A fawningly-Christian non-historian (though reportedly she’s an atheist) wrote one of the weirdest book reviews I’ve ever seen. Not just of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. But of any book, in any academic journal, anywhere. It’s six or so pages of factless whinging that doesn’t tell the reader even what the book’s argument is, and is more a bunch of flabergasted opinions backed by no relevant statements justifying them. Which is weird coming from an actual postdoc. But alas, I guess I have to reply with something substantive. It will be a challenge. But here goes it.
Christina Petterson is a Danish research fellow at the Australian National University. She has no degrees in history. Her Masters is in theology and her Ph.D. in modern cultural studies. Most of her publications are in modern cultural studies (even when discussing books of the Bible—and Christian culture is definitely her central research focus—it’s often to analyze modern views on them). Apart from cultural and literary analysis, she has no peer reviewed publications in ancient history, classical languages, early Christianity, textual criticism, or anything relevant I could discern, other than books on Acts and John, which apply modern cultural and literary analysis to the text, which is at least ballpark relevant. Her dissertation was on “the role of Protestantism in the Danish colonisation of Greenland,” however, and her postgraduate research centers on “Gender as a Category of Knowledge.” So she’s sort of doing history-like things. But as best I can tell her only relevant skills are in cultural and literary analysis, and mostly of modern material, not ancient (her cv is here).
Petterson’s review was published in the open access journal Relegere (Vol. 5, No. 2, for the year 2015, pp. 253-58; so possibly she wrote it years ago and it’s only now making it online). It’s not clear why she had any interest in my book or in what way it pertains to any of her research interests, other than that it’s about the Bible. I have no idea how she even discovered my book exists. But it annoyed her, so she wrote this weird review of it.
- Please Learn Some Math
Petterson begins by declaring that she is so bewildered by math she won’t make any attempt to understand the merits of my methods (and gullibly fawns on McGrath’s blog review of Proving History instead; she also calls Bayes’ Theorem “Bayle’s Theorem,” but charitably I’ll assume that’s just a typo). She quotes the section of my book where I state my concluding calculation of my lower bound probability (1 in 12,000), but doesn’t mention my upper bound probability for historicity (1 in 3), or that the imprecision of the results is reflected precisely in how wide a margin of uncertainty that is. It seems like she means to say (though, this being the bizarrely written review that it is, she never actually says) that my method entails an irrational precision for historical study. But I guess this must be her failure to grasp basic math concepts even after having them explained to her.
Because in fact, I argue our results for this subject (as in most questions in ancient history) must necessarily be very imprecise. And in OHJ I measure the maximum boundaries of that uncertainty: the probability of Jesus having existed most likely lies between 0.008% and 32% (OHJ, pp. 599-600). Her review for some reason has 0.008, but leaves off the % mark; and it doesn’t mention the upper bound of 32% at all. I get the impression she didn’t actually read the book. Because she writes as if she didn’t realize the result on page 600 was only for the lower bound, not my actual conclusion, even though on that same page she quotes the 0.008 figure from, I say “I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the probability is better than that,” and “I find I cannot by any stretch of the imagination believe the probability Jesus existed is better than 1 in 3.”
Then I go on to explain how you can test my result by inputting your own probability estimates (something Petterson never does; more on that in a moment). A range between 0.00008 and 0.32 out of 1.00 is not precise. That’s almost as imprecise as a result can be in any statement of probability. I explain the fact of how imprecision and uncertainty are thus modeled mathematically in Proving History (index, “precision”). It seems Petterson totally missed both the general point—that these numbers are measuring imprecision, not claiming precision—and the particular point: that my result was not that ‘the probability Jesus existed is 1 in 12,000’ but ‘the probability Jesus existed is more than 1 in 12,000 but less than 1 in 3′.
