Category Archives: Carrier: On the Historicity of Jesus


More Thoughts on Minimal Historicity: When Bigger Isn’t Better

by Tim Widowfield
U-2 over California

U-2 over California

Many years ago, I had what I still consider the best job in the world. A second lieutenant in my twenties, I found myself in charge of operational maintenance on the swing shift for the entire “black side” of the flightline at Beale Air Force Base. Back then, the tankers were on the north side of the flightline, while the U-2s (including their TR-1 cousins) and SR-71s sat on the south side.

Of course, the real work depended on experienced NCOs. As the old joke goes, the job of an OIC (Officer in Charge) is to listen to the NCOIC, then nod and say, “Oh, I See.” But I did serve at least one crucial function. Only an officer could sign off on a “Red X” and clear a plane to fly.

One night we were driving around in the little blue pickup truck assigned to the maintenance officer on duty, when we stopped at one of the U-2 shelters. The senior NCO and I were checking on the status of some repair; I forget exactly what it was now. At any rate, we got to talking and one of the guys asked the crew chief about a car he’d been looking at. The young buck sergeant told us that he did almost buy one vehicle. It looked nice, he said, and the payments seemed reasonable. But then he noticed something fishy.

“When I added up all the payments,” he said, “it was more than the price of the car!”

I felt compelled to explain. “If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.” And then I realized there wasn’t enough time to explain how interest works, and it wasn’t clear it would do much good anyway. I gave a wide-eyed look at the senior NCO, offered some excuse about needing to get over to the SR-71s, and we quickly departed.

I had a similar feeling of helplessness reading Dr. Matthew Baldwin’sA Short Note on Carrier’s ‘Minimal Historicism.'” One’s first inclination is to want to help someone who’s thrashing about wildly, but where to start? Baldwin writes in his post, “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start.” And he followed up with the same sentiments in his comment on Neil’s recent post, where he wrote: read more »


Problems accepting Carrier’s argument

by Neil Godfrey

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.  read more »


Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier continues his response to James McGrath’s criticism of Carrier’s On the Historicity of JesusMcGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. He begins: 

Yesterday I addressed McGrath’s confused critique of portions of On the Historicity of Jesus (in McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy). He has also published a second entry in what promises to be a series about OHJ, this one titled “Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype” . . . . This entry is even less useful than the first. Here are my thoughts on that.

Once again Neil Godfrey already tackles the failures of logic and accuracy in the very first comment that posted after the above article. Which he has reproduced, with an introduction, in better formatting on his own blog: Once More: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus.

I could leave it at that, really.

TL;DR: McGrath doesn’t understand the difference between a prior probability and a posterior probability; he uses definitions inconsistently to get fake results that he wants (instead of being rigorously consistent in order to see what actually results); and he shows no sign of having read my chapter on this (ch. 6 of OHJ) and never once rebuts anything in it, even though it extensively rebuts his whole article (because I was psychic…or rather, I had already heard all of these arguments before, so I wrote a whole damned chapter to address them…which McGrath then duly and completely ignores, and offers zero response to).

That’s pretty much it.

But now for the long of it…

McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype



McGrath on Richard Carrier’s OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy

by Neil Godfrey

From Richard Carrier’s blog post, McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy:

In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting, I’ve set aside time to publicly summarize my take on James McGrath’s critique of (parts of) the book for Bible & Interpretation: “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.”

Critics have already adequately shown the problems with McGrath in understanding facts and logic, so I don’t need to reproduce their work. I fully concur with the responses of Covington and Godfrey (any quibbles I have I’ll mention here).

As Godfrey correctly shows, McGrath not only botches logic and facts, he misreports what my book says, such that “uninformed readers are falsely led to think McGrath has simply identified errors in Carrier’s work.” When in fact he did not identify any. And Covington rightly concludes that when you compare what McGrath says with what my book says, “he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.” They both show that McGrath gets my arguments wrong, makes obvious logical mistakes, and incorrectly reports what experts have said in key matters. This does not make historicity look well defended. It makes it look like it needs rhetorical warblegarble to survive.

