H. Detering confronts R. Carrier—Pt. 3

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

by Dr. Hermann Detering

Edited and translated by René Salm

Division theories

R. Carrier

Dr. Richard Carrier

Finally, Carrier broaches an important view—one that many New Testament scholars discuss with self-assurance but for which they rarely give substantiation. On the basis of internal contradictions in the seven alleged authentic epistles, even conservative scholars have long adopted various ‘division theories’ whereby larger epistles are composed of several smaller ones. While they gladly assert the existence of a ‘stable common basis’ consisting of seven authentic epistles, they somehow argue the existence of a corpus consisting of more than seven epistles (thus, J. Becker). For example, most scholars today consider that Philippians consists of three authentic shorter letters of Paul (letter A, B, C) assembled into the present composition by a later redactor (thus H. Schenke and K. Fischer).

As regards 2 Corinthians, division theories are even more elaborate, and the actual number of shorter letters is often up to the taste of the scholar. Conservative theologians seeking not to confuse their students (which appears to be their overarching exegetical criterion) are generally satisfied with a ‘moderate’ solution of 9–11 letters. However, 16 or even more pauline missives gathered into 2 Corinthians have not scared less timorous researchers (such as my own teacher, Walther Schmithals).

But what does any of this have to do with the question of authenticity? In Carrier’s view, the fact that we are dealing with actual letters is itself an argument for their pauline authorship. He writes, “One does not forge letters that way.” Hmm… How does he know this? Where are his criteria for how one forges letters and how one does not? Most ironic, however, is that the majority of radical critics whose work Carrier dubs “historical fiction” have actually shared his presupposition that they were once true epistles—yet those critics arrive at the opposite conclusion from Carrier: they were not by Paul! For van Manen, A. Pierson, and S. Naber, the letters were short dogmatic or parenetic epistles that the Church cobbled together. After all, letters are not typically formed out of short, non-epistolary components. Nor is there any art whereby redactors split up coherent epistles into the parts we witness, say, in 2 Corinthians. In this we see that the very same precondition—agreed to by all—can lead to entirely different conclusions. In all, Carrier’s categorical self-assurance is misplaced. He should remind himself that, in the realm of scientific investigation, more than one explanation is generally possible.

The demise of Israel

Of all the faulty arguments Carrier produces in support of his six authentic epistles, the third is surely the weakest. He writes:

Third, [the six authentic epistles] all make arguments and interact persuasively in a context where the Jewish temple was still standing and its cult operating. And in a context where views of Jesus and the Church that appear in the Gospels have not yet come to exist (not even to denounce or counter or rebut, much less use or co-opt or transform). This is very unlikely unless the letters were written before the year 66 A.D. (when the Jewish War began, an event wholly unknown to the author), and before the Gospels were written (which could be as early as 70 or 75 A.D. for Mark).

41+YY0SvceL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_One might think that the Jerusalem temple was still standing when 2 Thess 2:3–4 was written. (“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”) Now, Carrier considers 2 Thessalonians to be inauthentic, but the situation described there could just as well refer to the time of Bar Kochba War (132–35 CE). At that time an altar to Zeus (as well as a Zeus- or Caesar-pillar) was erected in the temple court (on this, see here). This clarifies the long section Rom 9–11 where the end of Israel is at issue. As van Manen once noted, the author of those chapters doubtless looks back on the demise of Israel. The pertinent passage clarifying why the chosen people are outside the blessings of Christianity reflects a situation that could not have obtained in the late 50s (when Romans was allegedly written). At such an early time the kerygma was not yet preached “to all the earth” (Rom 10:18; cf. vss. 10 ff). In turn, we must wonder what “branches were broken off” (Rom 11:17) and to what the “severity of God” refers (Rom 11:22), if not to the demise of Jerusalem/Israel later than the 50s CE.

According to Carrier, the Jesus figure of the canonical gospels could not have come about before 70 CE. This may well be. But what about 100 CE? 130 CE? Walther Schmithals wrote of a synoptic gap, of the lack of any reference to the synoptic tradition among the early Church Fathers until late in the second century! As far as we know, an incipient gospel stage is first referred to by Justin. Somewhat later, towards the end of the second century, Irenaeus is the first to signal the existence of a canon of four gospels. In other words: the second century allows plenty of time for the development of the heavenly Son of God into the Man from Nazareth.

But Carrier—perhaps under the influence of Early Doherty—seems mesmerized by the first century and defends an early dating with tooth and nail. For this he postulates six authentic, historical pauline epistles. The train of his thought is understandable—he only needs better evidence!

Marcion’s Apostolicon—or the question of priority

Finally, Carrier thunders:

Most Detering-style arguments are based on claiming hundreds of interpolations in these letters that conveniently and circularly support Detering’s conclusions, all based on a series of ad hoc assumptions about the second century history of the Church, when in fact almost everything we know about that is speculation, not established fact.

