April 27, 2012

A pox on #GnuAtheist and anti-Gnu houses alike

P.Z. Myers, aka Pharyngula, gives space to "Jesus mythicist" Richard Carrier for bashing liberal Jesus scholar Bart Ehrman, who is somewhere between deism and agnosticism himself, for nothing more than upholding the historicity of Jesus.

And, in return, self-appointed defender of secular humanism against the hordes of Gnu Atheism R. Joseph Hoffmann, bashes Myers, Carrier, and "mythicism" (a term I reject as much as "accommodationism" when used by Gnus).

And, I've come to the conclusion that what we have is Carrier and Ehrman (we'll see what reply Ehrman may have to Carrier) as authors of dueling books with dueling propositions. Between their stances, there is no room for compromise.

And, above that level, we have Myers willing to give a platform to anyone who might advance the Gnu Atheist agenda and help recruit cadres (his Chairman Mao word from a couple of years ago), while Hoffmann, in part because he's a Jesus historicist, sees P.Z.'s "using" of Carrier as another excuse to attack him.

First, my reply to Hoffmann, since I just wrote it;
I disagree with your take on mythicism, starting with the word. (That said, I'm not a Gnu by any means.) Were I to offer Bayesian-like odds, based on current levels of scholarship, I'd offer 10 percent odds, maybe 20 percent, that Yeshua bar Yusuf never lived. In other words, high enough probability for it to be legitimate discussion. That said, PZ is really ridiculous here. While Ehrman believes in the actual existence of Jesus, he's always, from what I've seen, been cordial about the issue. And, I know that from personal experience

And, quoting Paul? The only thing he says in an authentic letter is that Jesus was "born of a woman." That says nothing about his historicity, and could be interpreted as nothing more than an anti-Gnostic statement. [Calling James "the brother of the Lord" can be seen as nothing but stating his leadership in the Christian movement.]

Q?  Q says nothing historically grounded about Jesus' existence other than his baptism, and thousands of people were baptized by him. [Q is the putative source behind the wisdom sayings of Jesus common to Matthew and Luke.]

As for mentions of Caiphas, etc.? Well, Matthew mentions a likely non-historic "massacre of infants." Mark has no birth account. Luke of course botches the historicity of Jesus' birth and in a royal way, enough to argue AGAINST anything else he claims that is alleged to be historical.

Besides, as I've said, there's option 3: Yeshua was the Pharasaic Yeshua crucified by Alexander Jannai. That gives more than a century for the myth to develop and the history to be replaced.
And, yes, I believe that is at least in the 5 percent range, if not 10 percent. So, let's discuss it more.

Second, let's look at what Carrier says. The reality? Hoffmann somewhat overstates Carrier's tone vis-a-vis Ehrman (however, per my update, way below, Carrier had more vitriol in another post; dunno why Hoffmann didn't lead with that), and ignores some of Ehrman's own tone in his original article. Carrier notes he has appreciated Ehrman's previous books, and even that many mythicists of the past have been kind of nutso. Otherwise, it's a general argument against some of Ehrman's claims for historicity.

That said, Carrier engages in some degree of special pleading, like insisting that if we had all of Paul's writings, it would be clear what calling James the Lord's brother means. I partially agree with the commenter who says it's strained, but don't think it's AS strained as the commenter claims.

And, , yes, Ehrman DOES overstate his case. And, per my comment to Hoffmann, does so with a vitriol I've not seen from him before. Although, from what I've read, Carrier's now book-to-be is probably very overrated, Ehrman's, which I want to read, may well be, too.

A sampling from Ehrman's blog post:
With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves).  
First, the claim that an original written source, a proto-Q, is traceable to within a year or two of his life, is laughable. Second, per the response I made to Hoffmann, Ehrman knows better about Paul.

Then there's this two-edged sword:
And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers' imagination?
Yes, Gnus may have motivation behind their actions. But, a Robert Price, for example, isn't identified with Gnus. As someone who's at least more skeptical about Jesus than Ehrman, I know I'm not a Gnu.

And, just as Myers and his ilk are ruining the word "atheist," Gnu or otherwise, Hoffman and his "acoylte," Steph, are coming closer to ruining the phrase "secular humanism" through using this debate as a vehicle.