The most detailed response to McGrath’s paper is that of Neil Godfrey [who discusses issues of method and fact]. But for a good brief response to start with, see Nicholas Covington, which is ideal for anyone who wants a TL;DR on the matter. . . . . 


“Why You Should Take Richard Carrier Seriously”

by Neil Godfrey
Who is Daniel Gullotta? Background info here: “Daniel N. Gullotta is a budding New Testament scholar and early Christian historian committed to the secular study of ancient religion. Daniel describes himself as a friendly agnostic-atheist with humanist values, but with a deep love and obsession with the Bible.”

Daniel N. Gullotta is not a mythicist. He believes in the historicity of Jesus. So his blog post on Richard Carrier’s argument for the Christ myth theory, Why You Should Read Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, is especially interesting.

Gullotta begins:

Throughout the centuries, the Jesus/Christ Myth has found few, but notable, adherents such as Constantin François de ChassebœufBruno Bauer, and Arthur Drews, noted as the forefathers of the Mythical point of view on the historicity of Jesus. More recently, G.A. Wells[*]Earl DohertyRobert M. Price, and Richard C. Carrier have become the most prominent figures within the school of thought. Now with Carrier’s publication of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt and Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesushe now stands as the most dominant voice in favor of this thesis.

Daniel Gullotta agrees with Stevan Davies, another “historicist” that mythicism ought to be addressed seriously:

[L]ike Stevan L. Davies, I believe that “the Mythicists have discovered problems in the supposed common-sense of historical Jesus theories that deserve to be taken seriously.” Many scholars have simply opted to completely ignore the Jesus Myth theory (and with some understandable reasons), however I do not think that is the right approach, especially for people who do wish to assert the historicity of Jesus. 

What is special about Carrier’s contribution? read more »


Once more: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Part two of a scholar’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus has appeared on the Bible and Interpretation site and once again the reviewer has deftly avoided any mention of Richard Carrier’s argument. More positively, however, he has managed to insinuate the possibility that Carrier is “deliberately misleading” (character smear is de rigueur for some anti-mythicists) and incompetently demonstrated his own ignorance of the nature and origin of twenty-two elements commonly listed in the “Rank-Raglan” hero archetypes. But he is a renowned “credible scholar” and is called upon to deliver papers against mythicism at conferences, so no doubt among his peers will be those who read exactly what they want to read in his review.

Here is the response I posted at Bible and Interpretationread more »


Ten Elements of Christian Origin

by Neil Godfrey

pentecost1Richard Carrier addresses the question of the historicity of Jesus in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt in the following order:

First, he defines the points that will identify a historical Jesus and those that will be signs of a mythical one.

Second, he set out 48 elements that make up all the background information that needs to be considered when examining the evidence for Jesus.

Third, only then does he address the range of evidence itself and the ability of the alternative hypotheses to account for it.

What Carrier is doing is enabling readers to think through clearly the different factors to be assessed in any analysis of the question: the details of the hypotheses themselves, our background knowledge (none of it must be overlooked — we must guard against tendentious or accidental oversights) and the details of the evidence itself. The book thus sets out all the material in such a way as to enable readers to think the issues through along the following lines:

— given hypothesis X, and given our background knowledge, are the details of this piece of evidence what we would expect? how likely are these details given hypothesis X and our background knowledge?

and (not “or”)

— are the details of this particular evidence what we would expect given the alternative hypothesis (and all our background knowledge)? how likely are these details given our alternative hypothesis and our background knowledge?

That, in a nutshell, is what his Bayesian analysis boils down to. The point of the assigning probability figures to each question and simply a means of assisting consistency of thought throughout the entire exercise. (At least that’s my understanding.)

I’ll put all of this together in a more comprehensive review of Carrier’s book some time in the not too distant future, I hope.

Meanwhile, I’d like to comment on the first ten of his background elements: those of Christian origins. read more »


“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »


Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

This post is a companion to Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence. It’s a topic I have never explored in any depth before but Richard Carrier points to the evidence for anyone interested to follow up for themselves. I learn things when I set them out for others to read also hence these posts.

