New Atheist “Scholar” Raked Over the Coals

Tim O’Neill wrote a scorching analysis of Carrier’s fringe notion that everything Josephus wrote about Jesus was entirely a latter Christian interpolation. Y’gotta love how O’Neill begins his essay, as it perfectly captures the essence of Carrier:

It seems I’ve done something to upset Richard Carrier. Or rather, I’ve done something to get him to turn his nasal snark on me on behalf of his latest fawning minion.  For those who aren’t aware of him, Richard Carrier is a New Atheist blogger who has a post-graduate degree in history from Columbia and who, once upon a time, had a decent chance at an academic career.  Unfortunately he blew it by wasting his time being a dilettante who self-published New Atheist anti-Christian polemic and dabbled in fields well outside his own; which meant he never built up the kind of publishing record essential for securing a recent doctorate graduate a university job.  Now that even he recognises that his academic career crashed and burned before it got off the ground, he styles himself as an “independent scholar”, probably because that sounds a lot better than “perpetually unemployed blogger”.

But in the minds of New Atheist true believers, far from being a failed academic (and more recently, thanks to some rather dubious life choices, itinerant beggar), Carrier is a towering figure of vast historical wisdom.  This is because if there is a tenet of New Atheist Bad History that needs defending, Richard Carrier is usually there to help.  Not surprisingly, Carrier is therefore a leading proponent of the Jesus Myth thesis, though given that this is a topic held in dismally low regard by real academics and one peddled mainly by cranks and loons, that’s not much of an accolade.

Two years ago Carrier brought out what he felt was going to be a game-changer in the fringe side-issue debate about whether a historical Jesus existed at all.  His book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014), was the first peer-reviewed (well, kind of) monograph that argued against a historical Jesus in about a century and Carrier’s New Atheist fans expected it to have a shattering impact on the field.  It didn’t.  Apart from some detailed debunking of his dubious use of Bayes’ Theorem to try to assess historical claims, the book has gone unnoticed and basically sunk without trace.  It has been cited by no-one and has attracted one lonely academic review, which is actually a feeble puff piece by the fawning minion mentioned above.  The book is a total clunker.

So the failure of his academic career and the disaster of his attempt at a groundbreaking opus has left the perennially unemployed Carrier with a lot of time on his hands.  Luckily he has a number of obsessive vendettas to keep him busy.  The main one of these is with leading New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, though he also has a beef with me.  Recently, to his great joy, he was able to indulge in both at once.

O’Neill has a good feel for how Carrier’s mind works:

But then Ehrman committed his second, much worse sin.  As Carrier’s responses become more sneering, more frenzied, more intense and even more tedious in their length, Ehrman did the unthinkable – he chose to completely ignore Carrier as a silly little nobody and simply didn’t engage with him further.  And nothing angers a pathological narcissist like being ignored.  Mighty was Carrier’s tiny wrath!

So, in the four years since, Carrier has continued to list Ehrman’s many wicked sins, with all the shrillness of a myopically self-obsessed person who genuinely can’t believe he’s not being taken seriously.  Of course Ehrman is just one scholar at the top of the long list of people that Carrier has to attack, since anyone who has dared look sideways at Carrier, his fringe thesis, his failed book or any of his minuscule coterie of minions and parrots has been struck mighty blows from his tiny little fists.  Some anger him so much that he uses his skills in psychiatry to actually declare them insane, since genuine madness is the only explanation he can fathom for those who don’t bow low before his manifest genius.

O’Neill then devotes the bulk of his essay to critiquing Carrier’s arguments and, for anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend it.

I myself have already outlined my problem with the crackpot mythers.  Although I am certainly no expert on this whole topic, it’s obvious to me that the mythers are not scholars and do not take a scholarly approach.  In fact, I summarized the problem as follows:

What the conspiracy theorist/myther does is engage in extreme, intensive disconfirmation bias.  But once focus turns to their alternative explanation, skepticism is discouraged, the bar is reset and set very low, and confirmation bias is encouraged.

And you will find that this dynamic applies even when it comes to debate about a single passage in Josephus.  That is, while Carrier relies on extreme hyper-skepticism to dismiss the scholarly consensus about Antiquities XX.200, in its place we are expected to embrace some vague and idle speculation that is not only unsupported, but actually inconsistent with the evidence that exists.

Big picture time, folks.  Richard Carrier is not a scholar.  He is a New Atheist apologist, activist, and evangelist.  His livelihood depends on his fans clicking on his blogs, sending money to him for blogging, and selling his books at atheist conventions.  You’d have to be a gullible fool to trust the man to be objective and scholarly about the topic. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of such people in the New Atheist community.

 

 

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11 Responses to New Atheist “Scholar” Raked Over the Coals

  1. Bilbo says:

    The thing is, even if Carrier is correct about the Josephus passage, historians do not rely upon Josephus to establish the historical existence of Jesus.

  2. Michael,

    This is not a comment about Carrier’s handling of the Josephus passage, but a meta-comment about the tone of your article.

    I think Jesus existed, but I don’t think Carrier deserves the snark on this, for at least two reasons. First, when he writes about the historicity of Jesus and extra-Biblical references to Jesus, he is writing within his area of specialization (ancient history). He has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University. Second, the fact that Carrier is a mythicist is a red herring in the context of the Josephus passage; after all, it’s not as if one has to be a mythicist to reject either or both passages. I’m pretty sure there have even been Christian scholars who have done so.

  3. stcordova says:

    Grand slam find, Michael. Devastating given O’Neill is an atheist himself calling out Carrier.

