I have taken down the gist of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus as argued by Richard Carrier (RC) and Mark Goodacre (MG) on Unbelievable, a program hosted by Justin Brierley (JB) on Premier Christian Radio. The program is lengthy, so this post only covers the early part of the discussion. My own comments are in side boxes. Thanks to Steven Carr for alerting me to this recent program.
* Was this a slip of the tongue? Why presume anything? Decent books on history very often contain introductions setting out the evidence for how we know what we know about the figure under study. At the end of the program both RC and MG refer to arguing for the nonhistoricity of Jesus from the lack of evidence for his existence as “hyper-scepticism”. But such an argument is more than ‘hyper-scepticism’. It is the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance.
But it is perfectly valid to avoid any presumption of the historicity of Jesus if there is no evidence for this. It is perfectly valid to accept as a working hypothesis that Jesus is a theological construct (only) if the only evidence we have for this figure is that he is found only within theological contexts.
RC says he began in the same position as MG, thinking that the idea that Jesus was a myth, not historical, was nonsense. As a historian one starts with a presumption of historicity and one would need pretty good arguments to overthrow this. *
It was Earl Doherty’s book, The Jesus Puzzle, that made the most sense of a mythicist case. While not a perfect case, Doherty produced a strong enough argument to make the mythicist case genuinely plausible. It was this book that made RC think. For instance, Doherty pointed out that the case for the historicity of Jesus is often based on fallacious arguments and speculation (“just as much as mythicism is”). RC from that point considered himself an agnostic on the question.
RC does not think Earl Doherty has proven his case, but he also accepts Doherty’s point that the historicists have not proven theirs, either. “So someone needs to do this properly.”
JB raised Bart Ehrman’s objection that mythicism is motivated by an anti-theistic and anti-Christian bias.
RC: if one wanted to attack Christianity mythicism would be the worst way to go about it. To try to persuade other people one needs to find as much common ground to begin with, and saying Jesus did not exist is not going to help anyone trying to persuade Christians that Christianity is nonsense. RC was an atheist and against Christianity for a long time while still rejecting mythicism.
MG: The more self-conscious you are about your biases and background and context the better historian you can be.
JB: Asked RC to give the bare bones of his argument that Jesus did not exist:
RC: First, a qualification. RC does not think we can be certain that either way, that Jesus did or did not exist. But he thinks the preponderance of evidence supports mythicism. But the evidence for origins of Christianity is so scarce and problematic that we can never have certainty.
There is a mythicist theory that makes better sense of the evidence we do have and at the very least demonstrates that the idea of mythicism is not ridiculous. It is plausible. But there are other mythicist theories that are wacko. This is important to state because a person investigating this anew and googling the topic would find most of the stuff is just terrible or absurd. There are a lot of wild conspiracy theories. Even Earl Doherty, who starts with a really plausible core case, but then he just piles on a lot of additional speculation and theories about what he thinks happened which RC thinks go beyond the evidence.**
RC, on the other hand, says he just wants to get down to the core basic theory. In RC’s view, there is only one defensible, plausible theory that Jesus did not exist:
This is the view that Christianity actually began with revelations, actual or purported, of a divine being named Jesus who underwent a death and resurrection in the lower heavens and preached through revelations. If you look at the letters of Paul, Paul never refers to Jesus having a ministry, he never refers to anyone seeing or meeting him while he was alive. He only talks about people receiving revelations of Jesus. That’s what made someone an apostle. It was having a revelation of the Christ.
Start with that view, and then take the Gospels as a mythologization of that celestial being. Such euhemerization happened a lot in the ancient world. Romulus and Osiris are other examples. Such things happened. The question is, Did this also happen to Jesus?
The two positions are thus: Was there a charismatic man who started it all, a historical man who became mythologized, or was there a celestial revelatory being who became historicized? Most scholars agree there is much mythology surrounding Jesus by the time we get to the gospels. So the question is essentially if the gospels are 100% mythology or 90% mythology or whatever.
JB then asked MG for his response to this general outline of RC’s argument that Jesus did not exist. The different manners of RC and MG are striking.
MG: But Paul is really some of our best evidence for the historical Jesus.
*** This, of course, is question begging.The “very clear” evidence is only “clearly” supporting the historicist view if one begins with the historicist assumption and interprets the phrases through historicist biases and dismisses strong arguments otherwise. (Saying arguments are “unpersuasive” is not a rebuttal but an avoidance of a reasoned rebuttal.
MG is beginning with the historicist view that these names all were defined or identified in terms of their knowledge of the historical Jesus. He cannot conceive of them talking about anything outside the context of the historical Jesus.
- Paul is writing within a generation of Jesus existing
- It is “very clear” from his epistles he is talking about “a real human being” — ***
- Paul says Jesus is descended from the seed of David
- and that Jesus was born of a woman
- and refers on several occasions to different things in the ministry of Jesus
- The important point is that Paul is taking this stuff for granted.
And it’s not just Jesus: “Paul knows loads of people” from that Christian movement. He “knows these people; he talks with them”: ***
- the brothers of Jesus,
- the Twelve,
- he regularly visits Jerusalem
He didn’t meet Jesus himself in the flesh and that was a cause of great anxiety to him.
This is the argument that if Jesus were a celestial being known by revelation Paul would not have had to content, as he purportedly did, with other apostles who supposedly claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh.
