Richard Carrier

The Good

Richard Carrier's formal training is in two seemingly unrelated disciplines: ancient history (with a specialty in the history of science, particularly during the Hellenistic and Roman periods) and philosophy. There is, however, a common principle underlying all of his work that brings these otherwise disparate disciplines together quite nicely. Most of his work in fact revolves around this single idea: that the academic discipline of history should be regarded as a proper science, which is to say … that it should be as empirical and naturalistic as possible, with an emphasis on falsifiability and parsimony. To this end, he has stressed the importance of applying statistical methods to historical claims, of treating the discipline of history with the same respect that we treat other academic enterprises, of holding the evidence that is presented in defense of any historical claim to the same standards of epistemological rigor and unambiguity as evidence in any other academic enterprise.

To this end, he has written a two volume work that, if its conception and argumentation turns out to be valid, I think will prove to be one the most significant and influential advances in historiography in a long time.

The first volume, Proving History, serves two functions:

  • First, to demonstrate the invalidity of the criteria that scholars use to establish historically reliable material about the historical Jesus. 

  •  Second, since the methods are as flawed and limited as they are, to delineate and establish a valid methodology to apply in their place. 

The first function is easy enough to do considering that it has been done already, in fact by virtually every scholar who has taken the time to critically examine the methodology in question and to write a book on it (Wells, Davies, Avalos, Keith, LeDonne, etc). What makes Carrier's approach novel is the fact that he approaches the problem from a statistical/mathematical perspective. Specifically, he employs Bayes' theorem, a formula that is traditionally used in statistical analysis and in predicting the unknowns in a given situation. Using Bayes' theorem with logical notation, he demonstrates the inherent flaws of each criterium in question using logical notation instead of just descriptively. While defenders of "criteriology" could if they want to easily deflect the criticism of Avalos & co as arbitrary or subjective with a simple "that's just your opinion"-like ripostes, they cannot take that same route when the logic of a mathematical formulation leads to an undeniable conclusion. To accomplish the second function, Carrier Carrier posits the use of Bayes' theorem as a more precise and unambiguous and therefore preferable method. 

Having done these things in the first volume, the second is On the Historicity of Jesus, in which Carrier applies the method he outlined in Proving History to the question of the historicity of Jesus and calculates a 1 in 12,000 probability (very conservatively I might add) that Jesus was an actual man, and he invites his peers to pose a challenge to his proposed methodology.  (See my review.)

The not-so-Good

Carrier at times evinces what Bob Price has called (referring to someone else) the "anxiety of influence," that is, the belief that only the most recent scholarship is worth considering, that "old" is necessarily outdated. I don't agree. I mean, theoretically I do understand that scholarship is a dynamic continuum always in the process of revision, but, practically, my experience tells me that it's not as clear-cut as that. An old work is only "outdated" in any meaningful sense if the scholarship has been overturned, not by merely being old. I have often been surprised to find out that a scholar has not bothered to read some of the foundational works in New Testament and/or historical Jesus studies. The danger in this is that it can lead us to consider a work outdated via some arbitrary expiration date rather than via its (lack of) merit, and to thus unduly neglect it as having gone bad somehow, as though it were milk or something. This sort of thinking ensures that the people who are "up to date" with Douglas Campbell's Framing Paul, a "new" work that posits that the Epistle to the Ephesians is a "genuine" letter of Paul, while neglecting and ignoring the work of someone like Van Manen, whose radical ideas (like the one that there is no such thing as a "genuine" letter of Paul), though more defensible than Campbell's, have been sitting dormant, unrefuted. What's more, this tendency to automatically dismiss stuff that is not recent seems like some sort of self-serving intellectual vanity.

The Bad

Carrier's books are generally very good and I recommend them highly, but if you follow him on his blog, you will probably at some point find him engaging in chest-thumping and browbeating behavior with some of his commenters there. Not that some of them don't deserve a good slap now and then, but this sort of combative stance is lamentable from a scholar. Undignified. Let people like Jim West and J. P. Holding do that kind of stuff. Let the music do the talking, I say.

Richard Carrier's "music" is good enough that he need not get embroiled in online pissing contests. Unfortunately, the internet is where he got his start, and I guess that you can take the boy out of the Bronx, but you can't take the Bronx out of the boy.


Selected Bibliography:

  • Proving History (2012)
    — ...

    Rating: ★★★★★

  • On the Historical Jesus (2014)
    — ...

    Rating: ★★★★★

  • Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (2013)
    — An anthology of critical responses to Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? by several of those  scholars whom he mischaracterizes or maligns in it. Co-edited by Price, he also contributes key chapters.

    Rating: ★★★★☆

  • Not the Impossible Faith (2009)
    —Written as a commissioned rejoinder to apologist J. P. Holding's argument that the Christian religion would have been impossible to found and proliferate had it not been for the veracity of its miracle claims.

    Rating: ★★★★☆
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