Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher (2004)
Background: Last year (2003) Mark McFall reviewed a book by Douglas Groothius entitled On Jesus, which among other things explores the question "Was Jesus a Philosopher?" McFall then asked me to comment on that question, drawing on my expertise in ancient history. So I obligingly wrote Some Godless Comments on McFall's Review of On Jesus, which largely answered the question in the negative, though with an important qualification. McFall then responded to my comments in A Look at Carrier’s Godless Comments in Review, which seems to have largely misunderstood much of what I said, and relies on several fallacies or errors of fact. The following essay responds.
On the central point, I will reiterate what I said originally: that I do believe Jesus counts as a "philosopher" in an informal sense, but not in the sense that McFall wants. McFall (following Groothius) believes Jesus is such an important philosopher that "professors in the humanities" should "rectify the omissions of Jesus in the canon of philosophers." I disagreed, and stated why. In response, McFall claims Jesus "qualifies" as a philosopher in this more formal sense even on my own criteria, which McFall claims are this: that including Jesus in the "canon" would constitute "familiarizing readers with philosophical systems and elucidating those connections with known and influential traditions." But that is not what I said: McFall has omitted the most crucial words, and thus distorted my actual criteria. This sort of "misunderstanding" seems to typify McFall's reply. Likewise, contrary to his past practice with me, McFall has dropped his gloves and is no longer even-handed in his treatment of the issue. In his reply he often disparages my competence and accuses me repeatedly of hypocrisy, so I will at times have to be quite stern in my responses, and present copious primary evidence against him.
1. What Are My Criteria?
I wrote that "reference works on philosophy are concerned with familiarizing a modern reader with the philosophical systems of systematic thinkers, and elucidating their connection with known and influential traditions in philosophy." I have put in italics what McFall strangely omitted from his bogus quotation (or paraphrase, when he first presents it, but he puts quotation marks around the exact same line in his conclusion, thus giving the impression that he is repeating my actual words). First, it should be clear that my criteria include that a candidate must be a "systematic thinker" and that his thought must relate to "philosophy," which I specifically went on to explain means in the formal sense "the study of the nature of all aspects of being through rigorous logic and the analysis of language." I will allow the non-rigorous to count, but we cannot abandon the role of explicit reasoning, logical or linguistic, and still have philosophy left over. So a system of thought that does not meet that criteria does not qualify as "philosophy" in the sense that gets attention in "reference works on philosophy," and a thinker who is not systematic does not qualify as a "philosopher" in that more formal sense either. McFall's response completely fails to address how Jesus satisfies either of these essential criteria, so he has failed to respond to what I actually said.
2. Why Buddha?
McFall says "one can detect [philosophical] influences in Jesus just as much as one can detect influences in, say, Buddha from Hindu philosophy." First, I never disagreed with this notion. In fact, I actually said "I see nothing wrong with trying to identify the method of reasoning and the underlying worldview of a thinker like the Gospel Jesus, as for any influential teacher in history." And I gave basically the same analogy McFall does, only using Reverend Moon instead of Buddha. So McFall evidently doesn't get the point. Buddhism isn't normally taught in philosophy courses either. Nor is "Hindu Philosophy," despite that being among the top five largest and most influential religious ideologies in the world today, with hundreds of millions of adherents. There is a distinct difference between religion and what we formally define as philosophy. Though they certainly draw upon and influence each other, this does not make them the same thing.
Second, though Buddha and his belief system do get mention in good philosophical reference works, this is because Buddha (unlike Jesus) was a systematic thinker and did expound detailed doctrines on "the nature of all aspects of being" through the Indian tradition of logic and analysis. Buddha expounded on epistemology and metaphysics, not just ethics, and organized a relatively complete system or "worldview" (see below). And though there remain many problems of tracing just what really originated with him, it is undeniable that he originated a fundamentally distinct and novel philosophical system, whereas Jesus did not fundamentally differ from numerous other Jewish thinkers of his day (as is more than evident from the findings at Qumran and the countless parallels between things Jesus said and things said by dozens of other rabbis in the historical record).
On the other hand, Hindu Philosophy is not associated with any thinker in philosophical reference works, for the very same reason Jesus is excluded from them: no one knows who actually came up with what in the Hindu thought system. In contrast, for example, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Augustine do get mention in good philosophical reference works. In fact, they get substantially larger sections in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy than Buddha does. So it cannot be said that Christianity is disregarded. McFall seems almost to confuse this later religious system with Jesus. Christianity is not the issue, nor is Christian theology or philosophy. The question is Jesus. We have to keep our eye on the ball here. When it comes to my formal criteria, is Jesus at all comparable to Augustine or Aquinas? Not even remotely. He doesn't even come within a micrometer of his nearest Jewish contemporary, Philo—who, incidentally, gets a mere two paragraphs in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, and I doubt Philo is ever even mentioned in standard philosophy courses.
3. Explicit Interaction?
McFall says that "the evidence is mounted against Carrier in principle" regarding my claim that "Jesus did not explicitly interact with existing philosophies." Let's look up "explicitly" in a dictionary: it is the adverbial form of the adjective explicit: 1. fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated; leaving nothing implied. Now: is the evidence "mounted" against me here? Can McFall point to a single instance where Jesus names a philosopher or philosophical school of thought? Or where he is explicit in his engagement with the formal philosophical debates raging around him? Or where he identifies a concept in the established philosophical nomenclature or ideology of his time, analyzes a defense or critique of this concept, and arrives at his own conclusion through an application of logic or linguistic analysis? I am pretty sure he can't. He certainly hasn't done so yet. McFall does not seem to understand what I mean by the difference between a mere religion or a rabbi, who certainly are influenced by philosophical ideas, and an actual philosophy or philosopher.
4. Is This a Popularity Contest?
McFall then talks about what "average folk" expect, not realizing apparently that this is irrelevant to what "professors in the humanities" do or should expect. I agree with McFall that pop culture has no interest in "articulated systematic ideas." Yet that is what philosophy is by definition. That was my entire point, apparently entirely lost on McFall.
Pop culture has little to do with the academic philosophical community. That is why I qualified my point: I began my essay by conceding that Jesus was a philosopher in the popular, "average Joe" sense, just not in the formal, academic sense. McFall completely fails to grasp this distinction when he argues that "widespread influence" and "ability to cause people to reflect" on philosophical issues should be sufficient to qualify someone "on the same level (per se) as many accepted canonical philosophers." But that is to replace formal academic philosophy with pop culture. Deepak Chopra and Mark Twain also have "widespread influence" and the "ability to cause people to reflect" on philosophical issues, but they don't make the cut either. Yet, unlike Jesus, at least they actually wrote things!
