• On the Historicity, Part 11.

    This is the eleventh part of my review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The other parts of my review can be found here.

    I think Carrier should have taken a slightly different approach in his book. His focus on Bayes’ theorem will be a turnoff to some. It would have been advisable for him to place his Bayesian arguments in footnotes or in an appendix, and instead taken a more common-sense approach in the rest of the book. The reason this is so is that Bayes’ theorem will probably be incomprehensible to many historians, and it might even look a little crankish, and I say that even though it is my considered opinion that Bayes’ theorem is a much better way to do history (we must distinguish between reality and people’s perceptions). The “common sense” approach that I suggest is a table listing all of the facts that support mythicism versus those that support historicism.

    Anyway, based upon my previous writings, I have the following estimates of probability for various pieces of evidence concerning the historicity of Jesus:

    Prior Probability          

    Mythicism .66           Historicism .34

    “Brother of the Lord” 

    Mythicism .25            Historicism .4

    Philo’s Pre-Christian Jesus  

    Mythicism .07            Historicism .04

    Proclaimer / Proclaimed    

    Mythicism 1                  Historicism .5

    The Silence of Paul  

    Mythicism 1                  Historicism .1


    Mythicism 1                  Historicism .25


    In the interests of not ‘stacking the deck’ against historicism, I have omitted 2 pieces of evidence for mythicism: the symbolic nature of the gospels and the demonic powers mentioned in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8. Carrier’s book lists many more evidences for the mythicist theory which I have omitted here, but which nonetheless add even more weight to the case for mythicism than I have laid out.

    When we plug all these numbers in to Bayes’ theorem, the result we get is that mythicism is over 99% likely.

     There is some evidence for Jesus’ existence outside the Bible. Most of it is so awful that it counts for nothing, read a summary of it to see what I mean. However, there are three passages that have some relevance to the existence of Jesus: the two passages mentioning him in Josephus and the passage in Tacitus. Carrier adduces reasons to believe each of these is are corruptions of the original text, and his commentary on this issue is discussed in the book and at greater length in two journal articles of his that he reproduces in Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Paper of Richard Carrier 1995-2014. More to the point, though, he also argues that both Tacitus and the Testimonium Flavanium are tenuous even if authentic (the mythicist case only requires Josephus’ reference to James as the brother of Jesus Christ be textually corrupted, he presents six reasons for this conclusion). The reason Tacitus and the TF aren’t good evidence for an historical Jesus is that we have no way of confirming they derive ultimately from non-Christian sources (“ultimately” meaning it did not come from Jews or Romans who got it from Christians). And if they came from Christian sources, the Christians would have probably just told them the symbolic stories of the gospel narratives as if they were fact (as Mark says, “Unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables, that, ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted and their sins should be forgiven them’”). All of our texts went through Christian hands, and Christian hands were notorious for corrupting ancient texts. I’ve recently read Frank Zindler’s Jesus the Jews Never Knew and discovered that the Russian Josephus was badly corrupted with references to Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and many other New Testament stories which it did not originally have. Not to mention that there is a sixty-plus year absence of any clear references to Jesus as a historical man either inside or outside the New Testament.

    Given all the considerations I listed above, for the sake of argument we might count the extrabiblical evidence (taken altogether) as 3 percent likely (at the least) if Jesus was a myth and 100% likely if Jesus was historical. If we did that, it would still be over 80% certain that Jesus was a myth.

    Tentatively we must conclude Jesus was a myth.

    What could change this conclusion? Here are the ways out:

    1. If someone demonstrated that Mark probably had an historical Jesus in mind, and was not simply writing symbolic / allegorical literature.

    2. If someone demonstrated that one or more passages in the Pauline letters or book of Hebrews was very implausible under mythicism but more plausible under historicism.

    3. If someone demonstrated that the ‘extrabiblical evidence’ for Jesus’ existence was far less than 3 percent likely under the mythicist hypothesis (whether the author comes up with a numerical figure doesn’t matter, just as long as a figure can be derived from the verbal arguments they present).

    4. If someone came up with a better way to derive the prior probability for Jesus’ existence and said prior was far higher than the 34% figure I have obtained.

    5. If someone demonstrated that the evidence in favor of Jesus mythicism was no less likely under the historicist theory, and could do so without made-up, speculative conjectures.

