Plutarch and Richard Carrier's "Kook and Quacks"

Richard Carrier has an article, Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire, which discounts the Gospel accounts about Jesus given the credulity of those in their cultural context. I have responded to the article in part, here. I will address one other example he raises in this post, and if time permits, deal with others in future posts.

The first example Carrier offers to show that “Miracles were also a dime a dozen in this era” is an account Plutarch gives of a speaking statue:

The biographer Plutarch, a contemporary of Josephus, engages in a lengthy digression to prove that a statue of Tyche did not really speak in the early Republic (Life of Coriolanus 37.3). He claims it must have been a hallucination inspired by the deep religious faith of the onlookers, since there were, he says, too many reliable witnesses to dismiss the story as an invention (38.1-3).

Those less schooled in the classics than Carrier will probably lack some important details about this comparison. Whereas the Gospels and Paul's letters were written during the lifetimes and under the influence of Jesus' followers, Plutarch wrote more than 500 years after Coriolanus supposedly lived (unlike with Jesus, there is doubt among historians as to whether he was anything more than one of the myths about the founding of Rome). Even if we date the Gospels near the end of the first century, they are still greatly closer in time to the events they describe than Plutarch is to Coriolanus. One is a matter of years, the other is a matter of centuries. Indeed, Paul's citation of eyewitnesses to the resurrection is considered by most scholars to trace back to the early Jerusalem Church only five years or so after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Which leads to another important distinction. Carrier speaks of Plutarch mentioning “too many reliable witnesses” for the story of the speaking statue to be an invention. But just what is Plutarch's basis for this claim? What witnesses is he aware of more than 500 years later? None that he identifies. But Paul identifies witnesses to the resurrected Jesus within a few years of the event: Paul, the Twelve (likely an existing group of known men), James, various others, and himself. The Gospels also identify other, and some of the same, witnesses. Most were still living during the formation and spread of these traditions.

The next significant difference is the number of sources. Plutarch refers to the “tradition” that has been handed down. As far as Carrier indicates, Plutarch is our only source for this “tradition.” Even if there were others from around Plutarch's time, after more than 500 years separating out multiple sources would be problematic. On the other hand, with the early evidence for Jesus' resurrection and miracles, we have multiple sources: Paul's letters, the Gospel of Mark, the special M and L material, the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the references in Josephus, the early Church traditions preserved in Acts, and the rest of the New Testament documents.

Other differences are also of significance, including the different religious and cultural settings of Jesus' Jewish context, the importance placed by early Christians on eyewitnesses (such as Luke's prologue and Hebrews 2:1-3), and the suffering many of the early witnesses endured for the affirmation of Christian tradition.

All told, the comparison of Plutarch's mention of the talking statute to the miracle and resurrection accounts in the early Christian writings is a feeble one. If Carrier is merely trying to show that some Gentiles may not have been all that skeptical in evaluating the claims of Christian missionaries, he may have something of a point. I am not sure what he thinks that would accomplish, however, since to do so would still leave the origins of those stories in the early Christian context unexplained.


Steven Carr said…
That seems like a huge non sequitor to me.

Plutarch is not claimed to be the Paul of the weeping statue movement, so why make such a comparison?

Are you disagreeing with Carrier and Plutarch and claiming that a statue did speak?

Or you agreeing with Carrier and Plutarch that a statue did not speak?

Or are you claiming that 500 years before Plutarch wrote, nobody had believed in a talking statue, because the only people who ever mention a talking statue lived 500 years after the event?

Or are you claiming that sceptics only questioned reports of miracles hundreds of years after people believed in them?
Or, more likely, Layman is saying that the parallel of Plutarch's claim to the Gospel claims is poor.

Really. Was that so hard to figure out?
Layman said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Layman said…
The speaking statue is not from the same "era" as the Gospels. It reportedly took place many centuries before them.

Also, the comparison of their being "too many witnesses" to doubt the account might be mistakenly taken at face value by Carrier's audience. I was pointing out that, unlike the Gospels, we have no idea who those witnesses might be and they certainly were not around to influence Polybius' account.

Further, when we compare the evidence for Jesus' miracle working and resurrection to the evidence for the statue speaking, the overwhelming advantages is with Jesus' miracle working and resurrection.

Does this deny that many people in Polybius' culture may have believed that a statue did talk over 500 years earlier in an important event linked to the founding of Rome? Sure. Does that make then lunatics? Not in my opinion. Does that make then kooks? Not in my opinion. Does that mean they were willing to believe in something supernatural? Sure.

In any event, I don't think it is much of a point in support of the position that the Gospel accounts are unremarkable for their time.

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