Problems Accepting Carrier’s Argument

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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. 

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.


* i.e. James McGrath and Daniel Gullotta. (James depressingly but typically selects ad hominem to recycle. Daniel compliments the post but does not address it on his blog.)


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

110 thoughts on “Problems Accepting Carrier’s Argument”

  1. Since posting the above I have added one more line that I had originally intended to include somewhere but time pressure pushed it from my mind:

    — [Matthew Baldwin] fails to grasp that Carrier is actually making his task of arguing against historicity much harder with his “minimalist historicism” —

  2. I have a comment (currently waiting for moderation), which says (in part):

    “(I do appreciate, as you point out, that the viewpoints of other academics, including Bruno Bauer, are not represented by Carrier’s articulation of so-called “minimal mythicism.” Indeed I also agree with the general point that Carrier’s narrow delimitation, down to two ‘minimal’ hypotheses, may have reduced the relevance or validity of his analysis considerably, particularly for anyone who does not view one or the other or both as the best, or even truly minimal, statement of ‘historicity’ or ‘mythicism’. This does seem to be applicable both to his ‘minimal historicity’ and his ‘minimal mythicism,’ and in very simple terms it can be called a fallacy of the excluded middle. As you say, ‘defeating minimal historicism does not entail any part of his minimal mythicism.’)”

    I’ve said something similar on the Biblical Criticism & History forum:

    “Carrier believes that he can ‘wash out’ some of the insignificant hypotheses, like, for example, the general ‘school’ of mythicism that stands in contradiction to Drews-Couchoud-Doherty (namely, Mead-Wells-Ellegard) on the interpretation of Paul, etc. This seems to be unjustifiable theoretically, and it also reduces some of the interest of the book, since he basically says very little that would be relevant to anyone considering whether one of these other hypotheses regarding the non-historicity of Jesus might be true (containing that discussion in a few pages).”

    I don’t agree with exactly the way Baldwin has formulated it (he does seem to come close to saying that claiming minimal historicity amounts to denying the truth of anything else about a historical Jesus, which, if he were meaning to say that, would not be true [but, it should be clarified, perhaps he hasn’t said that at all, and perhaps all he means is that the list of minimal facts can be expanded without altering the probability of minimal historicity to any significant degree]). But I did indicate that there does seem to be some sort of issue here with the way that Carrier has defined and used these two hypotheses (which end up being treated as “h” and “~h”, i.e., logical complements, outside of which nothing is possible, when they are not–and, arguably, are not even close to being such [it should be clarified, Carrier’s approach is that the probability of ~(Minimal Historicity or Minimal Mythicism) is so small that it can be ignored for practical purposes]).

    Perhaps Baldwin is right. Perhaps the hypothesis that includes the list provided by Sanders would occupy almost as much of the ‘historicity’ portion of the probability space as the list offered by Carrier, as perhaps the methods or approach of Sanders et al. are sound and lead to the bare facts of the case (at least, on the minimal assumption that there was indeed a historical Jesus). And perhaps also, then, this expanded list of things about a HJ would be more defensible than the shorter list of things, when being compared against rival idea(s) of non-historicity. And perhaps it does so without compromising the prior probability of ‘historicity’ (due to the genuinely sound nature of the longer list) and while also improving the posterior probability of the details of fact considered by Carrier (thus impinging on Carrier’s later discussion). If so, however, I’m not sure how it does all that or how a longer list helps improve the evaluation of the likelihood of historicity in the overall analysis.

    Perhaps the way in which this happens is so obvious that Baldwin does not feel the need to spell it out (I don’t know). Perhaps Baldwin wouldn’t have an answer, strictly speaking, on account of not framing his objection that way and merely taking exception to the terseness of Carrier’s formulation of minimal historicity (I don’t know). Or perhaps I am just missing something, and it has already been clarified somehow. In any case, I would also tend to agree with Baldwin that the final word has yet to be written on the subject, and I hope that Carrier’s work is considered in such light, as part of the overall process of advancing the conversation, however imperfectly or unevenly as that may be done at times.

    I do agree that the conversation could go many different ways from here, and I am likewise a little bit surprised to see nothing but some vague indications of appreciation, since from my perspective I am not even completely sure I fully understand what the point of the post is, precisely, let alone whether it represents an even and/or fair assessment of the book and its flaws. If failure to conform to the list of E. P. Sanders when describing minimal facts about Jesus is such a show-stopper, it would indeed seem that it may be difficult for the community of historical Jesus researchers to approach the works of those outside their circle of peers, who do not share their assumptions, charitably.

    1. I had written: “it should be clarified, Carrier’s approach is that the probability of ~(Minimal Historicity & ~ Minimal Mythicism) is so small that it can be ignored for practical purposes.” There is a stray tilde. It should have been written, “it should be clarified, Carrier’s approach is that the probability of ~(Minimal Historicity & Minimal Mythicism) is so small that it can be ignored for practical purposes.”

      1. Good god. I have to correct myself again. It should also read ‘or’, not ‘and’.

        “it should be clarified, Carrier’s approach is that the probability of ~(Minimal Historicity OR Minimal Mythicism) is so small that it can be ignored for practical purposes.” [Which could also be said, ~MH & ~MM is so so small that it can be ignored for practical purposes.]

        (And I am interested in math and started reading texts on logic when I was in high school, so I do certainly understand the objection that the math can be more of a distraction and a way to introduce errors, than anything else, for many historians.)

    2. Seems the latter is the problem with historicists. They just assume Jesus exists, and do not prove it.

      If Jesus was fictional character, none of his alleged attributes could be taken as proof he existed.

      Could we say that a story about a talking frog must be true, since he was said to be green, and that sounds real?

    3. Is Matthew Baldwin saying that because RC’s minimal historicism is “too minimal” it’s less probable than a minimal historicism that would include “facts” like the baptism by John and such things? :S

  3. Why does Baldwin believe that having more alleged “facts” to falsify will improve the chances that the facts won’t be falsified? Perhaps like Josephus, he believes there is strength in numbers, that the quantity of allegations will overwhelm the quality of any one of them in isolation or broken into smaller groups?

    I just don’t get it. If a scholar boils a list of 10 (or more) facts to be put to the most rigorous test down to the 3 most likely to withstand that rigor, you, as a believer, should feel comfortable that the deck has been stacked in your favor, not against you.

    The strange things that being an apologist makes you do.

    (And I’m a guy who has serious problems with Bayesian analysis in the face of uncertainty.)

  4. ‘….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. ‘

    So if there was no historical Jesus, then every person who decided that the canonical Gospels were fact not fiction, while the non-canonical Gospels were fiction not fact was mistaken.

    But scholars can’t be mistaken.

    So the canonical Gospels were fact not fiction.

    This is just circular reasoning.

    William Tell must have existed because if he didn’t, the people who thought William Tell existed were mistaking fiction for fact.

    Baldwin is simply claiming that he must be right, because otherwise he would be wrong.

  5. That Sanders list of eight indisputable facts comes from his Jesus and Judaism (1985).
    He almost doubles the list in his The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), adding such things as a last supper and the fleeing disciples, things that rely on the same criteria of authenticity that Carrier demonstrates are specious (or, semi-valid at best in some cases) in Proving History. Carrier’s approach is more mathematical than, say, Avalos’ or Wells’ or Davies’, but they all essentially belie the notion that these are “indisputable.”

    I appreciate Peter Kirby’s thoughtful comment, but the reason I don’t think the “excluded middle” fallacy applies is because Carrier’s thorough examination of the criteria in question in that first volume. Had he not done this preliminary work in that earlier volume, the charge might apply … but he did a good job there in my opinion.

    McGrath is just frothing as usual. I don’t pay him any mind any more.

    Gullota is just cheerleading his “team”, basically.

    1. “I appreciate Peter Kirby’s thoughtful comment, but the reason I don’t think the “excluded middle” fallacy applies is because Carrier’s thorough examination of the criteria in question in that first volume. Had he not done this preliminary work in that earlier volume, the charge might apply … but he did a good job there in my opinion.”

