The Difference Between a Historian and an Apologist

Larry Hurtado’s latest foot-in-mouth affords a good opportunity to explain what the difference is between an apologist and a historian. Not in respect to their goals (apologists need to defend a position even when it’s false or indefensible; historians only want to know what’s true), which everyone already knows, but in respect to their methods. Because that’s how you tell them apart.

  • When a historian hears a claim they think is false, they first check to see if it’s coming from a peer reviewed source or not. If not, they might not care to check further (maybe they still will, but it’s hardly incumbent). However, if it is coming from a peer reviewed source, they then go check that peer reviewed source to see what arguments and evidence were advanced for that claim. This is what peer review is for, incidentally: to save historians time by letting them know which arguments and claims are at least good enough to be worth checking, and which haven’t even been vetted to any standard and thus might not be worth their time.
  • The historian will then either be persuaded by that evidence and argument, and realize they were wrong to think the conclusion must be false, or they will think there is something amiss about the evidence or argument. Then they will check that evidence (and there will be some listed: making sure there is, is another point of peer review) or vet the logic (is the conclusion logically entailed by the evidence, when assuming the evidence is correct). If the logic and evidence check out, then they will either be persuaded by that evidence and argument, and realize they were wrong to think the conclusion must be false, or give up being a historian and become an apologist. That’s when they depart from the truth and the standards of any credible profession.
  • But if that historian remains professionally committed to being a historian, and still isn’t persuaded, they will be able to professionally explain why they are not persuaded. And the difference between an apologist and a historian at this point will be this: their reasons will be factually sound and logically valid. That is, they will be able to give reasons that aren’t lies, and those reasons will warrant their uncertainty of the conclusion. This can only be accomplished by explaining why each item of evidence is not persuasive, and why even the conjunction of all that evidence is not persuasive. And that explanation can’t be ridiculous or fallacious.
  • What can happen from there is that, just as this historian is now assuming another historian can make mistakes of fact or logic, it’s therefore equally possible they have just made a mistake of fact or logic. So they fully ask for and expect a dialogue to ensue, in which that historian’s objections to the evidence entailing the conclusion meet a response; which response may indeed identify a fallacy in that historian’s objections, or re-demonstrate evidence they believed to be lacking. Or it won’t. And at that point, even lay observers will be able to judge who’s got it wrong (or if there really isn’t any certainty to be had on the subject). Because now it’s just about who’s argument is logically fallacious. And after this amount of back-and-forth, anyone trained in even basic logic can tell.

Let’s test this model against what Larry Hurtado just did.

Comparing Historical Methods with Apologetical

Hurtado responded to my article about his mistakes by once again ignoring my book. He now abandons every major point, and picks up the one he thinks is the weakest—a common cognitive error documented by science: to attack only the weakest argument and thereby assume you’ve answered the strongest. And yet he does so so incompetently it’s astonishing. Watch…

Point 1: Hurtado now claims Philo doesn’t identify the Logos as an archangel. Yet Philo explicitly does. I quote him doing so. In the book. So here we see Hurtado keeps putting his foot in his mouth by not checking these things before making his assertions. Philo says this is God’s “firstborn Logos, the eldest of his angels, the ruling archangel of many names.” Why doesn’t Hurtado know this? Why is he trying to deny it’s even true?

I don’t know. Yet he asserted Philo doesn’t say that, with unquestioning certainty, thus deceiving the public by giving the impression he actually knows this subject well enough to be that sure. The public is thus led to believe he checked. Yet he didn’t. He misled the public.

By contrast, here is how this would have gone, had Hurtado been a professional historian who cares about the truth, rather than an apologist who only cares about what people believe, even if it’s false:

Carrier: Philo identifies this Logos as an archangel.

Hurtado: Hmm. I was sure he doesn’t. That he only thought of it as an idea. What evidence does Carrier have to the contrary? I need to check that.

Hurtado: [Checks the cited section of my book, reads the evidence; checks the evidence, confirms it’s correct.]

Hurtado: Huh. Well shoot. I guess I was wrong. Philo does identify that Logos as an archangel.

Hurtado: [Publishes a statement that I was right about that and actually did the research to confirm it.]

Instead? Hurtado lies about my not knowing this subject, not doing the research, and being unqualified to do it, and asserts with confidence that Philo never called the Logos an archangel. Thus demonstrating he does not know this subject as well as he thinks, did not do the research (even after being told to repeatedly, and even given the page numbers and source), and should be qualified to do it yet has abandoned all the things his qualifications taught him to do, thus rendering his qualifications irrelevant. He has thus become an apologist, and ceased being a historian. But the opinions of apologists, cannot inform history. They have no authority there. To have authority as a historian, you have to act like a historian. Hurtado chose not to.

