The new Idealism? A perspective on the Richard Carrier-Mark Goodacre debate on Jesus Mythicism

Posted on 02/18/13 26 Comments

The other day I listened to the December 15, 2012 episode of Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” radio show which featured a debate between Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre on the issue of Jesus mythicism. (You can listen by downloading it from iTunes: Carrier argued that the Jesus-was-a-myth theory was a live historical theory and may, in fact, be the strongest theory. Carrier focused on the earliest strata of documentation which we find in the Pauline epistles. He argued that this data is commonly read through the assumptions of the later gospels, including assumptions about Jesus’ historical life on planet earth. But when we get down to the actual content of these earliest documents we find that they do not explicitly support the fuller gospel picture of Jesus in history. To be sure, they are consistent with it, but they are also consistent with the view that Christianity originated when Paul and other early leaders began to have visions about a dying and rising god in the heavens which later morphed into that god dying and rising on earth. In support of this reconstruction of events, Carrier points to other historical examples from the ancient world where mythic characters morphed into quasi-historical personalities.

The New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre did an effective job of countering Carrier’s mythicist reading. But what really struck me about the debate as it unfolded was that it sounded like how a debate might have unfolded between John Locke and George Berkeley on the existence of the physical (i.e. extra-mental) world. As you probably know, John Locke was an old-fashioned realist in that he believed there was a physical world external to our minds. Locke argued that this world consisted of extended substance with primary qualities as well as our minds which added secondary qualities (e.g. color) to our experience of that world. Berkeley demurred. He saw no need to posit a distinction between primary qualities in a physical world and secondary qualities in the mind. Instead, he insisted that whenever you say you’ve experienced the external world, what you have in fact experienced is an idea — a color, a texture, a smell, a visual shape — and that is simply a qualification of your mind. In other words, you find that your experience of the world requires only minds and ideas. (All qualities of experience — or ideas — are “secondary” mental events.) To postulate an external physical substance to go along with minds and their ideas is simply unnecessary.

In much the same way that Berkeley says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only minds and ideas; It doesn’t require an external world” so Carrier says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only a mythical Jesus resurrected in the heavens; It doesn’t require a historical Jesus”. In my view, both idealism and mythicism are ripe for refutation, but it never struck me before how much the latter, like the former, is grounded in a paradigm-shift evaluation on the exact same set of data.

  • Bilbo

    Somewhere or other C.S. Lewis (after he became a Christian) described himself as a Berkelyan Idealist. I’ve often wondered how would we go about refuting the view that we are only ideas in God’s mind.

    • Zeno

      That is an interesting question. But at the risk of being pedantic, I think it is important to remember that Berkeley did not believe that we are merely ideas in God’s mind. On the contrary, Berkeley believed that we are non-physical minds with the active power to causally bring about our own ideas. He writes,

      “A spirit is one simple, undivided, active being: as it perceives ideas, it is called the understanding, and as it produces or otherwise operates about them, it is called the will.”

      Ideas, on the other hand, are causally inert, according to Berkeley. He writes,

      “All our ideas, sensations, notions, or the things which we perceive, by whatsoever names they may be distinguished, are visibly inactive–there is nothing of power or agency included in them.”

      • Bilbo

        Thanks for the correction, Zeno, though I imagine that leads to further questions.

    • Landon

      Carrier is dishonest. He pretended to be working on a book on this subject and said he had no passed judgment on the issues as of that time.

      Nonsense. Of course he had and the new book will show it.

      Moreover, he keeps claimins his material is peer reviewed but won’t give any info on the qualifications of the “peer reviewers”.

      Now if he rejects Open Peer Review that is his business, but he can’t expect me to take his word for it.

      After all, does he want me to have Faith In Carriers Integrity?

      • Bilbo

        I’m not familiar enough with Carrier or his position to try to defend him. I do know that he has at least one peer-reviewed paper, concerning Josephus and the passage about James, the brother of Jesus:

        • Landon

          And who did the peer review?

          • Randal Rauser

            Peer-review is an important process, but we shouldn’t turn submission to peer-review into a necessary condition for the academic consideration of a theory. I’ve often seen critics of intelligent design refuse to engage the work of ID theorists on the pretense that they have not submitted to peer-review.

            • Landon

              Except that Carrier himself brags about how his work is “Peer Reviewed”; and since critics of intelligent design have refused to engage ID theorists as you point out, I want to know who did the so called Peer Review of Carriers work…that he brags about.
              There is Open Peer Review, although some choose anonymous peer review.
              If thats what he wants, thats his business, but I am under no oblgation to take his word for it that a Peer Review was conducted by qualified parties.
              After all, Carrier demands that we “question everything”.
              I therefore question Carriers claims to Peer Review.
              Who did the Peer Review?