It seems that McFall wants canonical lists of major philosophers to be nothing more than a popularity contest. But his reasoning would have to admit Muhammed, Joseph Smith, Pat Robertson, and, again, Reverend Moon to the canon—they, again, unlike Jesus, actually wrote things, and things that contain far more on implicit and often explicit philosophical subjects than what Jesus ever said (even assuming we can actually figure out with any confidence what Jesus said in the first place). So, in fact, these men are eminently more qualified than Jesus. But it seems obvious they don't belong on any such list, so a fortiori neither does Jesus.
5. No Metaphysical Commitments?
McFall attempts to promote Jesus by demoting Socrates, in the process accusing me of professional incompetence, when he argues that "Carrier seems unaware of the developing philosophizing skills embedded in Plato’s recordings of his master." Strange. I wrote: "no expert regards the thought of Socrates as reliably known precisely because we only have it through the filter of others." Did McFall not read those words, or the sentence following that one? He attacks me for not knowing this, yet in fact I declared it explicitly! How's that for a misunderstanding? But it only gets worse.
In particular, McFall says that "in Plato’s earliest dialog of Socrates (Apology), the majority of scholars see a very simple philosopher who 'has no interest' in 'metaphysics, epistemology, or ontology'." Maybe McFall is being facetious, but did he ever notice that the Apology is not a work of philosophy? It is a legal speech, delivered at a trial, and is technically a monologue, not a dialogue (though there is some exchange of discussion with his accuser Meletus). In fact, this was a trial where it was in the best interests of the accused (Socrates) to downplay the very philosophical doctrines that so enraged his accusers. As one can see from reading both our sources for Socrates' defense (Plato and Xenophon), his trial strategy was to argue that he was just an average Joe teaching the same things everyone else does—conformity to popular religion. Esoteric philosophical doctrine would only have weakened that case. So it is folly to expect to find it there.
Even so, I had not claimed that Socrates did any more than "address serious ethical problems and questions in [a] methodical way." It is commonly agreed that Socrates was a kind of formal skeptic, and advanced detailed logical arguments against the possibility of establishing most forms of metaphysical knowledge. Pyrrhonism and Academicism, the two most prominent Skeptical schools in antiquity, were both direct descendants of Socratic philosophy, tracing their tradition to him through his disciples. Thus, though he had little in the way of an explicit metaphysics, he had an explicit epistemological reason for rejecting most metaphysics, placing him in the company of the modern logical positivists, who are no less philosophers despite rejecting an entire branch of philosophy—in fact, two of the major three, since the positivists also did not accept ethics as a philosophical subject either.
I think McFall, therefore, has misunderstood my point. Was I asserting that a philosopher must expound on all the branches of philosophy? No. Though a philosopher, to qualify as a philosopher, must say why he rejects any branch of philosophy, and should argue this in a systematic and logical way, that is all the treatment any branch of philosophy needs to qualify as part of a systematic philosophy. In that regard, Socrates qualifies. Jesus doesn't.
We must also be careful to get the facts straight. Though McFall is certainly correct that there is more of Plato in Plato's Socrates than Socrates himself (though the very same problem befalls the Gospels), and this may well have increased over time, McFall seems ignorant of the fact that Plato is not our only source—despite the fact that in my original essay I was very clear about this. Indeed, we have one crucial source written in the very lifetime of Socrates himself: The Clouds of Aristophanes, a play poking fun at Socrates and his philosophy. We also have excerpts from Socrates' trial defense from another author: namely, the Apology of Xenophon, who also gives us his own accounts of Socrates' philosophical discourse, and more excerpts from his defense, in the Symposium and Memorabilia (his Economics is also a Socratic dialogue, though arguably not a work of philosophy).
So what do we actually learn about Socrates' ideology from all these sources? (Which, again, I must emphasize far outstrip in scale and detail anything we have for the ideology of Jesus)
Even from Plato's Apology, which McFall seems to think devoid of substantive philosophical positions, we find Socrates declaring substantive philosophical positions:
Socrates: "Do [you think] I don't even believe that the sun or the moon are gods, as the rest of mankind do?"
Meletus: "No, by God! Look, Judges, he says that the sun is a stone and the moon earth!"
Socrates: "... [yes] the youth learn these doctrines from me, but they can buy books in the market" [that also teach them, and though I think such doctrines are ultimately absurd] "I believe in spiritual beings at any rate, according to your own statement, and you swore to that in your indictment. But if I believe in spiritual beings, it is quite inevitable that I believe also in spirits, right? ... But do we not agree that spirits are gods or children of gods?" (Plato, Apology 26d-e, 27c, cf. 35d).
Socrates: "Is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. But I do know that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be god or man." (Plato, Apology 29b).
Socrates: "Perhaps someone might say, 'Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?' Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god [who speaks to me in my mind] and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less." (Plato, Apology 37e-38a).
But still, Socrates' trial defense was crafted to avoid and downplay his actual teachings. From The Clouds we see much poking fun at Socrates the nitpicker, but also at Socrates' interest in natural philosophy, despite his denials at trial. Here is just an excerpt:
Pupil: I'll tell you, then. But these are holy secrets. This morning Socrates asked Chaerephon how many of its own feet a flea can jump. A flea had bitten Chaerephon on the eyebrow and then jumped off and landed on Socrates' head.
Strepsiades: And how did he measure the jump?
Pupil: Most cleverly. He melted wax, then picking up the flea, he dipped both its little feet into the wax, which, when it cooled, made little Persian slippers. He took these off and was measuring the distance.
Strepsiades: Good God almighty, what subtlety of mind!
Pupil: That's nothing! Just wait till you hear another idea of Socrates'. Wanna?
Strepsiades: What? Please tell me!
Pupil: Our Chaerephon was asking his opinion on whether gnats produce their humming sound by blowing through the mouth or through the rump.
Strepsiades: So what did Socrates say about the gnat?
Pupil: He said the gnat has a very narrow gut, and, since the gut's so tiny, the air comes through quite violently on its way to the little rump; then, being an orifice attached to a narrow tube, the butthole makes a blast from the force of the air.
Strepsiades: So a gnat's butthole turns out to be a bugle! Thrice-blessed man, what enterology!
Pupil: But the other day he lost a great idea because of a lizard.
Strepsiades: Really? Please tell me how.
Pupil: He was studying the tracks of the lunar orbit and its revolutions, and as he gaped skyward, from the roof in darkness a lizard shat on him.
Strepsiades: Ha ha ha ha. A lizard taking a dump on Socrates!
All the above from lines 143-73. The text goes on, up to line 220, to describe all the things being taught and studied in Socrates' school, which included botany, astronomy, and geography. Socrates himself is shown engaging in such studies after line 220. For example, again comically exaggerated, poking fun at the obscurity and seeming silliness of Socratic teachings (including metaphysical doctrines):
Strepsiades: First tell me, pray, just what you're doing up there.
