I had the honor and privilege of attending the first Buzzed Belief by the Mythicist Milwaukee. The debate was about whether the sources for the resurrection of Jesus are adequate to prove the claims. On the affirmative side was Justin Bass, Ph.D and on the negative side, Richard Carrier, Ph.D.
Before I get to the review of the content of the debate, let me first give some props to Mythicist Milwaukee. This was a really great event. Well over 300 people attended on a Saturday night. The audience was very respectful during the entire debate and the Q&A session. Although the audience was overwhelmingly secular, there were some religious people there, at least judging from the questioners. On the subject of “balance” the only thing I could say is that several atheists received shout outs during the Q&A session, including Melissa Pugh, president of the Atheist Alliance of America. I hope that in future events there will be well known people from the religious community that will be deserving of shout outs as well. I think the event was welcoming enough of all points of view and hope that people from all points of view will be curious enough to come and attend future events.
Now, on to the show! But perhaps before you read the review, you might want to look at the whole thing, which you can do here.
First, let me say that in my estimation, Dr. Bass easily took the evening on style points. He was charming, open, funny and quite impassioned. He definitely seems like the kind of guy I could sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss religion and philosophy. Dr. Carrier certainly had his moments as well, although I thought he made some tactical errors, which I will get to in a bit. But for as charming and easy going as Dr. Bass was, most of what he said was so illogical and just baldly asserted that only a believer would think he made any kind of case for his position. So, let’s start at the beginning.
Dr. Bass started his presentation by saying saying that he had recently baptised a former atheist and that we all should really consider the wonders of a “secular Jesus.” You know the one of the Sermon on the Mount, the golden rule, turn the other cheek and all of that. I don’t know who he thought he was addressing, but most skeptical atheists are well aware of the moral teachings of Jesus, but also his immoral teachings as well. And why would we go to a “secular Jesus” when you are going to try and convince us there is good evidence for his literal rising from the dead. If he really rose from the dead, we should worship that Jesus, should we not? So before he even started his actual presentation, Dr. Bass was off to an illogical start. But to give him credit, Dr. Bass was quite consistent in his illogic, more on that in a moment as well.
According to Dr. Bass, all the evidence we need for the resurrection of Jesus is contained in the new testament and we can trust it 100%. It is as good as any evidence we have for any event in the ancient world. Why? Basically because he (and other believing scholars) said so.
For example, he started with the Gospel of Mark. He admitted that we have no idea who actually wrote Mark, but then went on to assume that whoever wrote Mark is exactly like the person that Mark is supposed to be, a sort of secretary to Peter, the disciple. So, really, Dr. Bass asserted, Mark is really the eyewitness account of Peter. Scholars agree, case closed. What is the evidence for this? Tradition! (Yes, you should here singing here.) So., for Dr. Bass (and most believers) Mark is really an eye witness document. And yes, you can find many believer scholars who will echo that. But in reality modern scholarship rejects the Mark/Peter connection and maintain that it is anonymous and not an eye witness account.
He then tried to also use Luke/Acts as further “documentation.” Dr. Bass sees Luke (or whoever, again, Luke is apparently not written by the claimed author) as authentic history, after all, “Luke” says he carefully checked his sources. Which is exactly what someone writing historical fiction would say. Also, Dr. Bass asserts that “Luke” must have actually traveled with Paul because of the “we” passages in Acts. Evidence for this? Again — Tradition! (even louder singing.) Once again, modern scholarship says that the disagreements between Luke/Acts and the actual writings of Paul are so severe that it is very unlikely that Luke was written by a companion of Paul.
Dr. Bass then moved on to Paul himself. It is generally recognized that Paul is actually a problem for the historical resurrection account. The problem is that all of the historical detail is completely absent from Paul. There is no arrest in the garden, no trial before Pilate, no stone in front of a rich man’s tomb, no discovery of that empty tomb, none of it. All we have in Paul is the barest outline (Jesus was killed and rose again, basically.) And where did Paul get his information? Paul himself says that he got it from “no man,” from God and scripture. But Dr. Bass painted this lovely picture of Paul sitting around with Peter (and Mary herself!) Which, in Dr. Bass’s eyes also makes Paul an “eye witness.” Except that once again, Paul has no biographical detail of Jesus in his writings. None. So why does Dr. Bass believe that Paul represents a reliable witness? Because he does, and that’s all.
The final piece of “evidence” that Dr. Bass cited was the creed that is found in 1 Corinthians 15, which he claims (as do others) goes back to within a year or two of the supposed death of Jesus. Now, it does seem that Dr. Bass is on more solid ground here with many scholars feeling that the creed is authentic and may date back to within a few years of Jesus’s supposed death. Now, I am no scholar of ancient Greek, so cannot weigh in on the minutiae of the words to determine whether Paul wrote them, but here they are in their (modern) entirety:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For being a story about a guy who literally walked out of the grave, it seems to be missing a lot of detail, much of which was added to later, like it being Pilate that ordered the death, or the women that found the empty tomb and so on. I understand that people think Jesus rose from the dead, but that does not prove that he did. And even “appeared to” is problematic. A flesh and blood guy, someone who had a glass of wine with all these folks? Jesus the friendly ghost, a wispy immaterial being? Or did he appear to all these folks between their ears — an idea, a vision? Paul doesn’t say. Paul seems to indicate that his encounter with the risen Jesus was between the ears — a vision that no one else could see. If so, Paul’s testimony about Jesus being “risen” is no more evidence of Jesus’s physical resurrection than the testimony of Christians today who claim to have experienced the “risen” Jesus.
After all the biblical “proof” Dr. Bass went on to say that it all this must be true because Christianity “took over the Roman empire” and now is believed by billions of people. Which proves nothing of course. By this reasoning we have to believe everything in Islam is true as almost as many people believe that.
That was Dr. Bass’s presentation.
Before the debate, I thought that Dr. Carrier had the easier position to defend, but at the end of Dr. Bass’s presentation, I saw this problem. Because Dr. Bass had presented so many bald assertions, Carrier was left in the position, essentially of having to prove a negative. Unfortunately, at this point I felt that Carrier made a tactical mistake.
Dr. Carrier chose to speak from notes, as compared to Dr. Bass’s use of a Powerpoint. Now, I was able to see the flow of Carrier’s arguments as I have read his works and others from a similar point of view. Most of his arguments, I have already included in my objections to Dr. Bass above. I am sure that Dr. Carrier could have anticipated Dr. Bass’s entire presentation (I certainly did). Carrier spent some of his presentation time doing rebuttle, which I also thought was a tactical error. Carrier just didn’t seem as organized as Dr. Bass, although what he said was much more logically consistent.
In my estimation, Dr. Bass also took less defensible positions during the rebuttal and head to head sections of the debate. His main position is that Christianity is utterly unique among world religions and that is a reason to believe it. Essentially, it must be from god as it is nothing like what people made up for other religions. For example, Dr. Bass asserted that Paul was the only person EVER to first persecute and religion and then to convert to it. Dr. Carrier about fell off his chair and the audience hooted at that one. Remember that Dr. Bass himself bragged about converting an atheist at the beginning of his presentation? Isn’t that a tiny Damascus moment? I thought that Carrier’s rejoinder that he would be more convinced of god’s intervention if the entire Sanhedrien had converted to be quite a good comeback.
Also during the question and answer period Dr. Bass conceded that perhaps after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine that maybe some mistakes were made and that maybe people were coerced into converting. He said that he was really interested in what happened in the 280 years before that and he felt that the early time period was the genuine period of Christian growth. Which of course completely undercuts his earlier assertion that resurrection must be true because believers “took over the Roman Empire.” No, Constantine forced it on the empire.
Dr. Carrier wrote an entire book about that period and showed that the growth of Christianity was actually nothing special, probably less than the growth of Mormonism today. It didn’t “take over” anything.
Dr. Carrier brought up Mormonism several times and at one point Dr. Bass snorted, “Yeah, I don’t know how that got started.” But we do know exactly how it got started. I am sure that both Carrier and Bass would agree that Joseph Smith made a bunch of stuff up and for a lot of complicated cultural reasons people found a reason to believe. Now, will Mormonism be around 1800 years from now? I have no idea. But I think that one reason Christianity is still around is not the truthfulness of its claims, but rather its ability to morph it’s teachings and beliefs to remain “current.” Even Dr. Bass, I think would concede that the church of today is not the same as that of the first “280 years.”
Which is where I think Dr. Carrier made a strong case that Christianity grew out of the cultural atmosphere of the first century Mediterranean area. Greek, Roman, Persian and Jewish ideas that all mashed together into an interesting stew that people found interesting and useful, much like Mormonism over the last 150 years. No need for a real demigod to rise from the dead.
Obviously nothing that Dr. Bass said is going to reconvert me. I thought he made a couple of good points that perhaps the mythicists need to contend with, such as the creed from Paul and the actual relationship between Peter, Paul and James. However, in thinking about this my atheism/mythicism has actually grown stronger. Considering the percentage of believers who form the core of biblical studies and considering how much of the bible is not considered to be inaccurate, forged and so on, it really points out how bad a source it is to back up its claims.
So, Dr. Bass was not convincing to me in this debate in any way. I can no longer take the believer’s position so I cannot say how I would have reacted to Dr. Carrier’s presentation, but I have to honestly say that it probably have not convinced me. I find Dr. Carrier’s writings to be very persuasive, but I don’t think his presentation carried the same weight. Actually, I think Powerpoint would have actually helped. You need more organized evidence to move toward disproving the bald assertions that made by Dr. Bass.
Finally, I once again want to say that, overall, it was a wonderful, well organized event and I look forward to attending again in the future.