Happily for at least a couple of scholars* Matthew Baldwin has posted on his blog eschata an argument that Richard Carrier’s case against the historicity of Jesus is flawed at its very foundations. His post is A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”. I would be happily surprised, however, if I ever see a scholar critically engaging with the logic and facts of Matthew Baldwin’s argument. (I’m sure at least those who peer-reviewed Carrier’s work before it was published would take exception to claims that they approved what Baldwin describes as a “pseudo-logical, pseudo-mathematical . . . form of question-begging”, “tedious, overly self-referential” treatise condemning every prior Jesus historian as a “dupe, a stooge or tool (fool?)”.)
Matthew Baldwin does struggle with Carrier’s argument and his post demonstrates just how hard it is for anyone of us so entrenched in assumptions of the historicity of Jesus to grasp fundamental ideas and questions that potentially undermine the beliefs of millennia.
As I understand Baldwin’s criticism (and I am certainly open to correction) he finds two key difficulties with Carrier’s case:
1. Carrier reasons that at the very minimum a historical Jesus must be understood as a historical person with followers who continued a movement after his death; whose followers claimed had been executed by Jewish or Roman authorities and whose followers soon began to worship him in some sense as a divinity.
2. Carrier does not simply address the arguments for and against the historicity of this person but sets up in opposition an argument that Jesus’ origin was entirely mythical.
What Baldwin believes Carrier should have addressed is Jesus who is not quite so “minimalist”. Baldwin appears to fear that what Carrier has done is to reject the most fundamental historical elements of Jesus before he even starts and is therefore stacking the case against historicity in his favour.
I think Baldwin fears that Carrier is removing most of the defences supporting the historicity of Jesus before he starts, thus making his task too easy for himself. Baldwin wants to see the historical Jesus that needs to be overturned as having not only three attributes but be much more recognizably the same Jesus most scholars accept.
The prominent scholar E. P. Sanders lists eight points that he personally believes are “indisputable facts” about Jesus (although he grants that “some may” question them):
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
- Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed
- Jesus called disciples and spoke of their being twelve
- Jesus confined his activity to Israel
- Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple
- Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
- After his death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement
- At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. 1.13, 22; Phil. 3.6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career (II Cor. 11:24; Gal. 5.11; 6.12; cf. Matt. 23.3; 10.17)
Other scholars have posited similar lists. But Baldwin fears that Carrier has rejected most of these points before he starts his book and that’s not fair.
True, Baldwin tells us (and I assume he is quite correct though I have not stopped to check the details for now), Carrier dealt with these in his previous book, Proving History, but the problem is (Baldwin explains) that the rejection of a Jesus who is at minimum identified by, say, all of the above eight markers, is ultimately based on the claim that we simply can’t rely upon the gospel narratives for genuine historical data.
Not so fast, Baldwin warns. Scholars have tools and methods for extracting historical data from the gospels. So if we reject all of these “almost indisputable facts” that scholars have reconstructed about the historical Jesus then, says Baldwin, we are “essentially” calling
every prior historian who has decided to rely on Christian sources for knowing about Jesus has been a dupe, a stooge or tool (sic) who has mistaken fiction for fact.
Now Carrier in his previous book certainly did argue against the validity of the criteria of authenticity that have been used by scholars to extract what they believe are “facts” from the theological fiction of the gospels.
It certainly is true that if one firmly believes that the criteria of authenticity really do “work” (given all the usual caveats such as “used with care and caution” etc) then one will remain convinced that we really do have substantial facts about Jesus.
What Baldwin has failed to grasp, I believe, is that even quite apart from the many logical arguments that do overturn those criteria of authenticity (and an increasing number of scholars themselves seem to be accepting their logical deficiencies), the results they supposedly produce all depend entirely upon the assumption — the assumption — of a historical Jesus behind the gospels.
For example. The gospels of Mark and Matthew describe the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The question is: Is this historically true? Was Jesus really baptized? Notice: the question begins with the assumption that there was indeed a Jesus. The only question is whether he was baptized. No-one questions (or only a very few scholars have questioned) whether the entire account is complete fiction.
Bring in the criterion of embarrassment. The church would not have made up the story of Jesus being baptized because that would have lowered the status of Jesus beside John. Therefore Jesus (and we assume he existed of course) really would have been baptized by John. Therefore it is a fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Again notice: at no point is there any questioning of the historicity of Jesus. The only question is over what a historical Jesus must have done.
And we have not even begun to address the scholarly arguments that do indeed seriously call in for questioning the historicity of the baptism of Jesus.
One could apply the same logic, the same methods, to some works of known fiction — assuming the central characters are not fictitious but historical — and come up with the same “historical facts”.
The assumption of historicity undergirds Sanders’ and others’ such lists of “indisputable facts” about Jesus.
Now Carrier does not by any means call scholars dupes and stooges. Those are ad hominem slurs that are gratuitously imputed to Carrier.
Much more could be said about problems of fact and logic in Baldwin’s criticism — he fails to grasp that Carrier is actually making his task of arguing against historicity much harder with his “minimalist historicism” — but I will address here only that one point that arguments about the details of Jesus’ life begin with the assumption of historicity and do not themselves establish historicity.
As for the second objection of Baldwin’s,
Carrier does not simply address the arguments for and against the historicity of this person but sets up in opposition an argument that Jesus’s origin was entirely mythical.
this is little more than objecting to Carrier arguing a case for mythicism in the first place.
Baldwin does not explain what the arguments for historicity are that Carrier should take on and address without reference to mythicism. I think he would say that the arguments are the same as I have mentioned above — criteria of authenticity.
If so, then Baldwin himself has acknowledged that Carrier did indeed address these in his earlier book, Proving History.
One complaint that has regularly been made of mythicists is that they have not provided an alternative explanation for Christian origins. Carrier is doing just that in his book On the Historicity of Jesus. Had he not done so (argue a minimal case for the alternative to historicity), then all the arguments in the world against historicity would have left him open to the same old charge and probably have been pointless.
I don’t doubt Matthew Baldwin’s sincerity. I do think his post is an illustration of just how difficult it is for many of us to grasp the extent to which beliefs of an entire academy really may, all this time, have been based on a questionable premise.