Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)

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by Neil Godfrey

Until now I have been working from a digital version of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, that was supplied to me by Brill for these review posts.  I have since been forwarded by Brill a physical copy of the book after I informed them that it might make exploring it for discussion a little easier. It does make a nice change to leaf through fresh clean book-odour pages and marking them with a light pencil. I am also reminded of the retail price with a physical copy of this volume: Brill advertises both the e-book and hardback at $US210. The Australian Amazon site equates that to $A294.97 + $15 postage. Australia’s Dymocks bookstore advertizes it at $A587.99 Those sorts of prices tell us that Brill clearly is looking at libraries (in particular academic libraries) as its primary market. (The publisher balances costs of publication against expected sales and such prices are not uncommon for scholarly books; so don’t assume the prices are a gold mine for the authors.) At this point it is appropriate to recall the emerging number of scholars (discussed in the opening post in this series) who are prepared to consider the Christ Myth theory as a reasonable hypothesis that deserves serious discussion if not outright acceptance.

So far we have surveyed Lataster’s Part 1, his analysis of the case for Jesus having been a historical figure (the first three chapters) and Part 2, the justification for being agnostic about the question of historicity (the next three chapters). We now come to the third and final part of the book, “The Case for Mythicism”.

Here Lataster hews closely to Richard Carrier’s exhaustive (ca. 600 pages) case for mythicism in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. His case therefore entails a justification of Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question. (See part 4 of this series for an earlier discussion by Lataster in which he addressed some common misconceptions about this application of Bayes’ theorem.) I think Lataster has made a worthy contribution by abbreviating and simplifying Carrier’s arguments and overall thesis. The main reason I think so is the quite disjointed and misleading criticisms I have seen online (including in the scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) of Carrier’s book. Too often criticisms have targeted specific discussions in On the Historicity of Jesus without giving readers any indication of the context and weight put on those points by Carrier himself. So Carrier lists forty-eight pieces (or “elements”) of background information that need to be considered against any detailed arguments for or against historicity, with each of them having different degrees of significance, and none being of itself decisive, yet some critics will take just one or two of these points of background discussion and give readers the impression that they are foundations of his entire argument, and so convey the notion that criticizing just those is enough to demolish the case for mythicism. To read Lataster’s discussion of Carrier’s book is to refresh one’s memory of exactly both the method and details of Carrier’s presentation — something several critics apparently failed to grasp.

I don’t have any problem with the use of a simplified Bayesian analysis of the evidence in search of the probability for the historicity of Jesus. As far as I am concerned the numbers are nothing more than code representing the sound logical processes one follows in assessing the likely answer to a question on the basis of a range of data. My own approach is simpler still: I think that if New Testament or biblical scholars generally applied the same methods used by classicists and historians of ancient times to historical sources then agnosticism towards the question of Jesus’ existence is inevitable. I have discussed historical methods often enough on this blog but at this point let me point just to one post addressing the remarks of one of the more formidable historians of ancient times, Moses I. Finley, when he spoke of a notable biblical historian of his day: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally. (See also Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History” and Ouch! A “professional historian” has something to say about the methods of “biblical scholars”.) What Carrier’s approach adds to the discussion, however, is a detailed analysis of each potentially relevant piece of data. Hence the approximately 600 pages of discussion, or as Lataster points out of merely the first part of Carrier’s case,

And so concludes Carrier’s very lengthy and sometimes tedious discussion of the background knowlege.120

120. Almost 200 pages. This just indicates the amount of work Carrier has done. His earlier book, Proving History, outlined his method and serves as this book’s prelude, while his two chapters on background knowledge contain as much as many whole academic monographs. I cannot resist the temptation to contrast this herculean effort tih Ehrman’s “obviously did exist” remark concerning his imaginary sources, and Casey’s hasty and unintentionally humorous claim that Luke was an “outstanding historian”. The difference in attitudes towards evidentiary justification is quite telling.

(Lataster, pp. 383 f)

Lataster accepts Carrier’s minimal definitions of a Jesus who had a historical existence

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).

and of a Jesus who originated in myth.

1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.
2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).
3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

One might possibly slightly tweak the former definition given that at least one notable scholar (Charles Guignebert) has argued that the historical Jesus was not named Jesus (compare also a classicist’s insight into the significance of the name Jesus). As for the second definition, a significant piece of evidence on which it rests (with Carrier’s discussion addressed in some detail by Lataster) is the Ascension of Isaiah. While focussing on Carrier’s argument (which in turn was based largely on Earl Doherty’s analysis) Lataster acknowledges that there may be enough uncertainty about the text to allow for it indicating that Jesus having been crucified in the realm of Hades below the earth (pointing to Peter Kirby’s online article). I myself can’t completely push aside the idea that the logic of the text may allow for a momentary descent to Jerusalem for the crucifixion. (A later “gnostic” text known as the Second Apocalypse of James does explicitly state that Jerusalem is a major habitation of demons.) Either way, the text cannot be simply ignored, even if only to open up a clearer view of the possibilities it points to and to realize that dogmatism on any one view is unwise.