Paul is very good evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.
JB: Refers to an earlier interview with Bart Ehrman in which he said that there was a throwaway line by Paul about James, the brother of Jesus, that would not make any sense unless there were an historical person to peg it to.
MG: Agrees, and adds that Paul refers to James “several times”:
- Galatians 1 and 2
- 1 Corinthians 15
- And ‘the brothers of Jesus’ in 1 Corinthians 9
Paul also refers repeatedly to this person called Cephas, or Peter — also known to us from the Gospels.
So Paul lives and moves with these people who spent time with Jesus. ***
RC: MG is presuming too much and importing Gospel notions into the epistles. So it’s important to note that:
- Paul never refers to Peter as a disciple — “there are no disciples in Paul’s letters” — all are apostles.
- Despite MG’s claim about Paul expressing anxiety about not having met Jesus — that’s not actually in the epistles. Rather, we have the exact opposite in Galatians where Paul went out of his way to insist he was not relying on any human tradition; he only knows what he knows through direct revelation from Jesus. He avoids direct contact with the other apostles for some years.
MG: But that is only because Paul is being challenged by other Christians over his credentials.
RC: The thing is we don’t know what that challenge was.
MG: We have a pretty good idea.
RC: There could be a number of different possible causes of the challenge. And Paul is trying to argue that his authority comes from his seeing Jesus in a revelation. And he doesn’t refer to there being an actual contest.
If we had something like Paul saying that he is being accused of misrepresenting Jesus because Peter said otherwise and he actually knew Jesus . . . . But we have nothing like this in the evidence.
MG: But in 1 Corinthians 15 we have Paul saying that he sets out what he received from those who were “in Christ” before him. And he sets this out as first importance. And the reason he gets into arguments later on in Galatians (sic) is because people like Peter and James were making a big deal of their authority. Paul is clearly deferring to these people in the early stages of his mission and sharing traditions they had passed on about Jesus. And these traditions “only really make good sense of a human being on earth.” — e.g. a death for starters.
JB: Refers to the mythicist claim that Paul refers to very few events in the life of Jesus.
MG: The problem with this line of argument is that it is “reading too economically canonically”. We read “economically canonically” because the Gospels are first in the NT and they have much more detail than the epistles, but if we start reading the epistles first “it is amazing how much stuff there is about Jesus”:
- Jesus is descended from David
- Jesus is born of a woman
- Jesus’ teaching on specifics, like
- Paul mentions Jesus’ family on several occasions
- He talks about his other disciples *****
So there’s “a surprising amount there” — it’s just that “we are seduced into thinking there’s not so much there” because of our familiarity with the Gospels by contrast.
RC: All of these things can be explained by mythicist theory. For example, Paul does not talk about Jesus being crucified by Pontius Pilate. He refers to no historical event when Jesus was crucified.
If we compare the Doherty thesis of a death and resurrection in the lower heavens, we have other examples of this happening: e.g. Groups of Osiris worshipers thought Osiris died and was resurrected in the lower heavens.
MG: But Paul does refer to Judea and Judeans in 1 Thessalonians 2. *****
RC: But Paul doesn’t say that it happened in Judea. That’s the thing.
MG: But he talks about Judeans.
RC: Either theory can explain the death and resurrection so we have to look at each to see which one explains all the evidence better. We don’t have anything that clear-cut.
RC: Refers back to MG saying that Paul received the traditions from those in Christ before him. RC counters by pointing out that Paul says no such thing. Rather, Paul very adamantly says he only received them by direct revelation from Jesus.
MG: But 1 Corinthians 15 clearly says that Paul received the traditions from those in Christ before him and he passed them on to the Corinthians as of first importance.
RC: I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s worded. I can look it up.
JB: What was Paul doing, then? Was he trying to make an historical Jesus from the heavenly being?
JB: Or was he only having in mind the heavenly Jesus?
RC: Yes. Paul really did think Jesus was a real heavenly being who did take on flesh and die and was resurrected in a superior body. — In the same way Osiris worshipers and Romulus worshipers also thought these things.
The best mythicist theory assumes that Paul believed that Jesus really did take on flesh, and that that flesh assumed the character of Davidic royalty, and rose from the dead. And all this occurred in a real cosmological realm.
RC: (Having looked it up) Reads 1 Corinthians 15: . . . “for I delivered unto you that which I also received . . .” — that’s the same wording in Galatians where Paul says he only received it by revelation. Paul is saying he and Galatians do not trust human tradition, but only revelation.
MG: But Paul’s letters are occasional. Each one has to be looked at in its own right. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is setting up the tradition: he says he received the tradition. He then goes on to mention Peter and James. So we know these are the people he went to talk to in Jerusalem early on. “When we get to Galatians” Paul is wanting to stamp his authority on the Gospel he has been preaching. So of course he says he got the Gospel from God. “But of course the content of what he’s picked up is from those who are “in Christ” as he described it before him. That’s how he sets up these things.”
So very often we have to take seriously the way Paul is addressing a particular congregation. 1 Corinthians 15 is “pretty rich in Jesus tradition”. What MG thinks happened is that earlier on Paul was more willing to use “Jesus tradition” but later on he has to be much more careful because “he’s been challenged on some of these things and Peter is becoming more of a popular person” in some of these communities.
——————————————- A short break in the program here ——————————————-
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