Point 2: Hurtado also claims that the figure Philo identifies in Zechariah 6 isn’t the Jesus there named. That’s not the interpretation Philo is using, however. Again, the evidence is in my book. Hurtado really should check it before making declarations in ignorance of the actual evidence.

The passage in question was written about Jesus ben Jehozadak (literally, “Jesus, Son of God the Righteous”), the first High Priest of the second temple. It’s his coronation. Philo says the Logos (God’s “Firstborn Son”) is the Son of God and the High Priest. Who is the Son of God and the High Priest in this passage? There is only one: Jesus. It’s therefore clear, Philo is reading this as a coronation declaration to Jesus, not of someone else (and note, there isn’t anyone else present to “behold” but him). Other interpreters read it differently, but Philo isn’t.

The passage reads (from the Hebrew):

“11. Take silver and gold, make an ornate crown and set it on the head of Joshua [Jesus] the son of Jehozadak [God-the-Righteous], the high priest. 12. Then say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord. 13. Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the Lord, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”

Some interpreters consider the beheld figure to be the later king Zerubbabel. But what we really want to know is how Philo is reading this passage. And we’ve already seen he is clearly reading it as all about the same person; and not a king, but a priest; and not a “son of Ask God” (ben Shealtiel, father of Zerubbabel) but a “son of the Righteous God” (ben Jehozadak).

Indeed, Philo goes on to say this Anatolê figure, God made to “rise up” (anateile) as his Son, whom he identified as the Logos, the supreme archangel. And Philo says that’s why it is fitting he be called the Anatolê by Zechariah. So Philo is clearly aware, with his own pun (the verb form of anatolê playing off the noun form of anatolê), that he understands the Anatolê figure in this passage to be the God’s Son in this passage—and only one figure in this passage is identified as God’s Son: Jesus. Likewise only one is a High Priest here, like the archangel Philo is saying this is about. Because Philo is saying the reason that name fits, is because it’s a passage about the Son of God (ben Jehozadak), and that’s why he can be correctly described as “Rising,” because that’s how God made that archangel his Son, by “Raising” him up as such. Which entity was also God’s High Priest. Just as depicted, as Philo saw it, in Zechariah 6.

Hurtado is relying on other interpretations of the text. Not what Philo is reading in this text. And since we are interpreting Philo, we need to examine what Philo is reading out of this text. That’s the whole point. And again, the coincidence that Philo is connecting his Son of God and High Priest to Zechariah 6, which mentions a Son of God and High Priest named Jesus, is just too much of a coincidence to believe an accident. In fact reading Philo as understanding the Jesus son of God and High Priest in Zechariah 6 as not the Anatolê figure he identifies with the archangelic Son of God and High Priest, requires several coincidences:

  • That Philo would argue it’s not weird to call the figure in Zechariah 6 the Rising one, because that correctly describes the archangelic God’s Son (and, we know, High Priest), when he thinks the Anatolê figure in Zechariah 6 is not the one there identified as God’s Son and High Priest. That’s extremely weird. And improbable on its face. That Philo would use that argument, then makes no sense.
  • That Philo would argue it’s not weird to call the figure in Zechariah 6 the Rising one, because that correctly describes the archangelic God’s Son (and, we know, High Priest), when he thinks the Anatolê figure in Zechariah 6 is not the one there identified as God’s Son and High Priest. Yet by complete chance accident, the very same verse has someone else in it who just “happens” to be described as the Son of God and High Priest. That is an odd coincidence. And odd coincidences are by definition improbable.
  • That Philo would here and elsewhere assign numerous very strange attributes to an archangel that just happen to be exactly the same weird attributes assigned to the early Christian Jesus, including being Son of God (and God’s High Priest), and then say this archangel is discussed in this verse in Zechariah. Yet by complete chance accident, the very same verse has someone else in it who just “happens” to be described as the Son of God and High Priest also named Jesus. The same name as Paul’s archangel, whom Paul and Hebrews assign all the same weird attributes, including being the cosmic Son of God and High Priest. That is an amazing coincidence. And amazing coincidences are by definition improbable.

So, to believe that Philo did not interpret this verse as being about the same person—to insist, instead, that Philo thought the Anatolê was someone else, like the king Zerubbabel, and not the Jesus Son of God and High Priest being told this in that passage—requires assuming three bizarre and thus improbable coincidences. Whereas to believe that Philo is reading this passage as all about the same person (regardless of how other interpreters ever read it), does not require any of those coincidences, and thus does not accumulate any of those improbabilities.

