H. Detering confronts R. Carrier—Pt. 2

Paul, Mark, and other substitutions:
Richard Carrier on The Fabricated Paul

by Dr. Hermann Detering

Edited and translated by René Salm

41YhelemlaL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve long wondered that Carrier’s responses to higher critical positions give the impression of having been formed through acquaintance at second hand, as would be the case were his learning gained through casual discussions or even hearsay. He routinely (and maddeningly) simply does not substantiate his claims. In any case, what he has to offer regarding higher criticism is usually incorrect. One telling example is his failure to distinguish between the authenticity of the Pauline epistles and the historicity of the Apostle. Carrier treats the two issues as one, seeming quite unaware that the majority of the Dutch Radical School (A. Pierson, S. A. Naber, W. C. van Manen, A. D. Loman) long ago asserted the existence of a Paulus historicus yet at the same time contested the authenticity of the so-called ‘pauline’ writings. (On this, see my Paulusbriefe ohne Paulus? Die Paulusbriefe in der holländischen Radikalkritik, Peter Lang 1992).

As far as my own position is concerned, the epistles could well have been later offshoots of an already existing ‘Paul’ legend. That legend could itself have been birthed after the actual life of the Apostle—for example in the text we know by the name of the Acts of Paul and Thecla. This is, in fact, a component of the ‘higher’ criticism regarding Paul. In this case, the figure of ‘Paul’ as handed down by the tradition would be entirely legendary, yet it would go back to an actual figure of history, one whom I associate with the historical Simon of Samaria. The ‘authenticity’ of the pauline epistles then has no meaning—for they would have been spawned by an inauthentic tradition.

51xHoezg+pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Carrier does not seem aware of a number of books that have appeared in English setting forth the higher critical position. I refer not merely to the 2003 translation of my own book, but also to the opus magnum of Robert Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2012). Older writings of radical critics are also partially available in English. It is interesting in this connection that Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus lists virtually no foreign authors in its biography, though these are of critical importance to the subject. I especially signal the Dutch Radical School—which, pursuant to the work of Bruno Bauer, first contested the historical existence of Jesus in a serious and scholarly manner. However, one also seeks in vain among Carrier’s discussions any inclusion of the work of J. Turmel, P.-L. Couchoud, A. Loisy, and others. His silence in these regards betrays not merely scientific narrowness, but plain ignorance.

Justin’s silence regarding Paul

Another of many mistakes in Carrier’s error-laden piece is his claim that radical critics consider Justin Martyr’s silence regarding the Apostle to be evidence of Paul’s nonexistence. Thus Carrier: “…they will resort to saying that Justin Martyr never mentions Paul, therefore Paul didn’t exist. But that’s absurd.”

Yes, it is absurd. But even more absurd is Carrier’s claim that there are (or have ever been) radical critics who hold such a position. (This appears to be another strawman argument, giving Carrier the easy opportunity to beat down an imaginary position.) I myself, together with many other scholars, have pointed out that Justin not once mentions the Apostle—though he cites, sometimes verbatim, from the epistles (The Falsified Paul, 2003:70 f). My explanation in no way led to the conclusion that Paul therefore did not exist. I argued, rather, that Justin knew the epistles but ignored their author. His reason was theological. To Justin, Paul represented gnostic (Marcionite) Christianity. Heretics were routinely left unmentioned by the Church—something that, incidentally, continues even today. Justin’s treatment shows that the epistles were still viewed as heretical texts in the mid-second century. They would become accepted only after wholesale editing by the Church. One can appreciate, then, that radical critics hardly view the silence of the Church Fathers regarding Paul as an argument for his nonexistence. Rather, that silence merely shows that Paul had not yet ‘arrived’ in the eyes of the second century proto-catholic church.

Stylistic similarities?

In order to support the authenticity of six epistles—Carrier maintains that Philemon is spurious—he points to alleged similarities of style, grammar, word usage, etc. Here Carrier betrays little acquaintance with the intricacies of pauline studies. The alleged stylistic similarities that laypersons may consider prima facie evidence have left specialists unconvinced. Just recently, the Salzburg philologist Günter Schwab again made this case in a wide-ranging study (see here and here)—one that I recommend Carrier place on his all-too-short reading list.