Socrates: I tread the air and contemplate the sun.
Strepsiades: You're spying on the gods from a wicker basket? Why can't you do that, if you must, down here?
Socrates: Never could I make correct celestial discoveries except by thus suspending my mind, and mixing my subtle head with the air it's kindred with. If down below I contemplate what's up, I'd never find aught; for the earth by natural force draws unto itself the quickening moisture of thought. The very same process is observable in lettuce.
The play concludes with an extended satire of the art of rhetoric, but first goes on from the above into meteorological and metaphysical discourses on clouds. That wouldn't be funny if it wasn't the sort of thing Socrates did—not, that is, to claim that clouds are the only true gods (as the play has him do), which is a parody of Socratic teachings, but to reason from empirical facts to conclusions about the nature of man and the world, which is truly Socratic. The method itself is parodied at length in this play—even the lettuce analogy above is an example of poking fun at the kind of analogies from natural science Socrates was known for deploying (and that we see from Xenophon he did deploy).
And so we get to our best source, Xenophon—best not because he is unbiased or always reliable, but because he is not biased in the way either Plato or Aristophanes were. Plato is biased by his interest in founding and leading his own school of philosophy, and thus articulating an ever-more-complete and systematized worldview, things Xenophon had no interest in. Aristophanes, of course, is biased by his very different aims as a comedian. Xenophon's only interest was in restoring Socrates' good name. (I go into the reliability of these sources in Section 8 below.)
From Xenophon it is clear that Socrates debated heavy philosophical issues ranging across all subjects with the major thinkers of his own day, not just issues of practical ethics and lifestyle, and that he engaged in dialectical reasoning and linguistic analysis to arrive at his conclusions. We can see many things that we find in the Dialogues of Plato confirmed in Xenophon. But let's see some examples of what Xenophon tells us Socrates' "metaphysical" or "theoretical" commitments were, just from the Memorabilia alone:
The problems he discussed were these: What is godly, what is ungodly; what is beautiful, what is ugly; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government, and what is a governor; —these and others like them, of which the knowledge made a "gentleman," in his estimation, while ignorance should involve the reproach of "slavishness." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.16)
He believed that the gods are heedful of mankind, but ... whereas [other Athenians] do not believe in the omniscience of the gods, Socrates thought that they know all things, our words and deeds and secret purposes; that they are present everywhere, and grant signs to men of all that concerns man. (Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.19; Socrates also advanced a detailed Argument from Design for the existence, wisdom, benevolence, and greatness of God: ibid. 1.4)
Socrates: "You think, do you, that good is one thing and beautiful another? Don't you know that all things are both beautiful and good in relation to the same things? In the first place, Virtue is not a good thing in relation to some things and a beautiful thing in relation to others. Men, again, are called 'beautiful and good' in the same respect and in relation to the same things: it is in relation to the same things that men's bodies look beautiful and good and that all other things men use are thought beautiful and good, namely, in relation to those things for which they are useful....For what is good for hunger is often bad for fever, and what is good for fever bad for hunger; what is beautiful for running is often ugly for wrestling, and what is beautiful for wrestling ugly for running. For all things are good and beautiful in relation to those purposes for which they are well adapted, bad and ugly in relation to those for which they are ill adapted " (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.8.5, 7)
When asked again whether Courage could be taught or came by nature, Socrates replied: "I think that just as one man's body is naturally stronger than another's for labour, so one man's soul is naturally braver than another's in danger. For I notice that men brought up under the same laws and customs differ widely in daring. Nevertheless, I think that every man's nature acquires more courage by learning and practice....And similarly in all other points, I find that human beings naturally differ one from another but greatly improve by application. Hence it is clear that all men, whatever their natural gifts, the talented and the dullards alike, must learn and practise what they want to excel in." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.1-3)
Between Wisdom and Prudence he drew no distinction....He said that Justice and every other form of Virtue is Wisdom....Madness, again, according to him, was the opposite of Wisdom. Nevertheless he did not identify Ignorance with Madness; but not to know yourself, and to assume and think that you know what you do not, he put next to Madness....Considering the nature of Envy, he found it to be a kind of pain....[and] "Only a fool," he said, "can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.4-8, 4.1.1; I am omitting Xenophon's summaries of his argument or elaboration on each position statement—but even with that, Xenophon only composed a summary of the doctrines Socrates taught and not a detailed record of all his arguments and methods)
When someone asked him what seemed to him the best pursuit for a man, he answered: "Doing well." Questioned further, whether he thought good luck a pursuit, he said: "On the contrary, I think luck and doing are opposite poles. To hit on something right by luck without search I call good luck, to do something well after study and practice I call doing well; and those who pursue this seem to me to do well." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.14)
"[I]nstead of waiting for the gods to appear to you in bodily presence, [we] are content to praise and worship them because [we] see their works. Notice that the gods themselves give the reason for doing so; for when they bestow on us their good gifts, not one of them ever appears before us gift in hand; and especially he who coordinates and holds together the universe, wherein all things are fair and good, and presents them ever unimpaired and sound and ageless for our use, and quicker than thought to serve us unerringly, is manifest in his supreme works, and yet is unseen by us in the ordering of them. Notice that even the sun, who seems to reveal himself to all, permits not man to behold him closely, but if any attempts to gaze recklessly upon him, blinds their eyes. And the gods' ministers too you will find to be invisible. That the thunderbolt is hurled from heaven, and that he overwhelms all on whom he falls, is evident, but he is seen neither coming nor striking nor going. And the winds are themselves invisible, yet their deeds are manifest to us, and we perceive their approach. Moreover, the soul of man, which more than all else that is human partakes of the divine, reigns manifestly within us, and yet is itself unseen. For these reasons it behoves us not to despise the things that are unseen, but, realising their power in their manifestations, to honour the godhead." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.3.13-14)
For another example of Socratic reasoning on metaphysical questions, compare the following quote from Socrates—the kind of thinking it represents, both its mode and its subject—with the sorts of discussions we hear from Jesus:
"For that sage, in declaring the sun to be fire, ignored the facts that men can look at fire without inconvenience, but cannot gaze steadily at the sun; that their skin is blackened by the sun's rays, but not by fire. Further, he ignored the fact that sunlight is essential to the health of all vegetation, whereas if anything is heated by fire it withers. Again, when he pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor can resist it long, whereas the sun shines with unequalled brilliance for ever." (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.7.7)
That sure sounds like a philosopher—in exactly those respects that Jesus does not. Jesus shows no interest in these kinds of questions (what the sun is made of, etc.) or this kind of logical argument (inferring from a list of empirical facts that one object is probably not made of the same material as another). Likewise, consider the sort of epistemological humility, explicit metaphysical content, and philosophical reasoning characterized in the following passage from Plato, which is again uncommon to Jesus:
For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place. And if it is unconsciousness, like a sleep in which the sleeper does not even dream, death would be a wonderful gain. So if such is the nature of death, I count it a gain; for in that case, all time seems to be no longer than one night. But on the other hand, if death is, as it were, a change of habitation from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing could there be, Judges? For if a man when he reaches the other world, after leaving behind these who only claim to be judges, shall find those who really are judges ... would the change of habitation be undesirable? Or again, what would any of you give to meet with [the great men of the past]? I am willing to die many times over, if these things are true; for I personally should find the life there wonderful ... And the greatest pleasure would be to pass my time in examining and investigating the people there, as I do those here, to find out who among them is wise and who thinks he is when he is not. ... To converse and associate with them and examine them would be immeasurable happiness. At any rate, the folk there do not kill people for it; since, if what we are told is true, they are immortal for all future time, besides being happier in other respects than men are here. (Plato, Apology 40c-41b)
Does any of this sound like someone who "has no metaphysical (perhaps even theoretical) commitments" as McFall credulously claims? I think that assertion is soundly refuted by the actual evidence. Moreover, does anything above so much as resemble the sort of discourse we get from Jesus? Obviously not. They are worlds apart in content and method. And lest McFall misunderstand me again, my point is not that anyone who has "metaphysical commitments" is a philosopher—that is very definitely what I am not saying. Rather, a philosopher is someone who systematically argues for or against those commitments, through logic and analysis—the professional discourse of philosophy—and not merely through popular parables and common sense persuasion, for in the latter category fall thousands and thousands of people throughout history, famous and unknown, who only count as "philosophers" in the popular, not formal sense (again, a distinction that was the entire point of my essay).