Lataster presents an easy to read overview of Carrier’s forty-eight pieces of background knowledge that he also rightly points out alone make the case for Jesus being a mythical creation at least sound very plausible, some of which appear not to be well appreciated or even known by some scholars who write about Christian origins. Some of the points Lataster says are “uncontroversial”, such as there being “numerous Jewish messianic cults in first-century Palestine” with “many first-century Jews expecting a messiah”. I single out that one because there are scholars who do question the popular view of the first-century landscape and even though Lataster notes that Carrier cites many references to support this viewpoint I do think there is serious room to question the inferences drawn from those sources. (A recent study by a specialist in Josephan studies even denies the common view that the Jewish war of 66-70 CE was partly instigated by Jewish messianic hopes. See Is Josephus Evidence that a Messianic Movement caused the Jewish War? — also Debunking Myths.) There are a couple of others in that list of forty-eight that I also question but that still leaves a rich backdrop of forty plus. Some of the points Lataster slightly refines, removing Carrier’s occasionally overly strong statements where nuance is justified (e.g. Carrier’s unnecessarily strong “Christianity began as a charismatic cult in which many of its leaders and members displayed evidence of schizotypal personalities.”) Lataster points out the thoroughness of Carrier’s presentation of all of this background material with its numerous supporting references to the wider literature. He further defends Carrier from some of the less well informed (both misunderstood and misrepresented) criticisms that have appeared online. One scholar, for instance, objected that Jesus was not a king and therefore it was fallacious to claim that Jesus fit a typical mythical story whose central character was a king:

This is a simple misunderstanding, as we are here concerned not with hypothetical sources and the so-called Historical Jesus, of whom we know nothing, and are trying to discover, but with the Gospels, where Jesus is unambiguously portrayed as a king.

(Lataster, p. 382)

Further on this particular point, Lataster directly exposes quite a number of misunderstandings and misreadings of Carrier’s reason for using the Rank-Raglan mythical hero type as a frame for the Jesus we read of in the gospels. Part of Lataster’s demonstration is to point out that there is no denying that the stories we have of some historical persons can also be classified with the Rank-Raglan hero type. The hero type does not begin with the assumption that Jesus was mythical, but only with the obvious note that most, not all, stories fitting such types are of non-historical figures. From that beginning one then goes through a reiterative process of reassessing what we can learn from the evidence as we consider each datum in turn. Lataster is right to also point out that Carrier argues throughout a fortiori, giving more favourable odds whenever possible to the historicist case. Bart Ehman is quoted stating a point that opens the door to the mythicist case:

The fact that Jesus was cast in the mold of pagan divine men does indeed create a difficult situation for historians who want to get beyond the idiom of the stories to the historical reality that lies behind them.135

135 Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? pp. 215-216

Lataster’s concluding point in this chapter is a poignant footnote:

As another indication of the sheer scope of Carrier’s work, before he has even begun to analyse the direct and most relevant evidence, and considering the content of the earlier Proving History, which focussed on explaining his method, his page count thus far has already greatly overtaken that of Ehrman’s and Casey’s recent books on the topic. This is what rigorous academic research looks like. And recall that Ehrman and Casey spent much time on dispelling ‘mythicist myths’ and attacking the character and credentials of various mythicists, typically the most amateurish, rather than actually arguing for Jesus’ historicity. Unlike Carrier and myself, Ehrman and Casey could just not find the time to delve into the rich contextual evidence that makes certain mythicist theories seem very plausible indeed; perhaps understandable given all their navel-gazing about non-existing sources.

(Lataster, p. 388)

As I mentioned above, I do not think a Bayesian approach is explicitly necessary to conclude that reasonable doubts about the historicity of Jesus are justified. Lataster is, however, presenting a case for mythicism in this section of the book and Carrier has published one of the major arguments that systematically sets out a detailed analysis of each of the factors related to that question. Carrier acknowledges his debt to the works of Doherty and at times I think he over-reaches with some of his additional points. But he does argue a fortiori and presents such a breadth of factors for consideration that knocking down even a handful of them still leaves the question wide open. Lataster’s discussion serves as both a corrective to criticisms that have failed to present Carrier’s overall method of assessment of the evidence and an introduction to anyone who has not yet taken up Carrier’s study.

Continuing . . .

Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill. https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738.