      (a) I agree that Carrier did a good job with evaluating the “criteria” and their worth.
      (b) I do not agree with Baldwin’s criticism of Carrier here.
      (c) I do not agree with Baldwin’s claims about “eight facts” being justified, etc.
      (d) I have my own criticism of Carrier, already formulated previously, which overlaps only in that I agree with Baldwin’s statement here that ‘defeating minimal historicism does not entail any part of his minimal mythicism’ (and, vice-versa, defeating Carrier’s minimal mythicism would not entail that a historical Jesus existed).
      (e) The fallacy of the excluded middle (or, “false dilemma”) applies if and only if, as part of the analysis or argument, “only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.”
      (f) Carrier’s analysis and argument limits the alternatives to minimal historicity and minimal mythicism, specifically the way that he defines those terms in his book, when evaluating posterior probabilities throughout the book.
      (g) Carrier justifies this by suggesting that there are logically possible alternatives outside of his minimal historicity and his minimal mythicism but that these do not rise to a sufficient probability to be considered in more than a rather cursory analysis prefacing the Bayesian argument proper.
      (i) I disagree with Carrier firstly in that I do regard some of the alternatives–especially some of the alternatives of the ‘mythicist’ variety (the Bruno Bauer/Dutch Radical/Hermann Detering sort of hypothesis and the G.R.S. Mead/G.A. Wells/Alvar Ellegard sort of hypothesis)–to have significant enough probability to be considered worthy of further evaluation, every bit as much as his own brand of mythicism (the Drews/Couchoud/Doherty sort).
      (j) I further disagree with the idea that they can be ignored for any other reason (besides extremely low probability) whatsoever (such as an idea that they would complicate analysis and that we’re only interested in computing an a forteriori numerical result)–the eventual twists and turns of the evidence and argument cannot be predicted in advance, nor should we try.
      (h) The general form of the Bayes’ theorem can certainly accommodate more than two hypotheses, so perhaps Carrier has settled on this approach in the hope of simplifying matters, but it is a simplification that ignores alternatives (which have not been considered and disproven) and thus creates a false dilemma. This necessarily leaves him open to criticism on account of the false dilemma that he creates (and one which Carrier is aware that he is creating–he just thinks some alternatives can be left out of further analysis, but he does not provide much by way of justification for thinking this is so).
      (i) This is just a particular application of the definition of the fallacy. No disrespect for Carrier is intended by it.

      1. I get what you’re saying there, Peter. Your points are way more pertinent than Baldwin’s.

        Is it possible to find an English translation of Bauer’s Christ and the Caesars? (I’ve looked … no luck)
        I read Drews and Ellegard some years back.
        I’m finishing Detering at the moment. I’m having some problems with it, specifically with his stress on Marcion (or a student) being the author of the epistles, which, if not true, kinda weakens his whole thesis, I think.

        I never thought you were disrespecting Carrier.

        1. Thanks, just glad to clear up any possible misunderstanding.

          An English translation of Bruno Bauer (in general–I’d be especially glad for the book on Paul in English) is long overdue.

          Wiki says: A third book, Bauer’s great, Christ and the Caesars (1877, Charleston House Publishing, 1999) was published informally, perhaps as a software-generated translation under a pseudonym, “Frank E. Schacht.”

      2. I disagree with Carrier firstly in that I do regard some of the alternatives–especially some of the alternatives of the ‘mythicist’ variety (the Bruno Bauer/Dutch Radical/Hermann Detering sort of hypothesis and the G.R.S. Mead/G.A. Wells/Alvar Ellegard sort of hypothesis)–to have significant enough probability to be considered worthy of further evaluation, every bit as much as his own brand of mythicism (the Drews/Couchoud/Doherty sort).

        Mead and Ellegard, at least, would be covered under Minimal Historicity (OTHOJ, p34). Wells-1988 would also be covered. Interestingly, Wells-2004 – although arguably more “historicity-oriented” – may not meet Carrier’s definition of MH owing to its hybrid nature.

        1. A fair point regarding Mead and Ellegard and a point well-taken, as well as on the later Wells. The early Wells would, I think, not be covered under “minimal historicity,” in that he maintained (as I recall) that the figure called Jesus by Paul need not be based on any historical memory or events. (And even if someone were to argue that the early Wells were a historicist, according to Carrier’s definition, there should still be room for an alteration, at least, that were not and that did not meet Carrier’s definition of minimal historicity or minimal mythicism.)

  6. Isn’t Baldwin saying, in effect, that mythicism logically follows from the conclusion that the gospels are so problematic as sources as to preclude the recovery of the historical Jesus?

    I have never understood how McGrath can treat as respectable the position that virtually nothing can be known about the life and ministry of the historical Jesus given the problems with the sources, while at the same time deriding anyone who questions whether it is possible to be certain about the existence of someone about whom nothing can be known. Baldwin seems to be saying that the latter logically follows from the former.

  7. The 8 points of E.P.

    From Burton L Mack “Who wrote the NT?” page 151

    “For the history of Christianity, the most important shift in post war thinking took place in the Markan community.
    It was there a dramatic change took place in the memory and imagination of Jesus, one that had a mythic foundation for the Christian religion.
    The change is documented in the Gospel of Mark …..
    Before Mark there was no such story of the life of Jesus”.

    OK Mack has slipped in a few controversial presumptions there eg presuming an historical Jesus via the unsubstantiated phrase ‘memory and imagination of Jesus’ and the use of the word ‘documented’. But let’s allow them to float by.

    What is interesting is this sentence-
    ” Before Mark there was no such story of the life of Jesus”.

    That removes … what …. from EP’s list [according to Mack]?
    Prior to “Mark” [for the purpose of this little exercise lets ignore the complete lack of provenance for the work of this anonymous writer, although it is of fundamental importance ] what verified historical evidence do we have for EP’s 8 points?

    John the Baptist and JC?
    Disciples – however many?
    and so on

    What is the case, using historically valid methodology, for the 8 points and their components?
    Outside of and prior to “Mark” [according to Mack].

    Oh, Mack goes on to say:
    “It was Mark’s composition that gathered together earlier traditions, used the recent history of Jerusalem to set the stage for Jesus’ time, crafted the plot, spelled out the motivations and so created the story that was to become the gospel truth for Christianity.”

    Without the crutch of alleged ‘earlier traditions’ this all amounts to …what?

    1. Without an earlier tradition for which their is very little evidence, what you have is a mythic Greek composition which fits the General pattern of many other mythic Greek compositions.

  8. Carrier has not excluded the middle. There is either “Jesus Existed” or “not Jesus Existed.” The issue then is what do we mean by “Jesus?” Carrier attempts to define Jesus in such as way that if his Jesus, the minimal Jesus, did not exist, none of the other Jesuses could have. In other words, if minimal Jesus cannot be established to have existed, there could be no Jesus to be baptized by John. All the stuff being called the “excluded middle” is not in the middle:

    Gospel Jesus–[cynic/eschatalogical/rebel…Jesus]–minimal Jesus–No Jesus

    1. Your comment has very little to do with Carrier (or the point on which I have responded to Carrier) and everything to do with Baldwin and his comments. I’m not endorsing or agreeing with Baldwin here.

      “Jesus Existed”/”not Jesus Existed” is not exactly the same as Carrier’s minimal historicity and Carrier’s minimal mythicism. That is a fact.

      Richard Carrier’s minimal mythicism is defined in these terms in the chapter on the subject: “Jesus was originally a cosmic being known by revelation who was later set in history through the production of allegorical myths that were later taken or intended literally.”

      This has four parts:

      1. Jesus was “originally a cosmic being,”
      2. Said being was “known by revelation” (so-called, I’m sure),
      3. And he was only “later set in history,”
      4. Using “allegorical myths” that were only “later taken or intended literally.”

      The negation of Richard Carrier’s minimal mythicism is not that, “Jesus Existed.” That’s to ignore the fact that Carrier’s minimal mythicism is a compound of multiple ideas intended as an explanation of Christian origins that simultaneously excludes other explanations of Christian origins that contradict Carrier’s own but which also do not include the idea that “Jesus Existed.”