Advice to critics: Please take seriously the fact that I am measuring a lower and an upper bound; please mention and address both when you critique my book; and please learn why this is a mathematical technique for quantifying my uncertainty, the opposite of attempting to claim exact results. You can’t claim “Jesus probably existed” without your own upper and lower bounds on the probability of his existing. Just because you disingenuously avoid ever saying what those bounds are or why they are those boundaries and not others, does not excuse you from the fact that in declaring his existence probable you are nevertheless declaring some lower bound on the probability Jesus existed. Our dispute is therefore not with how scary mathematical notation looks when stating lower probability bounds. Our dispute is over what that bound is and why you should believe it’s that and not less.
Petterson never says what she thinks the probability is that Jesus existed. And she never says why that’s what she thinks it is. So she’s not even critically interacting with the argument of my book. I’m asking historians to explain why the lower probability bound is what they think it is. So can we talk about that, please?
- Please Document Your Claims
Petterson states a bunch of opinions in polemical terms, yet never justifies any of them with any evidence. In fact, she even contradicts herself in bizarre ways. For example, she says Chapter 1 of OHJ “gives us the full background of the development of Carrier’s personal crusade,” yet she doesn’t explain what crusade she means, nor does she present any evidence there is such a crusade, much less a personal one—an alarming omission, considering that Chapter 1 instead explains my resistance to the book’s thesis and how long it took to get anyone to convince me it had merit, and how long I researched it to test it before being sure. Rather the opposite of a crusade. And at no point personal. Indeed, the Preface of OHJ explains how irrelevant the conclusion is to my life and beliefs (pp. xi-xiii). It in no way matters to me that Jesus existed, personally or ideologically; or that he didn’t. It’s just an interesting historical question, and I’m a historian.
Calling a detailed exposition of an objective, impersonal interest and years-long grant-funded research process a “personal crusade” is weird enough. It gets weirder when, at the end of her review, she even mentions my “claims to indifference as to the historicity of Jesus and professed lack of vested interest in the matter.” So she is actually admitting that she is making an assertion contrary to what the book says. In any field of knowledge, to do that in a review of a book morally warrants presenting evidence. What evidence does she present that those claims of mine are false or disingenuous? Merely that I’m an atheist. Even though my Preface explains why in fact that leaves me with no vested interest in whether a mundane Jesus existed, the only thesis I test in the book; whereas a Christian believer definitely has a vested interest in rejecting and even attacking any suggestion their Lord and Savior didn’t exist. And Petterson’s review and work history left me ample reason to suspect she’s a believing Christian (yet, reportedly she’s an atheist).
Petterson also claims OHJ evinces a “fundamentalist drive” to “disprove the historical Jesus,” without ever explaining what is “fundamentalist” about that. A book that makes a careful evidential case that Jesus probably didn’t exist, and gets a result far short of certainty, is exactly the opposite of fundamentalism.
Advice to critics: Please document your claims, if you intend to gainsay something in my book. If my book gives reasons why I have no vested interest in the outcome and it took years to persuade me the conclusion had any merit, and you intend to insist to the contrary that I nevertheless do have some vested interest in the outcome, you are obligated to give evidence to support that assertion. You are obligated to address (indeed, to at least mention) the reasons I gave to the contrary. Don’t just declare opinions contrary to fact, and give no basis whatever for those opinions.
- Please Say Something Relevant
Petterson’s review consists entirely of describing the contents of the book (not wholly well, but honestly enough), which is as a review should, and then just interjecting pejorative opinions without any explanation of their relevance or aptness, which is not what an academic journal review should do. If you are going to declare opinions, you need to explain to the reader why those opinions are correct. And why they are even relevant.
Examples abound above and below. But one is especially reflective of how bizarre this review is: She says I don’t cite the work of Richard Horsley or Warren Carter in my sections on the political background to the origins of Christianity, declaring “it surely is extraordinary that a survey of the scholarship on the political context of early Christianity does not include their contributions to the field.” Well…is that extraordinary? Petterson never explains why anything they wrote is even relevant to what I discuss, or why citing them would be important. Why, in other words, is that even a criticism of what my book argues?