In the end, McFall's own argument here would at best entail cutting Socrates from the list, not adding Jesus. But to get to even that farcical conclusion, McFall wants us to think that the Apology of Plato contains the extent of Socrates' system of philosophy, and everything else is just Plato making stuff up (which, if such reasoning is sound, condemns everything we know about Jesus just as surely). But the Apology is not a work of philosophy, and by nature entailed avoiding the very philosophical discussions McFall expects to find there. Yet we have so much more than that, not just from Plato, but Aristophanes and Xenophon as well, not to mention other sources (like Aristotle), exactly as I already explained in my original essay. And, unlike for Jesus, we have all that from well-known and confirmed first-hand witnesses. As I have shown, even excluding Plato altogether, it is beyond any doubt that Socrates discussed every branch of philosophy and deployed philosophical reasoning, using logic and analysis, and engaged the major philosophers of his day explicitly. All very much unlike Jesus. So there is no double standard here.
Hence my point in my original essay: while Jesus did what rabbis do, and just pronounced positions, occasionally also giving reasons, Socrates did what philosophers do and asked what the nature of things was—a question that never seems to have troubled Jesus, at least not explicitly and certainly never centrally, yet this is by definition the central concern of a real philosopher. For example, Xenophon tells us that "Socrates held that those who know what any given thing is can also expound it to others" but "those who do not know are misled themselves and mislead others" and "for this reason Socrates never gave up considering with his companions what any given thing is" (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.6.1). In fact, Socrates often discussed "names and the actions to which they are properly applied" and once asked, for example, "Can we say, my friends, what is the nature of the action for which a man is called greedy?" (ibid. 3.14.2) We definitely have a philosopher here. In contrast, Jesus rarely engaged in this kind of discussion, as far as we can tell, and he certainly never made it a central aspect of his way of seeking and teaching wisdom. He thus was not a philosopher in the formal sense, even if he was in some popular sense.
6. Buddha's Epistemology?
McFall quotes me when I say that Jesus "says very little on the subject of what knowledge is or how one discerns true knowledge from false," which is the defining feature of epistemology as a fundamental branch of philosophy, but he then declares that "Buddha is far worse off" because he "rejected any knowledge that wasn’t associated with his paths of salvation." McFall doesn't seem to understand that his evidence actually works against his own point: it is precisely because Buddha had a lot to say on the nature and limits of knowledge that he gets classed with philosophers. My point was exactly that: Jesus had apparently almost nothing to say on this subject (indeed I am being generous: I am not actually aware of him saying anything on this subject, at least not explicitly, but I could perhaps have overlooked some obscure passage).
McFall is apparently confusing a genuine epistemological position that entails a variety of formal skepticism, and not having an articulated epistemology of any sort. These are very different situations—and the difference is exactly what distinguishes philosophers from other popular ideologues.
McFall is fond of quoting the brief remarks of scholars. But that won't do. As we have done already, to understand, you have to go and look at the primary sources. So I have excerpted here a long section from one of the foundational texts of Buddhism (the Potthapada Sutta). Contrast the detail with which philosophical questions are raised and discussed here, with how this sort of discussion never happens in the Gospels. We have no passage there even remotely comparable to this one. There is no Jesus comparable to this Buddha in the official record, and yet this is what real philosophy looks like:
Potthapada: "Now, lord, does perception arise first, and knowledge after; or does knowledge arise first, and perception after; or do perception and knowledge arise simultaneously?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, perception arises first, and knowledge after. And the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception. One discerns, 'It's in dependence on this that my knowledge has arisen'. Through this line of reasoning one can realize how perception arises first, and knowledge after, and how the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception."
Potthapada: "Now, lord, is perception a person's self, or is perception one thing and self another?"
Buddha: "What self do you posit, Potthapada?"
Potthapada: "I posit a gross self, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents [earth, water, fire, and wind], feeding on physical food."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be gross, possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, feeding on physical food. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this gross self—possessed of form, made up of the four great existents, and feeding on food—one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Then, lord, I posit a mind-made self complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be mind-made, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this mind-made self—complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties—one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Then, lord, I posit a formless self made of perception."
Buddha: "Then, Potthapada, your self would be formless and made of perception. That being the case, then for you perception would be one thing and self another. And it's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another: even as there remains this formless self made of perception, one perception arises for that person as another perception passes away. It's through this line of reasoning that one can realize how perception will be one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Is it possible for me to know, lord, whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another?"
Buddha: "Potthapada—having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers—it's hard for you to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another."
Potthapada: "Well then, lord, if—having other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers—it's hard for me to know whether perception is a person's self or if perception is one thing and self another, then is it the case that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "Then is it the case that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that the cosmos is not eternal, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "Then is it the case that the cosmos is finite... [or that] the cosmos is infinite... [that] the soul and the body are the same... [or that] the soul is one thing and the body another... [that] after death a Tathagata exists... [or that] after death a Tathagata does not exist... [or that] after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist... [or that] after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless?"
Buddha: "Potthapada, I haven't expounded that after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist, that only this is true and anything otherwise is worthless."