The above amply demonstrates that Carrier has not digested (or perhaps even heard of) the arguments of many radical critics who came long before me. I certainly did not invent the interpolations! Their existence is not hypothetical (“based on a series of ad hoc assumptions about the second century history of the Church”) but philologically grounded and quite real. The interpolations are evident by comparing the catholic text with Marcion’s Apostolicon. If one carefully studies the citations from the Church Fathers (and no reason exists not to do so) then a Marcionite version of the epistles can be reconstructed, one shorter than the canonical version. The deciding question is which version is earlier. All else follows, including an understanding of the origin of the epistles themselves. Up until now both church and majority scholarship have held that the longer, canonical version was earlier. But if the epistles originated in the Marcionite school and were secondarily catholicized, this would mean one of two things. Either: [a] the Apostle was altogether different from the figure that orthodoxy presents—Marcionite, Gnostic, and even the “Apostle of the heretics” (Tertullian); or [b] the epistles were second century creations of the Marcionite heresy and, thus, were not creations from the hand of a mid-first century apostle at all. I consider the latter as more probable.

Philological expertise, theological competence, and a good dose of educated intuition are all required in settling the question of priority: Marcionite or Catholic. The decision turns on text critical and literary issues. The natural philosophers of the Early Roman Empire, the slide rule, and Bayes’ theorem may be of great interest to Carrier, but they have no relevance to issues under discussion here.

A simplified statement of Bayes' theorem (from Wikipedia).

A simplified statement of Bayes’ theorem (from Wikipedia).

I could go on correcting specific errors of fact and general errors of approach, but the foregoing must suffice. Despite the preceding, however, I appreciate Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus, which—notwithstanding its limitations—I read with great interest. Nevertheless, he could have spared himself and us his comments regarding Paul. Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses. (“If you had remained silent, you would have remained a philosopher.”) Let us call a spade a spade: Carrier may be an expert on the natural philosophers of the Early Roman Empire, but he is certainly not an expert on Paul. — H.D.




H. Detering confronts R. Carrier—Pt. 3 — 3 Comments

  1. Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses … ouch! The English equivalent is “they may suspect you are ignorant, but when you speak they know it.”

    Still this is typical of Dr. Detering, even his unpleasant commentary is Wisconsin polite. The translation is pretty good on the whole. It captures his mood well, annoyed and mostly disappointed.

    IMO Carrier is simply the latest to fall victim of his own celebrity. This pop star effect tends to make scholars take their conclusion beyond the scope in which they apply and attach crippling specifics that could ultimately destroy all credibility, even in the solid work – especially solid is the concept of synthesis of foreign cults into Roman ones, and how Christianity does not need historical foundation. It’s a type of egomania where having gotten one thing right, the celebrity scholar starts on a mission to turn it into a universal unifying theory, and then their career -as it becomes- degenerates into “debating” that really looks more like political sloganeering and mud slinging: popularity replaces diligence. (That popularity can be confessional, in that the controversial scholar decides they are doing damage to the faith.) But of course I’m speculating from the peanut gallery.

    Long winded way to say, I hope Mr. Carrier reins in his theory to where it applies, and lets others place it and find its significance with respect to their own work and others. We are all but cogs. Hopefully happy cogs.

    • Thanks for your comment. About the Latin phrase, the English translation was not Detering’s but mine, supplied from the Web (e.g. here). Detering also seems to understand it with reference to the philosopher: “Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses. Aber nein, angemessener wäre es vielleicht zu sagen, dass Herr Carrier gerade nach diesem Artikel Philosoph geblieben ist…” But no big deal.

      I think your diagnosis of Carrier is spot on. He has the unfortunate penchant for going beyond his expertise and making pronouncements in the specialist terrain of others. He’s done that now with Detering on the subject of Paul, and a few years ago he did almost the exact same thing with Nazareth, broadcasting a not only snotty but completely false opinion on the Caesarea inscription. (The inscription mentioning “Nazareth” is a forgery, as I show in my recent book. Even were it authentic, however, it would not carry the importance Carrier attached to it.) Carrier was “cavalier and condescending” towards me, and I felt compelled to publicly reply on this blog. Though I can’t appreciate the application of Bayes theorem to Christian studies, I do think Carrier can be incisive when he’s on home turf (e.g., the ‘deconstruction’ of alleged pagan witnesses for Jesus). Both Detering and I believe he has something to contribute to the mythicist cause.

  2. There are a number of arguments throughout Carrier’s OHJ that are based on mere assumptions and are not at all thought through on the basis of an evaluation of the evidence. If he has any fault in that area it is that he does not apply his Bayesian approach more consistently and rigorously. In one sense, OHJ is not really doing “history” as historians themselves generally think of it, but merely the first step: fact-finding. It is more akin to detective work than “history”. Forget the numbers: all detective work is about forming hypotheses about the evidence and testing them against background knowledge and new information as it comes to light. That’s all “Bayesian reasoning” is, at bottom. (The numbers help identify one’s assumptions and biases etc but are not necessary for correct reasoning.)

    Carrier begins with conventional assumptions about Paul’s epistles, the character of the gospels, Nazareth, Messianic expectations prior to the War, and then adds a few additional points that he has not tested and researched among their related specialists before publishing them (e.g. early first century interpretations of Daniel.)

    Carrier’s zeal goes beyond his arguments related to mythicism and is part and parcel of the entire moralistic Atheist+ movement. Moralists are good at attacking others personally and that’s what he does, rather than respond to critics (even unprofessional ones) professionally. He is his own worst enemy. I had hoped his brashness would enable some sort of break through with mythicism in the scholarly sphere but it is clearly a handicap.

    I’d like to do a re-write of his book without the numbers, and with concessions to uncertainty in relation to points where he has failed to consult specialist studies.