SocraticGadfly: The academic shortcomings of Jesus denialists

December 31, 2015

The academic shortcomings of Jesus denialists

First, folks, that's what the likes of Robert M. Price, Joseph Atwill, Richard Carrier and Acharya (D.M. Murdock) are called here. Not "mythicists." I've moved Robert Eisenman into that camp too. (Wiki links on the above.)

The original version of post-Enlightenment Jesus mythicism really took off in late-Victorian Britain, around the same time as Theosophy and the Society for Psychical Research took off.

First, it wasn't just Jesus mythicism; Buddha mythicism and Zoroaster mythicism were also in the air. (Wiki's article fails to mention that, sadly.)


In my opinion, it was an attempt to "spiritualize" all three religions at precisely the same time Theosophy and psychic beliefs were in the rise. Especially given that Theosophy was connected to both Buddhism and Christianity, this makes some sort of sense.

Hinduism wouldn't be eligible for spiritualizing. The British who had the Raj in India, with stereotyping their "wogs" and seeing the all-too-anthropomorphic gods of Hinduism, would have said ixnay on that.

And Judaism? Well, the "genteel" anti-Semitism of late Victorian England would put the kibosh on that.

That said, it was an idea with a positive goal, was Jesus mythicism. This is not to exclude that late-Victorian mythicism wouldn't have been guided by academic tools such as myth-and-ritual school of comparative religion or comparative mythology.

Today? It seems to be little more than an evangelistic vehicle for Gnu Atheism and as such, worth about as much.

Let's look at the leading intellectual lights.


Price (His homepage, and for others)?

First, as this rant on Facebook, an anti-Obama screed, shows, academic skills in Biblical criticism certainly don't translate across borders. (Note: Price normally posts to Facebook as "public," not "friends" or "friends of friends," therefore, I am not revealing any private confidences.)

Since then, per the screen capture of a recent Facebook post by him, he's gone far, far beyond that. In case you can't read the print in his avatar, it says, "Never apologize for being white."

A mix of that and commenting on a Facebook site about "American White History Month" (and not even the first such site!) would indicate that, if not a full-out racist, Price is at least that genteel, pseudo-scientific creature, the racialist.

(Update: Price is an official fan/liker of Ted Cruz on Facebook, showing how far in the right-wing tank he is politically.

A leading atheist and Jesus denialist, in addition to being an apparent racialist is also a fanboy of Christian Reconstructionist, and Prez candidate, Ted Cruz. Isn't that like a closeted gay Republican politician voting for anti-gay legislation?) 

It's all part of what I call Christianism as a parallel to Islamism, or what Wiki labels Christian atheism.

He used to teach at a seminary named for a leader of the African-American wing of the New Thought movement. This is a school accredited only by an organization that accredits diploma mills. Think of a black version of Unity (from which Johnnie Colemon graduated, in fact), and that's where he teaches. At a minimum, doubly ironic for teaching at a metaphysics-dripping seminary, and a black one to boot. At a maximum, doubly hypocritical. (That said, I wonder if the folks at Johnnie Colemon know about all aspects of his personality.)

Oops, it's now "used to teach," IIRC. I think the Seminary moved and Price chose not to. Anyway, he now teaches at the Center for Inquiry's CFI Institute, which is online-only. I believe that it offers courses, but no degrees, and also does not appear to exist any longer as a separate CFI entity, but is rather rolled up within the Dawkins Foundation. Nuff ced.

As for my non-"credentialism" comments about Price?

Are they mean-spirited? Or, logically, am I committing the classic fallacy of an ad hominem?

I think not.

Rather, I think that an academic who's also a racialist, when we know that no such thing as "race" scientifically exists, despite racialists' attempts to gussie it up in pseudo-scientific dross, has left the door open to his critical thinking skills in general being questioned.

Ditto for the fact that the place where he teaches is a diploma mill. Yes, luck can be involved with whether one lands an academic position or not. But, it's not necessarily the only factor. Price could teach at a credentialed community college, for example.

Add to it that Price believed a cock-and-bull story about an ancient Priapus statue indicates he could be a "movement atheist," an activist, even if not a Gnu, per my observation a few paragraphs above.