Carrier does not even touch upon the telling theological differences between epistles—for example between Romans and Galatians. He also leaves out of consideration the fact that certain epistles clearly relate to one another, in the sense that they may have been intended at an earlier time to belong to a single collection.

Detering Gal 5-20For example, the author of Galatians reminds his readers that “the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal 5:20). He then continues: “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Now, this warning cannot hearken back to a preceding passage in Galatians, for no such passage exists. Thus, the author refers to some prior verbal warning—or (most likely) to 1 Cor 6:9–10, where we encounter a strikingly similar admonition: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” Given the remarkable parallels between the two passages, as well as the notice in Galatians “as I warned you before,” it is scarcely to be denied that Galatians here hearkens back to 1 Corinthians. The natural conclusion, in turn, is that the author of Galatians had 1 Corinthians already before him.

Now, even if the two epistles were written by the same author, as Carrier maintains, this would not require that Paul was the author. After all, even Carrier agrees (with the unanimity of scholars) that the Paul-Seneca correspondence was forged, despite its uniform style. He explains this by supposing that the correspondence pre-existed as a collection. Why could the same not obtain with the pauline epistles?

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H. Detering confronts R. Carrier—Pt. 2 — 8 Comments

  1. Thank you for your translation of Hermann’s salutary, eloquent, and much needed assessment of Richard’s work.

  2. Could you please provide the text where you think Carrier conflated Paul’s historicity with the letters’ authenticity?

    • I would say it’s in Carrier’s section “The Differential Evidence.” RC’s been building up to that–after all, he titles his piece “On the Historicity of Paul the Apostle,” so we know his core focus. Then he gives the section “The Prior Probability,” where he writes about how Paul is not in a “myth-heavy reference” class. (I think he’s wrong there and doesn’t appreciate that the figure “Paul” went through its own metamorphoses. In the Acts of Paul & Thecla, Paul is still a Jesus figure in his own right–see esp. §17.)

      RC begins his section “The Differential Evidence” with “the evidence for Paul” but soon segues off into the letters: “Because we actually do have letters claiming to have been written by Paul.” He then writes about the alleged authenticity of the letters, and finally concludes “if they were indeed written when claimed, there is no reason to doubt that the author was Paul.” BTW, I think RC is wrong at practically every step. . . Price, Detering, and other have shown that the letters weren’t written in the 50s (they are considerably later than RC thinks). “Paul” = Simon Magus and (IMO) probably also = Marcion (I hope to blog on this). They all brought $$ to the Church, they all opposed “Peter,” etc.

      I’ve enjoyed some of Carrier’s writing, but my main accusation is his misapplication of the science of probability to religion. You can’t take a slide rule to spirituality. Many even disagree on what religion is! Improbable may be unlikely, but that has nothing to do with historicity. Very unlikely things do happen. Unfortunately, our understanding of them is nowhere near sufficient to posit “prior odds,” “reference classes,” “statistical anomalies,” “ratios,” etc–all these making up Carrier’s stock in trade. The dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago was caused by a massive comet or asteroid impact. The Black Sea filled up quickly in a catastrophic deluge. (This may lie behind the story of Noah.) IMO, Bayes’ theorem has little application to such events—or to the birth of a major religion which, by any measure, is a most improbable occurrence.

  3. Hi Rene,

    Questions have been raised in comments on Vridar about how well you have captured the original tone of Hermann Detering’s article. It has been suggested you may have toned down — for the best of motives — some of the original’s indignation with Richard Carrier. Would you like to comment on that suggestion, please?

    • I have read the comments to date on Vridar. Hermann OK’ed all of my translations before I uploaded them. My method of translating is not word for word–more a “paraphrase.” So, I write “Edited and translated by” in the heading. Hermann and I agreed on this a long time ago, so long as I get his point across in English. Anyway, the two languages are syntactically very different. German has long sentences with lots of embedded clauses.