      The negation of Richard Carrier’s minimal mythicism is, in fact, the statement that it is not the case that, “Jesus was originally a cosmic being known by revelation who was later set in history through the production of allegorical myths that were later taken or intended literally.”

      Any one of the following ideas would contradict Carrier’s minimal mythicism while failing to establish that “Jesus Existed” (thus showing an alternative where ‘not (Jesus Existed)’ and ‘not (Minimal Mythicism)’ would be true):

      1. Jesus was originally considered a non-cosmic being who did his activity in an ahistorical setting, or as a being who was placed in a non-specific historical setting, or as a being placed in a specific historical setting invented for him.
      2. Jesus was a deliberate fiction perpetrated on others, not a sincerely held conviction for the first originators of the story, and without any beliefs engendered through perceived revelation.
      3. Jesus was originally set in history, but as a legend, though without true historicity (like King Arthur or Robin Hood or William Tell).
      4. Or (even if agreeing with Carrier’s minimal mythicism in every other respect), the original gospels are not allegory (not “allegorical myths) at all but rather non-allegorical fabrications.

      Because Carrier’s approach for whatever reason is to pick only one description of ‘minimal historicity’ and again only one description of ‘minimal mythicism’, Carrier has in a few pages at the beginning of OHJ dismissed any number of alternatives that do not agree with his miniimal historicity or his minimal mythicism. That is the very meaning of a fallacy of the false dilemma, and it is to be felt most acutely by anyone who advocates for a different hypothesis for the origins of Christianity without a historical Jesus.

      1. Yes, but you have only shown one-half of the dilemma. The question is the historicity of Jesus, not the most plausible mythicist theory. I can disagree with Carrier’s mythicist theory (and in fact do have reservations), but the key question is does Carrier’s “minimal historicism” exclude plausible historicist theories at the outset. So while I can see that Carrier’s mythicist theory is far from demonstrated, I don’t see where he has “excluded the middle” in comparing the evidence for historicism to mythicism.

        There are a couple of statements in Baldwin’s blog that I think are problematic:

        “By design, Carrier’s statement of the minimal form of the theory of Jesus’ historicity dooms it to failure, since it has been formulated in light of a prior assumption that is deadly to its premises: the only available sources available for investigation of the life of Jesus are so absolutely unreliable that no statements about Jesus based solely on them can be admitted at all.”

        It isn’t a “prior assumption” that “only available sources” are “unreliable,” it is a conclusion based on source analysis, one that was fairly thorough and not even outside the mainstream. However, that does leave still some source document that could conceivably support historicism. Baldwin’s argument seems to be that Carrier excludes unreliable evidence and the only remaining evidence supports his theory. Isn’t that the point? Baldwin has to demonstrate the reliability of the excluded evidence. Where did Carrier err in argument to exclude that evidence?

        “If this book were a mere treatise on the question of historicity, it would begin by examining carefully the arguments against historicity that have really been advanced (in the history of scholarship). It would also examine and demonstrate the inadequacy of objections to those arguments. It might advance new arguments against historicity and anticipate and answer in advance possible objections to those arguments.”

        Isn’t that what Carrier did in Proving History? Carrier has always said and almost always refers back to Proving History for this argument.

        So I agree that Carrier has committed the fallacy of false dilemma if his insistence is that by falsifying “minimal historicism” he has made the case for his brand of mythicism. That’s not Baldwin’s argument, though.

        1. I agree. That’s not Baldwin’s argument.

          (And while someone might want to drive a wedge between Carrier’s specific minimal historicity statement and the statement that “Jesus Existed,” and they might strictly speaking have some grounds for doing so, I’m not as irked by it, as I am not that particularly interested in any strange and esoteric ideas about a historical Jesus that might replace it.)

          Baldwin’s statement there is very tricky to read. Everything hinges on the preposition, ‘against’. You and I expect him to say ‘for’ and will read him that way the first time, as if he were saying that Carrier should be going over the arguments that have been made ‘for’ the historicity of Jesus. But he’s talking about the flipside to that. He’s saying that Carrier should dive straight into ‘arguments against the historicity of Jesus’ (and thus for the non-existence of Jesus) and ‘examine and demonstrate the inadequacy of objections to those arguments’ (and thus secure the ‘arguments’ for the non-historicity of Jesus).

          Basically, he appears to be saying that Carrier should have assumed the burden of proof (as if advancing a thesis, “Jesus did not exist”) and that he should have used the typical approach of (more or less) ‘muddling through’ with ‘arguments’ (without any general scheme imposed on what ‘arguments’ might be allowed or not allowed). Or maybe he’s not saying that, and maybe he’s just saying that’s what a scholarly ‘treatise’ would do, starting from collecting all the arguments made so far and then, perhaps, innovating. I guess we shouldn’t analyze too much here–I doubt Baldwin expected to be so intently scrutinized for one blog post a week ago.

          Still, he does not appear to appreciate that the books represent exactly one argument, using exactly one methodology, which Carrier ‘examines and demonstrates’ (or hopes to do so) by first defending the methodology and then defending his application of that methodology in the case of the historical Jesus. If he did, he’d notice and credit the fact that Carrier had made and defended at least that one ‘argument’.

  9. It does seem odd to start, or even end, with the view that there was no minimal Jesus whatever, just a hole in history stuffed with myths. Some agreed methodology is needed to explain the apparently detailed “verisimilitude” found NT documents, and in the apparent acceptance of a real person by ancient non-Christian commentary (e.g. Celsus). The assumption of a real person does not require such basic “facts” as a Virgin Birth or a Resurrection on the Third Day, but convincing explanations of an exorcist-healer whose Kingdom proclamations apparently aroused the hostility of the “authorities”.

    May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp.8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.

    1. I am not sure that the “hole” is really that big a problem as I think it fits reasonably with one of the usual suspects in any inquiry into religious origins. I.e., some borderline crackpot claims to get messages from God, invents some fantastic stories, and convinces some gullible followers that the stories are true without a shred of proof. I’m not saying that all, or even most, religions start that way, but it is a possibility that belongs on the radar screen. I can’t see why my default position should be that there was any greater historical reality behind the stories of Christianity than behind those of Mormonism or Scientology.

          1. This is a different point, but a reasonable one. It is not difficult and quite interesting to expose the fictions, and probable motivations, of Joseph Smith, or to question the origins and practices of the “Church of Scientology”. There are other minor examples, e.g. George Adamski’s “Flying Saucers Have Landed”, with a Venusian similar in appearance to those in the UK comic “The Eagle” and demonstrably faked UFO photos, as the initial – though subsequently long forgotten – impetus to the Aetherius Society cult of “Dr” George King. It amazes what bizarre rubbish some otherwise intelligent and ostensibly sane people can believe and write, e.g. Annie Besant’s Theosophical phantasmagoria.

            There is no evidence that Jesus himself left any written records (though Barbara Thiering claims he authored John’s Gospel). I agree that the gospels contain fictional events and fictional embellishments. As the supposed founder of mainstream Christianity, Paul is however “faulted” precisely because he provided little (extant) biographical “earthly” detail about Jesus.

            Incidentally, the high point of competitive resurrection explanations – “Who Moved the Stone?” – appears roughly coincident with middle-class “whodunnit” literature and writers (Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, Monsignor Knox, &c).

            1. Doyle to be sure, received a good scientific education at Edinburgh, and an MD. And naturalistic explanations for / criticisms of some religious phenomena still may be useful at times.

        1. Did Joseph Smith and L Ron Hubbard really exist?

          Indeed they did, and they were charismatic men with fantastic imaginations who managed to convince their followers of the truth of the complex products of those imaginations. Of course, that doesn’t prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the similar product of Paul’s or Mark’s or anyone else’s imagination, but I think that it is sufficient reason not to be deterred by the prospect that when it comes to Christianity, there might be no “there” there.

          I think it plausible that cognitive dissonance induced the grief stricken followers of a failed messianic claimant to embrace the idea that God had planned for his anointed one to suffer and die before ultimate vindication, and that subsequently one of their enemies experienced some sort of reparative hallucination. However, I am also open to the possibility that someone just invented a bunch of crazy shit, which seems to me to be a simpler explanation.

          I think that Occam’s Razor is called upon to bear far more weight than it can reasonably be expected to bear in these discussions, mostly because our sources are so poor that it is hard to find any other way forward. Personally, I am not convinced that the simplest explanation is most likely to be true, mostly because I usually find that history is incredibly complex. However, I do think that it makes sense to start with a simple hypothesis because that is the one that should be easiest to affirm or refute; If it proves impossible to reach a conclusion about the simplest hypothesis, it may be a waste of time considering more complex ones.

  10. Why do we care what Matthew Baldwin thinks?

    He is yet another Biblical ‘scholar’ who has a Masters of Divinity and a PhD in Biblical studies, and an undergrad degree in Religion, and a CV which is not, apparently, to be easily discovered on any of his multiple web presences.

    He is very happy to share with us the fact that he likes to run and lift heavy things, but whether he has any training or expertize in standard historical methods is a question whose answer is completely opaque. He may be a very nice fellow, kind to children and loving to animals, but the fact that he appears not to have a clue about how to approach the rigors of Jesus historicity a la Carrier makes him just as irrelevant as every other Biblical ‘scholar’.

    Seriously, I don’t think Biblical scholars have earned the right to discuss historicity as if it is in their bailiwick, let alone, like McGrath, to cast aspersions on actual accredited academics like Carrier. He really is not fit to shine Carrier’s shoes. Avalos is on the mark.

  11. Since you won’t address it, I will! 🙂

    As I’ve harped on many times on your blog, Carrier’s “minimal Jesus” has a higher probability of existing than Baldwin’s not-so-minimal Jesus. As you intimated, it’s a lot easier to disprove a Jesus with more characteristics than it is to dismiss a Jesus with fewer characteristics. All it takes is for one of those facts to be wrong for the whole thing to be false. So the fewer necessary facts you have, the more likely it is that you are correct. Much like links in a chain; this is why we defer to Occam’s Razor. This is counterintuitive; and it should go without much argument that historical Jesus scholars of the past 2 centuries have been unaware of statistical and cognitive biases that we’ve only discovered within the past 30 years.

    Consider Carrier’s minimal Jesus:

    1. Had followers
    2. Who claim he was executed
    3. Who worshiped after death

    Versus the standard minimal Jesus:

    1. Baptized (1a) by John the Baptist
    2. Galilean preacher who preached and (2a) healed
    3. Had followers (3a) that were 12 in number
    4. Confined his activity to Israel
    5. Engaged in controversy about the temple
    6. Crucified (6a) outside of Jerusalem by (6b) Roman authorities
    7. His followers continued his movement
    8. At least some Jews persecuted the new movement

    If we assume 90% confidence in each fact in both cases, Carrier’s minimal Jesus is about 72% likely (90% * 90% * 90% or .9^3) whereas the standard minimal Jesus is about 43% likely (.9^8). The standard minimal Jesus should actually be lower in probability because some of those 8 facts are actually multiple facts put in one bullet. So it should be plain here that Carrier’s Jesus is harder to disprove than the standard minimal Jesus and that Carrier has actually helped out the historical Jesus argument with that formulation.

    And as you point out, both lists have within them a hidden fact/dependent probability: That Jesus existed.

    1. That hits the nail on the head. Bottom line is, Baldwin appears to be a bit confused as to what Carrier is actually doing here, in the context of mathematical probability and Carrier’s Bayesian approach

      The most charitable reading that I could muster was that Baldwin believes that all of his “eight facts” are extremely secure, once the historicity of Jesus is granted (for example, if Baldwin believed for whatever absurd reason that Carrier’s minimal historicity list had 99% probability if Jesus existed while his own list had 95% probability–i.e., he thinks it’s only a smidge less, because the “facts” are supposedly rather secure). And as such perhaps Baldwin believes that the posterior probabilities, in the later analysis, would be improved when considering the (subjectively-inferred) consequent probabilities under such a longer list (while somehow they fared poorly with only a shorter list being used to arrive at the consequent probabilities). Or something like that. Even then, I couldn’t actually imagine how he figures that might be so.

      I’m left with the idea that he is (by way of some kind of ill-considered bit of criticism) just disconcerted that Carrier’s list is so very short, which he considers to be some kind of straw man or something. Perhaps we’ll hear more.

      (And, again, thanks for mentioning the point that really should be highlighted here.)

      1. Either there was a human Jesus, who provided at least a peg on which to hang not only god myths but also stories which largely resemble accounts of an actual human being, engaged in specific down-to-earth activities with other humans in geographical settings, or there was a total vacuum, a gap in early first-century Galilee/Judea which was filled inexplicably with totally imaginary items, some of which bear only several far from close resemblances to the mythical activities of pagan deities.

        1. One day the peg is to fall. And now is a good time.

          There has always been a huge gaping hole in the center of all cultures. Since no one knows how the universe began.

          Better to acknowledge the hole where the peg once was, than whitewash it over again.

          1. I am reminded of Nietzsche’s comment about the death of God: “What was holiest and mightiest of all the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…What festivals of atonement shall we have to invent?”

            Maybe it is just a difference of personality and experience, but your position seems to me rather sweepingly “dogmatic”.

            Of course, brains can malfunction, remain limited, and cannot think outside the cosmic box. However, the curious fact remains that the unconscious universe has somehow evolved minds that can ask questions not only about itself and its beginnings, but also its own “existence” (e.g. John Philoponus, Saadia Gaon, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried Leibniz, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Martin Heidegger, Liu Xaofeng, &c).

  12. Well. This is an interesting read. We all need to remember that we’re in the same “space” on the internet and to tread lightly (as I’ll try to tread more lightly in my blog in the future). I’m not interested in fighting over my qualifications to be in this discussion. I have my own reasons for engaging Carrier’s work that will become clearer in time, if anyone pays attention. If you want to understand better what I am intending to do, it may help to realize that my real target is actually not Carrier’s criticism of the historicity of Jesus, but his defense of his brand of mythicism.

    I was not, in my post, trying to suggest that Carrier should have started with a more extensive yet still minimal list of facts about Jesus. I was trying to suggest that when Carrier, in his chapter 2 of OHJ, pointedly reduces the lists one usually finds in the literature to his bare-minimal list of three, he tips off the reader to the fact that game is rigged. For he has actually already done the analysis and found that there’s no evidence that Jesus existed. He stacks the deck against the so-called minimal historicist position he proposes, someone disingenuously, to “test,” because the only possible sources that exist for testing those minimal claims have already been dismissed as unreliable for establishing ANY other facts which might be presumed to be minimal. In other words, if Jesus can’t be presumed to have had some kind of relationship to John the Baptist (on so called embarrassment and multiple attestation criteria), then there’s really no reason to start with the minimal assumption that Jesus existed. What evidence is left to base that on? Tacitus? But that will be claimed ultimately to have been based on the gospels (through a chain of “Christian” transmission of claims). However, the gospels are already dismissed. Hence, no evidence even remains to make the minimal claim. I think this is a logical problem in the process, and heck yeah it throws off more mainstream historians. At least Strauss and Bauer had reasons for identifying particular claims in the gospel tradition as legend and myth, and working back from the available data to a minimal figure (Bauer, of course, works all the way back to non-existence). Carrier has disallowed the only available data before he starts.

    Why does he adopt this procedure?

    He adopts it in order to set up a logical fallacy that structures the entire approach of the book: either one accepts (a) minimal historicism [which, surprise, is going to be shown to be impossible] or (b) Carrier’s peculiar account of “minimal mythicism” [which, surprise, he will find all sorts of reasons to accept].

    You bet there’s an excluded middle here. Carrier’s five point minimal mythicism is by no means the only possible or probable alternative to minimal historicism, as Bauer’s dissolution of Jesus into myth demonstrates. He managed to do that without arriving at the radical hypothesis of the “purely celestial dying and rising savior religion which subsequently euhemerized itself.”