    Any one of these things being satisfied would lower the probability of mythicism below 80%, how much lower will depend upon the quality and quantity of the arguments presented for such a position. We need somebody to make this case, if it can be made. I have not been able to refute On the Historicity of Jesus, in spite of much thinking and source-checking. The reason I cannot refute it is either because it is true or because refuting it would require specialized knowledge (such as in Koine Greek, or on some relevant ancient cultural issue) which I am not aware of. Such a reason could very plausibly exist; I am a mere layman, not a professor, not an ancient text expert.

    Carrier’s work on Jesus mythicism could turn out to be like creationism: back in the 1990’s, before comprehensive responses had been written to creationists, their rhetoric might have been easy to fall for. After all, realizing that the creationists were full of baloney required highly specialized knowledge about various scientific fields that most people would not have had.

    On the other hand, his work might turn out to be like a modern Origin of Species: Ideas of evolution and natural selection had been floating around long before Darwin, mostly as doubtful speculation that did little explanatory work. Darwin, however, took the idea of evolution and formulated it into a plausible theory, showed that it explained all kinds of unusual facts, and gracefully handled the problems with his theory. Carrier has written what is by far the most convincing book on the Jesus myth theory, and published it through no less than a proper academic channel. He handles the problems with the myth thesis far better than any previous mythicist has.

    Twenty-five years from now, will we look back on Carrier’s book as the creationism of New Testament studies or as its Origin of Species? I don’t know, but if his work is indeed a big falsehood, it has managed to overcome hurdles that creationism could have never overcome. No creationist ever published a book arguing their position through some reputable academic press. Most creationist writings crumble when you check their sources in context, Carrier’s hasn’t. Many creationist arguments commit one or more logical fallacies, oftentimes blatantly, whereas Carrier at least hasn’t committed any blatant errors (there is a chance that I missed something). None of this proves with moral certainty that mythicism will be vindicated, but it does show that mythicism should not be brushed aside as a tinfoil hat conspiracy.

    Historicists may be able to defeat mythicism, but if so, they will have to stop using bad arguments. “No one would invent a crucified messiah!” Oh yeah? People invented the Romulus story, and Romulus murdered his own brother. People invented Attis, and he is said to have castrated himself. People invented scientology, and look what a crock that religion is!! The Old Testament reports the sins and follies of David (remember Bathsheba?) Moses (who was prideful) Adam (eating the forbidden fruit) and Noah (his son ‘saw his nakedness’ when he was drunk) among others, and yet scholars are in agreement that all of these stories are probably myths. The so-called ‘criterion of embarrassment,’ unless qualified in some way, isn’t the absolute proof new testament scholars take it for, nor does it even seem to be a strong probablistic argument, given that just about all mythological traditions contain a few apparently ’embarrassing’ elements.

    They will also have to stop arguing from possibility. “Is it possible that Hebrews could seem to speak of a mythical Jesus and yet Jesus still exist? Is it possible that the gospels look like symbolic fiction and that there was a historical Jesus? Is it possible that Jesus could have really lived and that Philo speaks about a mythological character just like Jesus before Christianity? Is it possible that Jesus lived but that Paul could not make a clear reference to him as a man who had lived on Earth, not even in the 20,000 words Paul wrote?” New Testament scholars will ask incessantly. The answer to each of these is, “Possible, but not likely.” Historicists do not realize that mythicism, even if false, could be easily maintained if our only standard of judgement is “Well, is at least possible?” After all, textual corruptions and convoluted interpretations of texts can always be floated to save the mythicist theory as easily as such can be concocted to save the historicist theory. Possibility is a terrible standard. What one must do is look at which theory can best explain a fact, tally up the number of facts each theory explains while also taking into account the strength of the supporting facts for each case. We can do this intuitively, but we can also use Bayes’ theorem as a tool to help us do this.

    As Carrier ended his book: “I appeal to all objective scholars. I have made my case. The ball is now is now in your court.”

    For more on the Testimonium Flavanium, I recommend this blog post by Ken Olson as well as his peer-reviewed article on the subject.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

    One comment

    1. Honestly I think the only thing historicists have left is denying any kind of comparability between Christianity and other religions (in some cases even Judaism). By that standard arguments like the criterion from embarrassment might work (or it has no effect or something).

      I wonder if the probability still favors mythicism if you used the fallacious argument that Christianity has be looked at isolated from any other ancient religion.

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