier is simply not that person. Why do I say that? I don’t know but maybe it has something to do with the fact that in an attempt to conjure up a plausible reason as to why Mark didn’t really say Jesus came from Nazareth, Carrier says that maybe “Nazareth” in Mark 1.9 may just be an interpolation (which I would assume he would also apply to the usage of the word in Mark 1.24, 10.47, and 16.6). His support for this line of reasoning? None at all! It’s just a naked assertion. Additionally, in an attempt to make the Nazarite argument plausible, he makes a feeble argument pointing towards Mark 14.25 and Matt. 26.29, while conveniently forgetting to mention the more relevant pericope of Luke/Q 7.33-34 which directly undercuts it. These were just two of my gripes with Carrier’s discussion of Nazareth and I do not think they are trivial.

One thing that Carrier mentions (more than once) in the book is that, prior to when the Christian sect started, there was already existent in Judaism a stream of thought which awaited an eschatological messianic figure who would suffer and die as an atonement for sins. He even singles out the Qumran community as a specific example of this. This would be an important factor for historical Jesus studies to interact with…. if it were true. It is not. He points to a blog post of his as support for such a notion but this blog post (and Carrier’s thesis) has been thoroughly refuted. The blog post Carrier point’s to (and the subsequent war of words with Thom Stark) also reveals that he is uninformed on lots of stuff pertaining to Christian origins. Good grief, if the guy can not even translate and understand Daniel 9.26, how are we meant to seriously expect him to handle the vast amount of complicated data one must grapple with when discussing Christian origins and the historical Jesus?

Richard Carrier has great credentials. I am sure I could learn a lot from him concerning Greco-Roman historiography, the fall of Rome, and ancient science and philosophy. But when it comes to the historical Jesus, Second Temple Judaism, biblical studies, and so forth…. well, then it’s different. All I have seen from Mr. Carrier is an unwillingness and/or inability to seriously engage with scholarship in these areas. I agree with him (to a degree) as to the utility (or lack thereof) of the criteria of authenticity. However, I thought a lot of the argumentation Carrier used to rail against these criteria was very poor and was littered with gross inaccuracies. That is why I focused my review on that component of the book and why my review was quite barbed.

22 responses

  1. I think competence is more important than formal
    qualifications. People who treat the hypothetical Q as if it were a
    historical fact, as you seem to be doing, could arguably be
    regarded as not competent to pronounce on the historical Jesus, for
    the simple reason that Q and the synoptic theory of which it is a
    corollary are deeply flawed. Firstly, because to the critical eye
    prepared to acknowledge Luke’s creativity, the evidence that Luke
    knew and used Matthew is very strong. Secondly, because the
    assumption made by both the Two-Source Theory and the Farrer Theory
    that the so-called ‘double tradition’ comes from a single source is
    utterly simplistic.

  2. Some conversations are worth having. Some debates worth pursuing. I commend you and McGrath for your patience, but I am always tempted not to bother with some in that crowd (Tom V I suspect is perhaps one of the better conversation partners).

  3. “Carrier says that maybe “Nazareth” in Mark 1.9 may just be
    an interpolation (which I would assume he would also apply to the
    usage of the word in Mark 1.24, 10.47, and 16.6).” You need to look
    a little bit closer at the text. Those three verses don’t say
    “Nazareth”.

    • In light of Mark 1.9, it is clear what “Nazarene” is referring to (i.e. Nazareth). There is no need to resort to some other fanciful explanation that necessitates dismissing 1.9 as an interpolation.

      • Ok. Without Mark 1.9 there is no reason to think that it’s refering to Nazareth. So Carrier would not also need to apply that to the usage of “the word” in other verses.

        Take Mark 1.24 for example, there it’s paired with “holy one of god”, which happens to be how ‘nazirite’, and only that word, was translated in the LXX. :o

      • Herro,

        Without Mark 1.9 there is no reason to think that it’s refering to Nazareth. So Carrier would not also need to apply that to the usage of “the word” in other verses.

        I see. When I wrote this post out, I did not remember Carrier mentioning those other verses in that section of the book, so I assumed he would go the route of dismissing them as interpolations.

        Nevertheless, there is no reason to dismiss Mk 1.9 as an interpolation. The default position is that Nazareth in Mark 1.9 is authentic; one has to prove otherwise. Carrier did not do so. No attempt to present any support from the Greek manuscript tradition, nor from the versional and patristic texts. There simply was no line of reasoning presented as to why Mk 1.9 had to be an interpolation.

        Even if the parallelism in Mark 1.24 is indeed meant to be a word play (and after looking at this a bit more in-depth now, I think it may very well may be)….. the word play is in no way incongruent with Mark 1.9, i.e. it does not provide reasoning to think the Nazareth of Mark 1.9 was an interpolation.

        Out of curiosity, do you support the notion that it is an interpolation? Also, do you know of any NT scholars who have argued that it is?

        One more thing, I think I will do a blog post on this issue tomorrow and I would appreciate your feedback on it.

  4. Resident,

    In a nutshell, when it comes to the material Luke and Matthew share (and not found in Mark), I think Luke behaves as if he hadn’t seen Matthew. I’m not overly convinced as to the plausibility of  an editorial scenario where Luke chops up Matthew’s text as he does and relocates it in the manner he does. It seems more plausible (to me) that Luke and Matthew were both independently working with what we now call Q. 

    The Two Document Hypothesis (and Q) is not without its own difficulties (e.g. Mark-Q overlaps), but I find them a lot easier to explain than Luke’s supposed redaction of Matthew, thus making the 2DH and Q a more plausible scenario in my eyes.

    I was, for a time, somewhat persuaded by Goodacre’s arguments, but have decidely swung back into the Q camp.

