Richard Carrier Takes On Maurice Casey

04 Mar


Truth be told, I haven’t been keeping up with the historical/mythical Jesus hypothesis all that intently. I’ve been reading about it tangentially, but it hasn’t been at the forefront of my thoughts on religion and early Christianity.

As you might have noticed, I’ve been blogging about the psychological reasons why people are religious more recently. Quite honestly, the historical/mythical Jesus argument looks hopelessly theoretical without anything concrete to explore so I maintain my agnosticism. Really, all of the evidence that we currently have regarding Jesus is probably all of the evidence that we’re ever going to have about Jesus so the only thing that can change at this point is probably something more political/psychological/cultural.

But anyway, Carrier has a lengthy rebuttal to Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?. I have to get this disclaimer out of the way: I haven’t read Casey’s book, so I’m in no position to comment on the accuracy of Carrier’s portrayal of Casey’s arguments. But Carrier has always been good about not strawmanning opponents and his works are always well evidenced so my prior probability that it faithfully reports Casey’s arguments is pretty high.

What was really interesting about this review — as I mentioned above, from the context of why people are religious — is that Carrier points out a host of cognitive biases that points to the idea that Casey identifies too strongly with being a “Jesus historicist” to even allow for the possibility that Jesus mythicists can actually have good arguments. Take a look at this:

Deficit of Hypothetical-Categorical Reasoning

Casey is often incapable of understanding his own critics. So bizarrely, in fact, that it suggests a genuine cognitive deficit usually characterizing persons with an abnormally low IQ. I caught several examples of Stephanie Fisher exhibiting exactly the same cognitive deficits, where she could not think in abstract, hypothetical terms, but only in concrete, literal terms, resulting in bizarre misunderstandings of rather basic explanations of things (she had an extremely hard time understanding conditional “if, then” statements, or thought experiments, or even the purpose of counterfactual reasoning).

To understand how Casey shows the same cognitive deficiency, you need to first read an unrelated example of what I am talking about, based on a study of such reasoning. Once upon a time some researchers tested subjects in remote and previously largely illiterate villages of Uzbekistan and neighboring areas, as follows:

In a typical exchange the questioner asks: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there?” One peasant answers: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear, I’ve never seen any others. … We don’t talk about what we haven’t seen.” Exchanges of this sort could be repeated at length. In essence, the peasants refused, or were unable, to reason hypothetically. Similarly, when asked about similarities between objects, they tended to group them by similar use rather than by similar abstract categories. For them, a saw and a hatchet go together because they are both needed to make firewood, not because they are both tools (and, moreover, a log needs to be included in the group for utilitarian completeness).

The people tested had adequate vocabularies and detailed knowledge about their world. The exchanges with the testers revealed that they were often quick-witted, clear thinkers. They were, however, not comfortable with abstract or hypothetical thinking and found such thinking to be alien. In their world, abstract categories and hypothetical thinking were, frankly, not perceived to be very useful, and even faintly preposterous. Sometimes their answers implicitly said as much. Even if such habits of thought had been potentially useful, no one was disadvantaged because no one else in the community thought in such ways either. Not having such habits of thought, they did not develop expertise in dealing with problems involving abstract categorical and hypothetical (ACH) thinking assessed by the Raven’s and Wechsler Similarities tests.

Historically, neither peasants, nor laborers, nor tradespeople nor, indeed, practically anyone anywhere had much use for such skills prior to the 20th Century, except philosophers, scientists, and perhaps a few others.

James Allan Cheyne, “Atheism Rising: Intelligence, Science, and the Decline of Belief,”

Skeptic 15.2 (2009), pp. 33-37; see also James Flynn, What Is Intelligence? (2007)

You might not think this could possibly be relevant.

Just wait.

A stark example of this is when Casey repeatedly says no one else ever talks about crucifixions in heaven, therefore it’s impossible that anyone would imagine crucifixions occurring in heaven (6-5013, 5126, etc.). This is just like claiming not to know if bears in the north are white because you haven’t seen one. It’s hyper-concrete thinking.

In actual fact, in Jewish cosmology, all sorts of things that exist or occur on earth also do so in heaven: fighting, writing, scrolls, temples, chairs, trees, gardens. The Revelation of Moses has Adam buried in heaven (in the Garden he was made from, the very Garden Paul says was in the “third heaven” in 2 Cor. 12, just as the Rev. Mos. also says, in which Adam’s fall is described literally: a fall from the heavenly Garden to the earth below). So there’s even dirt in heaven, and corpses, and graves (Eve is also buried there, along with others). And indeed as the Ascension of Isaiah and the book of Hebrews both say: in general things on earth have correlates in heaven (Asc. Is. 7.10; Heb. 9.22-24; Philo provides an elaborate explanation; many Jewish cosmological texts elaborate on the objects and occurrences in heaven that have counterparts on earth).

If people can be buried in heaven, and fight battles in heaven, and visit temples in heaven, then they can be crucified in heaven. But to grasp that requires abstract-categorical-hypothetical reasoning: you have to be able to infer from the abstract hypothesis “ancient Jews imagined all kinds of things happening in heaven” to “crucifixion can be one of those things,” just as one has to be able to infer from “it snows in the north and bears in snowy places are white” to “bears in the north are white.” Saying bears in the north can’t be white until you literally see one yourself exhibits a major deficit in ACHR. And here, though we’re even explicitly told that the things and activities on earth have correlates in heaven (and have countless examples of this belief), Casey can’t imagine any unless he can find a specific text specifically saying so. That is a cognitive defect. And it greatly impairs his ability to reason.

Now Casey (and his student, Stephanie Fisher) is obviously a high IQ individual, or he probably wouldn’t have become an expert in Aramaic. And he also, ironically, must be able to work with abstractions since his fringe hypothesis that Mark is based on a previous Aramaic work is, well, hypothetical. No such text exists, so Casey is manipulating a document in the abstract to arrive at his conclusions. Therefore it seems highly likely that Casey must be suffering from an extreme cognitive bias that prevents him from analyzing mythicist arguments dispassionately.

This, again, fits my experience with this whole debate. A lot of bad blood has been seething between historicists and mythicists over the past four or five years I’ve been reading about it. It’s definitely leaning towards becoming a full on Green vs. Blue issue. What’s more, which is also pretty sad IMO, is that a historical Jesus has very little to nothing to do with the emergence of Christianity. At least, from a secular perspective. The vast majority, if not the entirety, of the Gospel narratives are myths. None of the epistle writers in the NT met Jesus nor do they seem to care about any of his teachings. So Jesus the man has almost no relevance to why Christianity became the religion that it did. Whether Jesus was real or a myth seems more like a MacGuffin.

But, yeah. Carrier’s review of Casey’s book is pretty brutal. I’m looking forward to reading Carrier’s actual mythicist book, On The Historicity of Jesus when it comes out in the next few months.

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Posted by on March 4, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth


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