In my last post in this series I described how in my opinion the best argument I had heard for the historicity of Jesus did not stand up to scrutiny. The next step in my quest I had decided was to read what has been hailed to be the best case for mythicism that has so far been put out there, to see whether it was convincing. That case being On the Historicity of Jesus by Dr. Richard Carrier. In this post I shall review his book and summarize where I now stand on the issue of whether or not Jesus was a historical being after having read it.
On the Historicity of Jesus is a peer reviewed scholarly work with extensive footnotes and references to the latest literature. Do not let that put you off however, I had little to no prior knowledge of the subjects covered before starting and I found it easy to follow. That being said this is not a casual bedtime read, it requires concentration, but no more so than any book containing lots of information.
Carrier begins by positing a hypothesis of minimal historicity and a hypothesis of minimal myth. ‘Minimal’ meaning the basic tenets that if shown to be false would collapse the entire hypothesis. Minimal historicity is that there was a man named Jesus who gained devout followers during his life, these followers continued to expound his teachings and theology beyond Jesus’s execution at the hands of the authorities. Eventually some of his followers began to worship Jesus as a God. Minimal myth posits that Jesus began as a celestial entity who endured incarnation, suffering and death in a supernatural realm (as did the gods of many pagan mystery cults at the time). Jesus communicated with his followers via visions, dreams etc. At some point Christians began to create allegorical myths about Jesus as a historical entity. These were eventually believed to be accounts of a real earthly person.
The remainder of the book sets out to use Bayes Theorem (described in his previous book Proving History) as a method to analyse the background knowledge and evidence in terms of its likelihood to exist on each hypothesis. This is done first by analysing the background evidence, that is; all of the cultural, religious, political knowledge that pertains to the origins of Christianity. In these sections we learn about the dying and rising saviour gods that were prevalent in many cultures around the time that Christianity emerged. We also learn that a suffering Messiah was not actually anathema to the Jews, and that Christianity was a perfect response to the Roman occupation of Judea and the corruption of the Jewish temple cult. There is a heck of a lot of information in these sections, all of it fascinating and enlightening. The information is divided into numbered elements which make for easy reference when anything is bought up later on in the book, something that made it very easy for me to follow.
The analysis of the background data concludes with an unusual fact, that Jesus scores very highly on the Rank-Raglan list. This is essentially a list of qualities that were common to a lot of mythical entities. Carrier notes that there are no known historical people who score over half of the items on the list, Jesus scores 20 out of 22. The odds that a historical person would also be a Rank-Raglan hero are therefore very low.
We are then taken on a tour of the evidence in the following order. Extra-Biblical evidence – of which there is nothing that confirms Jesus as a historical figure (excluding interpolations such as those in Josephus), at best the mentions of Jesus in extra-Biblical sources are not independent of the Gospels and are therefore not usable evidence. Acts – which is shown to be largely historical fiction, with some oddities that may be better explained on mythicism than historicism. The Gospels – which are repeatedly shown to be allegorical fiction and therefore we are unable to derive any useful historical information from them even if there is any contained therein. Then finally the Epistles – which are curiously lacking in any historical details about Jesus as an earthly person.
All throughout his analysis Carrier is granting as favourable odds towards historicism as he feels able. Arguing a fortiori as he calls it. Even given this overly generous approach historicism does not come out well when the figures are punched in to the Bayes equation.
This method, of arguing a fortiori is what sealed the deal for me. Even if we bend over backwards to allow for extremely generous odds in favour of historicism, it still doesn’t come out on top. I can safely say that this book has pushed me from the agnostic camp to the mythicist. That being said, I am not in a position to check all of Carrier’s source material, or look up any of the scholarship that might argue against his points. What this book desperately needs is a rebuttal, with the best case for historicism yet. Preferably in a similar accessible style so lay people can assess both. As things stand though On The Historicity Of Jesus is pretty damning of any case for the existence of a historical Jesus. Until such a time comes that someone puts out a sound rebuttal to it, I must say I am firmly with Carrier in his conclusion: Jesus probably did not exist.
On the Historicity of Jesus is precisely what mythicism needed in order to be taken seriously. One can only hope that it will be treated with the respect that it truly deserves. When I dived into the book I was expecting, or hoping to find some weak links in his case, but I really didn’t. The only arguments that I was unsure about were treated in favour of historicity as far as the probabilities went (this being the possibility that the Epistles mentioned Jesus’s brother), and the case for historicity did not triumph because of it. All in all, whether you are a staunch historicist, an agnostic on the matter, or a curious mythicist I would definitely recommend this book.
I really cannot fault this book, and therefore score it: