Many years ago, I had what I still consider the best job in the world. A second lieutenant in my twenties, I found myself in charge of operational maintenance on the swing shift for the entire “black side” of the flightline at Beale Air Force Base. Back then, the tankers were on the north side of the flightline, while the U-2s (including their TR-1 cousins) and SR-71s sat on the south side.
Of course, the real work depended on experienced NCOs. As the old joke goes, the job of an OIC (Officer in Charge) is to listen to the NCOIC, then nod and say, “Oh, I See.” But I did serve at least one crucial function. Only an officer could sign off on a “Red X” and clear a plane to fly.
One night we were driving around in the little blue pickup truck assigned to the maintenance officer on duty, when we stopped at one of the U-2 shelters. The senior NCO and I were checking on the status of some repair; I forget exactly what it was now. At any rate, we got to talking and one of the guys asked the crew chief about a car he’d been looking at. The young buck sergeant told us that he did almost buy one vehicle. It looked nice, he said, and the payments seemed reasonable. But then he noticed something fishy.
“When I added up all the payments,” he said, “it was more than the price of the car!”
I felt compelled to explain. “If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.” And then I realized there wasn’t enough time to explain how interest works, and it wasn’t clear it would do much good anyway. I gave a wide-eyed look at the senior NCO, offered some excuse about needing to get over to the SR-71s, and we quickly departed.
I had a similar feeling of helplessness reading Dr. Matthew Baldwin’s “A Short Note on Carrier’s ‘Minimal Historicism.'” One’s first inclination is to want to help someone who’s thrashing about wildly, but where to start? Baldwin writes in his post, “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start.” And he followed up with the same sentiments in his comment on Neil’s recent post, where he wrote:
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.
He complains that Carrier has excluded gospel evidence unfairly, thus hobbling the case of the historicist from the start.
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.
If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.
I have to commend J. Quinton for his concise and correct explanation, but I’m afraid his use of arithmetic may scare off Dr. Baldwin and the usual suspects (e.g., McGrath) who think his post is saying something logical and worthwhile. So I think I’ll try to explain in simple English what Baldwin doesn’t understand, avoiding any appeals to fractions, percentages, or multiplication.
First of all, Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus, does treat the gospels as evidence. He has not excluded them. Any theory of the historicity or non-historicity of Jesus should attempt to explain the state of the gospel evidence in relationship to all the other evidence. However, he does not automatically assume they are evidence that contains historical facts. They might, or they might not.
In actuality, relying on any particular “fact” about Jesus in the canonical gospels as a pillar for historicity is a red herring. For example, E.P. Sanders’ belief that Jesus was a Galilean who preached and exorcised demons has to be understood and explained within the totality of the evidence, including Paul’s letters, in which the apostle appears not to have known (a) Jesus came from Galilee, (b) he preached, or (c) he exorcised demons.
The sheer volume of evidence makes it extremely likely that Jesus actually had a reputation as an exorcist. (Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 183, emphasis mine)
Carrier assesses the likelihood of a follower of Jesus (viz. Paul) not many years after his death writing thousands of words about Jesus but not mentioning anything about a Galilean who preached and exorcised demons. It strains credulity. But it does not have any bearing on the case for a minimal historical Jesus.
However, that almost everything Jesus says in the Gospels is nonhistorical is not the same as Jesus himself being nonhistorical. If we are to honestly test minimal historicity, we must concede it’s entirely possible Jesus was historical but didn’t teach very much at all, or much of any subsequent use. Thus, the ‘silence’ in Paul regarding the historical sayings of Jesus is indeterminate. (Carrier, 2014, p. 557, emphasis mine)
The question is not whether the gospels are evidence, or whether they can be excluded as evidence; instead the question is whether that evidence can “move the needle” one way or the the other with respect to historicity. Or, to put it another way, can we better explain the material we find in the gospels under minimal mythicism or under minimal historicism?
Historicists like Baldwin cannot get past the idea that adding more items to the list of things we “know” about Jesus will make him more believable, more real. I suppose if we restricted our focus only on the evidence of the gospels themselves, we might be lulled into thinking that way, too. But since we have no reliable tools to tell us which elements of the stories might have some basis in history, we’re stuck with possibilities, not probabilities.
And as Carrier points out, every bit of detail you add from the gospels is problematic, because you then have to explain why Paul never mentions it. Paul’s, as well as Clement’s, silence acts as a constant drag on any particular claim of what Jesus “must have” said or done.
Besides having to deal with all the attendant problems of making the gospels cohere with Paul’s letters, we have similar issues with making them cohere with our background knowledge of how the Romans treated insurrections in subjugated lands. Ehrman is certain that Jesus was executed for allegedly calling himself the “King of the Jews.” Sanders thinks there was some sort of disturbance in the temple that got him arrested and killed. Many HJ scholars think the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is an authentic event, and that it was followed shortly thereafter by the temple disturbance, and so on.
But how does the evidence in the gospels compare with the well-documented background evidence of Roman imperial behavior? Recall that Rome had a long history of dealing with rebels and rivals. They meted out punishment quickly and with great ferocity. Consider the case of Theudas:
Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 1, Chapter 5, emphasis mine.)
