Play Mythty For Me? Dr Carrier Carries On

It’s considered bad form for an author or editor to reply to critical reviews of their own work. But as Richard Carrier’s recent attempt to trash the Sources of The Jesus Tradition looks more like a fit of distemper than a serious attempt to assess a collection of essays (and hardly represents “my own work”) I think his “review” is fair game.

Sources, like a lot of anthologies, is an untidy book.  That’s not my phrase; it’s one I learned from looking at reviews of two significant twentieth- century collections–a famous one by Hans Bartsch called Kerygma and Myth, consisting of scattered and not very well focused responses to Rudolph Bultmann’s classic essay The New Testament and Mythology, and a real second-rater, undeservedly famous, called The Myth of God Incarnate.  In fact, it was the editor of the latter, John Hick, who called it untidy.

I’d probably describe each anthology as one or two good essays surrounded by clutter and private opinion.  Most scholars of any experience know that “collections” and anthologies have a very low batting average in terms of popular success and none at all in terms of financial success.  The corollary is that no editor ever became famous on the basis of editing other people’s work, nor probably totally reprobate either.  Richard Carrier wants it to be otherwise.

Anthologies are untidy because unless the contributors agree on every point or disagree on a defined set of them, the essays tend to wander over the predilections of the essayists. Meeting and conference papers are especially notorious in this respect, editor-driven themed collections much less so.

Sources emanated from a couple of conferences associated with an initiative called the Jesus Project, about which I‘ve written far too much. Carrier was invited to become a part of this initiative a few years ago after its “founding” at UC Davis in 2007 and just prior to its suspension by the host organization, the Center for Inquiry, for which he now works, apparently as an advocate,  in 2009.*

Carrier was originally enthusiastic about the aims, even about my leadership.    He now says that on the basis of post-publication (!) conversations he had with me, “Hoffmann was a complete dick to me, and wouldn’t own up even to the mistakes I had actual proof he had made. Rumor has it he’s like this. But this was my first experience of it. His behavior toward me leaves me with no further sympathy for him, so here it goes….” What “goes” is a cyclone of aspersion that even in the sections where his sentences parse looks like the verbiage of an under-trained enthusiast.  (As an aside, New Testament scholarship is getting a lot of amateurs lately, most of them under-trained).

I am still not sure what “mistakes” he’s referring to other than his own, which were as substantial as his contribution was irrelevant, a long discursus on Bayes’ theorem that never once budges above pedantic lecturing to engage the literary material – the New Testament – to which its application is implied to be relevant. A cautious, or less sympathetic editor would have cut it eo ipso as being totally to the left of the topic, though Carrier shows a fleeting acquaintance with some of the methods (and limits) of conventional New Testament criticism.  It does not rise to the level of convincing expertise.

The other essays Carrier finds worthwhile, indeed redemptive, are the contributions of Frank Zindler, head of the American Atheist Press, and Ron Lindsay, head of the organization that employs him (and one suspects, the organization at whose bidding he’s doing this hatchet job). Needless to say, he feels his own essay belongs to this lot.

What these three contributions have in common is that their authors share the conviction that Jesus did not exist.  That’s a fair conclusion, as I have said on several occasions, and one of the areas the Jesus Project was meant to address.  Of the three, Zindler comes closest, tonally, to “fitting” in with the essays Carrier would like to rip away, especially my own. Lindsay on the other hand writes a fairly anachronistic piece using the formulations of modern American jurisprudence as basis for deciding questions of “evidence” in the gospels.  But while naive, it at least (to quote the author) discharges its duty to the subject matter, unlike Carrier’s piece where the subject matter never comes into view.     To be generous, it may be largely the writer’s own sense of the deficiency of his performance that leads him to accuse me of sloppy editing.  There is a lot an editor can do to ensure that an article or chapter is an accurate representation of what its author intended it to say.  There is virtually nothing an editor can do to make an article rewrite itself once it’s been written.

Thomas Bayes. Maybe.

Carrier also claims that my own public presentation at the conference does not correspond to what I have included in the book.  As a matter of fact, “On Not Finding the Historical Jesus”  and “The Canonical Historical Jesus” represent the entirety of the handwritten scripts of my presentations at the Amherst conference, edited for publication but not at all substantially different from what was said in 2008.

Whether the essays, meager and merely suggestive as they are, have any merit beyond what Carrier assigns to them, I cannot say.  I can say the “naivety” he curiously assigns to me concerning the origins of the sayings of Jesus, the identity of Paul and (especially) the status of Ephesians reveals a woeful ignorance of my own scholarship in this area, especially in terms of the history of the canon.  Beyond this, what he says is pure tantrum and loaded with the language of a man who strives to be outrageous and appears to be perennially upset.

Do we agree about anything?  Yes, the chapters by Luedemann and Meggitt are very good.  So, however, are the chapters by Trobisch and MacDonald and Chilton. As for Arthur Droge, whose comments at the meeting were also very good, Arthur was not able to get them to me in publishable form before deadline, though a version of his remarks appeared in the journal Caesar, cut by CFI at the same time at the Jesus Project was defunded. As for James Tabor and others, their lectures were not available because they formed part of work already committed to publishers.  They were gracious enough to share their ideas with  the group–as were many others at UC Davis in 2007. I do not think this is unusual, but I recognize that as a full-time self-promotionalist Carrier does not travel an orthodox conference circuit where this protocol would be familiar to him.  He writes primarily for his fans, atheists pre-committed to his view of a mythical Jesus who then pretend to be passionate about evidence and method. Obviously people like me deserve the ire of people like that.

Yet even by my low standards, a 50% rate of good and excellent essays is a “win,” especially since the majority of the losers–my own (3 of 15)–get the axe as “fails.”

Dr. Carrier has spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to separate me out from the group in order to perform a kind of literary assassination, but in a way so crude and bilik that the whole interminable exercise sounds like a whine.

But to recap: The book remains untidy, like a lot of anthologies that begin as conferences and papers.  I wish it could have been tidier. I am guessing, however, that the sore thumb sticking out of the collection in such a way that its author must now wonder what he was doing is an essay entitled “Bayes Theorem for Beginners.”  I certainly wonder what it’s doing there.


*As of April 2011, much of the work of the Jesus Project is subsumed in a new group completely independent of CFI and its agenda. Information concerning The Jesus Prospect is available from its managing director,  S.L. Fisher: