Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)

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by Neil Godfrey

The third part of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus is where he presents his case for mythicism, and since his case is essentially a review of Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus, this post is a review of a review.

Lataster has is differences from Carrier and several times points to areas where he wished Carrier had approached a point differently and so forth, but in the end he concedes that all of his criticisms make no real difference to the core of Carrier’s argument:

It is surely an endorsement for Carrier’s book, that my most significant criticisms reveal an intent to raise mostly petty objections, which pose no problems whatever to his case.

(Lataster, p. 392)

Another use for Bayes – Q

One such disappointment Lataster expresses is Carrier’s failure to elaborate on the tendency of many historical Jesus scholars to rely upon “imaginary sources” such as Q. In turn, however, I would like to comment on what I think is to some extent an over-reach by Lataster with respect to “imaginary sources” at least with respect to the Q source — the hypothetical source of Jesus sayings that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have shared. Quite some years ago now I was preparing to dismiss the notion of Q and look more favourably on arguments that the author of the third gospel instead knew and adapted sayings (and other) material from the first gospel, but in personal correspondence Earl Doherty convinced me that I had not investigated the arguments for the Q hypothesis diligently enough to justify setting it aside so easily. Doherty challenged me with detailed arguments I had not thought through carefully before and I soon saw that I needed to study the detailed works of John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack and others to know what it was I was “against”. It is a little unfair to dismiss Q as an “imaginary” source because it is in fact a serious hypothesis subject to various tests. What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable.

But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.

An important reminder – a fortiori

Lataster rightly emphasizes throughout his discussion of Carrier’s treatment of the various sources for Jesus that Carrier argues a fortiori, always preferencing the odds in favour of historicity wherever possible. Lataster further stresses that Carrier even counts the evidence of the Pauline epistles, the references to James the brother of the Lord, as favouring the hypothesis of historicity. Examples — of which critics of Carrier’s book should note, and which should lead readers of certain critical reviews of Carrier’s arguments to pause and reconsider the intellectual honesty of some of what they have read:

So again, though he thinks Paul’s failure to distinguish biological from fictive brothers of Jesus is evidence against historicity, he nevertheless still counts it as evidence for historicity, and thus against mythicism. . . . .

Despite thinking that the evidence from the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles is at least 16 times more likely on minimal mythicism, Carrier very charitably decides that the consequent probabilities should here favor historicity instead, effectively claiming that the Historical Jesus is 3 times more likely.209

209 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 594–595.

(Lataster, pp. 426, 427)

On avoiding unhelpful responses

Back to “mostly petty objections”, I do find somewhat jarring certain terms like “mentally disabled” and “lying” (fortunately appearing only occasionally) when speaking of recipients and authors of visionary experiences. I would prefer consistent use of language that opened up the mental horizons of the ancients to moderns rather than introducing modern analyses that cloud a modern reader’s grasp of the historical culture. Another term, one taken over from Carrier, is the expression “cosmic sperm bank” in discussing the ancient beliefs in how God might preserve a Davidic line across and beyond human generations. Such anachronisms invite ridicule. Lataster even refers to the Zoroastrian belief that a certain lake contained the sperm of Zoroaster so that a virgin bathing in it would be impregnated and bear a messianic figure. The scholar of Second Temple Judaism owes it to readers to explain the thought-world of the ancients and avoid misleading anachronisms. Lataster attempts to smooth over the conceptual difficulties with

The only thing here that I disagree with Carrier about is how others would perceive this ‘rather different’ idea. Unlike him, I think many critics will baulk at this. To those, I respectfully point them to the Bible, to the non-canonical scriptures, and to the sacred texts of the older religions that likely influenced Jews and Christians. There are a multitude of absurd things that Jews and Christians believe/d.

(Lataster, p. 422)

I would point out in turn that readers today would have more respect for explanations that cohere with the thought-world of the time and that shun obvious anachronisms.

(Another term I found problematic was “euhemerization” being used to describe the process “historicizing” god-beings, divine figures who in later times took on the appearance of humans to experience worldly adventures. Given the amount of criticism Carrier has received for what appears to be a reversal of the original meaning of the term I would have expected some discussion, explanation or “apology”, for the term and not merely a repeat of the way Carrier uses it. Lataster also at one point unfortunately speaks of “Turks” as one of the peoples, along with Greeks and Romans, whom Paul wrote to (p. 412). One knows he uses the term for the people who today live in what was once the region of Galatia to whom Paul wrote, and it is surprising such a one-off gaffe was not picked up by the editors.)

Sound overviews and necessary cavils

In this chapter we read in briefer form some of the material covered earlier in the book, but with a focus on how the evidence weighs in favour of mythicism per se. Reminding us of Erhman’s and Carrier’s dismissal of sources from Josephus and Tacitus, Lataster recapitulates how a close reading of such sources (including 1 Clement, Ignatius, Hegesippus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, . . .) fail to swing the probability in favour of historicity.

An interesting and worthwhile reminder Lataster brings out in his discussion is a comparison of Paul’s emphatic claim that he does not rely on human tradition with a letter supposedly by Peter emphatically reminding readers of the central importance of human tradition. I especially enjoyed his reminder of how strongly so many of the non-Pauline epistles in the New Testament are entirely consistent with the Christ Myth theory and contain many unexpected references on the assumption of historicity.

What Lataster helpfully focusses on is Carrier’s method of argument: the foremost question at all times is “how expected/unexpected” a passage is on the assumption of either historicity or mythicism. As the references that are strange, unexpected, infrequent, in view of the hypothesis for historicity continue to mount up, the more improbable that hypothesis becomes.

The evidence of the Book of Acts is easily set aside with two pages of discussion. One clear problem with its value as a historical source — especially elaborated by Richard Pervo — is the evident influence of the fictional literary world on it. Yet again one is wise to not over-state such realities since classicists who study the supposed “father of scientific history”, Thucydides, was also creatively influenced by fiction and myth (see posts on A.J. Woodman’s study). History was done differently in those days, even “good” history.

Lataster’s discussion of the gospels as evidence, drawing upon Carrier’s points, is a very neat and potent series of arguments demonstrating that the forms in which they appear, with their evident source material in the Old Testament and other literature, their mysteries and allegories, their most “unhistorical” features (even by the standards of “poor” history of the Greco-Roman world), are very much what a Christ Myth theory would predict. The point of all this being,

Finally, realising that Gospel authors not interested in history don’t require a Historical Jesus, Carrier asks us to “stop thinking we can use them as historical sources”, and asserts that the Gospels cannot prove Jesus’ historicity; but nor can they disprove it.126

126 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 509.

(Lataster, p. 410)

Alternative arguments can be raised with a few other points of Lataster/Carrier but that only demonstrates that neither work is the final word and that further questions and discussion can arise from them and their hypotheses be refined over time. Thus when Lataster-Carrier argue that Paul thought of human (i.e. Roman) authorities as ordained by God as instruments of blessing for the righteous and, accordingly, could not equate the “archons” who crucified Jesus with those earthly rulers, they are overlooking scholarship that proposes those “pro-Roman” passages are part of a post-Pauline pastoral stratum that has been interpolated into the Pauline corpus (W. Munro).

One other example: concerning the passage in Galatians 3:1

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

Lataster comments:

I must note that some translations will say something like “Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified”, which seems to better support historicity, but a more accurate translation is “Jesus Christ was foretold as crucified”, which fits with the ‘secret messages in scripture’ theme. If there is any doubt here, consider that Galatia is in Turkey. Surely the author couldn’t mean to say that the Galatians literally witnessed Jesus’ earthly death on a cross in Jerusalem.

(Lataster, p. 420)

I cannot comment on whether the proposed better translation is really better or not, but without further detailed discussion a question does arise. In adhering so closely to Carrier’s train of thought (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 573) has Lataster for the moment overlooked his (and Carrier’s) earlier point that mass hallucinations are a part of recorded history?

One detail of Lataster’s that is of particular telling interest and validity:

As an aside, I am not so sure that the case for Jesus mythicism would fail if Paul did believe in the Gospel Jesus, or something similar, like a pseudo-Gospel Jesus, as Jesus becomes more historicised over time. We would still see an evolution of the story that could well have had its origins in a Celestial Jesus. And certainly, none of this is crucial for Historical Jesus agnosticism to be considered reasonable, especially since Paul’s sources are unreliable.

(Lataster, p. 421)

One more petty detail:

Lataster and Carrier have different interpretations of the term “primary sources”. Carrier takes the common usage found especially among biblical scholars (though also among some classicists) that primary sources are the earliest available to the historian; Lataster (almost) embraces the more purist view among historians, archivists and archaeologists and that goes back at least to “the father of modern history”, Leopold von Ranke, that primary sources are those that are contemporary or eyewitness accounts of the events they reference and physically located in that time and place (e.g. commemorative monuments, imperial coins, original diaries or letters). I say “almost” because even if we had manuscripts of testimony from the time of Jesus himself then we would still not have strict “primary sources” but secondary sources that are purported to be copies of primary sources. I shared Lataster’s regret that Carrier was not more precise in what he termed “primary sources”. Where I think Lataster could have advanced his own argument is by demonstrating how different is the methodical world of ancient historians whose work is grounded in a serious separation of primary and secondary sources in the latter “purist” sense, especially since the scholar to whom his book is dedicated, Philip R. Davies, was one of the pioneers among biblical scholars advocating the centrality of this distinction between the two types of sources.

I have raised several problems with this chapter but I hope it is clear that they, like the problems Lataster raised with Carrier’s book on the Christ Myth hypothesis, are relatively inconsequential for the larger argument. Both Carrier’s and Lataster’s books serve as sound stepping stones towards deeper and wider discussions. And I think we should thank Earl Doherty for setting the ball rolling for our generation.

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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14 thoughts on “Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)”

  1. I don’t know if this is an appropriate spot to comment on “Q” being imaginary, but I will any way. If Jesus were an historical character, a document like Q would make sense. All of his followers, sitting around in Jerusalem might collect sayings of his into such a document. After all, the people who supposedly traveled with him and spoke to him would have been right there to query. This makes me wonder why such a primary source, such a foundational document wasn’t preserved. Surely many people would have wanted copies, people who were out spreading the word, would have one with them. The “churches” they spoke at would want to copy it, etc. But what do we have as physical evidence for this amazing document? Nothing.

    Then, if Jesus were a mythical being, which I tend to favor, how would such a document get formed? Clearly it is not Paul’s faction as Paul never quotes Jesus. So, some non-Pauline faction would have to come up with the idea to write an “inspired” document, like Q. Since there is no narrative, real or imagined, driving such a project, this would be a very hard document to create. On the other hand, a simpler hypothesis, that the gospel writers made up all of the “speeches,” and “sayings” of Jesus, a common practice but something believers could not credit them with doing, giving the false impression that some such document existed in the past, along the lines of the first hypothesis above.

    I tend to favor a “step back” approach to look at everything with fresh eyes and avoid presuppositions. More and more it seems that the gospel narratives, ahistorical as they are, has poisoned the well of scholarship.

    But then, I am still reading and I shall never catch up to you, which is why I enjoy your missives so much.

      1. There is a difference, though. The gospels, like OT stories, are written as historical narratives. That confuses people and it’s meant to. See the posts here on Russell Gmirkin’s book on the influence of Plato on the Hebrew Bible. The point was to create a myth that was plausible historically and was believed to be real history by its form of rhetoric.

    1. @ Steve Ruis. The points you list are all valid and I’d love to take time to set them all out with the many arguments for and against Q and see how they pan out with clear Bayesian reasoning, with or without the numbers.

  2. All of his followers, sitting around in Jerusalem might collect sayings of his into such a document.

    In early Islam there were many such sayings documents, with those considered fake, inaccurate or heretical eventually burned en mass.