Potthapada: "But why hasn't the Blessed One expounded these things?"
Buddha: "Because they are not conducive to the goal, are not conducive to the Dhamma, are not basic to the holy life. They don't lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I haven't expounded them."
Potthapada: "And what has the Blessed One expounded?"
Buddha: "I have expounded that, 'This is stress'... 'This is the origination of stress'... 'This is the cessation of stress'... 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'
Potthapada: "And why has the Blessed One expounded these things?"
Buddha: "Because they are conducive to the goal, conducive to the Dhamma, and basic to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That's why I have expounded them."
Pay close attention to what is philosophical about the Buddha's discourse here: first, he declares a position on several metaphysical questions (that it is a position of radical skepticism does not change the fact, the only relevant fact here, that a position is declared, articulated, and defended); second, he expounds several points about the ethics and nature of perception, knowledge, and belief-formation, and explicitly ties his epistemological-metaphysical position (which is essentially a form of what is today called radical constructivism) to his underlying soteriology. In contrast, Jesus has nothing substantial to say about these things, nor does his discourse ever procede like this—that is, following a train of thought with an interlocutor over several steps of reasoning, involving known and heavily-debated philosophical problems of that day, to arrive at the exposition and elucidation of a philosophical concept.
7. Equivalent Consensus?
I agree with McFall's argument that for Socrates "as with Gospel-reports [of Jesus], there are scholarly consensuses regarding what is authentic, what is not, and what is debatable" in respect to the ideology they taught. I think McFall was wise to use the plural: consensuses. For there is no single consensus. However, Socratic studies is on much better footing than the study of Jesus. Though every scholar would probably disagree regarding the totality of what Socrates thought and taught, all would agree upon a certain core set of philosophical doctrines and methods. For Jesus, this is not so. Though there is perhaps agreement on a very small set of things Jesus probably said or taught, the sayings in that set are themselves very ambiguous, open to multiple (even sometimes contradictory) interpretations, and contain nothing that qualifies as "philosophy" in the formal sense, any more than the exact same kinds of things found in countless authors from Aulus Gellius to Mark Twain, none of whom make any formal list of philosophers either.
8. Are the Sources Discredited?
On McFall's tendentious attempt to dismiss the sources for Socratic thought, we have already seen from the sources themselves that he is overplaying his hand. First, no scholar that I am aware of believes that the dialogues of Plato after the Apology are devoid of genuine facts about the ideology of Socrates. McFall wants to pretend that we can discard everything Plato says. That is not so. Despite Plato's reworking, there is far more of Socrates in the Platonic corpus than of Jesus in the Gospels, certainly far more with regard to formal philosophical discourse. Any argument that discredits Plato as a source operates a fortiori against the Gospels, and thus one must concede that we still know much less about the philosophy of Jesus than about that of Socrates, for exactly the same reasons.
Second, McFall seems to miss the point of comedy: it is precisely because Aristophanes is poking fun at Socratic teachings that his work is so valuable, as well as the fact that it was written and performed in Socrates' presence and thus is far more reliable a source than anything we have for Jesus. If we had a comic satirizing Jesus in his own lifetime, we would know far more about his teachings than we do now. Sure, we must read it as tongue-in-cheek, and as comic exaggeration, and so forth, but the jokes have to be funny, and jokes are only funny when they connect with some fundamental—and peculiar—truth about their subject.
As for Aristotle, McFall says: "what I find amusing is Carrier’s uncritical willingness to bend in the direction of 'first-hand' information here," i.e. in my mention of Aristotle as a source, "when he so adamantly opposes the idea of similar circumstances embedded in Gospel-reports." He doesn't seem to get my point. First, what I actually wrote is (italics now added): "...(to a lesser extent) Aristotle. We know ... these men ... all knew Socrates (except Aristotle, who arrived in Athens a few years after his death, but he engaged with his disciples on a first-hand basis)." Thus, neither was my mention of Aristotle uncritical, nor do I "adamantly oppose" second-hand evidence. In fact, I explicitly accept certain kinds of the latter in the very next sentence: "We also know for a fact that several other eye-witness accounts were written (such as by Ion the Comic and Aeschines the Socratic) which were cited by later philosophers and biographers, and thus second-hand sources on Socrates are more trustworthy than any we have on Jesus."
McFall seems to think I discard all second-hand witness in history. That is never what I said or meant, and in fact, as you can see above, I explicitly denied it. If Paul, for example, had recorded any definite philosophical discourse of Jesus, I would regard that as far more reliable than most of what we find in the Gospels—all the more so if Paul told us his source of information for any given quotation, and that source was an eye-witness (like Peter). But Paul never really gives us any such data. The few examples that might be quotations are ambiguous at best, both to actual origin and source, and have no formal philosophical content anyway. Indeed, Paul has much of his knowledge of Jesus from divine revelation (as he explicitly admits at several points in 1 Corinthians, for example), which is far more dubious than anything we can claim for Aristotle's knowledge of Socrates.
Aristotle was a renowned and careful scholar, who actually originated the method of documentary history (he collected constitutions from city states all over the Greek world and published them in an anthology—now lost). We also know who he was and when and where he wrote, and we know he not only had access to the eye-witnesses but endeavored to interact with them directly. And we have no reason to believe he had any great ideological agenda to distort what Socrates said. Can any of this be said of the Gospel authors? No. Thus, a fortiori, what we have of Socrates in Aristotle is more reliable than what we have of Jesus in the Gospels. Aristotle has at least six marks in his favor as a witness, all of which are lacking (or diminished) in the case of the Gospels.
Finally, I am not sure where McFall gets the idea that Xenophon only wrote his Socratic works after his (unofficial) exile (what—was there no ink in Sparta?), or why this would discredit him as a source even if we actually knew it to be true (which we don't). As I noted above, he did not possess the ideological agenda of Plato, but a very different one: to restore the good name of a great man he personally knew. And I am not aware of any evidence that he "borrowed" from Plato in any way, as McFall alleges. Nor am I aware of any evidence that he wrote "thirty years" after the death of Socrates, or even ten years after, or even two. We don't know the precise dates of either Plato's or Xenophon's writings on Socrates. But we do know they both knew the man personally, and that they had very different agendas. Compare this with the Gospels: Do we have a Xenophon for Jesus? A man who knew him personally and composed his own record of his teachings? No. Yet for Socrates we have not one, but two such men. So McFall's attempt to pretend that Jesus and Socrates are on the same footing as far as sources go is simply absurd on its face.
9. What Eye-Witnesses?
McFall says "let’s not forget" that the anonymous Gospels "contain embedded eyewitness material"—but do they? Which witnesses? Can McFall name any? Worse, can he really present any evidence that any saying of Jesus came from any particular witness, whom we know existed and whom we know the author knew and spoke with? We can answer all these questions for the sources of what Socrates said. We can answer none of them for Jesus. So who is being specious and credulous in his reasoning here?