Update: Maybe Price's teaching at a New Thought seminary isn't by accident? Given that, per Wiki, he calls himself a "Christian atheist," let's just be honest and call him a New Ager. If atheism in a broader sense means "no metaphysical beliefs of any sort," then Gnu Atheists have latched on to him for strange reasons. Certainly for uncritical and unskeptical ones.

So, he must be simpatico with teaching at Johnnie Colemon on ideas, while, I guess, wishing he were teaching all Caucasians. The school surely knows about his professional stances, but apparently not his personal ones.

Beyond that, his review of Eisenman's "The New Testament Code" undercuts any previous modicum of actual scholarly insight I had given to him. I mean, his Semitic language scholarship to claim that the Hebrew version of "Caliph" is behind the full nomenclature of James son of Alphaeus and Simon bar-Cleophas is a howler, no two ways about it. Here is a possible refutation on Alphaeus. And the Hebrew חֵלֶף actually means "spare part" or "replacement." That took me all of two minutes. On Cleophas? Quite possibly a place name.

Price also seems to entertain the possibility that Cthulhu is real, or such is the impression I have occasionally gotten.


That leads me to D.M. Murdock, aka Acharya.

She was an original peddler of this nonsense; I say it via Gnu Atheist thought leader P.Z. Myers favorably touting it. She has no bachelor's level degree in religion, let alone a graduate degree. As Murdock's Wiki page notes, she is 10 times more credulous a peddler of bad puns than was the Yahwist section author of the Torah.

Her listing of her academic background on her website seems precisely done to cover actual thinness. Take being a "trench master" on an archaeology dig. Nice, yes, but, unless at a major new dig, it's more grunt work than intellectual work. (As a kid, I watched my dad assist as a certified amateur archaeologist at a couple of Anazasi digs, so this observation isn't out of life.) Plus, note that this work is all at classical sites. No Biblical archaeology from you!

And, the wrongness about the Priapus statue is only the tip of the iceberg. Here's a laundry list of other howlers of hers.

Some denialists like to bash her, but Price and Eisenman are among those who give her touts on her website.

And, it's also not mean-spirited to call a cock-and-bull story a cock-and-bull story.

Update, Dec. 30, 2015. Murdock has just died, and ironically, on Jesus Day/Mithras Day, Dec. 25, 2015. Her death from cancer reflects the tenuousness of the U.S. health care system, from what I've read about her passing. At the same time, from what I've parsed together, it reflects the fact that she, too, had no full-time position or job, and no regular, steady, income stream, because mythicism of the Denialist Four Horseman is so outside academia that nobody claiming to be an academic mythicist can actually get a regular job teaching it.

Ironically, for someone claiming to be rigorously academic, she went down the alternative treatments road for her cancer, too. And, then tried to blame medicine ("conventional medicine" is simply called "medicine" at my site, folks) for her liver failure rather than accepting a rapid metastasis of her breast cancer.

The first of those two links illustrates what I said in the paragraph above that about the health care system here, as far as costs she was facing. That said, this:
I immediately started what turns out to be a ketogenic, anti-cancer diet, supplemented with known cancer-fighting substances as curcumin and many others, including mushrooms and ginger

Is pure nonsense.

No wonder she got defensive:
Do NOT let anyone go about writing stupid blogs saying that “alternative medicine” killed me. That would be yet more inaccurate propaganda.
It maybe didn't hasten your death, but it didn't slow it down, of that I'm sure.

Madam, you would have been better off coming to the point of "acceptance," much sooner, then finding a doctor ready to prescribe you a morphine overdose. 

What's also funny is that many sites mourning her are NOT "freethought" or "Gnu Atheist" sites. They're New Agers to the max. It's funny, but it's totally unsurprising, since in addition to not being a critical thinker in general, I never got the indication she was an atheist of any sort.

NOTE: This update will be expanded into a separate post for the start of next week. And, it's now up.