One can say similar things about all the ensuing apologetic nonsense people then fabricate off the cuff to try and avoid this conclusion, such as:

  • Philo not knowing what Zerabbabel means in Hebrew (even translitterated into Greek), requires the extremely improbable assumption, contrary-to-well-established-fact, that Philo didn’t know Hebrew or the meaning of Hebrew names, not even of scripturally significant persons, or out of some kind of dementia forgot them whenever he read those names off in Greek.
  • Philo not knowing he was quoting Zechariah 6 or what else was in the passage, requires the extremely improbable assumption, contrary-to-well-established-fact, that Philo, then one of the world’s leading experts on the scriptures, didn’t know those scriptures like the back of his hand and never checked or knew where the quoted line came from.

Similarly, it is irrelevant that Philo only gives this example because he’s elucidating the deeper meaning of words used in the Tower of Babel story, because why he is using this example is not relevant to what the example tells us about Jewish angelology. Just like when Paul says Christians were baptizing living persons on behalf of the dead: it does not matter why he brings that up; the fact that he mentions it, tells us something about Christian beliefs and practices regarding baptism. Namely, that they were parallel to mystery cult baptism: we have pre-Christian inscriptions establishing that the same peculiar practice of baptism for the dead (to secure someone a post-mortem salvation) was a feature of the Bacchic mysteries. Another “strange coincidence.”

This is the difference between doing history, and doing apologetics. Apologetics invents any rationalization conceivable for rejecting an unacceptable conclusion, no matter how irrelevant or illogical. Historians, by contrast, don’t behave that way. They attend to the science of probabilities: what is the more probable. Even if it’s not what we thought or want to be probable.

So here is how this would have gone, had Hurtado been a professional historian who cares about the truth, rather than an apologist who only cares about what people believe, even if it’s false:

Carrier: Philo identifies this archangelic Son of God High Priest with the Son of God High Priest in Zechariah 6, who is named Jesus.

Hurtado: Hmm. I’m sure that can’t be. Because that verse is usually interpreted in a way that distinguishes the Anatolê figure Philo is talking about, from the Jesus figure there. So why does Carrier think otherwise? I’ll need to check and see what arguments he has. After all, his book is peer reviewed, so I can be sure he’ll have arguments and evidence for his reading; that’s what peer review is for. So I know he didn’t just assert it. So I need to know what his case for that reading is. Let me check.

Hurtado: [Checks the cited section of my book, reads the evidence; checks the evidence, confirms it’s correct.]

Hurtado: Hm. Okay. I see how he thinks that; there’s some evidence for that conclusion. But I’m not convinced by it. So I need to explain why each item of evidence he presents doesn’t persuade me.

Hurtado: [Publishes an accurate summary of the reasons I give in the book for my conclusion. Enumerates those reasons, and for each one, gives his reason for not being persuaded by it; and gives his reason for not being persuaded even by the conjunction of those reasons.]

Carrier: [Responds with the same collegiality in kind, pointing out why his reasons for not being persuaded aren’t logically valid.]

Hurtado: [Explains why his reasons are logically valid.]

The Public: [Looks at which one of them is correct about the logic; because they both now agree on the premises.]

Is this how it went? No. Because Hurtado chose not to act like a historian. He abandoned all his professional training, standards, and methods, and instead acted like an apologist. This does not commend him or his field. It rather communicates to the public that he and his field are really just a covert system of apologetics, and not an actual professional field seeking reliable knowledge.

Honest debate about this would surround whether these three coincidences are required by Hurtado’s interpretation, or how improbable those coincidences are, and thus how much their improbability attaches to his interpretation (because mine, of course, completely avoids all three). Yet Hurtado didn’t even know about these three coincidences. He didn’t even know what my arguments were; he refused even to find out. And replied anyway. That’s not how a historian behaves. That’s how an apologist behaves.

Point 3: There can remain disagreement on whether Philo meant the archangelic Son of God High Priest was the Jesus Son of God High Priest in Zechariah 6. Because that all hinges on how the evidence is interpreted (per above). This is common in Biblical studies: pretty much every historian (Hurtado included) believes things many of his colleagues do not; there are many “unresolved” debates like this. They don’t slag each other off as incompetent because of it. They accept that that’s standard in the profession. Not all the evidence is clear enough for field-wide certainty. In fact, most of it isn’t (see Chapter 1 of my book Proving History not only for a demonstration of this, but for citations of numerous bona fide experts concurring with this point).

