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