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Neil Godfrey

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  • Peter Grullemans
    2019-10-25 11:31:09 GMT+0000 - 11:31 | Permalink

    Thank you very much Neil for this considered review. We all benefit. I am encouraged and intrigued at the growth of scholarly interest in Jesus mythicism and hope Australia comes along to interact more, and thank Raphael and Neil again for assisting in this interest. I would like also to pay tribute to Cliff Carrington for his great work in mythicism research and publication in Australia.

    • db
      2019-10-25 17:06:24 GMT+0000 - 17:06 | Permalink

      Some scholarship that is needed:
      • An English translation of Norelli (1995)
      Per Litwa (2019): “The editor of the most recent critical edition of the Ascension of Isaiah, Enrico Norelli, convincingly argues that 11:2–22 was part of the original (Greek) text. [Enrico Norelli, ed., Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius, Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum 8 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1995}, 535–38.] Carrier did not address any of Norelli’s arguments.”

      • MrHorse
        2019-10-26 02:18:52 GMT+0000 - 02:18 | Permalink
      • MrHorse
        2019-10-26 02:56:36 GMT+0000 - 02:56 | Permalink

        Litwa admits in the next paragraph that “In the Ascension of Isaiah, Jesus descends from a multi-tiered heaven in angelic form to destroy the angels of death. He finally takes on a human form and descends “into the world … On earth, then, the angles crucify Christ”.

      • James Barlow
        2019-10-27 10:28:27 GMT+0000 - 10:28 | Permalink

        DB I’ve submitted a large commentary with notes on the Vision (vi-xi) to Earl for Vridar publication and expect it will pop up soon. Watch for it

      • James Barlow
        2019-10-27 11:05:34 GMT+0000 - 11:05 | Permalink

        The arg that xi 2-22 is original really isn’t sustainable. Norelli I suspect is instinctively searching for better historical legitimization of a Marian urgospel

  • db
    2019-10-25 21:40:24 GMT+0000 - 21:40 | Permalink

    OP link to: “Peter Kirby’s online article”

    No Middle Platonism in Paul

    I haven’t found it anywhere in Paul’s letters.

    Hebrews and Revelation are a different subject. Paul’s letters may represent a different viewpoint, even if Hebrews or Revelation evinced any kind of Platonic or Middle Platonic interpretation.

    • Really? Paul clearly is worshiping a first-god and a second-god (i.e. Paul’s celestial Jesus, his Christ lord). There is no conception of the later Christian “Trinitarianism” to be found in Paul.

    • Does Kirby see no relationship between the celestial second-god worship/revered by Philo and the the celestial second-god worshiped by Paul?

    • Is Doherty’s claim false: that Philo’s “thought-world resided within the Hebrew scriptures, but he brought some very non-Jewish principles to their interpretation, principles which permeated the air of the time. There is scarcely a stronger Middle Platonist in this era than Philo, who in his own mind was thoroughly a Jew.”

    • James Barlow
      2019-10-27 10:30:38 GMT+0000 - 10:30 | Permalink

      That’s like trying to find references to Einstein’s theory of relativity in the sermons of Billy Graham lol

  • James Barlow
    2019-10-27 10:25:32 GMT+0000 - 10:25 | Permalink

    “I don’t have any problem with the use of a simplified Bayesian analysis of the evidence in search of the probability for the historicity of Jesus. As far as I am concerned the numbers are nothing more than code representing the sound logical processes one follows in assessing the likely answer to a question on the basis of a range of data.” …
    But such an emblematic function meant to displace the quantitative mode of thought at the methods origination requires pseudo logical imagining inimical to the meaning of the whole attempt, no?

    ….My own approach is simpler still: I think that if New Testament or biblical scholars generally applied the same methods used by classicists and historians of ancient times to historical sources then agnosticism towards the question of Jesus’ existence is inevitable.”

    EXACTLY! And exactly why—apart from being an interesting academic exercise reminiscent of doing problems in geometry tepetitively—the whole seriousness accorded the Bayes Ian thing is obfuscatory—-unless you want to believe you can get the real, aforementioned scholars of ancient history to confess reliance upon it

  • James Barlow
    2019-10-27 10:58:18 GMT+0000 - 10:58 | Permalink

    Contra Lastater I compute the Bayesian probability that degree of cogent argumentation is dependent on ‘page counting’ because a scholarly work equally suitable as a doorstop ‘looks like’ the real deal to be about 22% with a substantial margin of error.
    Thirty years ago I waded through a hefty paperweight of some thousand pages put out by Zondervan, a reprint of the hyperthorough “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” by Alfred Edersheim, which left a reader with the impression Christ was born the day before yesterday in Grand Rapids, Michigan lol!

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