Gullotta on Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: One Final Irony (or Misunderstanding? or…?)

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by Neil Godfrey

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

I will make this the final post in my series examining Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. There is considerably more in the review that I could address. For instance, I originally intended to post detailed discussions of the nature of the publications Gullotta has cited as addressing the history and arguments of mythicism to demonstrate how these sources are often cited but apparently far less often actually read with the critical sense that scholars are usually trained to exercise, and certainly the works they are themselves discussing are read even less. But other interests beckon at the moment. I will, however, single out just one particular detail in Gullotta’s review that I think epitomizes one core irony.

In the concluding paragraphs of his article Gullotta appears to confuse the question of the historical existence of Jesus with the question of what sort of person he was like. Part of the irony in this confusion lies in Gullotta’s having cited near the beginning of his review an article by Samuel Byrskog, ‘The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?’, in Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 2181–2211, that clarifies that distinction. Byrskog writes in his opening statement:

Samuel Byrskog

The quest for the historical Jesus is not a quest for his existence as such, but for the more precise contours of his person and career. But how do we know that he in fact existed?

(Byrskog, p. 2183)

Yet Gullotta appears to confuse the two different questions at the end of his essay when he complains that Carrier has criticized the methods of historical Jesus scholars that those scholars themselves have been critical of, as we discussed in the previous post. Gullotta directs readers to the “new” world of historical Jesus scholarship in which “new methods” are accordingly applied:

In the post-Jesus Seminar world of historical Jesus studies, newer scholarship is far less invested in determining whether Jesus did or did not say any particular saying or perform any deed attributed to him. Many now argue that historians can only construct ‘the gist’ of what the historical Jesus may have said and done, and this is to ‘heed before all else the general impressions that our primary sources provide’. The confidence that historians once displayed within historical Jesus studies has been eroded due to previous excesses and flaws in older methodologies. New scholarship has been advocating for quite some time that the ‘historical Jesus … is ultimately unattainable, but can be hypothesized on the basis of the interpretations of the early Christians, and as part of a larger process of accounting for how and why early Christians came to view Jesus in the ways that they did’. In other words, Carrier’s imagined historical Jesus of the academy has ceased to exist, as contemporary scholarship has advanced beyond such idealistic pursuits.

(Gullotta, pp. 345f.)

Here Gullotta appears to be unaware that he has fallen into the wrong side of the question that Byrskog (whom Gullotta cited earlier) points out: investigating what Jesus was like, what he did and what he said is not the same thing as asking the more fundamental question, did he exist?

But Gullotta has fallen into an even more serious error when he writes that the Jesus whose existence Carrier is questioning “has ceased to exist” in the minds of the biblical scholars. Gullotta has forgotten that Carrier began his argument by raising the problems of many interpretations of the historical Jesus and making it clear that he would discuss the bare “minimal Jesus” that any and all historical Jesus figures, or even just “the gists” of them, had to meet:

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).

(Carrier, OHJ, p. 34)

That is Carrier’s Jesus, those “minimal data”. Gullotta is plainly wrong therefore to assert that

Carrier’s imagined historical Jesus of the academy has ceased to exist, as contemporary scholarship has advanced beyond such idealistic pursuits.

(I know in more recent years a number of scholars have claimed that earlier generations were seeking an unattainable absolute or ideal reconstruction of Jesus, as Gullotta says here, but I think those criticisms are actually ill-founded when we return to investigate what those earlier scholars actually said about the limitations of their pursuits and hopes. But that’s another question for another day.)

But we must return to Byrskog again seeing that he was cited by Gullotta as one modern scholar who has addressed the Jesus Myth arguments. How, according to Byrskog, do scholars know Jesus existed? Here is Byrskog’s answer:

No matter what hypothesis we prefer concerning the inter-dependence of the gospels and the gospel tradition, we do have enough data at hand to firmly claim that Jesus in fact existed. In order to put this assertion on firmer footing, historians evaluate the gospels and the traditions according to certain criteria.

(Byrskog, p. 2206)

To do justice to Byrskog’s article I need to write much more but for now I am singling out core aspects of his discussion. Byrskog goes on to explain why most scholars agree that the parables are authentic to Jesus and why most believe Jesus cleansed the temple — and the reasons are that they use the traditional criteria, even the same criteria used by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar and more generally. To support this claim he cites scholarly books by Robert Funk, Edward P. Sanders and Craig A. Evans — all users of the traditional criteria of authenticity that Carrier and other biblical scholars all acknowledge are problematic.

In the same article Byrskog discusses further reason to believe in the historicity of Jesus by appealing to the criterion of multiple independent attestation: i.e. the extent to which Paul and the various gospels represent independent traditions.