Carrier? He's proof positive of Mark Twain's bon mot about "lies, damn lies and statistics." Claiming that Bayesian probability and statistics allows him to estimate the most likely historicity odds of Jesus as 0.008 percent is horse hockey. And, yes, he really makes that claim; click the link. There's simply not enough information from history of 2,000 years ago to have anywhere near that degree of precision, above all else. It's horse hockey for other reasons, too. Overall, it's clear that Carrier is "cooking" his Bayesian books to claim such pseudo-precise "precision."

Click the 0.008 link. It will explain how Carrier tries to put numbers on his prior and consequent probabilities. I first saw this on another blog, a person who actually, though not a mythicist himself, took Carrier seriously.

Related? On his own website, at this link showing how to work with Bayesian probabilities, Carrier essentially admits to something like book-cooking. I quote:
You can use the following calculator to run any standard two-hypothesis Bayesian equation (up to a limit of 1 in 100 odds on any variable, and accurate to only two decimal places).
Now, within his first book, I'm sure he claims to have a more precise use of Bayesian stats, but ... that itself might be part of the book-cooking.

In short, Carrier's use of Bayesian statistics underscores the old bon mot about lies, damned lies and statistics.

Beyond that, Bayesian probabilities are, in general, more subjective than Carrier tries to portray. And, trying to present them as more objective than they are is another part of the book-cooking.

Carrier does have a Ph.D. in ancient history, so he's ahead of Murdock and at Price's academic level. However, in six years since obtaining that Ph.D., he has held no academic position, not even as an adjunct. His listing of such things as "instructor" at Partners for Secular Activism or "visiting lecturer" at Center for Inquiry Institute don't count, of course.

And, having an eight-page CV, like spinning one volume into two on Bayesian analysis of Jesus' historicity, is blathering up there with Murdoch, especially when it lists publications in non-peer review, non-technical journals. As for the amount of blathering? His surprises me not one whit, not considering the vomitorium of words he spills out at times at Freethought Blogs. And, he, like Murdoch, knows neither Hebrew, nor Aramaic, nor Syriac.

Beyond that, Carrier has what I can only call a willfully perverse methodology of interpreting Bible passages. Click this link for more. Along with a tendency to nit-pick, per Ehrman himself, to show that, if you're not 100 percent in agreement, you're an "enemy." How typically Gnu-ish.

And, it gets worse, as shown by an October 2017 debate. In short, he's an asshole and a putz who suffers from a high degree of Dunning-Kruger effect.

And, the "argument from silence," for which he is one of the strongest proponents, is logically fallacious, whether used for Jesus denialism, or to claim Jesus was a gay-lover because he doesn't say anything about homosexuality, or anything else.

Beyond that, Massimo Pigliucci, at Scientia Salon, has a new post, referencing an essay from a few years ago about the use of Bayesian probabilities in establishing the soundness of informal logical arguments.

Early in comments there, a British Gnu Atheist nutter (nice British term) trotted out the greatness of Carrier's work. I responded with this blog post, which lead to this discussion.

Coel, it matters not whether the 0.0008 is a low end, or a precise number in general. Per Aravis, that’s not how you do history — or any other of the humanities. Bayesian probabilities or anything else, you simply cannot be that precise with history. And, you know that.

Let’s put it this way. Carrier has a Ph.D. in ancient history. Whether I phrased as just 0.008 or per you:
“The probability that Jesus existed is somewhere between 1 in 12,500 [the 0.008%] and 1 in 3. In other words, less than 33% and most likely nearer to zero. We should conclude that Jesus probably did not exist”
But, instead, said that about, Anaximander, Pythagoras, or another of the pre-Socratics, or about Homer, he would laugh in my face, and so would you. I know Aravis or Massimo would.

But, because it’s about Jesus, Jesus denialism, and Gnu Atheism, such utter rot, to use a good old British term, is acceptable, eh?

Well, no, it’s not.