That’s a fundamentally bizarre thing to do in any review. Even just at that. But it’s worse. Because she is referring to my Chapters 4 and 5, which enumerate and summarize 48 “Elements” of Background Knowledge, and I preface that survey with this caveat (OHJ, p. 65):
When elements agree with the near-universal consensus of contemporary scholarship I won’t exhaust any effort to survey the evidence but merely present them as given. I do not assume such elements are beyond any possibility of debate, only that the evidence is such that the burden must be on anyone who would deny them. The remaining elements I will demonstrate to be true with an adequate citation of evidence and scholarship, only because I keep encountering experts who deny them or don’t know of them (even when a majority of experts already agree with me).
So, do Horsley or Carter argue anything contrary to the “near-universal consensus of contemporary scholarship”? If not, then I have no need of citing them. And if they do…what is it? And what does it have to do with any of the 48 Elements I summarize? (And why should we heed them on those points, rather than the scholars or evidence I do cite? But that’s already a level beyond. Petterson can’t even tell us what they said that’s relevant. Much less why.)
Advice to critics: Please explain why your criticism is even a criticism, and what relevance it has to anything being argued in what you are reviewing. Why should I cite Horsley or Carter? On what? For what? And what effect does omitting them have on anything my book argues? Do they contradict any of my facts? Do they refute any of the scholars I do cite? If you don’t say, you aren’t providing the reader with any information of use.
- Please Get the Science Right
In surveying some of the Elements in the Background Knowledge chapters, Petterson incorrectly says I argue that the early Christians were “schizophrenics suffering from hallucinations.” This is a polemical mistake I have encountered before, usually from fundamentalists who are offended at any suggestion the Apostles hallucinated encounters with their god, despite the fact that the leaders and founders of nearly every other religion on earth did (or claimed to do). In other words, saying the early Christians experienced hallucinations and believed them, makes them normal in the history of world religions.
But what’s incorrect here is that she has the science wrong. Even though I am careful to explain the science—and extensively cite the scientific literature backing it up. First, I do not say the early Christians were “schizophrenics.” To the contrary, I devote several paragraphs (citing several works on the underlying science) to explaining the difference between “schizophrenia” and “schizotypal personality,” and why the one is a mental illness and the other is not, but in fact widely documented as commonplace in human populations (OHJ, pp. 126, 128), particularly in religions that declare visions and revelations their primary access to the divine, as the Epistles well-document the first Christians did (the evidence of the first Christians being schizotypal is extensive: OHJ, pp. 134-37; Petterson never mentions this evidence, and certainly offers no critical response to it; nor does she mention my citation of biblical scholars who agree with me on this). Second, because being schizotypal is not an illness, there is no sense in which they “suffer from” hallucinations. That simply pejoratively dismisses the experiential reality of their lives, mischaracterizing them as ill, which is contrary to the science—the science I explained and cited.
Here is just an example of what my book actually says about this, quoting the actual scientific literature (OHJ, pp. 128-29):
In fact, normals with a high propensity for hallucination have been identified as schizotypal, meaning they hallucinate nearly as easily as schizophrenics do but are not so prone to it as to be disabled. A schizotypal is ‘a relatively well-adjusted person who is functional despite, and in some cases even because of, his or her anomalous perceptual experiences’.[scholarship cited] Hallucination in schizotypals in fact has been shown to reduce their anxiety and thus has a positive personal function. In modern cultures a prevalent hostile attitude toward hallucinatory behavior still often drives schizotypals to become loners (because they are characterized as weirdos or insane and there is no recognized place for them), but in cultures that embrace hallucinators we see the opposite. For example, where we find cults that socially integrate schizotypals or even elevate them to positions of leadership, we find that schizotypals begin to congregate and socialize.[scholarship cited] In fact, culture determines how easily and frequently even normals will hallucinate, as well as how accepted and revered schizotypals will be.[scholarship cited] Modern ‘first world’ cultures are actually profoundly atypical among world cultures in stigmatizing and suppressing hallucinatory tendencies.[scholarship cited] As scientific observers have concluded, ‘the folk theory of visions and voices adopted by a culture may be important in determining whether a hallucination is viewed as veridical or as evidence of insanity’, which in turn greatly affects the commonality and acceptance of hallucination within a population.