Likewise, McFall says "still living witnesses could have declared inaccuracies publicly, but apparently did not," and he rightly points out that I endorse this reasoning. But the reasoning requires the premise to be true. Is it? Were any eye-witnesses alive when the Gospels were written? Who? Can McFall name anyone? Can he present any evidence that they were still alive then? In contrast, we can answer both for the writings on Socrates. Indeed, we can do even better: Aristophanes' comedy was performed in the very presence of Socrates himself. So no one can deny the source situation is better for Socrates.
McFall concedes that the Gospels were probably written between forty and sixty years after Jesus died. Assuming eye-witnesses were at least ten years old at his death, that means they would have to be at least 50 to 70 years old when the Gospels were written. But the average life expectancy of a ten-year-old in antiquity was 44 years. We have reason to believe that only 4% of the population at any given time was over 50 years old; over age 70, less than 2%. And that is under normal circumstances. But the Gospels were written after two very devastating abnormal events: the Jewish War and the Neronian Persecution, both of which would have, combined, greatly reduced the life expectancy of exactly those people who were eye-witnesses to the teachings of Jesus. And it just so happens that these sorts of people are curiously missing from the historical record precisely when the Gospels began to be circulated: not a single eye-witness is on record endorsing any of the Gospels, or correcting any of the evident contradictions between them (such as when Jesus was born or whether angels struck down guards at the tomb or whether Jesus was killed on Passover or the day before, and so on). The latter is especially a problem for McFall: if it were true that falsehoods would be denounced by witnesses in the extant record, since there are many apparent falsehoods in the Gospels, discrepancies that cannot be easily reconciled, we should expect eye-witness testimony in the record either correcting or reconciling these discrepancies. But there is none. Why? Most probably because there were no witnesses still living.
How, then, can McFall claim Jesus and Socrates stand on the same footing as far as sources go? Such a claim is utterly unsustainable.
10. What about the Oxyrhynchus Historian?
McFall then raises the issue of the famous "Oxyrhynchus Historian" (OH). Several wild claims of his need serious correction. First, there is an enormous and fundamentally important distinction between a text written by someone who consciously refused to state their name or name their sources, and a fragment that is anonymous only because the section with the author's name has been torn away. McFall seems oblivious to this distinction or its significance to the present issue. I have never even claimed that, in McFall's words, "just because the Gospel-reports themselves are anonymous" (italics mine) "they should be viewed with contempt." Deliberate anonymity is a strike against them, yes, but only one among many, and it is the fact that there are many that is the problem. In contrast, deliberate anonymity is not a strike against OH, since his anonymity is not deliberate, and he has many points in his favor that do not hold true for the Gospels (see below).
Second, the claim that the Oxyrhynchus Historian is held by scholars to be "far superior to Xenophon’s research on the same historical events in the Greek world (from 411 to 362 BC)" is a misleading exaggeration. For one thing, the two surviving fragments of OH each discuss only one single year: (397/396 and 407/406 B.C.). Secondly, Xenophon and OH actually confirm each other on general points more often than not. Thirdly, the major difference is simply that the OH is much more detailed than Xenophon, and not so much that it proves Xenophon "wrong" (which it rarely does, as we shall see). Fourthly, the actual discrepancies that do exist are mostly either those which cannot be resolved (we do not know which author is correct) or for which we already had evidence challenging Xenophon (for example, major sections of the OH's work had already long been known, from having been used as a source by Diodorus), or in which the conclusion has been the reverse (i.e. Xenophon's account is sometimes preferred to that of OH).
Finally, there is a big difference between an author doing "superior...research" and reliably reporting what one knows—a difference that destroys McFall's conclusion, which is that Xenophon is so full of "inaccuracies" and "fictions" that he must be regarded as unreliable, a claim that is in fact not supported by OH, nor indeed any actual evidence. There are inaccuracies and fictions in all ancient histories, and Xenophon is not substantially worse on that score than, say, Herodotus, Josephus or Tacitus (or OH for that matter). Even the most ardent critic (G. L. Cawkwell) admits that the OH was writing history, but Xenophon was writing a memoir, and thus the two works differ fundamentally in genre and method; and that, as a result, the most appreciable difference between them in merit as historical sources is simply that OH gives far more detail, not that Xenophon gets everything wrong (or is full of "inaccuracies" or "fictions"), since the evidence does not sustain the latter conclusion.
Thus, it is not the case that historians simply regard an "unknown" author to be inherently superior to a known one, yet that is what McFall is trying to argue. Instead, the very reasons that historians trust OH over Xenophon, when they do (and it is true they often do, and rightly so), are reasons not applicable to the Gospel reports of the sayings of Jesus. So not only has McFall committed a fallacy of hyperbole, but of false analogy as well. This latter point is particularly important here: the OH is preferred to Xenophon only for reasons that do not hold for the Gospels, and therefore no analogy whatsoever can be drawn between the reception of OH and reception of the Gospels as historical sources. Those reasons are: (1) extraordinary detail regarding names and dates and places and exactly who was where and when; (2) very reliable and precise knowledge of the relevant geography; and (3) tells stories in such detail that the events involved make a great deal of sense (i.e. we understand clearly the motives and reasons for the actors involved, showing a great concern for identifying the causes of historical events, both on the surface and in the background, and in regard to both the immediate and the long-term). In contrast, the Gospels are notorious for being relatively vague and ambiguous—even Luke, the only author to really include what we mean by historical details.
Xenophon's Hellenica falls inbetween the Gospels and the OH on these three criteria: his account is brief and generalized, as are many of his geographical and chronological references (though he only rarely makes an explicit mistake), and he leaves enough details out of his account that we often don't completely understand why certain events happened. However, this is readily explained: Xenophon wrote a short book (thus we should not expect anywhere near the detail included in the monumental multi-volume tome we know the OH to have written) and only wrote what he knew or could find out from eye-witnesses (and therefore most of the details he omits are omitted simply because he didn't know them). To this we must add that Xenophon was obviously partial to making the Spartans, and his good friend king Agesilaus in particular, look good (this we have always known about Xenophon), and some of his informants had similar biases (for example, his Persian information often comes from Persian officials who made sure their accounts made their own actions and those of their family members look good—again, something we have always known). It is agreed that OH has such biases as well (for example, OH's accounts are notoriously biased toward the wealthy, and toward recording—perhaps even to the point of inventing—clever stratagems). But again, this is a fact even more true of the Gospels. After all, Xenophon was not using his speeches of Agesilaus (much less Socrates) to support a later-evolved religious dogma against several other sects who claimed he supported different views, or attempting to preach salvation, or encourage martyrdom, or distance him from his own countrymen, and so on. And unlike OH's account of Greek history, Xenophon's record of Socratic teachings is taken first-hand.
