“Why You Should Take Richard Carrier Seriously”

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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?

While all of their studies deserve attention in their own way, Carrier’s contribution to the Jesus Myth theory is particularly noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, Carrier holds a PhD in a related field. . . . Yet more remarkable is the significance of Carrier’s work, On the Historicity of Jesusas it represents the first comprehensive peer-reviewed text published by a reputable academic press (Sheffield Phoenix Press) in favour of the Jesus Myth theory. Therefore, as an academic text, it does deserve scholarly attention, including criticism and praise, where all are due. . . . 

Most noteworthy is his methodological approach and use of Bayes’s Theorem in the question of Jesus’s historicity. Remarkably, through Bayes’s methodological process of evaluating the primary evidence and background information, Carrier comes to the astonishing conclusion that “there is only a 0% to 33% chance that Jesus existed.”

Gullotta concludes:

For all of these reasons, the academic community committed to the study of the New Testament and Christian origins needs to pay attention to Carrier and engage with his thesis (even if they end up rejecting his conclusions); and if for no other reason than that he has the attention of the public.

As Carrier puts it, the ball is now in our court.

Read the full article with more detailed discussion and bibliography on Daniel’s blog.

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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on ““Why You Should Take Richard Carrier Seriously””

  1. Carrier picked his battlefield well. I don’t agree with his acceptance of consensus opinion, but by accepting consensus opinion he forces others to criticize his methodology instead of attacking him or his conclusions. I doubt that Christian apologists will be able to mount any kind of reasonable defense to Carrier unless and until they find a mathematician capable of exposing the fallacies of Bayesian probability theory in layman’s terms.

    The fact is, though, that consensus opinion is rife with apologist conclusions. Carrier has provided his own Achilles heel that will be struck by an arrow soon enough.

  2. Good comment Scot but I think Carrier accepts orthodoxy on issues but states caveats when he does so.
    For example with respect to dating the gospels I suspect he has stated that he believes them to be later than orthodox consensus but is willing to play that game rather than be side tracked with a discussion of dating.
    His “Ignatian Vexation’ post was damning of the methodology used to arrive at convenient orthodox consensus.


    If, down the track, the consensus moves towards a later date for the writing of the gospels, beginning with g “Mark”, then that will further remove in time such writing from the alleged source [HJ] of the alleged oral tradition on which it is alleged to be based and thus weaken orthodoxy.
    But it will not weaken Carrier’s argument because he is not relying on late dating to make his case.

    And of course a significant shift in the chronology of the gospels to a later date has already occurred within orthodoxy outside the fundamentalists in comparatively recent times.
    My wife’s RSV was given to her in 1964 when she was confirmed.
    It states at the back in an appendix that the gospels were written by:
    1.Matthew – in Judea – c, 60CE
    2.Luke – probably Caesarea – c. 63CE
    3.Mark – may have been based on Peter
    4.John -Ephesus – c 98CE.

    Most of that material would excite great controversy to the point of rejection amid orthodox scholarship today.

    The times they are a’changin’.

  3. Bayesian Probability theory is on the upswing in the social sciences. The point Carrier makes about its use is that exposes the underlying assumptions of the scholar. That is its strength and a significant step forward in terms of methodology. Carrier would be the first to admit that the numbers are not magical. He hasn’t found the “truth” by running numbers. To challenge his findings one has to argue a case against his assumptions and assigned probabilities. It isn’t that much different from any narrative based argument. It just has numbers, which are debatable, attached.

    1. “It just has numbers, which are debatable, attached.”

      You missed “arbitrary” (at least in the social sciences), which is what allows the numbers to be debatable. I like Carrier’s “Bayesian” approach for its precision in breaking down the problem into smaller pieces and their supporting evidence. That rigor is a very big positive in driving and defining the points of disagreement. I just don’t see how it can objectively establish anything. Instead of arguing about how many angels can dance on the end of a pin, you argue about how many basis points can be assigned to a probability.

      Still, if Carrier methodology becomes the consensus approach, that would be a paradigm shift.

    2. The problem is that you can get any answer you want by fiddling with the input. There is simply no way to know, for instance, what the prior probability of Jesus existing is, so you have to make something up. Garbage in, garbage out.

      1. Not so. Bayes is about adjusting your starting point with new information as it arises and then continuing that process of revision with each new piece of information. The benefit of this method is that it encourages the inquirer to take into account ALL data available and not just a selection believed sufficient to support one hypothesis.