But what can’t be disputed is this: whatever this archangel is named, he still has all the same peculiar properties as Paul’s Jesus. Which coincidence remains effectively impossible, unless indeed, the earliest Christians believed their Jesus was this archangel. Even if indeed they had to rename him (as Philippians 2:9-11 suggests they did). So arguing over which name Philo would have regarded as applicable, is not even the primary point relevant here. And it looks like Hurtado is trying to conceal that, by making this about whose interpretation gets you to which name: an early Zionist or later Christian interpretation or Philo’s interpretation.

But assume Philo didn’t mean the Jesus Son of God High Priest in Zech. 6 was the archangelic Son of God High Priest he is talking about there. That archangel still has all those peculiar properties as the Jesus of the Epistles: an eternal, primordial, and immortal superbeing; higher in rank and power than all other angels; the celestial Adam; the image of God; the firstborn son of God; the first created being; God’s agent of creation; high priest of God’s celestial temple; and God’s appointed governor of the universe (and also, revealed in the Gospel of John, Logos and Paraclete). That all these weird attributes would be attached to two separate figures, completely independently of each other, just by coincidence, is extremely improbable.

The hypothesis that they are the same angel (regardless of name), makes this evidence 100% expected. Then we know why that coincidence would happen: it’s not a chance accident. But to suppose the first Christians invented a completely new being, and assigned it all the exact same strange attributes as this pre-Christian archangel, without even knowing there was already an angel so described, with all those same attributes, requires supposing a coincidence of cosmic proportions. Pun intended. And a coincidence of such a scale, is by definition extremely improbable. The odds that that would happen are far below 100%. I wouldn’t even assign it 1%. And 1% is a hundred times less likely than 100%. So the conclusion, that the Christians thought their Jesus was the same angel Philo is talking about, is at least a hundred times more likely than the converse conclusion that they didn’t.

Here’s how a professional historical discussion would go from there:

Carrier: Before Christianity, Philo knew of an archangelic Son of God High Priest with almost a dozen strange attributes; Paul and the Epistles assign all of those same attributes to Jesus; and this tells us the first Christians thought their Jesus was this archangel.

Hurtado: Hmm. Well, okay. That’s true. Philo’s angel and Paul’s Jesus (even just by himself but especially if we include Hebrews) do appear to be the same being. They have all the same attributes. It’s a lot of attributes. And all of them are peculiar, especially in conjunction like that. So I’ll have to agree with Carrier on one thing: It’s probably very unlikely that’s accidental. And Philo’s angel didn’t come from Christianity. So Christianity’s conception of Jesus must be coming from Philo’s angel. Not necessarily through Philo (although possibly), as Philo would have to be describing an entity already known in Jewish angelology; he doesn’t appear to be making it up as some novelty he alone discovered, although even if he did, then Christians must have read Philo, because there’s no other credible explanation for how they gave Jesus all the same strange attributes.

Hurtado: [Publishes agreement that the two beings are the same. Says he interprets this as the first Christians believing the historical Jesus was somehow that Jewish archangel, become incarnate. Which is no weirder than believing that angel became incarnate somewhere else. So it isn’t evidence Jesus didn’t exist.]

Carrier: [Publishes his agreement, noting that he never uses this fact to argue Jesus didn’t exist. As one can confirm by reading his book. This fact only ever appears enumerated as background knowledge there, not as itself evidence for any conclusion. Its being true, only negates objections to the conclusion, by establishing two facts often denied: the highest angelic Christology existed from the very beginning, and the availability of a corresponding being to imagine incarnated.]

And that’s where we’d be now. If Hurtado acted like a historian, and not an apologist.


Larry Hurtado is not acting like a historian. He is abandoning all the qualifications, standards, and methods of history, and acting instead like a Christian apologist: not checking facts, not attending to logic, and making up whatever he can think of on the fly, not even caring whether it’s true (because he doesn’t even check before asserting it with total confidence; and his assertions are often demonstrably false when checked), all to just deny conclusions he finds uncomfortable. And yet he expects us to treat his apologetics with the authority of history. He wants us to forget that the only reason a consensus in history is respectable, is that it is not based on apologetic reasoning like his. And yet here he is, demonstrating that in fact the consensus he cherishes is based on apologetics and not historical methods or logic. Which discredits that consensus. Don’t you think?


One comment

  1. Someone asked a question about this under a different article. Their question related to what the competing research was regarding whether the Logos Philo speaks of is “really” an angel, as a distinct being from God, or not. I’ve extensively documented it was. Hurtado has presented no evidence it wasn’t. See their question and my reply here.


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