              • Bilbo

                I assume that the journal that claims his paper was peer-reviewed would be the party that should be challenged, not Carrier. Wouldn’t the choice of whether to reveal the identities of the reviewers also be up to the reviewers themselves? The point of anonymity is that the reviewers don’t have to worry about negative consequences of their approving or disapproving a paper. Do they want their identities revealed?

                Edit: Aren’t you putting too much emphasis on the question of Josephus, anyway? New Testament scholars think there’s plenty of evidence for Jesus’s existence without Josephus.

                • Landon

                  No, Carrier brags that he “seeks” Peer Review.
                  He could at least call for Open Peer Review.
                  Am I supposed to take Carrier on faith?

                  • Bilbo

                    No, if you have sincere questions about peer review, you are to challenge the journal.

                    • Landon

                      And I can also challenge Carrier who keeps bragging about the Peer Review of his books.

                      Until he at least states the qualifications of the Peer Reviewers, how many there are, and how they were picked I will not accept his claims.

                    • Bilbo

                      But that’s information that Carrier might not be privy to.

                    • Landon

                      Then he should not brag about something he has no verification of.

                      Remember, he tells us to “question everything”.

                      And I question if Promethus Books even did the “peer review”.

                    • Bilbo

                      I wouldn’t know about Prometheus Books. I was referring to the paper I linked to earlier. The journal claims to do peer-review of its articles. Unless we have good reason to doubt the journal’s veracity, Carrier has every right to brag that this paper was peer-reviewed.

                    • Landon

                      He doesn’t if he wants to tell us to “question everything”.
                      He is now saying “don’t question anonymous peer review of my Books or papers.”
                      Typically, Carrier wants it both ways.

              • Landon Hedrick

                You seem not to understand how academic journals work. When you submit a paper to a journal, you don’t get to decide what sort of peer review you’re going to get. The journals have their own policies, which often require blind peer review. They don’t tell the reviewer whose paper they’re reading, and they don’t tell you who they assigned to review your paper.

                Carrier’s books are another matter, since (to my knowledge) Prometheus doesn’t usually conduct academic peer review like journals do.

                • Landon

                  We are under no obligation to accept blind peer review.
                  After all, Carrier says we are the question everything.
                  And isn’t Promtheus books about Skepticism?
                  So who did the peer review? What were their qualifications? Did they have a stake in these matters.
                  I am Skeptical.

                • Landon

                  I would just add that Carrier brags that his books are Peer Reviewed.
                  Of so he claims.

          • Bilbo

            Don’t reviewers normally remain anonymous?

            • Landon.

              Not if its Open Peer Review.

              Carrer can have an anonymous peer review if he wants, but since he tells us to “question everything” I question who did the so called peer review.
              Whats he want us to do? Take if on “faith”?

  • Ben Schuldt

    At least you seem to understand the debate…that is before you launched off into wonderland.

  • Keith_R

    Quite frankly I’m gobsmacked that no one has brought up the obvious fact that the man known as Dr. Richard Carrier almost certainly doesn’t exist. The creation of the Richard Carrier myth began in the imaginations of the Circle of Five, an ultra secret group of atheists bound and determined to destroy religious faith at all costs. They conceived of a character that would have a prestigious PhD from Columbia who would be an expert in both ancient history and philosophy who could discredit Christianity with an air of respectability. They came up with the name, Dr. Richard Carrier, and found a nerdy looking actor from New Jersey named Ron Smith who could play their newly minted character.

    I don’t really think that anyone can convince me to not be an acarrierist. How did Ron and the Circle of Five pull off the debate with Mark Goodacre? Well, for one Ron is a very talented actor. Two, he was clearly wearing the invisible ear piece, that Kim Jong Il designed to feed directions to the North Korean soccer coach, and he was getting his lines from the Circle of Five. What if the Carrier character came to my house with Richard Carrier’s ID and birth certificate and passed a lie detector test where he claimed to be Dr. Richard Carrier? That doesn’t prove anything. The ID and birth certificate could be well made forgeries. Ron’s passing the lie detector test could be another testament to how great an actor he is; besides he could have received training on how to pass the test from psychologists and ex-Secret Service agents. What if the Carrier character’s supposed parents came along and testified that they raised the true Richard Carrier? These would just be two more actors who have been well coached. I don’t think there is any way for anyone to prove that Dr. Richard Carrier actually exists.

    • Randal Rauser

      I admit I had not considered that possibility. It looks like I may have to revise the article.

      • Keith_R

        Don’t feel bad, Randal, the Circle of Five has been quite effective in propagating the Carrier myth, and many smart people like you have been duped. I’m just glad that you seem to be recovering from your Carrier delusion. We must work to rid the world of the insidious belief in Carrier by helping our fellow humans to see that he is no more real than the tooth fairy or Easter Bunny. I propose this slogan: “I believe in one less Richard Carrier than you.”

  • Brad Haggard

    It just seems like he’s rescuing a conclusion by taking marginal interpretations and putting them together. By the time he has to argue away “brother of the Lord” in Galatians, the house of cards seems really shaky.