Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mythicism and Freeze-drying

I haven't blogged in awhile, largely because I've been preoccupied with finishing a paper that I'm delivering next week to the Lonergan Research Institute at Regis College in Toronto (and which can be found here). The LRI is the centre for Lonergan studies. Lonergan had close ties with Regis, and the centre houses the Lonergan archives and oversees the publication of his collected works. It was a significant honour to be invited to speak at the Institute, so I feel a real responsibility to ensure that what I present is my best work.

As I wrote the paper I returned to Meyer's scathing book review of John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus. Here I will quote a passage that comes near the end of the view.
Historical inquiry, with its connotations of a personal wrestling with evidence, is not to be found. There are no recalcitrant data, no agonizing reappraisals. All is aseptic, the data having been freeze-dried, prepackaged, and labelled with literary flair. Instead of an inquiry, what we have here is simply the proposal of a bright idea. But, as Bernard Lonergan used to say, bright ideas are a dime a dozen—establishing which of them are true is what separates the men from the boys.
As I reread this passage, which I quote in the paper discussed above, it occurs to me that this describes well what we see in mythicism. It's always good form to critique the best version of a position, and for mythicism that is surely Richard Carrier's work. It's well-written, an exemplar of rhetoric and of making one's historiography appear like a hard science. But that's all smoke and mirrors. Carrier's got a bright idea, but that's all. That bright is that there is a 2 in 3 chance that Jesus did not exist. That doesn't tell me that Jesus did not exist. In fact, "Did Jesus exist?" is not even Carrier's question but rather "Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?" And the answer to that is "Yes." But that's not enough. One must further ask "Is that world the one that best accounts for the totality of the relevant data?" Does it account for the most data whilst adopting the fewest suppositions? Does it resolve problems throughout the field of study, or does it in fact create new ones? And on those matters Carrier fails, as has been shown repeatedly by various NT scholars, professional and amateur, here on the interwebs (which, one should note, is just about the only place that this "debate" is taking place. It's certainly not taking place in the academy. Kinda like what fundamentalist Christians euphemistically call the evolution "debate"; the debate, it turns out, exists primarily in their heads).

I can conceive of many things. I can conceive of a world that sprang into being fully-formed last Tuesday, with all our memories and the appearance of age prefabricated by a deity named Goozawana. But conceiving of such a world does not make it so. There is a reason that we distinguish between fiction and history. The objects are different. One aims to suggest what might be, the other to define what actually was. That's a significant difference. I have yet to see Carrier move beyond the realm of the what might be into the realm of what is. I'll check back when he does.

3 comments:

  1. Did Jesus exist?" is not even Carrier's question but rather "Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?" And the answer to that is "Yes." But that's not enough. One must further ask "Is that world the one that best accounts for the totality of the relevant data?"

    Hmm, but that is exactly the question Carrier is asking. And the 1/3 is the absolute maximum chance. The more likely estimate by carrier is much much smaller

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    1. And Carrier is wrong because he's basing his bayesian framework on Rank-Raglan scale which does nothing to affect Jesus' existence one way or the other.

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  2. "33%" seems a strange answer to the question "Did Jesus exist?" In fact, it is utterly incoherent as an answer to that question. If the answer is to be coherent then the question must be "What is the probability that Jesus existed?" But the statement "33% is the maximum probability that Jesus existed" does not tell me whether or not Jesus existed.

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