Advice to critics: Please make an effort to understand the science. When actual science is cited and quoted at you, pay attention. Don’t read several pages of well-cited summary explaining why hallucination is normal in the ethnographic record, that numerous studies have determined it is not simply indicative of insanity, and that most hallucinators do not “suffer” from this but their lives are actually improved by it (psychologically, at least; the socio-political harm caused by false beliefs remains, but that’s not a consequence of insanity, but bad epistemologies), and then claim what was just told you was that all hallucinators are insane and suffering. Much less imply that “therefore” no one claiming in a religion to have visions is hallucinating—because even if that could only be a consequence of insanity, that has no relevance to whether it’s true.
- Please Learn How to Think
One reason you should actually start learning math is because math is everywhere. Everything you do, all your reasoning, about almost anything, is mathematical. Mathematical concepts saturate your life and thought. And if you don’t know that—and worse, don’t know how math governs your reasoning—you are going to screw up. A lot.
Here is an example. Petterson attempts a confusing complaint about me saying “a great deal” of what I survey in the Background Knowledge (Chapters 4 and 5) is unknown to “many experts” in the field. Her response is to say that since I cite in footnotes scholars who agree with me on each point, that therefore there can’t be any “ignorant experts and most erudite scholars” unaware of the facts I enumerate. This is a failure of simple mathematical reasoning. She has screwed up her arithmetic. When I say “a great deal,” instead of correctly hearing “most,” she hears “all,” and when I say “many experts,” instead of correctly hearing “a lot,” she again hears “all.” And then, failing at basic arithmetic, she concludes there can’t be “many” scholars ignorant of a point, if “some” scholars are well aware of it. I’ll leave you to do the math on that.
Similarly, any given scholar may know a quarter of the facts I list; and for each scholar, it can be a different quarter; and it would still be true that any one scholar is ignorant of three quarters of the facts I list. They just won’t be the same three quarters in every case. Grasping this, requires grasping basic concepts of arithmetic. This is why you need to be better at math. So you don’t make these kinds of mistakes like Petterson.
Indeed, the main reason Chapters 4 and 5 are so extensive, is that I kept encountering this or that scholar who didn’t know several items covered there. I would encounter scholars who did know those. But who then didn’t know several other items covered there. When I added up all the items any erudite scholar I encountered didn’t know, it came to 48 in total, and hence became my 48 Elements. Those are not 48 elements all erudite scholars don’t know. They are the 48 elements any one of which at least one erudite scholar doesn’t know. If you think of these 48 elements as baseball cards, and erudite scholars as expert collectors of baseball cards, then maybe you can work out the mathematics Petterson is missing here. And then correctly grasp why I need to show all the baseball cards. Precisely because no expert collector has them all.
The punchline is that this complaint doesn’t even make any sense. Petterson never says any of the information I survey in Chapters 4 and 5 is false (even when she mockingly makes that incorrect point about Christians being schizophrenics!). Instead, she essentially just says all experts agree that all of it is true! And that I’m only to be taken to task for suggesting they don’t all know that it’s all true. Which is a rather petty complaint, even if it were warranted. It makes no sense to say a book is faulty because it fills its chapters with true facts every expert agrees on. Did I mention this review was bizarre?