Byrskog himself even points out some of the problematic nature of those criteria:

The criterion that a piece of information about Jesus has a claim to authenticity if it is dissimilar to the tendencies of early Christianity is in evident tension with the common idea that groups preserve only what is relevant to the present needs of the community.

(Byrskog, p. 2209)

And he concludes with a reminder that these criteria are applied inconsistently across the field, and that a considerable element in the conviction that Jesus was a historical figure consists of the belief that the gospel narratives are based on earlier oral tradition. Byrskog does not address the those studies that point to alternative sources for those narratives, the tangible and very probable sources in Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish and non-Jewish writings. Oral tradition is assumed. (This question has been addressed many times on Vridar.) In other words, despite Byrskog’s best efforts, the purported evidence for the historical existence of a Jesus figure who became the centre of the new religion is ultimately circular. Jesus is believed to have existed because the sources say he existed; we know the sources can be trusted in this respect because, well, how else can we explain their claims? An alternative explanation seems to still be waiting for a serious hearing.


I have selected elements of Byrskog’s chapter that address directly the key point I was wanting to make but in the process I suspect that Samuel Byrskog would object that I have oversimplified his larger argument in the process. I intend to make up for this failing by discussing Byrskog’s entire chapter in a future post.


Byrskog, Samuel. 2010. “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” In Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Volume 3: The Historical Jesus. Part Two, Fundamentally About Jesus. Vol. 3. Brill.

Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” <em>Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus</em> 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.


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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Gullotta on Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: One Final Irony (or Misunderstanding? or…?)”

    1. And if he had, surely other sources, such as Josephus (he who so thoroughly documents disturbances in Judea) would have mentioned this incident, even if not Jesus’s role in the disturbance.

  1. “Historicity of Jesus”. Wikipedia. 19 August 2018 :

    The historicity of Jesus concerns the degree to which sources show Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. It concerns the issue of “what really happened”, based upon the context of the time and place, and also the issue of how modern observers can come to know “what really happened”. A second issue is closely tied to historical research practices and methodologies for analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other historical evidence.

    1. db, can I ask that when you post quotations that you also add comment explaining the point you are seeking to make? Often I am left wondering what the point of your quotation is and how it specifically addresses any of the arguments made in the post. Thanks.

      1. • OK, will do.

        In this case, I find the Wikipedia article name and definition to be representative of of the mainstream viewpoint, which needs updating e.g.

        The “Theory of the Historicity of Jesus” is derived from the historical research practices and methodologies for analyzing the reliability of primary sources and other historical evidence used in support of the conclusion that Jesus [fill in the blank: was as a teacher who had disciples and was crucified under the Roman administrator Pontius Pilate].

        1. You are welcome to update the Wikipedia article, but I’m afraid I don’t see how your point relates to my discussion about Gullotta’s review.

          1. The point I am trying to make is that Byrskog holds the mainstream viewpoint of the Historicity of Jesus as exemplified in the noted Wikipedia article . He does not consider it a “Theory”.

            Byrskog asserts thats Paul’s letters are reliable primary sources attesting the Historicity of Jesus. Thus there is nothing more to be said unless he wants to make a claim beyond: “Jesus existed”.

            Cf. Neil Godfrey (1 January 2017). “Biblical Scholar Watch #1“. Vridar:

            Byrskog points out that Paul’s letters provide “the earliest extant documentation of”

            • Jesus’ death

            • Death by crucifixion

            • Jesus being a Jew

            • Jesus being of Davidic descent

            • Jesus having brothers, one of whom was James

            • The character of Jesus

            1. I have conveyed the wrong impression about Byrskog’s argument if one concludes from what I wrote that Paul’s words are reliable to the extent that nothing more needs to be said concerning the historicity of Jesus. Yes, he points out that Paul provides the earliest extant documentation for certain things about Jesus, but he does not say that that is the end of the matter. He raises the possibility that Paul may have been misinformed in some way, (I am speaking from memory), and the gospels provide further corroborating evidence, and so forth. Actually I have been preparing an entire post on Byrskog’s chapter that I hope will be ready in a day or two.

              The idea that Jesus was historical is more than a theory in the minds of most people, historical Jesus scholars included, of course. Much work needs to be done before most people will accept that it is a theory (according to the common understanding of the term ‘theory’).

              1. • It might be interesting to compare Byrskog with Grabbe.

                Grabbe, L. (2012). ‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside Christian Sources. In T. Thompson & T. Verenna (Eds.), Is This Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (pp. 57-70).