Then, Alex, another commenter at Massimo's piece, says:
Also, in what sense is Carrier not a Biblical scholar? He is said to have got a PhD in ancient history and writes about little else but Biblical scholarship and possible misinterpretations of old Aramaic words. Does it only count as Biblical scholarship if one is a believer?
First, while he may comment on misunderstanding of old Aramaic words, I see no information that he has any knowledge of Aramaic or Hebrew on his quite extensive CV, which speaks only about the Greco-Roman world in general. I would think that, if he actually knew Aramaic, as long as his CV is, he’d explicitly mention it.

Beyond that, I even did a Google search: “Does Richard Carrier know Aramaic?” And I can’t get any hits that will confirm that he does.

Assuming he does not, the fact that he would still think to comment on misunderstandings of old Aramaic words “goes to character,” your honor. And, that’s putting it politely.

But, places where he calls a Targum an “Aramaic translation of the Old Testament” show he’s no biblical scholar. 

Fuller quote, from his original blog site: “A Targum is an Aramaic translation (or paraphrase or interpretation) of the OT. So really, this is akin to a textual variant for this passage.” 

Targums, as actual scholars know, were far more than that. They were commentaries, exegesises and more.

It’s clear that not only does he not know Aramaic, but that he just doesn’t know the bible that well, especially the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, especially when he’s engaged in quote-mining and gets caught.

Carrier, as far as I can tell, also does not know Hebrew. He claims to know five languages — as best as I can tell, these are English, French, German, Latin and classical Greek. Because he doesn't know Hebrew, and probably doesn't know details of the biblical koine Greek translations of the various books of the Tanakh, this leaves him unable to comment on text-critical issues of quotes of or references to, the Tanakh or Old Testament in the New Testament.

Beyond that, Alex, this?
He … writes about little else but Biblical scholarship and possible misinterpretations of old Aramaic words.
I’m not even sure what logical fallacy that should be named, but it’s definitely a fallacy.

There are people who write about nothing other than how the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Do you call these people “Shakespearean scholars”?

And, no, I never said one had to be a believer to be a Bible scholar. One of the best today, Bart Ehrman, is an agnostic.

Since the time of this piece's original writing, four years have passed and Carrier has yet to have a regular academic position anywhere, not in his academic background of classics let alone biblical studies. He also drinks too much of Tim O'Neill's Kool-Aid. He strikes me as being overall the Brian Dunning of Jesus denialists.

Why do I call him that?

Well, this Chrestus app he's selling, which appears to be a play on Tacitus using Χρήστος for χριστός, comes off like Dunning's grifting.


Atwill has not even a bachelor's degree in theology, biblical studies or ancient history. (And he likely is engaged in some flim-flammery in claiming "Caesar's Messiah" was the best-selling book in religious history in the US in 2006.) And, the idea that Rome invented Jesus for Jewish crowd control is laughable to anybody who knows ancient history in general or the Roman Empire in particular. A PR blurb for his "Covert Messiah" shows that he's chock-full of motivated reasoning. The reality is that there are no "massive connections" or "parallels" between Josephus and the New Testament gospels.

He's also wrong on Flavian family history. He's so laughably wrong that Murdock calls him out, engaging in her own wrongness in doing so. (Her claim to distinguish between "Christians" and "ChrEstians" gets a Greek-language usage mistake by Tacitus, based on general ignorance of Judaism, elevated to canon. Epiphanius would love it, yet regret his missed that for his Panarion. Beyond that, per iotacism, Tacitus may have made no error anyway.) And, her claim that the four canonical gospels didn't exist until the middle of the 2nd century CE is also laughable. [NB: That's different from the idea that, say, John went through a second editorial hand after 150 CE.])

Finally, he's channeled this into some sort of grifting enterprise since I first wrote this blog post, if he's since written "Shakespeare's Secret Messiah."


The one person with seemingly a more impeccable academic background is Eisenman. But, he's gone beyond the point of credibility on his take on the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially his refusal to accept carbon dating evidence and other manners scientific. All he is proof for is that it's a good idea to wait until after one gets tenure to propose truly weird ideas. A decade or more ago, I wouldn't have lumped him in with the mythicists, but now I will, at least the narrower mythicists, and perhaps the full-blown denialists.