And, in the midst of all this, academic scholarship is being trashed. Carrier, even if he's half again as wrong as Ehrman on facts on the ground, is wronger yet to use Myers' blog, I think, even though Carrier himself isn't explicitly advocating for Gnu Atheism, he has a history of cozying up to Gnus. Ehrman is wrong, even if Carrier overstates it, not only to make overblown claims in general, but to take any glee that a "Jesus ahistoricist" of Ph.D. standing would have no chance of getting a university job; . Hoffmann, beyond making his "sponsorship" of secular humanism more iffy, blackens his academic credentials by opposing "ahistoricity" in part because of a Gnu-related, and CFI-related, grudge against Carrier.

Overall, though, Hoffmann and Ehrman come off the worst, even though I think Carrier can't prove the ahistoricity, and I don't mean that in the logical sense that you can't prove a negative. He may raise the likelihood, in a probabilistic sense, but no more than that.


Update, April 25.

Things are heating up. Carrier may be stretching his claims about documentary evidence for a dying-rising Messiah among pre-Christian Jews. That said, the Targum in question, by identifying Isaiah's Suffering Servant as the Messiah, while then taking strong pains to say that it's Israel, not the servant as a Messianic individual, who is suffering and dying, could well be seen as indirect evidence itself that such a belief existed among pre-Christian Jews.

Here's a good comment:
I think that Carrier is now personally too invested in this issue to be able to make the appropriate turnaround, but out of due deference to a scholar of Aristotle and Hume’s caliber, I won’t withhold the benefit of the doubt.
But, that isn't just Carrier. That applies to Ehrman, too. It applies to Hoffmann, who has some personal bad blood with Carrier. It applies to P.Z. Myers.

Meanwhile, Ehrman has fired back; he generally shows more "intellectual charity" (which he seeks from Carrier) than in his original Huffington Post blog, linked above.

I agree that some of Carrier's claims of poor scholarship by Ehrman were nit-picky.

That said, until Ehrman modifies his statement that ahistoricists shouldn't, de facto, get university posts, I have to say that he's tarring with an uncharitable brush himself.

Beyond that, as I noted above, there's plenty of ahistoricist fish in the sea besides Carrier. Robert Price isn't a Gnu, to the best of my knowledge. Wells tackled this issue before modern Gnu Atheism was around. Ditto for others, since the ahistoricist movement is more than a century old.

Update 2: AND (I hear petards hoisting) ... in an old article, Hoffmann actually sounds sympathetic to the ahistoricist cause.
(A) hundred years after the heyday of the “Radical School” of New Testament scholarship—which certainly had its warts—the questions of “total spuriousness” (as of Paul’s letters) and the “non-historicity of Jesus” are still considered risible or taboo. They are taboo because of the working postulate that has dominated New Testament scholarship for two centuries and more: that conclusions depend on the uncovering of a kernel of truth at the center of a religious movement, a historical center, and, desirably, a historical person resembling, if not in every detail, the protagonist described in the Gospels. 
So, why the shift in rancor toward Carrier? Is it the CFI bad blood? Further Gnu Atheist bad blood? As I said above, R., one can be an ahistoricist without being a Gnu. 

But, elsewhere yet, Hoffmann assumes a relatively early date for the canonical gospels:
Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the Gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes as many perfectly reputable scholars continue to think?
If Jesus died when the Gospels claim, Mark is separated by 30 years, arguably one and a half generations, if not two. Luke and Matthew are a full two generations removed, if not more; Luke may not have come until the second century CE. (And we don't know when a written Q existed.)  John very well didn't reach at least semifinal form until 100 CE.

Not as glaring an error as Ehrman's, but ... iffy, at least.

This also should be precautionary towards people who want to put science on a scientism pedestal. True, the practitioners here are following "softer" sciences than physics or chemistry; nonetheless, these are all social/historical sciences researchers, and all driven by agendas of various sorts.

I've not got an academic enough past to follow everything, but I stand by what I have said before - the non-existence of Yeshua bar Yusuf, or whomever, is plausible enough to not be derided, and to get a real hearing in the academic world. To the degree that Ehrman, through seeing politicization of the other side, and Hoffmann, for participating in such battles, block this, they've taken the low road too. 

Update 3, April 30: Per an old blog post, there's a possibility that dying-rising gods were a a Jewish belief pre-Jesus, which undercuts historicists a bit more.

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