      Paraphrasing gives me scope to moderate the tone. I tried to accentuate Hermann’s substantive points and minimize the bile. He was obviously very angry. RC got under his skin. The only reason I agreed to translate his piece and upload it is because I immediately knew on reading it that Carrier crossed the line. Groundlessly accusing Hermann of “ad hoc assumptions,” convenient circularity, and speculation (see pt. 3) is irresponsible, but questioning his credentials is beyond the pale.

      Here’s Price’s estimation: “Hermann Detering once again proves himself the most keenly insightful New Testament scholar of this generation, worthy to stand among the neglected giants of the radical criticism whose work he has brought to light to stir today’s Bible students from their deep dogmatic slumbers. My own debt to his work is profound.” (https://www.amazon.com/Fabricated-Paul-Early-Christianity-Twilight-ebook/dp/B006XXX04G) Carrier will only suffer in comparison.

      Other factors are in play. I don’t know if Richard has lived in Europe. I have. Over there, things are a little more old school. Being addressed as “Herr Doktor Professor” is not rare even today in Germany. Carrier’s irreverence and condescension may work well on freethoughtblogs, but they’re virtually unheard of over there where such an attitude is entirely unacceptable towards a scholar. Hermann also happens to be a pastor and is one generation older than Carrier.

      IMO, Carrier’s out of his element and owes Hermann an apology.

      • Thanks, Rene. Appreciate the detailed response.

        Unfortunately it appears to me at least that Richard Carrier is his own worst enemy and his all-too-frequent acerbic tone, and his all-too-often dismissive manner towards arguments that are outside is field, mitigate strongly against wider influence he might otherwise have. There are a number of other areas where he has been questioned (not just related to Paul) but too often one is left feeling he presumes to know too much without considering the possibility that he just might be mistaken and still have something to learn. Hubris comes to mind.

        I was frustrated in a recent podcast interview with him when technical hitches and other factors left me failing to raise specific questions I had prepared in order to address just these issues. So I did email them to him afterwards. Hopefully he does, but other sources tell me he has other personal issues facing him that might leave him sidelined for a while.

  4. As for Bayes, I don’t see any difficulty with its application to any topic of historical interest. (Carrier is not the first historian to apply it to historical problems.) Bayes is nothing more than a numerical representation of sound reasoning processes that we use all the time for any human or natural world situations. Whenever our reasoning is valid we are using the same reasoning processes as are represented by the equation. The mathematical equation is not necessary at all. It only serves as a reminder to keep us “honest”.

    Bayes (or basic correct forms of problem-solving/assessment of evidence) does not mean highly unlikely events should be considered impossible or left out of consideration — far from it. Asteroids hitting the earth etc are all part and parcel of the world we live in and thinking about them, assessing their probability, is not denying their reality. Improbable does not mean impossible.

    As for religion and spirituality, etc, I suggest it’s reasonable to see these as products of human minds and societies and subject to the same scholarly investigations as any other human product.

    I should add that I have forwarded questions to Richard Carrier about some of the issues to do with manner raised by Hermann Detering and do hope he will respond, perhaps on his blog.

  5. [The following comment is abridged from the original by about 50%.–RS]

    Thank you, Rene Salm for translating and presenting this piece by Detering. Re: your comment above about Carrier’s style, I’m in full agreement. I studied for a time in Germany myself. On the one hand, there is the cultural/generational gap between Detering and Carrier. On the other hand, Carrier belongs to a sort of new breed of scholar/blogger, I think, which leads to weakened scholarship as one is always playing to an audience, etc.

    Re: Bayes Theorem and Carrier, it’s clearly Carrier’s hobby horse, and it’s bound to turn people off. In my opinion, everyone in the humanities would do well to be more mathematically-minded as it promotes rigor and objectivity. This is certainly true in New Testament/Pauline/etc studies where academics get away with murder when it comes to fallacious reasoning. (Bart Ehrman’s constant appeals to authority come to mind.) But Carrier routinely overstates the importance of applying Bayes in these contexts. . .

    . . . Of course, what Carrier doesn’t get is that if tomorrow you had fifty historians using Bayes to examine the question, for example, as to Jesus’s historicity, you’d still have fifty different views just as you have today. . .

    . . . Anyway, if anything, the piece on Carrier is too short! But probably as long as it needed to be. Detering is a pleasure to read. Thanks again for providing this on your site.