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

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by Tim Widowfield

U-2 over California
U-2 over California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Triumphal entry of Jesus
Triumphal entry of Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and six cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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  • David
    2015-05-02 12:34:35 GMT+0000 - 12:34 | Permalink

    Why do people not understand numbers? It is like a foreign language.

  • Lowen Gartner
    2015-05-02 18:29:33 GMT+0000 - 18:29 | Permalink

    It’s been said many a time. Apologists don’t write to an audience of critical thinkers. They write to an audience of non-critical thinkers to assure them that the thinking has been done for them. The writing only needs to exude the impression of critical thought, not stand up to it.

  • Kris Rhodes
    2015-05-02 20:11:57 GMT+0000 - 20:11 | Permalink

    The more statements you add to a hypothesis, the less probable it becomes.

    Therefore, a hypothesis with fewer statements is, ceteris paribus, easier to defend (and so–harder to attack).

    But it is very common for people to get this wrong, and to go with a gut feeling that, given a choice between a more complex hypothesis and a simpler one, the more complicated one should be more probable and harder to attack. Strength in numbers, or something.

    I have not been sure whether Matt Baldwin is committing this error in his post or not. Matt, if you’re reading this, having seen what I just wrote laid out briefly and starkly, do you see what I mean when I say that hypotheses with _more_ statements are _less_ probable and so _easier_ to attack? Do you agree with that? If not, why not? And if so, does this seem applicable to what you’re saying in your blog post on OHJ? Did you commit this error in that post, or are you being misunderstood? If so, how?


    • Kris Rhodes
      2015-05-02 20:14:44 GMT+0000 - 20:14 | Permalink

      There’s even a name for this fallacy: The Conjunction Fallacy. Here’s a nice wikipedia article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjunction_fallacy

      From the article:

      The most often-cited example of this fallacy originated with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

      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?

      1. Linda is a bank teller.
      2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

      The majority of those asked chose option 2. [But the correct answer is option 1.]

      • Greg Pandatshang
        2015-05-04 14:21:39 GMT+0000 - 14:21 | Permalink

        btw, I think this falls in the category of things that are certainly fallacies under a certain definition of rigour, but are really just caused by listeners attempting to apply Gricean maxims, i.e. make some kind of conversational sense of what the researcher is telling them.

        • Kris Rhodes
          2015-05-04 17:16:34 GMT+0000 - 17:16 | Permalink

          I totally agree!

      • HoosierPoli
        2015-05-05 15:28:50 GMT+0000 - 15:28 | Permalink

        Thanks for posting this example. I wanted to raise it in the last thread but the details escaped me. The problem is that people read #1 as though it excludes being an activist, when in fact it includes activist AND ~activist.

  • Paul
    2015-05-06 02:04:11 GMT+0000 - 02:04 | Permalink

    I tend agree with you when you say that, “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.”

    However, I disagree with your assessment of the evidence in your primary test case. You write that, “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. … 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.”

    There is no question that the behavior of Pilate in John 19 seems strange and even bizarre. It seems so contrary to expectations, given other examples of Roman reactions to insurrection, such as the response of Fadus, and the other descriptions that we have of Pilate from Luke 13:1, the works of Philo, and elsewhere. There is no question that the behavior of Pilate in John 19 cries out for an explanation.

    However, I think that there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior of Pilate.

    I would like to recommend two articles. They are:
    • “Sejanus.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 5 May 2015. .
    • Maier, Paul L. “Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion.” Church History 37.1 (March 1968): 3-13.

    This is a very brief summary of some of the main points from these two articles:
    • Pilate was nominated or appointed to the position that he held by Lucius Aelius Seianus, who was commonly known as Sejanus.
    • Sejanus acted in ways that seemed to indicate that he had intentions to usurp the powers and/or position of Caesar Tiberius. At the very least, Caesar Tiberius seems to have concluded that he had such intentions.
    • Caesar Tiberius had Sejanus denounced, executed, and publicly disgraced on October 18, AD 31.
    • According to the Wikipedia article, “Tiberius [subsequently] persecuted all those, who could in any way be tied to the schemes of Sejanus or had courted his friendship.”
    • According to the writings of Philo, Caesar Tiberius also issued an edict to the various governors after the death of Sejanus that told them to treat the Jewish people with a high level of respect.

    If the trial of Jesus before Pilate was an actual historical event that took place after the death of Sejanus (i.e. after October 18, AD 31), then the behavior of Pilate as depicted in John 19 makes quite a bit of sense.

    Here’s how Paul L. Maier puts it in his article:
    “At a time when Tiberius was prosecuting adherents of Sejanus precisely under the rubric of maiestas – treason to state and emperor – the prosecution’s threat in John 19:12 was masterfully barbed and weighted. Add to this Tiberius’ direct order to his governors, cited by Philo, warning them to uphold Jewish customs and institutions. Furthermore, the threat was accurate even to the detail of what fate might be in store for Pilate if an appeal to Tiberius became necessary: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. . . .” He would be excluded from the inner elite governing circle of amici Caesaris, whose membership was reserved for senators and those equestrians, high in government service, who were specifically called to this status. Loss of the rank amicus Caesaris led to political and social ostracism, even suicide. Answering the immediate, compelling call of natural self-interest, Pontius Pilate, in his present, vulnerable position, had little choice but to capitulate. A threatened appeal which would have been meaningless on April 7, 30 A.D. was terribly formidable on April 3, 33.”

    I think it’s important ask whether we can, “better explain the material we find in the gospels under minimal mythicism or under minimal historicism?”

    I don’t think that it’s true, though, that, “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.”

    I think that, in the case of the last supper and crucifixion, it is reasonable to connect internal clues with external evidence and conclude that it is likely that these events did occur.

    I think that the best case for minimal 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:

    On pages 423-25 of OHJ, Carrier gives the Markan Passion Narrative a good thrashing. Towards the end of the main text on page 425, he writes, “So as history, Mark’s narrative makes zero sense.” In footnote #75 (on the same page), he writes, “That John felt free to change the date (and thus the year), again for symbolic reasons, only goes to prove further how irrelevant historical facts were to constructing the Gospel narratives.”

    However, if Humphreys’ theory is correct, then the most important objections that Carrier lodges on page 425 of OHJ are undercut.

    I think that it is reasonable to take the side of minimal historicism.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-05-06 06:09:23 GMT+0000 - 06:09 | Permalink

      Interesting points. I will consider it. My first inclination would be to say that the order to “treat the Jewish people with a high level of respect” would not necessarily include (1) a suspected insurrectionist who was (2) poor, dirty peasant, from (3) Galilee (outside Judea). Protecting the empire and keeping the peace must come first.

      But I will read what you provided. Sejanus is one of my favorite characters from I, Claudius.

  • Paul
    2015-05-06 02:06:28 GMT+0000 - 02:06 | Permalink

    The Wikipedia article about Sejanus can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejanus.

  • James Barlow
    2018-12-27 12:18:51 GMT+0000 - 12:18 | Permalink


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