Advice to critics: Please don’t make basic arithmetical mistakes in your reasoning. Please. If I say many, don’t act like I said all. If I describe a distribution of elements among sets (sets here being “experts” as the containers of facts, called “elements”), make an effort to correctly apprehend what I’m saying about that distribution. And don’t embarrass yourself by making snippy remarks that only reveal how badly you suck at arithmetic; or worse, remarks that wouldn’t even constitute a criticism even if your remarks were arithmetically correct!
- Please Explain Yourself
Petterson correctly says I assure my readers that “Jesus’s assignment to the Rank-Raglan reference class” does not “presuppose that Jesus began as a Rank-Raglan hero.” More exactly, I said (OHJ, p. 244):
4. The Causal Objection
Doesn’t this presuppose that Jesus began as a Rank-Raglan hero? No. Even if his story was rebuilt so that he would only belong to that class later (for example, if Matthew was the first ever to do that), it makes no difference. Regardless of how anyone came to be a Rank-Raglan hero, it still almost never happened to a historical person (in fact, so far as we can actually tell, it never happened to a historical person, ever).
Thus what I said was: the fact that Jesus was a Rank-Raglan hero (as in: unmistakably came to belong to that class of persons) does not entail or require that he was always one (as in: that he was one the moment the first historical version of him was invented). And this was related in a particular context Petterson doesn’t convey any inkling of to her readers. In result, she never explains what’s wrong with it. (BTW, on why the Rank-Raglan argument actually does work and is not tenuous in any way I don’t already fully and mathematically account for, see my discussion and links in my recent review of David Marshall.)
Petterson instead claims my method here is “strictly correct” but in some unexplained way “tenuous.” But she doesn’t explain what she means by tenuous. Tenuous in what way? And why? This review being as bizarre as it is, she simply doesn’t even explain what her criticism is, or why it’s correct. Usually the way Christian apologists deal with my methods is to articulate a bunch of criticisms of my method and then completely fail to tell the reader I already refuted those criticisms in the very book they are reviewing. In other words, they lie to their readers, by not only not telling them that I already answered those criticisms, but also by not saying what their responses are to my answers (in other words, not even engaging in any debate at all). Whereas here Petterson doesn’t even explain what her criticism is!
Advice to critics: Please explain what your criticism is. And while you’re at it, please also explain why you think it’s correct. And please don’t forget to address what I already said in rebuttal to you, in the very book you claim to have read.
- Please Actually Do the Math
Whenever you assert I have the wrong frequency or probability of something, you are by that very fact asserting your own frequency or probability. This places an obligation on you. I’ve done a lot of work: presented facts, counted up elements of sets, made arguments. You don’t get to just “gainsay” all that work by doing no work whatever. If you think my work got an incorrect result, you have to do the work over to show us what the correct result is. If you don’t know what the correct result is, or even how to find out what it is, then you cannot claim my result is incorrect. This is logic 101.
So when Petterson spends a paragraph or two challenging my estimate that at least twice as many people placed in different centuries are mythical than are actually historical, she never says why that is wrong. Bizarrely she quotes me making several arguments for my estimate of this frequency. She does not rebut a single one. Nor offer any contrary argument. She does absolutely nothing to explain why anyone should reject that estimate. She certainly doesn’t explain what she thinks that frequency actually is more likely to be. Or why.
At several points in the book I repeat the point that all my math can be checked and redone by anyone reading it by simply putting their own frequency estimates in at each point. I go out of my way to tabulate every frequency estimate at the end of every evidence chapter, and line them up so you can run the calculations easily after changing my estimates to yours. It is a complete waste of everyone’s time to just “assert” on no arguments or evidence that my estimates are just “wrong.” If they are wrong, then the only way for you to know what conclusion is correct, is to put the correct frequency estimates in and run the math. So please actually do that.
And of course, if you do want to insist those estimates must be different, you have to actually explain how you know that. If your reasons for a different frequency suck worse than mine, then guess what, I’m not the one who’s wrong.