    Myself I do think that a Jesus ‘existed’ but that’s only because I don’t start with the assumption, as Carrier does, that early Christian traditions reporting that there was a human Jesus with a family, etc., are inherently untrustworthy because they are the traditions of Christians, who made up everything (except the things they said that appear to support the hypothesis of a hidden pre-tradition of the celestial Jesus).

    It seems to me that we are wasting our time arguing about whether Jesus really existed or not, since the starting positions all beg the question. That’s what commentators here are accusing me of doing, and that’s also what I’m accusing Carrier of doing.

    1. “I was not, in my post, trying to suggest that Carrier should have started with a more extensive yet still minimal list of facts about Jesus. I was trying to suggest that when Carrier, in his chapter 2 of OHJ, pointedly reduces the lists one usually finds in the literature to his bare-minimal list of three, he tips off the reader to the fact that game is rigged.”

      I am sorry, Matt, but your argument makes no sense unless you believe that a reduced set of facts are harder to prove false than the ones Carrier left out. Personally, I think Carrier has deferred too much to Christian apologists, that he has attacked the most difficult set of alleged facts.

      Another way to think of it is this way: if I only have to prove one fact in a set of alleged facts wrong, as a “debunker” I would prefer to have more “facts” to attack. Unless you believe that the three facts that Carrier chose to test were the hardest to prove, Carrier rigged the game in your favor.

      You don’t get that, do you? None of this means anything to you, does it? Blah, blah, blah, Matt. Must be against your belief system, Matt.

      Please stop pretending you have any rational basis for objecting to Carrier’s analysis. (I can give you one, but it involves math, which I don’t think matters to you at all.)

      Just stop. Admit defeat. Or not. I don’t care. You have proven that you have nothing of worth to say. but keep on saying it.

  13. Thanks for popping in here and clarifying some points. It’s appreciated.

    As to what Carrier seems to -think- he is doing with his list, what he -thinks- he is doing is setting up a barebones framework for the rest of the book, where he considers two broadly-defined concepts in competition as explanations (in Bayesian terms) for particular points of data. He gives the “historicity” definition a simple one, and this is only implied, (A) because doing that seems adequate to him when considering the ‘consequent probabilities’, i.e., the ‘fit’ of each hypothesis as an explanation (on account of the idea that adding the baptism by John, even while it may be very highly probable, doesn’t seem to matter much in the subsequent analysis of whether each point that he considers is more probable on historicity or on mythicism). And also, and this is explicit, (B) because doing that results in a higher prior probability for historicity (due to the fact that there are fewer individual components), and this seems to be relevant in this context even if it only may be slightly higher. Lastly, and this is implicit again, (C) because if his minimal historicity turned out to be probable to him, I think he’d be more than ready to consider again other things attributed to Jesus, as part of historical Jesus study proper. Of course this is just my interpretation of what Carrier is trying to do here.

    Does this also betray Carrier’s low opinion of the Gospels as evidence for the details of the life of a historical Jesus? We don’t really have to speculate on that account–he’s told us that much. He does seem to try to address this sort of question in the first book, so I don’t think he entirely sidesteps such a question, even if he does have a fundamentally different view.

    I unfortunately agree that we are frequently ‘wasting our time arguing about whether Jesus really existed or not’. it seems to me that the most productive conversations usually happen ‘around the edges’, between two people, with one of them who agrees up to a point but has some particular qualms. When people have radically different views, it can sometimes be hard to find where that common ground lies–where are we to find that which we can all agree with ‘up to a point’? On the other hand, I do believe that a lot of conversation does take place that can be considered productive, and perhaps your point ties in with this–perhaps the debate will seem more fruitful to those who are already persuaded of other critical opinions that allow the non-existence of Jesus to appear as even a remotely plausible thesis. Indeed I’d agree there, but I wouldn’t say that means that question-begging is to blame.

    I’m grateful again that you have stopped by and apologize if the response generally is a bit overblown (and especially if any remarks I’d made seemed to be over a line). I do believe that we should be more appreciative of any criticism that we receive, even if we don’t agree with it. A shrill reply will only leave a bitter taste and discourage others from even wanting to have the conversation. And if you’re not in the conversation–or not in as many conversations–then you’re neither listening nor being heard by those critical of your views, and it’s then too easy (for us) to become insular and dull. I guess I’m saying I’d be glad to have you participating further, but I’d also understand if you weren’t so inclined.

  14. Peter I appreciate your cordiality in this reply. (I did approve and reply to your comment on my blog too.) In your first full length paragraph above, the points you lay out regarding Carrier’s method of approach to these questions seem clear enough.

    For me, the mathematical and “Bayesian” approach to laying out probabilities of competing explanatory schema in historiography is indeed alien territory. From some of the comments on this blog I’m guessing that will just confirm a few people’s suspicions that I am some kind of unqualified interloper here. I won’t ask those people where they got their Ph.D.s and where they’ve published their peer-reviewed journal articles on ancient history employing a Bayesian framework. I think that might be rude.

    A search of JSTOR with search results restricted to the 456 peer reviewed journals in History that they archive and index clearly demonstrates that Bayesian theory, while interesting to some, hardly occupies center stage in modern historiography. The term “Bayesian” appears in 846 articles. The vast majority of these articles deal with abstract matters of theory, and all look like they are about procedures that can counteract the inevitable uncertainty that attends interpretation of historical evidence. Bayesian theory is about justifying belief. Which I find interesting, and attractive to the pragmatist in me. A review of fascinating looking treatise of 2005 by A. Tucker (“Our Knowledge of the Past”) makes the book look like it might be worth my time if I want to understand more about the application of the ideas to history. But one thing is clear from reviewing these articles: Bayesian theory has yet to make a blockbuster appearance in ordinary historiography. Most working historians are not using it.

    So, I know I am not alone in finding the dogmatic insistence on the use and validity of this approach off-putting.

    When I see people (including Carrier) articulating a plan to do a Bayesian analysis, when I see people running numbers based on probability assumptions that seem (to me) pulled more or less out of the ether, I just think to myself: there must be another way. In the olden days historians just worked with directly with the available evidence and we sifted it according to our best efforts to explain the data we have. It starts with finding and establishing what the data is (in our case, often texts, so this involves establishing texts obviously) and then proceeds to interpretation.

    I do find it artificial to state that, “for the sake of argument” that we start with assumptions about probabilities; I wouldn’t say “minimal historicism” has a 90% or any other probability. To me this puts the cart before the horse.

    In my view you start with the data, and you offer a more or less compelling interpretation of it. The more improbable our outlandish the proposed interpretation, the less compelling. It’s not compelling to explain early Christian claims, for example, that Jesus rose from the dead, by saying “well then he probably rose from the dead,” because such claims are inherently not compelling… unless you have a supernaturalist world view. In which case, we’re not doing history, are we?

    I’ve undoubtedly said more than I should have here — and can expect a barrage of criticism as a result — but I get the feeling reading these defenses of Carrier’s methods that y’all have been too focused on the Bayesian method and not focused enough on whether the underlying hypotheses are in fact compelling, and/or, perhaps more importantly, why they are.

    1. Matt: “I do find it artificial to state that, “for the sake of argument” that we start with assumptions about probabilities; I wouldn’t say “minimal historicism” has a 90% or any other probability. To me this puts the cart before the horse.”

      Then would you consider yourself a frequentist? I mean, do you reject the use of prior probabilities on principle, or would you suggest doing Bayesian analysis some other way?

      Matt: “I won’t ask those people where they got their Ph.D.s and where they’ve published their peer-reviewed journal articles on ancient history employing a Bayesian framework. I think that might be rude.”

      Congratulations on having your cake and eating it, too.