    Carrier has managed to get a devoted following.

  4. SteveK says:

    In the comments of O’Neill’s page is a link to a summary of Carrier’s problem with Bayes / probability arguments. Might be worth looking at…

    “What Carrier says about probability is at odds with every probability textbook (or lecture notes) I can find. He rejects the foundations of probability laid by frequentists (e.g. Kolmogorov’s axioms) and Bayesians (e.g. Cox’s theorem). He is neither, because we’re all wrong – only Carrier knows how to do probability correctly. “

    https://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/final-word-on-richard-carrier/

  5. Bilbo says:

    Jeff,

    I thought I had once read somewhere that there were indeed other scholars who rejected the authenticity of Antiquities XX.200, but I can’t find that reference, now. Do you know of other scholars who have done so?

  6. Michael says:

    Jeff: I think Jesus existed, but I don’t think Carrier deserves the snark on this, for at least two reasons. First, when he writes about the historicity of Jesus and extra-Biblical references to Jesus, he is writing within his area of specialization (ancient history). He has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University.

    That’s like saying when Sam Harris writes about dropping acid as a means to discover truths about our reality, he doesn’t deserve snark because he has a PhD in Neuroscience. What’s more, did Carrier’s PhD in ancient history make him an expert in probability theory? From what I can tell, his “work” since his PhD is not an extension of the thesis. Instead, he has decided to champion a crackpot notion and merge it with his own version of probability theory, and in doing so, behaves as a crackpot, even to the point of lashing out at mainstream scholars.

    Second, the fact that Carrier is a mythicist is a red herring in the context of the Josephus passage; after all, it’s not as if one has to be a mythicist to reject either or both passages. I’m pretty sure there have even been Christian scholars who have done so.

    You have it backwards. That Carrier is the Champion of Atheist Mythers, and has carved out his niche in the atheist community around this whole issue, means he is deeply invested in denying the authenticity of both passages. There is no reason to think he can be objective about this issue, no evidence that he is able to be objective, and plenty of reason to think he can’t be objective. So I would agree that you don’t have to be a myther to reject the passages; it’s just that if you are a myther, it’s incredibly unlikely you can accept the passages.

  7. Bilbo says:

    I asked Tim O’Neill if there were other scholars who doubted the authenticity of Antiquities XX.200. His reply:

    There have been a few, but that’s hardly surprising. In most humanities subjects there are well-ploughed fields where, if an idea is at least possible, someone has written a paper arguing for it. And NT studies is a field that has been ploughed by thousands of scholars for over 200 years.

    But very few have argued for the interpolation of all or even part of his passage and fewer still have done so recently. The consensus that it is genuine is not total, but it is overwhelming. The other recent argument that Ant. XX.200-203 is not authentic is found in T. Rajak, Josephus:The Historian and his Society (Philadelphia, 1983) p. 131, n.73. Rajak says the passage gives a verdict on Ananus that is at variance with one given in the Jewish War and so says she believes that the case “for the whole account of James being a Christian interpolation is strong”. She notes that Origen’s recollection of the subject is different to what we find in the text, but also says the passage “seems to suppose in the reader some knowledge of the man ‘who was called the Christ'”. She says that she doesn’t think the testimonium flavianum is genuine and so thinks this combination of factors means the whole passage is fake.

    There are several problems with these arguments. Firstly, as Louis Feldman notes in his response to Rajak (“A Selective Critical Bibliography of Josephus” in Feldman and Hata (eds), Josephus the Bible and History [Detroit:1989] p.434) “Josephus is hardly adverse to harsh criticism of the Sadducees and even, to some degree, of the Sanhedrin”. It should also be noted that he could (implicitly) criticise someone like Ananus over one episode like this one while still holding and expressing a more favourable view of him elsewhere.

    The difference between what Origen says Josephus “says” and what the passage actually says can be better explained by the fact he tended to read his Christian exegesis into his sources, as discussed re Mizagaki and Baras above. And while Rajak says “Many” agree with her that the testimonium is not original at all, the consensus view is that it is actually partially so.

    Finally there’s the problem of what purpose interpolating this passage would serve. The obvious additions to the testimonium serve a clear apologetic end – they turn that passage into one where a Jewish scholar is supposedly declaring Jesus to be the Messiah and to have risen from the dead: the two things Jewish opponents of Christianity overtly rejected. But it’s hard to see what purpose this story was meant to serve if it was a Christian interpolation. It mentions Jesus in passing, says little about James and then becomes an anecdote about the deposition of a priest. As a wholesale interpolation it doesn’t make much sense. This is why even Carrier went for a minimalist approach and tried to argue that only the “who was called Messiah” phrase was added.

  8. Michael says:

    The thing is, even if Carrier is correct about the Josephus passage, historians do not rely upon Josephus to establish the historical existence of Jesus.

    I agree. I like the subtle clues, like where Paul writes “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”
    If Jesus never existed, and everyone was talking about some celestial god, that passage doesn’t make much sense. But it makes perfect sense if Jesus was a historical figure.

  9. Bilbo says:

    As Bart Ehrman points out, the not-so-subtle clues are what historians find convincing:

  10. Dhay says:

    Here’s a website that compiles Richard Carrier’s errors:

    https://richardcarrier.wikispaces.com/home

  11. stcordova says:

    Dhay,

    How do you guys find this stuff. Great link on Carrier’s errors. Wow!

    You’alls knowledge puts me to shame.

    I like the critique of Carrier and his watermills theory.

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