Such swift and brutal steps were common Roman reactions, and we can expect Roman governors especially in Syria and Palestine to respond decisively and with a degree of force that we might at first consider excessive and disproportionate. Beginning with the principate, the Levant became a critical line of defense between the Parthians and Egypt, Rome’s Jewel in the Crown. Egypt, with its reliable agriculture had become Rome’s breadbasket. It kept the empire fed, and made the emperors rich.
No governor of Judea could permit even a hint of unrest or flirt with political instability. In fact, one reason we may imagine Pilate gained the reputation as a bad governor was his penchant for causing unrest, owing to his nature, which Philo described as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.” (See On the Embassy to Gaius.)
We should consider Fadus’s method for dealing with Theudas as typical. It fits with the overall Roman tendency toward swift and severe treatment of its enemies. It fits with the duties of the governor of a border province. And it also fits with the general Roman paranoia against insurrectionists and rivals who may have started small but eventually caused them years of anguish and thousands of deaths — e.g., Spartacus, Mithridates of Pontus, Queen Boudica, etc.
If we cling to Sanders’ and Ehrman’s claims of a Jesus who was somehow mistaken for a rebel and as a result was killed as if he were an insurgent (the supposed King of the Jews), then we must weigh the evidence in its favor against our background knowledge of the behaviors of governors in the late republic and the early principate as they faced similar situations.
- Jesus makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and nothing happens. Is this what we’d expect? Even if it were a small number with just a handful of people whispering “Hosanna!” should we presume that Pilate would do nothing?
- Jesus runs into the temple courtyard, turns over the tables of the money lenders, and stops all traffic from moving. And nothing happens. Is this what we’d expect? Even if this were a token event, just a small demonstration, should we presume that the authorities would do nothing?
- Pilate is reluctant to kill Jesus, and agrees to allow it only after being persuaded by the Jewish authorities and the mob. Somehow, only Jesus is killed. All of his followers are left unmolested, and eventually attract many converts in Jerusalem. Is any of this expected?
Of course not. On the contrary, we would expect that any Roman governor of Judea would react to the very hint of insurrection with immediate and extreme violence. Fadus dealt with Theudas even before his entourage could reach the Jordan.
- “What’s that? Some Galilean riding on a donkey is heading into the city as if he were a triumphant king of Israel? March out and kill them all.”
- “You tell me there’s a disturbance in the temple courtyard. Why are you bothering me with such trifles? Arrest them all, and we will deal with them after the feast.”
- “You people all say you were followers of that insurrectionist I recently put to death. Really? Well, you’re all going to follow him more closely than you ever dreamed. After your crucifixions, we will confiscate your property, and we will sell your children into slavery.”
But now see what happens under the rules of Carrier’s minimal historicity. As interesting as I think all of the foregoing matter is, it doesn’t affect the case for minimal historicity. It surely calls into question this particular narrative version or reconstruction of a historical Jesus, since it’s highly surprising and therefore unlikely. However, as Carrier would remind us, the minimal claim is merely that he was put to death. Perhaps it happened some other way.
Simply put, none of the specific reconstructed “bare facts” of the historical Jesus hold up well under honest scrutiny, but that does not in and of itself affect minimal historicity. If anything, the deck is stacked against the mythicist. Contrary to Baldwin’s complaint, Carrier has not taken away vital evidence that would bolster his case. He has simply set aside information about Jesus that has no bearing on the question at hand. Baldwin writes:
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).
No. He’s just not getting it. The arguments Baldwin is talking about have to do with the authenticity of a saying or deed of a historical figure whose existence is already assumed. Here’s a clue. If you start with the question, “Did Jesus really do X?” then you’re not discussing the historicity of a person, but rather with the historicity of an event. Continuing:
His conclusions also entail a prior rejection of widely shared assumptions about the best scholarly methods for reading these sources, i.e., how to extract reliable historical data from the conflicting narratives of the Gospels. Essentially, on Carrier’s account, every prior historian who has decided to rely on Christian sources for knowing about Jesus has been a dupe, a stooge or tool who has mistaken fiction for fact.
Let me state this plainly. Even if we didn’t have a growing number of NT scholars who have given up on the criteria of authenticity, including the well-respected Morna D. Hooker, they (the criteria) cannot establish basic historicity. Optimistic HJ scholars, some of whom may not be dupes, stooges, or tools, have asserted that the criteria can reveal authentic events or authentic sayings about a Jesus that they already assume exists. In truth the most they could ever have established is the likelihood that one account predates another. Pretending that oldest story or form of a story equates to finding real history or “bedrock facts” is historical claptrap.
How do we account for such confusion among academics who have devoted their lives to these subjects? Is it a blind spot or is there something deeper going on here?
I’m sure Dr. Carrier will eventually have something to say about Baldwin’s post, but I fear he will turn on the famous Carrier charm, which will only drive Dr. B. and his cohorts to dig in their heels. Then they’ll fall back on the “tone” argument, and we’ll be lost in the weeds again. So, before things get out of control, I just wanted to get some basic thoughts out there in the hopes that it will clear up some misconceptions in a non-frightening, non-mathematical way.
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