Saturday, 8 April 2017

Not a fan of Carrier: SJT tries to be an historian


Christian SJ Thomason runs a blog and active twitter account to proselytize for her faith.  She's also engaged Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience. One of the linchpins of her argument for Christianity is the bravery of early Christians (now christianapologist) sic.  I had sort of promised to respond to it.  Her post is long, and necessitates a two part response from me. 

Executive Summay

  1. The main problem with the SJT post is it dances between two arguments. First, she tries to debunk Carrier's 'mythical Jesus'. Second, she tries to argue that the early Christians were brave and this was a product of witnessing the resurrection.  This makes her blog post a complete mess to wade through.
  2. The only evidence supplied of this bravery, is the deaths of three early Christians between the alleged crucifixion and Vespasian's capture of Jerusalem.   That's a pretty mild body count for a period of sustained religious violence in the province. One per decade on average. Atheist bloggers in Bangladesh suffer a higher attrition rate!
  3. Persecutions of early Christians are wildly exaggerated. Nero's scapegoating of Christians in Rome does not generalise to the rest of the Empire, up to Constantine.    
  4. Because the bravery of early Christians sic is not established, this argument for Jesus fails on its first premise.
  5. An underlying flaw is not realising the gospel Jesus and an historical Jesus are not the same thing.  

Part 1: She's Not a Fan of Carrier

SJT: The intention of the following blog is to offer support for Christians who encounter people who believe Jesus is merely a myth, perpetuated by the early Church. One such mythicist is Dr. Richard Carrier. 
 1. So, nothing really to do with the bravery of the early Christians. This is going to be a long ride.  Seriously, I don't have a dog in this fight. I don't care if there was an historical Jewish dude who thought he was the messiah, or whether he was a complete myth.  What I'm unconvinced by is the gospel Jesus- the offspring of a Judaean god who mated with a virgin, who performed miracles and was inconvenienced by the Romans for a few days, by being attached to a couple of sticks.

SJT: I have had a number of delightful interactions with Carrier on Twitter, which alerted me to his thoughts on Christianity, Jesus, and the Bible. He is an historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who has written numerous books and blog posts refuting the existence of Jesus.
Unlike Carrier, supporters of major world religions outside of Christianity do not question Jesus’ existence. 
2.  I'm going to guess that these supporters aren't generally historians with doctorates from Columbia University.  It's a bit early to try the Argumentum ad populum fallacy surely?

SJT: For example, Jews and Muslims do not claim that Jesus didn’t exist. While Jews do not accept Jesus’ divinity, they acknowledge His existence and crucifixion. 
3. Not accepting the miracles and resurrection is just evidence they don't believe in the gospel Jesus. Which is the version of Jesus that Christians market.
SJT: According to Muhammad, Muslims consider Jesus a prophet whom God took to heaven prior to the crucifixion (leading some to conclude that someone else took Jesus’ place on the cross). Carrier denies Jesus walked the earth, stating in his Twitter posts that Christianity was born out of a “hallucination” by Paul of a “celestial Jesus.”
4. Well Paul did have a vision of Jesus rather than ever meeting the magic carpenter dude when he was alive.  Epileptic seizures are also associated with religious experiences and hallucinations. See below:
The nature of ictal religious seizures varies, including intense emotions of God's presence, the sense of being connected to the infinite, hallucinations of God's voice, the visual hallucination of a religious figure... Devinsky & Lai, 2008, p638 [1]
It doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that Paul, who never met Jesus- if and when he was alive-  had a temporal lobe epileptic seizure and hallucinated the event. 

[1] Orrin Devinsky, George Lai, Spirituality and Religion in Epilepsy Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 12, Issue 4, Pages 636-643
SJT: According to Carrier’s webpage, his research focus is on the “origins of Christianity,” yet he has tweeted that the Bible is “propaganda” and the only historical texts one can rely upon are extra-Biblical.
5. I can't comment on Carrier's webpage, but as I understand it, trying to understand the motives of the ancient writer is part of historical analysis.  The gospels have a very clear propaganda function.  They're a tool for converting people to Christianity*.  That does imply one should be more cautious about accepting these accounts. As extra-biblical sources won't have this bias, that helps their reliability.

* During a brief period of curiosity as an undergraduate, I attended some bible-study classes on campus organised by a local Christian group.  They promoted the gospel of John. It was intended to win converts.

Fallacious use of reductio ad absurdum argument follows: SJT: Let’s consider that point. If I were going to write books on the “origins of Muslims,” wouldn’t it make sense for me to incorporate the Quran? If I were going to craft a history of any countries within the Arab region, wouldn’t I want to take the Quran into account? The Quran certainly offers historical accounts of Muhammad, Muslim beliefs, and Sharia law. Muhammad is an extremely influential prophet among Muslims, so excluding him from any discussions about Arab history seems nonsensical. Applying Carrier’s logic to this situation would require that I obtain extra-Quran accounts of Muhammad’s life before admitting he even lived.
6. Clearly Carrier does use the bible (as a check of his website shows), he's just very critical about it.  Just as someone who used the Qur'an might be critical too. Or even of ancient biographies of Julius Caesar. Nobody is going to believe that Muhammad split the moon, or Julius Caesar really was the descendant of the goddess Venus, without some compelling additional evidence.  We have the same expectation for Jesus. 