    2. And thank you for your replies!

      I, too, often wish that the mathematical bits were bracketed more often in this discussion about Carrier’s second book, -especially- if this were done by those critics who either find fault with the application of Bayes in the book or those who find fault with the application of Bayes generally, because we can take the comments and outline of Carrier’s book and attempt to understand it in non-mathematical terms, if we are so inclined, and ask ourselves whether it makes sense to us, and why or why not. And, yes, I do sort of wish that Carrier hadn’t hitched two fairly major, fairly contrarian theses together so tightly in the presentation. But I still think his 2nd book can be forced out of its Bayesian shell if someone is would rather avoid that approach and then consider its merits otherwise.

      I’d also wish for a lot of things… but, mostly, in this context, that Carrier and Doherty are just considered part of the conversation, which has been taking place (off and on) for a while now (better part of 150 years), and that someone would finally write a truly great book in favor of the hypothesis of the historicity of Jesus (which I still think is yet to be written). I wish that there were more critical interaction and development of theory both within and among those skeptical of the historicity of Jesus, and between them and the wider world of people looking into Christian origins (and maybe, just maybe, with fewer pitchforks all around).

      But you can’t always get what you want, so lastly I just wish to live long enough to write my own book. There’s no use in me just writing random bits here and there and hoping that everyone should just piece it all together themselves regarding how I understand things. (Although, that would, of course, require my understanding to stand still long enough!)

      There’s no point in being dogmatic about much of anything here, that’s for sure! Cheers.

      1. “and that someone would finally write a truly great book in favor of the hypothesis of the historicity of Jesus ”

        Without some miracle archeological find, I’d say about as much has been written as can be written. You can only say so many things about the same poor evidence.

    3. ‘I do find it artificial to state that, “for the sake of argument” that we start with assumptions about probabilities; I wouldn’t say “minimal historicism” has a 90% or any other probability. To me this puts the cart before the horse. ‘

      Let me try to drill down succinctly to the confusion: it doesn’t actually MATTER which specific number you choose. The simple fact is, the more time you mutliply fractions by fractions, the smaller your numbers become. A historical Jesus with 4 characteristics will ALWAYS be more likely than a historical Jesus with 8. You can play with the probabilities however you like, the numbers are always smaller the more characteristics you mulitply. Carrier stressed this to an almost tiresome degree in the books, but I guess it’s not as obvious to me as it is to everyone else.

      So by pruning the list of historical Jesus characteristics as small as possible, Carrier has made the historical Jesus as probable as possible. We know this a priori, before we even begin to add probabilities where we think we can find them. He’s arguing charitably, not stacking the deck.

      If your objecting to the use of numbers AT ALL, then Carrier would say you’re arguing in favor of being vague.

  15. On pages 34-5 of OHJ, Carrier writes:
    “This gets us down to just three minimal facts on which historicity rests:

    1. An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
    2. This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
    3. This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod).

    That all three propositions are true shall be my minimal theory of historicity. As occasion warrants I might add features on to test the merits of more complex theories, but unless I explicitly say otherwise, the above is the theory I shall be testing against the minimal Jesus myth theory. Because if any one of those premises is false, it can fairly be said there was no historical Jesus in any pertinent sense. And at least one of them must be false for any Jesus myth theory to be true.

    One thing that will become clear in the course of this book is that this minimal theory is unsustainable.”

    I’m not convinced, though, by the case that Carrier builds in Proving History and OHJ. I think that it is still possible to build a sustainable minimal theory of historicity.

    Herro writes above, “[What] would your minimal historicist hypothesis look like?”

    In February, I posted a couple of times on Peter Kirby’s Biblical Criticism & History Forum about my thoughts regarding what the best case for minimal historicity would look like. (See http://www.earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1261&start=280#p29013)

    I would like to repeat a snippet here from my earlier post on Peter’s forum.

    I think that the best case for historicity is the case that is found in a book that was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.

    The book that I am referring to is:
    Humphreys, Colin J. The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Humphreys’ argument is lengthy and detailed. It would go beyond the reasonable scope of a single post to go into the details here. The best way to get a quick idea of what this book is about is to read two relatively short scholarly reviews that are available at:

    1. Colin’s main argument seems to be that the 4 gospels are consistent testimony from 4 independent witnesses?

      But? To many, all show signs of having been edited to produce aforesaid continuity or harmony.

      (Later editors missed the date error in John, because they were further removed from Judaism, and understanding its “day.”)

  16. The simple fact is, the more time you mutliply fractions by fractions, the smaller your numbers become. A historical Jesus with 4 characteristics will ALWAYS be more likely than a historical Jesus with 8. You can play with the probabilities however you like, the numbers are always smaller the more characteristics you mulitply.

    Exactly correct! (Assuming that is that the Jesus with 8 possesses the characteristics of the Jesus with 4. If there were no overlapping, it would be possible for the product of 8 high probability characteristics to be higher than the product of 4 low probability ones. However, any time you add a characteristic, it will necessarily decrease the overall probability as long as the individual probability of the additional characteristic is less than one.)

    To me, the benefit of Bayesian reasoning in this context doesn’t lie in the assignment of specific numbers, but in understanding the effect of multiplying conditions and the effect of taking the conclusion of an argument that is less than 100% certain and using it as the premise in another argument. Few NT scholars seem to understand that if you take three independent conditions which each have a 75% probability of being true, the probability that all three are true is only 42%. By the same token, when you take the conclusion of an argument that is less than 100% certain and use it as the premise of another argument, the uncertainty of the premise doesn’t disappear. NT scholars have a penchant for ignoring this when they string together arguments.

  17. I don’t know if VinnyJH’s post (dated 2015-04-30 15:13:37 UTC) was intended to be a response to my post (dated 2015-04-30 02:27:05 UTC) as it does not directly reference anything that I wrote, but I do think that was Vinny’s post makes several points that do relate to what I was saying.

    It is certainly true that as one strings together additional propositions and attempts to calculate an overall probability, it is necessary to multiply fractions by fractions and that doing so lowers the overall probability. This is true regardless of what stance we take on a particular issue.

    What really matters in the end though is how well a particular theory does at explaining all of the extant evidence. This is what determines the values of the fractions that go into the equations.

    I don’t think that I can say this much better than Richard does in one of the articles on his blog (http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/5085). He writes:
    “Many complications adhere in any application of Ockham’s Razor (which is what Bermejo-Rubio is talking about here), as I explain in Proving History (index, “Ockham’s Razor”). Bermejo-Rubio is at least aware of this generally (hence his remark about the importance of ceteris paribus). But one has to be more specific, because here many an error is commonly made. An “auxiliary hypothesis” is only ad hoc when it is not independently confirmed in evidence as true or probable. Only auxiliary hypothesis that are posited without that support, posited merely “out of the blue” as it were, reduce a theory’s plausibility (= prior probability) compared to alternatives that rely on fewer such presumptions. That’s why Ockham’s Razor does not tear down the Periodic Table: the theory that there are only four elements is vastly simpler than that there are over ninety, yet a slew of very well confirmed auxiliary hypotheses establishes that the four element theory just can’t explain the evidence anywhere near as well as the Periodic Table can. Thus a vastly complex theory ends up being, in fact, the simplest.”

    I think that Humphreys’ theory explains the evidence better than any other theory. It may be a little bit complex at some points, but, ultimately, I think it is the simplest and most compelling explanation of the evidence and I recommend it.

  18. I do not know how many persons here have read Comic books but couldn’t an analogy be drawn between them and the NT?

    The two primary set of writers coming from publishing houses Marvel and DC. The characters from these are often referenced as coming from the “Marvel or DC universe”.
    The term “NT universe” should be applied to the writings of the NT with attending characters and all. Jesus; of course being the lead character.The presentation format may vary wherein the NT is strictly text while Comics are drawn with pictures and text.

    For the sake of argument, lets say a massive amount of knowledge and information is lost to our race in the future and only four Avenger Comics survive. Many of the population is wiped out in this future upheaval. Those who would have known about the true nature of these writings amongst them. A future historian with theological tendencies then starts to go to work.

    If we did not know that Comics where imaginative and fictional productions[Genre] our future “historio-theologian” could use a “hermeneutics of trust” to tease out historical information from them. He could remove the fantastic parts and agree on certain basic facts about :Iron Man, Thor or the Hulk.

