Richard Carrier Takes On Bart Ehrman

22 Mar

Richard Carrier has posted on his blog a response to Bart Ehrman’s article over at the Huffington Post discussing Jesus Mythicism. Here is an excerpt from Ehrman’s peice:

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). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

I couldn’t believe when Ehrman said this, because it’s simply not true. We don’t have multiple “independent” accounts of Jesus’ life; all accounts of Jesus’ life comes from one context: Early Christianity. And none of the gospels are independent because they all derive from Mark in some fashion, and Paul is useless for recovering the historical Jesus.

And then there is a problem with appealing to hypothetical documents behind prima facie sources. It would be fine if the hypothetical source had 100% certainty of existence, but anything less than that drags down the probability of any hypothesis that depends on the hypothetical. That’s why it’s called hypothetical. There’s a chain: Probability that Jesus exists * probability of the hypothetical source * probability of the main source. If the prior probability of Jesus’ existence was unknown, say 50%, and the hypothetical source had a probability of 80%, then this drags down Jesus’ probability of existing to 50% * 80% = 40%. The more hypothetical sources you add to that chain, the less probable Jesus becomes (which is why we need something like Bayes’ theorem to have a responsible way of adding hypothetical sources along with their probability of existence).

Anyway, this is a snippet of Carrier’s response:

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. The background to the creeds and sermons are even more conjectural (the creeds might go back to Aramaic sources, but none attest to a historical Jesus in the required sense of the term; and the sermons almost certainly do not go back to Aramaic sources, but are literary constructions of the author of Acts, writing in a Semitized Greek heavily influenced by the Septuagint

Don’t be too alarmed of a falling out. At least hopefully. Carrier has glowing praises of Ehrman’s other works. But…

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