Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, summary

This is an overview of the recent three-part series. Links to the detailed individual posts are attached to the thumbnail pictures in the body of this post.

Was Jesus a real person who actually lived, or is he instead an ancient fictional or mythological character?

Dr. Richard Carrier votes fictional or mythological. Since 2014, his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt has enjoyed popular success. However, the book was published by a university press specializing in biblical studies, addressed to academics in that field, “the guild.”

This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but adapt the method to the subject matter and forget about numbers as measures of personal confidence in uncertain propositions.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 3

NYT Office scene

The guild knows the beat it covers.

This post concludes the series on the frosty reception of Dr. Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus among biblical studies academics, “the guild.” The series is not a book review of On the Historicity, but rather a sketch of a different Bayesian-style investigation parallel to Carrier’s.

Previous posts (link and link) have refined Carrier’s hypothesis specifications, considered alternatives to his permissible but unappealing choice of an initial belief state, and checked his claim to have weighted evidence systematically to disfavor his own preferred hypothesis. This post looks at some reservations about Carrier’s interpretations of ancient texts. Finally, a brief conventional Bayesian sensitivity analysis of his results sheds some light on the potential to open up the guild to new foundational ideas.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 2

Chaplin in Modern Times

Bayes isn’t as mechanical as some seem to think.

How confident should a reasonable person be that Jesus was a real person who actually lived? Academic biblical scholars, “the guild,” display little doubt. Dr. Richard Carrier urges a skeptical view in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus.

The first post in this series (link) specified two alternative hypotheses about Christian origins based on Carrier’s work. The next step in a Bayesian-style analysis is to compare the plausibility of the contending hypotheses based on general background information, before examining how more specific evidence about Jesus’ historical or mythical status might change the relative plausibilities.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 1

Workers lunch on girder

The guild sticks together and never looks down

Was Jesus a real person who actually lived, or is he instead an ancient fictional or mythological character?

Dr. Richard Carrier votes fictional or mythological. Carrier earned a Ph.D in ancient history from Columbia in 2008. Since 2014, his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt has enjoyed popular success. However, the book was published by a university press (Sheffield Phoenix) specializing in biblical studies. The book was addressed to academics in that field, “the guild” as they style themselves.

Over the years, the Uncertaintist has covered some of the tense interaction between Dr. Carrier and members of the guild (link). We now await his follow-up volume, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, due out in September. As is obvious from the flippant title, the new book won’t be addressed to the academy. That’s not because the scholarly battle has been won: all but a few guild researchers still premise their work on a Jesus who really lived.

Is that because five or six years is too soon to expect to see widespread change in dominant attitudes? Maybe, but Carrier acknowledges that much of his main thesis resembles that of Earl Doherty, whose writings have been available since the 1990’s (link).

What most clearly distinguished On the Historicity from other “mythical Jesus” works was to frame its argument using Bayesian methods, introduced by Laplace in 1814. Carrier assessed specific probability numbers and ratios to express the weight of evidence and how confidently his conclusions should be held. That idea hasn’t swept the guild by storm, either.

In this short series, the Uncertaintist will look at the historicity question within the framework of a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but adapt the method to the subject matter and forget about numbers. The findings of the series can be summarized by reference to the subtitles of the two Carrier books mentioned. That we might have reason to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus can probably be supported. To convince many others that any specific mythical Jesus hypothesis is what the earliest Christians really believed about Christ probably remains out of reach for now.

This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Bushels of those are already on the web. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for continuing work, now that Dr Carrier himself seems to have left us for, well, outer space.

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A small personal brush with the beyond for Hallowe’en

A custom in the United States is to decorate the graves of military veterans with small American flags to observe the Memorial Day holiday in late May. Despite the best efforts of families, neighbors and veterans’ organizations, some graves are overlooked. By late October, many of the flags that were placed back in the spring have been lost, displaced during the summer and early fall by maintenance crews or uprooted by the wind. Some flags end up littering the ground.

If I’m visiting a cemetery and I see a flag on the ground, I try to return it to the grave it came from. If I can’t figure out which grave that was, then I’ll plant it beside any nearby likely grave marker which lacks a flag.

Usually, the placement or replacement of a flag is simple. One time, however, I discovered at my feet an austere government-issue marker, darkened by time, flush with the ground, and partly overgrown with grass. It seemed to have been overlooked that May, and maybe was nearly forgotten altogether. I had a spare American flag, and decided to place it there.

The wooden dowel that served as a miniature “flagpole” slid easily into the ground. When I tried to reposition the flag, however, it wouldn’t come back out. Not to be too imaginative about it, but it was if someone or something was pulling on the other end of the dowel from underground.

That story has a happy ending. I left well enough alone. The grave was welcome to keep the flag. I was only trying to make the installation neater anyway. The flag survived the winter, and the now more easily visible grave got a brand new flag the next spring. Thereafter somebody began to look after the marker. These days, the stone is much more visible and the grass around it is trimmed. Sometimes small bunches of flowers appear. Thank you for your service, Mister Wilmot.

For this Hallowe’en, the Uncertaintist recounts a very recent instance where your ob’d correspondent’s attention was directed to another neglected gravestone, whether by happenstance or by something hidden.

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More on what wonders a dog can appreciate

Last Sunday afternoon, I was walking with a neighbor’s beagle named Sadie. As we explored a sandbar along the shore of the Merrimack River under a sunny blue sky, we heard an engine sound coming from downriver. We both looked together, and saw a powered tricycle paraglider following the curves of the riverbank, headed our way, flying low, perhaps 12 meters or about 40 feet aloft.

Sadie moved closer, standing quietly beside me, motionless except for her eyes and the tilt of her head. She looked up at me briefly, then skyward, maintaining her gaze on the ultralight as it passed directly over us. I doffed my cap to the pilot, whose craft was soon out of sight, somewhere behind us blocked from view by the surrounding trees. Sadie looked up at me again. After our eyes met, she eventually returned to her survey of the sandbar, and shortly thereafter decided we should leave for home.

A few years ago, the Uncertaintist considered whether or not a dog could appreciate a stage magic trick. (Click on the screen shot to read the story.) The post featured an anecdote in which the beloved Akita Clea seemed to me to have communicated her awe and wonder for a movie-magic miracle in a film that we were watching together.

The post went on to discuss what might be needed to collect more messages of awe and wonder from other dogs.

The toughest part of repeating the experience with another dog might be to get the dog to watch closely. Maybe that’s where the treats came in for the magician in the other blogger’s video. Something was needed to hold the dog’s attention, even at the price of having the teasing overpower the wonder. By good luck, or by Edward Norton’s skill [the actor who played the magician in the film we were watching], Clea’s attention was gotten and held without teasing her, and then, when magic unfolded, she was impressed with what she saw.

An ultralight is not magic (yet not so long ago…), but its close encounter was a source of wonderment, fitting for a minor miracle. I have no serious doubt that Sadie’s attentive behavior as the craft flew over us, so similar to my own demeanor, is best explained as her experiencing a mental state not radically different than my own. Perhaps her affect was more intense than mine, since it is entirely possible that she had never before seen the like.

In any case, there was no problem at all getting Sadie to watch closely. When the unusual, absorbing and beautiful unfolded as she watched, she was impressed with what she saw. I have no serious doubt of that, so effectively did Sadie communicate her feelings and her interest in whether I was feeling the same.


Photo credit: The image of the ultralight is reblogged from That Adventure Life (link).

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