What are the chances of Christians and Jews independently arriving at their respective scenarios of a messiah as a son of David as well as a messiah as a son of Joseph, with both having to suffer, one of them to die and be resurrected, with a messianic victory at the end — and all extrapolated from same scriptures such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12? (The previous post addressed the likelihood that Jews would have borrowed and adapted such an idea in a way that lent support to Christianity’s beliefs.) The more plausible explanation, Carrier suggests, is that both the Christian and Jewish scenarios grew from a single set of concepts found within Second Temple Judaism. (Carrier discusses an item of possible evidence for such a pre-Christian era strand but I need to do more reading on that before I can know if or how to present it here.)

Alternatively we might think that such a notion was quite easy to arrive at so there was nothing special or unusual about the Christians discovering such ideas in the scriptures as a mere academic exercise. Either way,

Clearly dying messiahs were not anathema. Rabbinical Jews could be just as comfortable with the idea as Christians were. (p. 75)

So what is the pre-Christian evidence listed by Carrier?

The most obvious evidence is well-known to all Christians who have ever taken a serious interest in the Bible. It is, of course, the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Daniel 9:26. read more »


Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

There is no reasonable basis for denying that some pre-Christian Jews would have expected at least one dying messiah, and some could well have expected his death to be an essential atoning death, just as the Christians believed of Jesus. . .

Such a concept was therefore not a Christian novelty wholly against the grain of Jewish thinking, but already exactly what some Jews were thinking — or could easily have thought. (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 77, 73)

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

What evidence does Richard Carrier cite for this claim?

Part (not all) of his evidence includes, ironically, texts that some assume have no relevance at all. So let’s first of all hear the justification for referring to passages that were written some centuries after the birth of Christianity:

There is no plausible way that Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. They would not invent a Christ with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected (as the Talmud does indeed describe). They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about this messiah and admit that Isaiah there had predicted this messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very biblical passage that Christians were using to prove their case. Moreover, the presentation of this ideology in the Talmud makes no mention of Christianity and gives no evidence of being any kind of polemic or response to it. 

So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that possibly predates Christian evangelizing, even if that evidence survives only in later sources. (pp. 73-74, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

read more »


Summing Up: On McGrath’s Review of Carrier (Short Version)

by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityA summary of the main points I attempted to bring out in my previous two posts has been posted as comment #24 on Bible and interpretation in response to McGrath’s review there. (McGrath has additionally discussed his review on his blog.)

For convenience here is the shorter version of my previous two posts that appears on Bible and Interpretation. (I am well aware it scarcely reads with much fluency. Something had to be sacrificed to time and other pressures.)

McGrath stresses that Carrier’s thesis depends on the strength of the details but by focussing on an introductory discussion of the AoI he does not address any of arguments in support of the basic myth hypothesis. Carrier makes it clear that his discussion of the AoI is part of his definition of the mythicism he will be arguing and that his arguments will be given in future chapters.

When McGrath suggests there is a problem with Carrier’s approach given that many details are compatible with a historicist or mythicist scenario, he is failing to register the very point Carrier is making: his book intends to explore the probabilities of those respective contradictory reconstructions. read more »


McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:


1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

read more »


McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. read more »


“It’s time to rethink our assumptions, and look at the evidence anew.” — Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

There are at least six well-qualified experts, including two sitting professors, two retired professors, and two independent scholars with Ph.D.’s in relevant fields, who have recently gone on public record as doubting whether there really was a historical Jesus. — Richard Carrier

Six names?

Arthur Droge

Kurt Noll

Thomas Brodie

Richard Carrier

Robert Price

Thomas Thompson

. . . a recognition that [Jesus’s] existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.  —  Philip Davies

The  most recent appearance of the above claims is in Richard Carrier’s post on The Bible and Interpretation, Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?

Carrier opens his article with an anecdote that sounds all too familiar to some of us here. read more »