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).”
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.
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.