Richard Carrier’s Reading Problems: An Example

After Christina Petterson had reviewed his book, On the Historicity of Jesus (2014), Richard Carrier concluded that Petterson’s review was “highly evangelical” and that Petterson herself was “fawningly Christian”.

As I was book review editor at the time that Petterson submitted her review, I asked Carrier how he had concluded that Christina Petterson was “highly evangelical”, and what evidence he had for calling her (elsewhere) “fawningly Christian”.

Given that Carrier is an historian who places a high value on the logical use of historical evidence, I wanted to see how he had treated this recent piece of historical evidence: a 2015 review of his book. How did he reach his conclusions about Petterson?

So I sent him a question on his website, and he has now kindly answered it.

DEANE DECEMBER 16, 2017, 10:25 PM

Dear Richard,

From the specific content of Christina Petterson’s review of your book, I wonder what evidence you have for calling it “highly evangelical”, and (elsewhere) what evidence you have for calling her “fawningly Christian”? If there is evidence of this in her review, I am sure that, like any good historian, you will not fail to produce it.

I eagerly wait to see your evidence.

Deane Galbraith


  1. You can see for yourself. I link to her article. It’s open access, so anyone can read it. Clues include her disparagement of the Jesus Seminar, and praise for James McGrath; her review in general reads like a James McGrath style poohpoohing of any challenge to orthodoxy, and never engages with the actual arguments of the book, which only a believing Christian would think to do. She’s defending orthodoxy. And assuming she need do no work to do it. While never once conceding the actual orthodoxy is that the Gospel Jesus is a myth (and the historical Jesus not like him). That’s all you need to know her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship (her Christian belief is likewise evident from her other writings).

    Although I think it’s fair to cut the word “evangelical” here, since it’s true, she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma in that article. So I’ve made that correction. I’ve gone back to its main descriptor: weird.

Carrier’s basis for calling Petterson “highly evangelical” and “fawningly Christian” was: her negative criticism of the Jesus Seminar, her positive appraisal of a piece written by James McGrath, combined with her negative review of Carrier. Based on this evidence, Carrier concludes that Petterson had behaved as “only a believing Christian would think to do”. Carrier further alleges that Petterson is “defending orthodoxy”, and that “her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship”. Furthermore, from Petterson’s “other writings”, he concludes that “her Christian belief is likewise evident”. Yet, he does now acknowledge that Petterson isn’t actually evangelizing in her review: “she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma”.

There is a good reason why Petterson wasn’t “evangelizing a kerygma” in her review of Carrier. She is not a Christian, and not religious, and never has been. She is an atheist.

This provides a good test, however, of Carrier’s inability to interpret his sources, and his ability to draw inferences from them that are simply not there. Carrier consistently assumes that anyone who disagrees with him must have an evangelical “agenda”. Sadly, this is conspiracy-theory thinking, not scholarly thinking.

Carrier has completely failed to interpret his source, taking inferences from it that simply were not there, and which were quite incorrect.

See also: Does Richard Carrier use Bayes’ Theorem to detect Evangelicals?


15 thoughts on “Richard Carrier’s Reading Problems: An Example

  1. It seems to me that way too much ink gets spilled, in both directions, about people’s motives and too little ink gets spilled simply examining the arguments and whether they hold up to the tests of logic and historical evidence. You may as well suggest that Larry Hurtado is wrong about high Christology because of the whoppers he made when he wrote about Carrier’s work.


    • “Motives”? I just pointed out Richard Carrier’s written mistake in calling Christina Petterson “fawningly Christian” and “highly evangelical”. This is based on what Carrier wrote, not on “motives”.


  2. I am curious as to how the author of this article knows that Christina Petterson is an atheist.
    I have not found anything that indicates what her religious beliefs or lack thereof are. I would appreciate it if you could supply a link or information to verify this.


      • That is a strange reply Deane. I simply asked for some verification of Christina Petterson’s religious belief, or lack thereof. Don’t you treat unverified online comments with just a hint of scepticism?

        DEANE’S REPLY:
        I was replying to your opening question, “how the author of this article knows that Christina Petterson is an atheist”. My answer was that she told me. That was the information to verify this.

        In general, scholars don’t talk about their personal religious beliefs or lack of beliefs within the body of their work, and Petterson does not either, as far as I know. So there was nothing to “link” to. However, a little digging would confirm that Petterson is a Marxist, and a key scholar within Marxist criticism of the Bible & historical Christianity, and so it would be a fair inference that she holds that ‘dialectical materialism is the ultimate reality’ or something to that effect.


      • Then you should acquaint yourself with Holocaust denial literature, and human-caused climate-change denial literature. They too only ask for more and more (and more) “evidence”.


      • Ian’s no myther, he’s fully aware that most ancient historians and other scholars, atheists included, disagree with Carrier. So he would have no cognitive dissonance over this at all.


      • One may still have cognitive dissonance while professing agnosticism between mythicism and historicism. I mean, Christina Petterson has directly discussed her lack of Christian belief with me. What more do you want? I suspect that a signed confession wouldn’t convince many mythicists and mythicist-sympathizers. There is a culture of conspiratorial thinking in Jesus-mythicist circles which impedes rational thinking.


  3. Christina Petterson writes:
    What did surprise me was Carrier’s claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and his professed lack of vested interest in the matter, which in my opinion rests somewhat uneasily with his confessed atheism . . . .

    So according to Petterson to be Jesus historicist would be embarrassing for an atheist.

    Who may say so if not a Christian?


    • More cognitive dissonance.

      “Who may say so if not a Christian?” Why, an atheist, of course!

      Petterson’s comments were quite clear. Carrier’s conceit of objectivity and disinterest in whether Jesus was myth or historical “rests somewhat uneasily” with a certain type of pop-atheism found on internet discussion sites which embraces Jesus mythicism. The whole edifice of objective mathematics in Carrier’s book, based however on very dubious assumptions, does indeed appear to be in some tension with this style of pop-atheism.


  4. Asking for evidence is hardly “cognitive dissonance”!

    Assuming Carrier is in error here; does it follow that everything else he says is false? No.

    I am agnostic about the Historical Jesus. I simply don’t think we have enough evidence to call it either way. However, I would love to see a good rebuttal of Carrier’s thesis, rather than all this mud slinging, and appealing to the consensus to defend the consensus.

    Clearly, mainstream critical scholarly conclusions are sufficient to not take the gospels as “gospel”, and so reject traditional Christian claims. It’s unnecessary to have to have Jesus as a “pure myth” when there’s a mythological historical one on offer. I think that the main strength of the celestial Christ idea is in explaining Christian origins as opposed to the insignificant, failed, apocalyptic preacher model, for example.


    • Yet I never suggested that everything in Carrier’s book is false. To the contrary, he makes many good points along the way. But what his replies to Petterson show is a conspiratorial manner in handling evidence and engagements with his work. This tendency makes it very difficult for people to engage him – both because of his frequent errors in interpreting sources and his lack of charity in engaging those who disagree with him.

      But yes, I agree that someone should provide a fair and comprehensive rebuttal of Carrier’s thesis. Daniel Gullotta has already provided a good article addressing specific weaknesses of Carrier’s proposal, in “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“. Of course, it is an article, so cannot address every point.

      I tend to agree that the model of Jesus as merely an apocalyptic prophet is not enough, on its own, to explain Christian origins. But if we couple that with Jesus’ claims that he was an anointed prophet, an Elijah or Enoch redivivus, sent by Heaven, and chosen by God for a key task at the end of time, do you see how that might lead to further claims and identifications of an historical Jesus with a cosmic Christ? Now there’s a good explanation…

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