    He could say that a historical Tony Stark exists and no respectable scholar or historian doubts this. These Comics mention many historical figures who no doubt existed. And so forth….

  19. That could happen, and not only by scraping Superman away to find a real Clark Kent. People easily believe that Sherlock Holmes or Just William were real people. However, we can be pretty sure there was a real “Macbeth” or “Saint Joan”; it all depends on historical and literary analysis (and in the latter case, some significant quasi-religious aspects). Where “miracle”-workers are concerned, there may be explanations other than “myth” for their reported activities. I am not entirely convinced by the arguments e.g. on Robert Price’s website, but will keep an open mind until I have read his latest book. Meanwhile, I adhere to the view that Paul was a real person and also (here in a tiny minority, even among Christians) that he knew about and probably saw Jesus in “the flesh”. Perhaps I should have put a couple of exclamation marks instead of a full stop to my previous meteor quotation re the Road to Damascus.

  20. The only “hole” left by “mythicism” is the one in the basic Gospel-Acts narrative about how Christianity started.

    If new religions emerge through realignments of factions within existing groups to meet specific social interests and needs, and if those newly emerging groups draw upon the existing myths and metaphors but realign or reinterpret them in various ways, then I see little real mystery about Christianity’s origins.

    Paul’s reinterpretations were comparable with other later Second Temple era reinterpretations of Israei’s myths (as evidenced in the extant Second Temple literature) and the post 70 CE emergence of the gospel stories is in synch with what what we understand about the way myths emerge to meet particular needs. We can even identify the origin of much of the gospel myth in the literature of the OT.

      1. By the way, thanks for the extremely useful Social Science/Anthropology definition of religion. Anthropology has known for more than 100 years what historicists still cannot quite make out today.

    1. But still a big hole in the sense that a silence can be deafening. Were there first-century religious personalities known as Jesus or John the Baptist, or not? What would be the point of a narrative tapestry of such circumstantial detail and of such a character if Jesus was completely imaginary unlike Apollonius of Tyana or Hanina ben Dosa?

      1. People wanted some sense that their beliefs are grounded in ultimate truth. So they accepted fuzzy myths. By the time of Rome though, realists wanted more facts, realistic details.

        Hypothesizing: a possibly real Paul accepted Jesus on the basis of a mere vision. But Luke was sent out to produce a more “orderly” rationalistic – rationalizing – account. For Greco Romans. So fuzzy rumors were rationalized, given an invented historicity.

        Or as we say, Christianity is not history mythologized. But myth, historicisized. A plausible history was found / invented.

        1. Christianity assembled a creative “composite” of quasi historical rumors. In my opinion, based in Jesus bin Sirac, the dying and resurrecting sons of God in 2Mac. 6-7, the revival of Hercules, the martyred sons of Lord Herod and Mary, etc.

          1. Your hypothesis, B, is well worth looking into, and I shall attempt to do so.
            Meanwhile, I would go further with my own “guess” about Paul, in that his guilt-stricken vision(s) about Jesus not only turned him into a “convert” of the type that pursues his new ideology with the same fanaticism that drove the old (as we seen in modern times, with ex-communists &c) but explains much of his redemption theology.

            Neil is quite correct to say that much gospel material originates in the OT. The examples include: complete inventions, staged prophetic enactments, events embellished with OT data, and coincidences. We still need one or more actual persons, in my view, to dress up with such detail, and even a group of followers and at least one “brother”. We can hardly say that Paul mentioned them in his letters just to deceive the mythicists of the 19th and 20th centuries, or that scribes interpolated them, for a comparable malign purpose, in earlier times.

            1. David,

              Where do you interpret Paul as mentioning the earthly Jesus having a group of followers?

              I understand how you might interpret Paul as thinking that Jesus was an actual human being who had been crucified recently and who had a brother, but I don’t see where Paul indicates that anyone he knew had been a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection or that the earthly Jesus had even had followers.

              1. I don’t see any indication in Galatians that Paul thought that James or John or Peter had been part of a movement that Jesus led prior to his death, even if I allow that Paul thought that James was Jesus’ biological brother. Had they been able to cite the things that Jesus said and did during his life, I think that Paul might have been forced to explain to the Galatians why it was better to follow Paul’s revelation rather than Jesus’ actual teachings. Even if Paul did understand Jesus to be a historical person, I think skepticism about whether he thought he had been a teacher would still be justified as well as skepticism about whether Paul thought that any of his contemporaries had been Jesus’ disciples.

            2. Paul initially persecuted early believers, since he thought they and their religion were deluded.

              Thus one key early figure confirms an early suspicion that the religion was false.

              Then, mere hallucination, an experience in his mind or spirit, a “vision,” not a real bit of evidence, caused him to snap.

              Likely Paul was inspired, entranced, by the narcissistic romance and bathos, of alleged heroic martyrs. As in 2 Mac. 6-7.

      2. From a Parvusian point of view (which I accept as a working hypothesis, and I hope someone will correct me if I’m demonstrating a misunderstanding of his thesis), I think some of the oddities about the idea of a “historical Jesus” arise from the fact that in a sense there was a historical Jesus. He was a Samaritan named Simon who believed that he had been possessed at times during his life by the immortal Jesus spirit. At the same time, there was a broader Christ cult whose members did not believe that Jesus had been on Earth yet. Subsequent generations in other places could be excused for not really understanding exactly what happened in Palestine way back when.

            1. The Parvus thesis on Paul seems plausible to me. Though for the sake of simplicity I may refer to a Paul, and at times even Jesus, as if each was a regular, single character..

  21. We don’t need the myth of Romulus and Remus or any replacement story to explain the origins and rise of Rome; ditto for the David stories to explain the historical place of Jerusalem and the historical kingdom of Judah. Same for origins of ethnic groups and cultures. We have archaeology and models from a wide range of studies that enable us to understand the rise of cities and kingdoms and “ethnic” groups. The myths (Abraham, Exodus, Joshua, etc) come later to meet specific needs. Islam, Judaism, and their various strands have similar less romantic explanations. I suspect the same for Christianity.

    I have been thinking along the lines of Durkheim’s sociological explanation for the emergence of new religions and from this perspective we really do have an abundance of evidence for Christianity’s emergence. Much of the problem is that when it comes to religion the myth is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it is very difficult to imagine questions and answers about Christianity apart from the myth itself.

  22. I do regard the literary argument for interpolation by J. C. O’Neill as more respectable than a preconceived rejection of the possibility that Paul met some previous followers of Jesus. However, I still think that the notions that the Gospels and Acts are complete and utter fictional fabrications, and that the doctrinal missions of Paul rested solely (if even that) upon a single “mere hallucination”, are like building pyramids on a point, or indeed upon a pointlessness.

    1. I’m not quite sure what “complete and utter fictional fabrications” would actually cover. Pilate was real; Jerusalem was real; Gallio was real; and Jews did flock to Jerusalem for festivals, etc. But I know of no reason to think that any of the main narratives in either the Gospels or Acts have any basis in historicity and I do know of an abundance of reasons to believe otherwise.

      Maybe it’s time for another post along these lines where the question can be discussed afresh instead of in the long tail of comments here.

  23. I doubt if “society is the soul of religion”. Religion seems to me to have arisen from the existential predicament of mortal humans in an otherwise inexplicable and uncontrollable, yet awesome, universe.

    1. Political, economic, labour, cultural, family, religious . . . systems are all social products and anthropological and sociological models have been developed in ways to have lots of explanatory power to help us understand how all of these work. They all meet different needs: some economic, some status and belonging needs, some security needs, some identity and “spiritual” needs — but they are all social entities.

      1. A London taxi-driver: “I ‘ad that there Bertrand Russell in the backer me cab the uvver night. Very clever gentleman. ‘Bertrand,’ I says, ‘wossit all abaht?’ And d’you know wot? ‘E ‘hadn’t an effin’ clue.”

        However, some modern writers – e.g. Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Andrew Newberg, Nicholas Wade, Peter Just, &c – may begin the open up fresh explanations of the “crippled” state of millions of our fellow human beings.