I suspect McFall is getting his disdain of Xenophon either directly or indirectly from G. L. Cawkwell's bitter introduction to Rex Warner's translation of the Hellenica (A History of My Times, 1966). At any rate, Cawkwell's Introduction is available online. But consider the sorts of things Cawkwell unreasonably regards as "destroying" the reliability of Xenophon. What Cawkwell calls the "major" proof is the simple fact that Xenophon doesn't record a particular battle—one that embarassed his friend Agesilaus. But exactly that sort of friendly omission can probably be found in every historical text of antiquity. Thus, by Cawkwell's reasoning, all ancient histories are as unreliable as Xenophon's, which must necessarily include the Gospels—whose mutual omissions of vital episodes and sayings is legendary, and far more troublesome than Xenophon's. I would not be surprised if Xenophon "omitted" embarrassing details about Socrates, too—and probably improved the picture as well (as historians have long known he did for Agesilaus). But that has no bearing on the fundamental point that, despite all this (which I acknowledged even from the start), we still know much more, and that more securely, about the thought of Socrates than we do of Jesus.
Indeed, the main and pervasive gripe Cawkwell has against Xenophon was his reliance on his own eye-witness recollections and personal contacts with eye-witnesses, rather than written sources. Strangely, McFall would have to take exactly the opposite position to Cawkwell's, since McFall believes solely eye-witness reports are inherently superior to those which rely on other writings, whereas Cawkwell believes very strongly in the reverse. Since Cawkwell's belief that Xenophon is unreliable is based on a fact that Mcfall regards as improving the reliability of a source, it is very strange that McFall would discredit Xenophon for doing the very thing he praises the Gospels for!
But Cawkwell also believes that the last part of the Hellenica was probably not an eye-witness recollection but "experienced by hearsay," for example Xenophon's "intimacy with Agesilaus enabled him to meet Agesilaus' friends" (p. 24) and thus use them as sources. Okay. Relying on the eye-witness and personal first-hand reports of a king of the very nation Xenophon is writing about, and his ranking friends (who included major generals and ministers). That sounds like a pretty reliable source pool, don't you think? Yes, there will be propaganda and other distortions, but this is so for all histories of the time (including the Gospels). So Cawkwell goes beyond reason when he concludes that Xenophon is a lousy historian because he trusted eye-witnesses clearly in positions to know, over written records by other historians. Now, Cawkwell's polemic is excessive and not very credible, but even if he is correct in his reasoning, that very same reasoning destroys the Gospels a fortiori. So either McFall must concede that his own attack on Xenophon is excessive and largely groundless, or that the very same attack is equally fatal to the testimony he most wants to defend: that of the Gospels. He can't have his cake and eat it, too.
The same goes for Cawkwell's third objection to Xenophon: the belief that some of what Xenophon didn't see himself he took from popular rumor and conversation. First, this objection can carry no weight regarding Xenophon's testimony to the teachings of Socrates, which is primarily based on his eye-witness, and not hearsay. Second, this objection is no less damning to the Gospels than to Xenophon, since Cawkwell merely conjectures that hearsay is Xenophon's source because he names no other (though in actual fact he does imply in Hellenica 7.2.1 that he read other written histories—and thus what Cawkwell takes as sloppy reliance on hearsay could just as easily be sloppy reliance on the very written records Cawkwell holds in such esteem, which are almost all completely lost). But the exact same reasoning would also lead just as securely (or unsecurely) to the conclusion that the Gospels, by naming no source, also rely on hearsay, and thus are as bad and unreliable as Cawkwell's Xenophon. Again, by maintaining his destruction of Xenophon as a source, McFall burns the Gospels along with it. That does not help his case one bit.
Ultimately, I never claimed that Xenophon (or anyone) was some sort of flawless source, only that he has been and still is "notably reliable" (i.e. relative to his ancient peers). McFall, like apparently many believers, seems uncomfortable with ambiguity. Everything must be absolutely black and white for him. Either we toss everything out, or trust everything. Though he makes many explicit qualifications that apparently deny such an approach, in actual practice many of his arguments assume it. For example, he claims that we can only trust the Apology of Plato because everything else is (supposedly) hopelessly tainted. There is no grey area in his reasoning here. Why? And why does this radical skepticism suddenly disappear when he approaches the Gospels? Why are they any different?
Likewise, McFall's black-and-white mind leads him to the equally absurd conclusions that Xenophon is to be tossed out as an unreliable liar and mere "story teller" simply because he gets some facts wrong (as every historian of antiquity did, including OH), while the Gospels "embed" eyewitness testimony and despite all their discrepancies, deliberate anonymity, bias, rhetorical and dogmatic agendas, lack of critical procedure, and silence as to actual sources or date or place of composition, are to be trusted in essentials. Thus he turns one source (the Gospels) that is obviously worse than another (Xenophon's Hellenica) into a better one, by playing a double standard: everything bad about a bad history is good for the Gospels but not for Xenophon, and everything that is typical for all historical texts is bad for Xenophon, but not the Gospels. Up is down, and sideways is straight ahead.
Never mind that this has nothing to do with the issue: the Hellenica does not mention the teachings of Socrates. Thus, even if it were something we should toss out, that has absolutely no bearing on whether Xenophon's proven eye-witness testimony to the teachings of Socrates is to be disgarded. The fact remains: Xenophon is a much more secure source for Socrates, than the Gospels are for Jesus.
11. What Does "Privy" Mean?
I pointed out, as only one among many problems with the Gospels as a historical source, that they "mention events no one could ever have been privy to." I merely gave as one example that "the end of Matthew in particular relates secret meetings no Christian sympathizer would have been present to hear." McFall seems to think I was objecting to hearsay or second-hand witness (as evidently he wrongly thought above, too). That wasn't my point at all, though I see now the example I gave was misleading. There is nothing fatally wrong with reporting second-hand testimony—its reliability is diminished in relation to first-hand testimony, but not destroyed. My point was not that the Christians had some stories several sources removed, but that they record details they could not possibly know about at all (or at least, such knowledge is extraordinarily improbable).
Even so, that alone would not be fatal (except to those stories), if we had several positive characteristics that offset the effect of the negative. But the Gospels have few if any of the positive characteristics of a source like Xenophon. This was, after all, the original point of my comparison: however much you might quibble over details or degrees, it remains incontrovertible that Xenophon comes off, in relative terms, much more trustworthy than the Gospels. That point remains unchallenged by any evidence McFall presents.