Advice to critics: Please do the work. You can’t claim Jesus’s existence is “probable” if you can’t even explain what the probability is or how you know it’s that. If you think there is some better way to determine that probability, then let’s see it—so we can test its logical validity. If, instead, you agree the way to do it is with the actual established logic of determining probabilities under conditions of uncertainty—which is Bayes’ Theorem—but you disagree with my inputs (the prior or consequent probabilities I enter into the final equation), then you must tell us what your inputs are. And give us evidence and reasons to agree with you that that’s what the correct inputs are. And then you have to show us that those inputs mathematically get the result you claim. Please do this. Do the work. Don’t just magically claim to know what the result will be.
I’ll put this another way just in case you aren’t following me: If you think any probability is different than I say, you cannot claim to know that if you can’t even explain to us what that probability actually should be, or how you know that. And I’m here to tell you, that you may also be shocked to find that when you put all the probabilities in that you think they should be, the result isn’t what you expected. That’s the bitch about logic. The conclusion cannot be denied, once you accept the premises. So if your premises—yea, even your own premises—get a different conclusion than you expected, then what you expected was wrong. Time to change your beliefs.
Christina Petterson’s review of On the Historicity of Jesus in the journal Relegere bizarrely lacks any cogent criticism of anything in it. She simply affirms all the facts in it are true, while contradictorily balking at some of them with opinionated quips yet without ever actually saying they are false. And she claims the methods in it are somehow “tenuous” but not how or why or what should replace them. She doesn’t even explain what the methods are. Her own self-confessed ignorance of math also leads her to many errors of basic reasoning. And she gets the science wrong, even despite my book explaining it to her, and citing the scientific literature extensively.
Practically a paradigmatic example of how bizarrely vacuous this review is: Petterson says Chapters 7 and 8 of OHJ “reiterate with tiresome pomposity debates over dating and authorship of the New Testament texts and extra-biblical evidence.” Does she say anything in those chapters is incorrect? Nope. So what’s the point of describing a factually correct summary of the state of the field as “reiterating with tiresome pomposity” such fundamentally pertinent information? Did she expect little drawings of flowers and unicorns and the occasional lapse into laconic poetry to liven up what is actually a required survey in any work of this kind? What exactly does an “un-” tiresome or “un-” pompous summary of necessary facts look like? There isn’t any discernible criticism in here. It is devoid even of an aesthetic critique, as her pejorative words are not explained in any way—does she mean overly verbose? disingenuous? inaccurate? redundant? jargonized? What? And…based on what?
Similarly she declares my “ignorance of the field of New Testament studies and early Christianity” without explaining what I’m ignorant of (one wonders how she would even know—not having any relevant degree in New Testament or Early Christianity). She just says I’m ignorant. Of what? No idea. This is not exactly a useful review. To anyone. Worse, she then immediately contradicts herself in the next paragraph by saying everything in my book is “quite rudimentary first year New Testament stuff.” Which means that it’s not only mainstream and correct, but exactly the opposite of ignorant: it’s so basic, everyone knows it’s true! But then, why doesn’t she like some of it? She never explains that, either. This is just beyond unintelligible.
Accordingly, her conclusion totally hits the bizarro trifecta.
Petterson says, “It is not that I disagree with some or all of his representations of the material” (Oh? You don’t disagree with any of it? So what’s wrong with the book, then? Did you not notice you forgot to ever say anything is incorrect in the book?), “it is more the lack of insight into New Testament scholarship” (Oh? What insights does it lack? What did I overlook or get wrong? Could you mention maybe at least, like, just one thing I overlooked, and why it’s relevant?), “the mathematics which replace careful argumentation” (Oh? Mathematics isn’t careful argumentation? So what is this argumentation you speak of that’s more careful but less mathematical? Do you not know all your own arguments were mathematical??), “and above all,” what she says she dislikes the most, is “the evangelical commitment to truth that I find so tremendously off-putting.”