                In a short article such as this, it is not possible to give an extensive survey of past studies. Instead, my purpose is to examine the original sources that refer (or might refer) to Jesus and consider what they tell us about the presumed founder of Christianity, taking account of some of the recent secondary literature.

  2. So we know Jesus did not cleanse the Temple. How do we know that. Do you have historical sources contrary to the New Testament, which could be considered by many scholar to be “sources” for Jesus’ words and sayings,if he did exist? And it is still open to question? Right?

    I am probably on the same page with you regarding many things. I find it hard to believe too that Jesus could pull off such a historical stunt as that with all its flare. I personally believe as a student and scholar of scripture that this is somehow an issue of prophetic cleansing of the Temple in former OT prophets prior to John B or Jesus coming onto the scene. I would like to hear from you the best textual and reasonable arguments for why this even it not true historically.

    Just so you don’t dump me too quickly,, keep in mind I now a skeptic and agnostic /atheist biblical scholar going through quite a de-conversion that is quite gut and mind wrenching!

    If you give me cute answers I will know right away that you are simply an atheistic apologist for some things you are highly ignorant about. I know you are a regular here and I have benefited from your observations.

    On the path with you…
    I hope..

    Marty Lewadny

  3. Sorry dear bloggers

    I made some spelling and grammatical mistakes when responding to John MacDonald. I hope you got the core comments and spirit of what I am asking. I am simply looking for good reasons to dismiss claims of any ancient document that purports to claim historicity….we are so removed from these alien texts and characters and events! What criteria should we use? Neil has posted much about this but we should employ those things he thought would be of interest, help, and discernment.


    MGL ==Marty Lewadny

    1. Ah, so you were addressing John, I now see.

      But while I am here let me comment on your point about dismissing claims of any ancient document that purports to claim historicity:

      1. Where do the Gospels of Mark and Matthew claim historicity? They don’t. Luke’s prologue appears to do so, but see other posts on the wide range of scholarship on that.

      2. Classicists and historians of ancient times regularly deal with documents that claim historicity that they have good reasons for knowing a lies and falsehoods. The same features that identify classical “histories” as false are found throughout the gospels. That does not mean we automatically dismiss the gospels for history, but it does mean we hold them in a neutral position until we find a reason to declare them historical or non-historical. Assuming either before following the normal procedures classicists and ancient historians follow is not a valid way of working.

  4. Yes, Neil.. Indeed!

    I am glad you picked up on my intent and concern. I am on the same page with you regarding that no explicit claims are made in Mk and Mt. writing history. As for Luke I think he is trying to come across as a historian and messes up quite badly on many counts, and also he is writing heilsgeschicte! not history per se.

    I guess my spirit and intent in that response was trying to say that we must be careful about dismissing things too quickly. I am concerned to keep the bar for careful critical thought as “high” as possible. The more I get into the historicity of Jesus stuff the more I am coming to agree with the thoughtful scholar Tom Dykstra..

    I would encourage the bloggers to read a wonderful paper done by him in the journal called Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies Vol. 8 NO 1 – 2015. The article is called “Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale About the State of Biblical Scholarship. ”

    A fantastic article for all to read. In that paper Dykstra, who has concentrated his own studies re: Paul’s influence on the gospels, has written a crucial piece in these studies dealing with Paul as the basis for the Jesus stories (in Mark especially). In discussing Brodie (a mythicist), Dyktra writes: ”’we’ve wasted enough time on a futile quest trying to separate a historical Jesus from the literary Jesus.”

    BTW I want to draw attention as well to a scholar by the name of Dr. Paul
    Tarazi (a former professor of Dykstra? from what I can determine and this professor is a really interesting scholar) who thinks that “Paul” is behind all of the NT!!! And he is a “Christian” scholar who is now being called a dangerous
    heretic!!! So fun and fascinating!

    Anyway,,take care everyone. Thanks Neil for such a platform.

    Neil, I hope to send a few other papers to you. I just have to find them on my messy desktop!!.

    1. You will be pleased to see that I posted on the Tom Dykstra article that you recommend in 2015. See Tom Dykstra on Mythicism: Erhman, Brodie and Scholarly Conduct. (Tom also said something nice about Vridar, by the way — check the list of quotes at the top of the right hand column of this blog.)

      And yes, I was interested enough in Tarazi’s views to collect three of his books:

      Tarazi, Paul Nadim. 1999. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 1, Paul and Mark. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
      ———. 2001. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 2, Luke and Acts. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
      ———. 2004. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 3, Johannine Writings. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

      When I started to read them, though, my immediate reaction was disappointment. My first impression was that they were very light-weight. But maybe I did not give them a fair go and had other interests pressuring me. I’ll have to have a closer look at them.

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