For example, McFall reports that Xenophon also reported events he wasn't present at. I can't believe McFall ever thought I was claiming otherwise. Rather, Xenophon was still privy to those events through witnesses who were there—witnesses whose names we know, because Xenophon names them (unlike the case in the Gospels, where we do not know the names of any witnesses used for any particular thing Jesus is claimed to have said or taught). And Xenophon could further verify these things from his own eye-witness experience of Socrates and what he taught and how he taught, and what sorts of things he taught (whereas none of the Gospels were written by any confirmed witness with comparable inside knowledge).
So when McFall claims that "scholars don't judge a work's overall reliability based on deficiencies of this particular nature" he is committing a double mistake. First, I never "judged" any work's "overall reliability" on any one criterion—to the contrary, my conclusion comes only after a cumulative assessment of all relevant predictors of reliability. Rarely can any single criterion damn a source. But several together can. And even then the damnation is only by relative degree, not an absolute: hence Xenophon is better, not perfect; and the Gospels are worse, not useless.
Second, scholars do judge "a work's overall reliability" on the very same criteria I do, including the criterion of reporting things an author could not have known, which is certainly a predictor of unreliability, since this proves the author willing to invent facts and pass them off as history. An unreliable author is more likely to do this (and the more unreliable, the more likely), whereas a reliable author is not likely to do this (and the more reliable, the less likely). Obviously, this rarely means one can rule up or down on this one criterion (there's McFall thinking in black-and-white again), since it is merely an indicator, not a guarantee—it reflects a tendency. So it is only when severel indicators converge for the same work that the scale starts to fall enough to really worry. And as far as the Gospels go, we should really worry. In contrast, though the scale drops for Xenophon, too, it does not drop nearly as far—certainly not for his record of Socrates. Consequently, with him our worry is not as great.
12. What Does "Uncritically" Mean?
McFall says "Carrier is wrong when he asserts Matthew and Luke 'uncritically' copied from Mark and Q" because "Scholars clearly see" that they "used critical thinking in formulating their work." I do wonder which scholars McFall has in mind. He doesn't cite anyone or give any examples of just what they argue. But since even I would agree that Matthew and Luke used some amount of "critical thinking" in deciding what to copy and how to change it (they weren't robots), I won't object to claiming others say the same. But is this what I meant? That Matthew and Luke just copied stuff like dolts without any thought or plan? Certainly not.
When historians distinguish "critical" and "uncritical" writers, we mean writers who use an objective and transparent methodology, vs. those who don't. For example, when Suetonius critically examines the evidence for and against two conflicting claims regarding the birth and childhood of Caligula (Caligula 8), he reveals to us his evidence and reasoning—the question is made transparent, and the means of its solution is made transparent. Even if Suetonius still comes to the wrong conclusion, we still know he arrived at his conclusion critically. In contrast, Matthew and Luke not only seem oblivious to their contradictory accounts of the birth and childhood of Jesus, but they do not engage in any critical analysis of the conflicting claims. Unlike Suetonius, they do not arrive at a conclusion based on a transparent analysis and inference from the evidence they had at hand, and they certainly never present to the reader any conflicts or original data or the reasoning by which they chose or changed things. In no case ever do the Gospels do such a thing, least of all when it came to deciding what Jesus actually taught. Yet Suetonius was a notorious gossip, and already not high on any list of reliable historians in antiquity (though, I would say, still on the list). The Gospels, being so much less critical than Suetonius are thus a fortiori much less reliable.
Now, I will certainly concede that Xenophon is no hot ticket when it comes to critical analysis either—no better than Suetonius at least—but: (a) a total assessment of all indicators still favors Xenophon well over the Gospels, even if they both share marks against them (hence my judgment was based on a total assessment and not any one criterion); and (b) though Xenophon may not be the most critical of historians, he instead relied heavily on his own eye-witness and various eye-witnesses whom he knew personally and names—both in his accounts of Socrates and in the Hellenica (and, I should add, the Anabasis and Agesilaus, two other historical works he is renowned for, the former trusted more than the latter)—a mark in his favor the Gospels cannot claim, making their lack of critical historical writing all the more serious, for that is all they have left. Unlike Xenophon, "I saw it" or "Agesilaus told me" is not something they can fall back on.
13. Have You Heard of Propaganda?
McFall bizarrely claims that it "shouldn’t count as a negative" that the Gospels were manifestly used to promote one sect's dogma against another's. I can't believe he really endorses such a view. It is obvious to any reasonable observer that if you have two texts, one written with the deliberate purpose in mind of depicting a revered leader promoting a particular doctrine, and another without such a motive, that the latter text is inherently more trustworthy than the former. Thus, this feature of a text obviously counts as a negative. And we have copious evidence that doctoring of the Gospels for ideological ends was rampant, whereas we have no such evidence for Xenophon's account of Socrates. In contrast, even McFall concedes that we have such evidence for Plato's account—yet he rejects Plato's Socrates and accepts the Gospels' Jesus. And he accuses me of applying a double standard? My original remarks on this issue stand.
14. What Does "Match" Mean?
I wrote that the Egerton Gospel "does not match any extant Gospel" and McFall "find[s] it odd" that I "would make an error-ridden assertion of this magnitude." Rather, I find it odd that McFall would make an error of this magnitude in reading English. What I meant was that it is a Gospel different from any extant Gospel. Nothing more. McFall seems to have inexplicably taken the words "not match" as if they meant totally unlike. That seems a rather strange gaffe for a native speaker of English. But I'll shrug this marvel off and concede that I could have made my meaning clearer. At the very website McFall cites Wieland Willker says Egerton "seems to be almost independent of the synoptics and it represents a johannine tradition independent of the canonical John." That's just what I meant when I said it didn't match the extant Gospels, and I would be happy to replace my words with his.
However, I did assume Egerton was suppressed because it was ideologically unfavored. I made this assumption on its high prior probability: since this was the case for every other noncanonical Gospel we know, and any Gospel in wide enough circulation to actually still have a papyrus fragment surviving could not have disappeared by "accident." Rather, Christian scribes must have made a conscious choice not to continue copying it after the 2nd century. But many other examples could be adduced besides Egerton, so McFall is engaging in some fancy handwaving by nitpicking on this one—for example, my point is just as well confirmed by the Gospel of Peter, which was specifically declared heretical and we have it on record that it was actively suppressed by Serapion.
Now, McFall asserts that the fragment "lacks doctrinal tones" but then goes on to list at least two doctrinal elements in it (credentials and questioners). However, I think he meant that it lacked "heretical" doctrinal elements. But I did not presume that the surviving fragment contained the doctrinal elements that led to the Gospel's suppression, so any focus on the fragment's content is rather besides the point. I merely chose it because it is an otherwise totally unknown Gospel and could well be the oldest attested papyrus of any Gospel whatever, canonical or otherwise. That is certainly significant—since it removes the commonplace objection that all the rejected Gospels came much later than the canonical ones. Hence the reason I chose Egerton as my example. I could have chosen any of several dozen others.