    • Diglot,

      Thank you for the explanation. I have to admit, it doesn’t look like Luke redacted/reworked Matthew in some of the places where they overlap, so I see your point. Perhaps Luke (or whoever) had access to both a common source and Matthew when writing his gospel, sort of like how Daniel specialists think the person who wrote Theodotion had access to both a proto-MT version of Daniel along with the Old Greek translation.

      • That “Luke (or whoever) had access to both a common source and Matthew when writing his gospel”, is precisely what I argue for on my web site. This approach leads to a plausible and coherent sayings source without any narrative material, overcoming all the difficulties inherent in Q.

    • The default position is that Nazareth in Mark 1.9 is authentic; one has to prove otherwise.

      Why is this the default position? We have no idea what happened to the texts in transmission. At best, we can say this is what we find in our earliest extant manuscripts. Why shouldn’t you have to justify the inference of authenticity rather than simply declaring it as the default position?

  5. Really?! This shouldn’t be a controversial issue

    If it shouldn’t be controversial, then there should be a simple and convincing answer to my question.

  6. How could it not be controversial? What do we know about the early transmission of the texts that would justify a presumption of authenticity? I would think that everything we know points in the other direction.

    We lack early manuscript evidence. Of the manuscripts we have, the earlier ones show a higher rate of variants from which we can surmise that the highest rate of variants would have occurred during the period for which we lack evidence. There was no church authority overseeing the copying of the texts, but there were plenty of men who were willing to forge texts in the name of Peter or Paul or any other figure that the forger thought would lend authority to the writing.

    In short, there is every reason to think that there were any of number of opportunities for alterations by men with both the motivation and the willingness to do so and every reason to think that there are any number of alterations that left no evidence in the manuscripts. How could we possibly justify authenticity as a default position?

  7. “How could it not be controversial? What do we know about the early transmission of the texts that would justify a presumption of authenticity? I would think that everything we know points in the other direction.

    We lack early manuscript evidence. Of the manuscripts we have, the earlier ones show a higher rate of variants from which we can surmise that the highest rate of variants would have occurred during the period for which we lack evidence. There was no church authority overseeing the copying of the texts, but there were plenty of men who were willing to forge texts in the name of Peter or Paul or any other figure that the forger thought would lend authority to the writing.”

    The text of the NT exhibits the characteristic of tenacity, that is, the stubborn resistance of readings from disappearing from the manuscript tradition. In other words, if “Nazareth” was indeed interpolated into Mk 1:9 at a later date, there would most likely be evidence of this in the Greek manuscript tradition, or the versional evidence, or the patristic writings. The reading of Mark 1.9 with “Nazareth” omitted would be present somewhere in the manuscript tradition. The fact that there is no such thing indicates the lack of reason for proposing a conjectural emendation on Mark 1.9 that “Nazareth” is an interpolation.

    If you then argue that it was interpolated extremely early on in the transmission process (i.e. within the first few rounds of copying), then that only indicates the complete lack of merit the interpolation hypothesis possesses. We could argue that every word or phrase in the NT was interpolated with such specious argumentation.

    “In short, there is every reason to think that there were any of number of opportunities for alterations by men with both the motivation and the willingness to do so and every reason to think that there are any number of alterations that left no evidence in the manuscripts. How could we possibly justify authenticity as a default position?”

    Grab a critical edition of the Greek NT and look at Mark 1.9. That is why authenticity of “Nazareth” in Mk 1.9 is the default position.

    • That sounds like wishful thinking to me. The manuscripts from which you infer tenacity come primarily (if not overwhelmingly) from the period in which the Christianity was an established religion with established doctrine and copying was done by trained scribes. You cannot infer similar tenacity in the earlier period when Christianity was a minority religion composed of competing sects, particularly when we know from the later manuscripts that variants increase the earlier you go. There is no reason to think that we would have manuscript evidence for every variant or alteration that occurred in the first two hundred years of transmission. The quotations in the patristic writings point to fluidity in the texts rather than tenacity.

      You may not like the fact that the manuscript evidence is insufficient to eliminate the possibility of interpolation but that doesn’t justify adopting an unwarranted presumption of authenticity. If certainty can’t be supported by the evidence, then certainty shouldn’t be expressed.

      • I’m not saying the NT text was not fluid. In fact, the fluidity of the NT text in our earliest extant witnesses is a testament to its tenacity prior to the fourth century.

        Arguing that Nazareth could be an interpolation in Mark 1.9 is no more than unsubstantiated wishful thinking. There is a reason why NT textual critics don’t entertain the idea of interpolation in Mark 1.9.

      • To clarify what I am referring to by tenacity. The manuscript tradition of the NT demonstrates (as per K & B Aland) that once a reading enters into the transmission process, it stays there. If “Nazareth” in Mark 1.9 was indeed a later interpolation, we would expect to find in the manuscript tradition evidence of this, i.e. the original reading of Mark 1.9 (which in this scenario omits “Nazareth”) would not just drop out of the manuscript tradition; it is reasonable to expect to find at least a trace of it somewhere (even if the earliest extant witnesses to Mark 1.9 come from the 4th century).

      • I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I do know that even among conservative scholars, there are those who don’t find the Aland argument persuasive on that point and who believe that sometimes the original reading does drop out.

        I have no particular opinion on Mark 1:9, but I don’t think that a slippery slope argument justifies a presumption in favor of authenticity. If lack of manuscript evidence creates uncertainty about the early transmission, then the thing to do is to qualify one’s conclusions. If a valid argument can be advanced in favor of authenticity, then it should be advanced. There shouldn’t be artificial default positions that privilege a favored conclusion.

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