Look at my shiny secondary sources

Argumentum ad populum fallacy follows: SJT: Note that the Guinness Book of World Records has indicated: “Although it is impossible to obtain exact figures, there is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion” ( Furthermore, the Bible has been translated into 349 languages. Such figures indicate strong support for the Bible from all over the globe.
7. Popularity is not a metric of historical reliability.  This is a really weak argument!

Massive Non sequitur fallacy ahead!  SJT: William Lane Craig’s website includes the following comment: “Archaeology is the greatest defender of the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists, when in Israel, still rely on the Bible to determine the location of tell sites which reliance has proved to be remarkably accurate. Historians have long acknowledged the accuracy of place names and events recorded in the Bible despite so-called “higher criticism” and skepticism. In fact, the Bible is now a standard historical text for archaeologists in the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Macedonia. 
8. This shows that some of its geography is correct, not that its history is correct.

Appeal to authority fallacy: SJT: The great names of Archaeology, including Dr. Flinders Petrie, Dr. William Albright, Dr. J.O. Kinnaman, Ira M. Price, Professor Sayce of Oxford, and Sir William Ramsay have gone on record to say that archaeology confirms the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Dr. William Albright, who was not a friend of Christianity and was probably the foremost authority in Middle East archaeology in his time, said this about the Bible: ‘There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.’”
9.  Seriously?  No archaeological evidence of the Noachian flood or Exodus, a persistent lack of evidence that the Kingdoms of David and Solomon were as described in the OT?  If you're going to claim archaeology supports the OT, supply some relevant actual evidence.

This is also starting to be a massive red herring.  If you want to convince people that there was an historic Jesus, and this was the same as the gospel Jesus, some Canaanite archaeological digs won't get you there.

SJT: “Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, spent 30 years of his life trying to disprove the New Testament, especially Luke’s writings. After much intensive research with many expecting a thorough refutation of Christianity, Ramsey concluded that Luke was one of the greatest historians of all time and became a Christian based on his archaeological findings.”
10. That's a nice appeal to authority.  Note that Ramsay did the bulk of his archaeological work in the late 1800s. What do modern archaeologists think? How is this relevant? And Luke's screw-up with the date of the birth of Jesus isn't a good advertisement for his reputation.
SJT:  Extensive evidence of the Bible’s historicity exists, derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stone inscriptions, and archeological findings from regions described in the Bible. For a more extensive review, visit addition to the support from archeologists, secular historians support the historicity of the Bible. One example of a history book in which the history of early Christianity and Jesus is documented is “Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World” written by forty-five academic contributors from prestigious universities from all over the globe.
11. Blah blah. If you want to establish that archaeology supports the gospel Jesus, then you need excavations and the like, that corroborate this. Some of the bible is undoubtedly historical. Some of it is also allegorical, or mythical or legendary.  Some of it is outright propaganda. This isn't a binary "all historic" vs "zero historic" decision. The dead-sea scrolls don't prove that the gospel Jesus existed. They don't even prove an historical Jesus existed.  

SJT: The Historical Atlas states: “In fact, it came to pass that Jesus’ death was the foundation of Christianity as we know it. Rather than running scared, Jesus’ followers grew into thousands. This early ‘church’ ran into very strong opposition in Jerusalem and around 35CE great persecution took place there. Around this time, one of the most decisive turning points in world history occurred. The early church began to accept those who were not of Jewish origin- the Gentiles” (Wawro, 2008, page 84).
12. So not really primary source material, nor has any relevance to the existence of the gospel Jesus?  It reflects perhaps an orthodox view that there was an historic Jesus. And sadly for you, it attributes the growth of the Church to its opening up to non-Jews (dropping dietary and circumcision requirements), not the bravery of the apostles.  Let me repeat this for emphasis. It contradicts your whole thesis

Part 2 follows


  1. Thanks Kaimatai. You inspired me to add this paragraph to my blog, which is getting much activity from your blog:
    In fact, suffering and martyrdom of the early Christian disciples has been documented by a variety of extra-Biblical sources. Eusebius, the first church historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History in which he speaks to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. He cites Dionysius of Corinth (~ 170 A.D.), Tertullian (~ 200 A.D.) and Origen (~ 240 A.D.) to back his assertions. He also cites Josephus (~ 95 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (~ 200 A.D.), and Hegesippus (~ 170 A.D.) on the martyrdom of James, the half brother of Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004).

    1. And none of that refutes Kaimatai, nor does it improve your initial position.