I have a "professional" M.Div. degree. It's a "terminal" degree in that, in most academic systems, I would have had to gotten a second master's before a Ph.D. But, I'll put it ahead of a Baptist Ph.D. on academic rigor, let alone one from a fundamentalist bible college.

My undergraduate degree was classical languages, and I read Hebrew there, too. I took a short course in Aramaic in seminary as well. That puts me ahead of all but Price (I think; maybe he never read Hebrew, either), and Eisenman. I've also taken both academic courses and independent study on historical-critical methodology, which applies to all ancient literature with a clear, diachronic development history, not just biblical literature. That puts me ahead of all but Price, Carrier and Eisenman, with Carrier either not learning much of it in his antiquities study or else deliberately ignoring it. And, it puts me well ahead of most denialists' fanboy flag-wavers.

Beyond that, most Jesus denialists, like most "denialists" in general, are to some degree, at least, conspiracy theorists, with the mindset that entails.

Mythicists in the broad sense G.R.S. Mead and G.A. Wells I separate from the Jesus denialists in one sense. Their general claim is that Jesus is a composite character, but has perhaps some historic personage behind him. They're also less conspiratorially minded than denialists. But, they too generally lack academic credentials.

That all said, many of the arguments of the denialists can be turned on their heads.

First, even with a brief period of evangelism, Judaism in the eastern Mediterranean was smaller than non-Jewish Hellenism by far. The argument from silence from 1st-2nd century CE pagans means little. There's other Jewish people and events they're also silent about. Did Rabbi Akiva also not exist?

Second, as noted, arguments about the critical development of Christian scriptures applies to the Homeric corpus and other things.

That's just some short notes, in the end, here. Other priniciples of Biblical criticism apply to some degree to study of antiquities in general, and some of the denialists' arguments besides that from science can be turned on their head.

So, while I don't totally agree with a Bart Ehrman, and would give more credence to the "soft mythicism" of the likes of Mead and Wells than he might, I'm definitely with him much more than I am his Gnu Atheist attackers like Carrier.

Speaking of, and regarding criticism of Ehrman as a critic of denialists? Anybody (per a social media comment I saw, surely reported elsewhere) who thinks Ehrman acts like a theist is showing their own bias, in my opinion, assuming that a liberal critical scholar who's also a theist and a Ken Ham have the same amount of credibility.

(Beyond that, theists can be credible outside of being theological academicians. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and cosmology come immediately to mind.)

As for this seemingly becoming a big issue? No, per a commenter on social media, I don't get why it is for Gnus, either.

Critical academic discussion of the New Testament will point out the same issues that deserve critical scrutiny, including the same theological and dogmatic conflicts between one gospel and another, a gospel vs. Paul's authentic letters, his authentic letters vs. pseudepigraphal ones, etc., whether there was a historic Jesus or not.

Since the different gospels, Paul, etc., have different Christologies, how they would be affected by mythicism would differ from gospel to gospel. But nowhere, do I think, would it greatly change their Christologies as determined by critical theology.

Since fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals already reject that theology anyway, Jesus denialism won't have any effect on them, because, even if the denialists seem to be nearer the truth than they seem right now, conservative Christians would reject them too.

Beyond that, any Gnu Atheists who claim Ehrman's lying in this because that's a Peter statue aren't reading well, and are also dumb enough and knee-jerk enough to believe the ravings of a loon renamed Acharya who tells worse puns to worse effect than the Yahwist-section writer in the Torah.

Meanwhile, it it possible that mythicism in the broadest sense, that Jesus of the New Testament didn't exist as described, or close to that, but is build on a historic personage? I say yes, it's possible, while still assigning it a low probability. It would make Christian growth rates easier, among other things.

That said, none of the people above have increased that low probability, as I see it.


Tim O'Neill said...

Nice summary. You may be interested in my new blog devoted to New Atheist Bad History:

And in my posts at my other blog critiquing Carrier and his acolyte David Fitzgerald:

Gadfly said...

Yes I am interested. You're added to the links list here and at my second blog:

Gadfly said...

Erm, I WAS interested, until O'Neill became an apologist for papal antisemitism. (I deleted him from my blogroll earlier this year, readers.)