    At what point in early Christianity could there be a similar event, given that Christianity and political power did not develop together as it apparently did with Islam?

    1. They were memories of auditory hallucinations, as per Paul’s description of the phenomena of community Spirit-led prophets. ( “…before you Jesus was graphically FORETOLD/betrayed as having been crucified”). Plus you have the authority of the Psalms, the Vision of Isaiah, etc.

  3.  “What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable….But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.”
    ….which is but another reason for dismissing Carrier’s whole intellectually childish insistence on Bayesian methods as something akin to a pseudo-objectifying ruse (albeit, as you say, “an interesting approach” lol). It is an interesting approach, for example, to apply Bayes carrierifically to uncover the solemn truth that there is precisely a 50% likelihood that the chicken preceded the egg and vice-versa. And so naively Cartesian!

    1. Bayes is nothing more than a symbolic representation of the processes of sound reasoning. I use Bayesian reasoning as often as possible, only without the numbers to symbolize the processes.

  4. “Finally, realising that Gospel authors not interested in history don’t require a Historical Jesus, Carrier asks us to ‘stop thinking we can use them as historical sources’ and asserts that the Gospels cannot prove Jesus’ historicity; but nor can they disprove it.” [Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 509.
    (Lataster, p. 410)]
    I think this is a quote from Carrier and it is just naive. Of course they can disprove it!
    As Robert Price has noted, take out the miraculous portions of the narrative and there IS no narrative about Jesus JUST BECAUSE there is no Jesus! Faith in the miraculous IS faith in the existence of the Son of God.
    New Testament contradictions exist because there is nothing to contradict, and by the time the Gospels were written it was in order to preserve and extend just that kind of visionary faith held to by the earliest adherents. The social-psychological dynamic is obvious—all cults after their first generation have it.

  5. That Carrier did things like (1) reverse the meaning of euhemerization, which wouldn’t even fool a high school debate tourney judge, (2) is confused about how vital a definition of “primary source” is for good history, (3) and the whole boneheaded pop-rationalism which lay beneath the Bayesian thing leaves me convinced his stuff has something to do more with book sales and notoriety than love of truth. His assertion he’s the greatest philosopher since—-who was it, Kant?—–and incessant pandering to embittered beerguzzling ‘humanists’ makes it impossible for anyone who is serious to take him seriously. And a close reading of Lastater unveils the wise prevelence of a similar disposition on that author’s behalf.
    I see the all pro progression of mythicism running Doherty–Price—Lastater; and Mr. Godfrey’s invaluable exposure of McGrath, Ehrman & Co. as equally indispensable for SERIOUS intellectual inquiry.

    1. Per the term “euhemerization” the -ize suffix in Greek and English means “to do like,” hence “to do like Euhemerus did”.

      Thus what Euhemerus was thinking and what his motives were, when he made a deity into a human is irrelevant, all that matters is the functional result, i.e. Euhemerus made a deity into a human.

      If before (human) → after (deity) = deification
      If before (deity) → after (human) = euhemerization

  6. Which word—‘prophecy’ or ‘portrayal’—-is better for translation in order to render the underlying psychological dynamic most amenable to OUR sensibilities isn’t the issue. It’s what the existence of the issue itself tenders as intrinsically meaningful: prophecy IS portrayal of actuality, of actual existent realities hence ‘true’ being(s) [think use of ‘alethe’ in Ignatius].
    Prophecy is actuality—what will have happened already has in the realm that counts, and “by the eyes of faith” they merge. Not, “the kingdom will arrive because it has” but “the kingdom has already arrived and is NOW because it will arrive”—There are reasons why in the epistles it seems Christ is about to arrive, is here, has come. THAT is the person who is the subject of the gospel.
    This is the danger of trying to idealize inductive thought and idolize deductive logic then go about projecting that disposition into the religious feeling, intuition, thinking (‘Ahndung’–Schliermacher) of first century Graeco-Roman humanity.
    This is where Earl Doherty hit the nail on the head via his discussion of “en sarki” and I wish we could get back to a fuller appreciation of the significance of those kinds of things.

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