        So even if you start with a prior of 0.9 for Jesus’ historicity your final result will still be approximately the same as someone who starts with 0.3 IF you both address all of the data and assumptions that are laid out on the table to be addressed.

      2. You can start Bayes probability calculations with zero information , and a prior probability that is totally uninformative and uniform.

        I’m not an expert on Bayes, but even I know that whatever prior probability distribution you begin with, it is rapidly changed by the evidence that is produced.

        For example, you might start by assuming that a distant spot in the sky had a 0.99 chance of being an airplane, but as it gets closer, you see that it is a helicopter.

        The fact that you correctly assumed there are more planes in the sky than helicopters does not mean that your claim that you saw a helicopter is garbage, simply because at first you mistakenly thought it was probably a plane.

      3. I basically agree with Neil and Steven, even though I come at this with a bit more pessimism. Despite its limitations, Bayesian analysis is valuable as a methodology for defining disagreement. I just don’t think it can drive consensus among biblical scholars, most of whom are Christian apologists masquerading as social scientists.

      4. Even assuming GIGO, all that does is expose that that is what is at the heart of all NT scholarship, then.

        All the Bayesian argument adds is transparency to the process of argumentation.

  4. You have to argue for your presumed probabilities.

    Not just assert them without examination, use loaded words eg ‘doubtless’, presume facts eg ‘oral tradition’
    and then jump on to a series of statements predicated on the previous without justification leading inevitably to the conclusion that was presumed before the beginning.

    At least using Bayes allows an interlocutor to ask “How did you get .3 for that probability”?
    If there is no [satisfactory] logical evidence based response that is when we can see GIGO at work.

    For example a well known scholar stated in his popular book he was a student of history and was approaching his topic, an examination of the nature of an historical Jesus using historical methodology and then started his next chapter with the statement that was presumed correct without validation, that “3 crosses were on a hill outside Jerusalem …..” [paraphrased.
    Gospels presumed history and after that unevidenced assertion came the rest of the book.

      1. I never finished Helen Bond’s The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (I lost it somewhere), but I was continually frustrated by the way she segued from a weak, tentative conclusion in one chapter to build on a far stronger assumption in the next without ever acknowledging this ratcheting up of the strength of the conclusion, without any attendant strengthening of the evidence and argument. To quote, it was very much “an inverted pyramid of piffle”.

  5. Those of you who are members of the Bible Geek FB site might be familiar with Daniel Gullotta. Having observed his comments on that site for an extended period I would say that his ideas are very similar to those of McGrath (if anything he appears to be more conservative than McGrath), but I think he’s trying to stake out a gimmick of “I’m one of the only NT ‘scholars’ who gives a fair hearing to Christ mythicists”.

  6. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2014/12/mcg388023.shtml

    See what Jimmy McG says about Carrier now:

    Dealing with what I consider to be an unpersuasive and unlikely-to-be influential scholarly tome is not my top priority. And Carrier’s book is unlikely to have much influence on historians and scholars who are intimately familiar with the relevant primary source material and who will thus find his handling of it profoundly problematic, and is likely to be spun by mythicists in the manner you’re trying to do here, comments like this one are more likely to persuade me that detailed engagement is a waste of my time, than to persuade me to continue.
    #21 – James F. McGrath – 02/05/2015 – 07:51

    See what prompted this comment and my reply at B&I.

    1. It’s interesting reading that thread. In order to get the conclusions they want, historicists have to a) read the Gospels back into the Epistles and b) completely ignore any apocryphal writings. It seems nobody wants to deal with the fact that there are many more writings than just what the Folks who organized the Bible picked. If you would just use Paul, then it makes Jesus look far more mythical, than when you start adding in the Gospels, which may very well be why the Gospels were written.

  7. He did the same with his reviews of Doherty’s book. Promised us to go through it all and assured doubters he had the staying power to really do it to the last chapter but then fizzled out before he got a third of the way through it if I recall — blaming people like me for negative comments on his efforts. Of course those negative comments were easily enough dismissed when he started. But the more he wrote the more he damned himself as it was easier to demonstrate his own inability to to grasp what Doherty had actually written.

    Now at B&I it looks like McGrath has been pressured to actually read Carrier’s book in order to discuss it on a site like B&I (I would like to think public comments there, including mine, have exposed his previous two installments as less than fully adequate responses) and he has been stymied by C’s arguments. But I’m probably dreaming.

    I suspect his opening two paragraphs to which you refer were written before he had really read the book. Now he’s into it he needs to find more important things to do.

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