    2. The main point is that in historical inquiry we are looking at the history of societies, social structures/organizations/movements. The contents of the belief systems are important insofar as they enable us to identify these movements and their origins, mutations, etc. But the historian is not doing theological or introspective studies of the beliefs themselves.

      1. But also the role of personalities as organizers, thinkers, charismatic leaders. Hamlet without the Prince? WW2 without Hitler, Communism without Marx, Christianity without Paul, the A-bomb without the anti-Axis scientists, &c.

        1. We come here to several questions.

          Firstly such detail is very often missing from ancient sources but that does not always prevent us from piecing together the evidence we do have to explain developments.

          Secondly, we also come up against the question of what history is all about. In a relatively recent post I discussed Keith Whitelam’s history of Palestine. No names of historical actors are involved or necessary. This is called the “long view” of history and other more technical terms. It is this “long view” of history that arguably is most relevant to an understanding of the events in Palestine today than many other detailed accounts filled with dates and names.

          Thirdly, in ancient history in particular (but not exclusively) the names we do have are later fictions retrojected into the past to create the stories we seek — so need to be filtered out in any modern historical reconstruction.

          The rise of communism and even the outbreak of the Second World War can indeed to be explained and traced through events and in historical terms without Hitler, Marx, etc. We only need to look at economics, national power rivalries, social struggles…..

          In another thread “Natural Reason” referred to the conjunction fallacy. When it comes to historical reconstruction the more details we have the more potential we have that we are wrong. Each detail needs independent confirmation.

          Details and verisimilitude are very often more the stuff of fiction than genuinely recoverable history.

          1. I don’t think you can exclude personalities always from the mix. Did the assassination of Trotsky or Kennedy make no difference to the course of events? Or Churchill’s refusal to accept Hitler’s peace proposals? Zionism would surely have taken a different course without Herzl and Ben Gurion. Psychoanalysis without Freud? Your ideas without Durkheim or Carrier?

            People can only operate within the social structures, but they do operate. Agree with everything else you say.

            1. I don’t exclude personalities from history. I’m saying that there are different types of histories and especially in ancient history we simply don’t have the same details as we have for modern events. That doesn’t stop us from doing legitimate and evidence based history, however. We can trace historical developments through what the evidence trail tells us of movements of ideas and peoples etc.

              We can explain the foundation and rise of the city of Rome without any knowledge of historical persons yet of course we would have a richer history to tell if we did have details of the many notables who must have been involved.

            2. The problem with the gospels is that if we take them as historical or at least as more or less conveying some idea of what actually happened then we have more questions than answers when we confront the rest of the evidence. Yet they are readily explicable as myths with ideological agendas.

            3. Zeus was regarded as a real entity. And his persona had huge influence in guiding Greek society. But this shows that a fictional individual can be as pivotal as a real one.

              1. It is quite clear from historians of their religion (e.g. Robert Parker) that many Greeks believed that various gods had come to earth from their abode on occasions. In the case of Jesus we start with someone already on earth, who is subsequently deified. Isn’t the evidence that some such person, as a preacher-healer of a new kingdom, existed as strong as that of say Socrates (as distinct from Zeus)?

              2. I have written several posts listing some of the evidence we have for Socrates and someone else has pointed out we have much more than I ever mentioned — if we had the same sort of evidence for Jesus (contemporary and clearly independent witnesses) then there would be no Jesus debate today. Further, the earliest evidence for Jesus is that he is depicted as a god or son of God and it is only in the later gospels (e.g. Luke) where he is shown to be more “humanized”. This is contrary to the common scholarly assertion but not all scholars accept the common trajectory and recognize the way Jesus becomes more human with each retelling.

              3. You are suppressing parts of the Jesus story: like born of a virgin, conceived by God. Which would make him about as realistic as say, Hercules.

              4. I see layers of fact, legend and theological/mythical embellishment in the Gospel accounts. We should not throw the bath water out with the Baby. On Jesus as a possible mamzer, see e.g. Bas Van Os, “Psychological Analyses and the Historical Jesus” (2012), pp.24-25.

                At this point in time it is impossible to be certain about the historicity of specific events or utterances recorded in the NT, and the criteria of probability are also fluid. The midrash factor is sometimes present. But one can get a fairly coherent overall picture of the character concerned, e.g. his revolutionary themes and his provocative yet triumphalist manner, even if his or that story is an appropriate but actually a fictional anecdote; e.g. the annoyance given to his Galilean audience by a favorable reference to their Syrian enemies, or the practical joke played on his opponents over the production of a Roman coin in the Temple precincts.

  24. Let’s remember that Galatians 1 does not say in so many words that Jesus had a brother. James is described as the brother of the lord (“τοῦ Κυρίου”).

  25. Agreed, a separate thread.

    Complete fiction would be material that may mention but possibly misrepresents people known to independent secular history, but excludes as factual the personality and activities of “Jesus” and everyone else who is a “christian” of some sort (except possibly for some supposed recipients of some passages in a few epistles attributed to someone called or codenamed “Paul”).

  26. OK. I haven’t had to time to read his article or this comment thread so this is just a gut reaction, but, isn’t his argument basically a textbook case of the conjunction fallacy?

    The conjunction fallacy is when people assume that more detailed scenarios are more likely than more general ones. At Wikipedia they give this example:

    Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
    Which is more probable?
    Linda is a bank teller.
    Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

    Many people think the 2nd answer is more likely but it can’t be. There are more bank tellers, in total, than the subset of bank tellers who are feminists (that’s why it is called a subset).

    So did Baldwin really use a well known fallacy to argue that Carrier’s case is flawed at the core?

  27. Regarding Luke as a “later gospel”, some scholars have argued for an early priority of Lukan material, e.g. William Lockton, Robert Lindsey, Brad Young, David Bivin (Jerusalem Perspective On-Line). I have read “The Marcionite Gospel & the Synoptic Problem” (September 2012). Even if I had had the interest and opportunity to learn NT Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in previous years, I would still be just as confused about the relationships of the canonical gospel content. Oh, the unintended irony in John 21.25!

  28. Regardless of Carrier’s position (or that of any others mentioned here), consider the following logic for the writing of Dr. Bart D. Ehrman:

    If there is no meaningful first century evidence of an alleged first century, New Testament, Jesus Christ, of what use is any second century evidence of him?

    Bart D. Ehrman Tautology

    According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word tautology is defined thus: “a statement in which you repeat a word, idea, etc., in a way that is not necessary.” I guess that means redundancy:


    Regarding my proposed “Bart D. Ehrman Tautology,” in a book he had published in 2012, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth:


    he seems to have argued in the following Wikipedia webpage in two ways. First, there are no real scholars (Ph.D.s, serious scholars of religious history…) who have argued as proponents of what Wikipedia calls the “Christ myth theory”:

    “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet,” Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (NY: Harper Collins, 2012), p. 4.


    Second, later in the same Wikipedia webpage, it states: “Ehrman also notes that these [“Christ myth theory”] views [by proponents] would prevent one from getting employment in a religious studies department”:

    This Wikipedia webpage then goes on to quote (including a footnote) an article written by Professor Ehrman (posted 03/20/2012 and updated 05/20/2012), from The Huffington Post: “These views [that there was no first century Jesus who ever existed] are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on[e] in a bona fide department of biology”:


    In other words, no proponent of the so-called “Christ myth theory…” teaches in a reputable school and, if they did, they would be out the door (much like Bruno Bauer was escorted out the door by Lutheran educators, or propagandists, in 1838). If you have a better label for what I call the “Bart D. Ehrman Tautology,” I will appreciate hearing what it is.

    Byron Marchant


    Proponents of “Christ myth theory” views would be prevented from getting employment in a religious studies department.

    There are no real scholars (Ph.D.s, serious scholars of religious history…) who have argued as proponents of the “Christ myth theory.”

    Therefore, “Christ myth theory” proponents are not scholars (no matter whether or not their arguments have any validity, where logical validity means: so constructed that if the premises are jointly asserted, the conclusion cannot be denied without contradiction).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading