Review part 10: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

As I read each chapter or section of Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus, I wrote about it here, but now that I have read the concluding pages I discover that Lataster anticipated some of the points I made along the way. Especially this one, the final footnote on the final page:

The poor criticisms offered indicate people that have already decided that mythicism must be wrong, simply because they find the conclusion distasteful, without knowing what the best arguments are, let alone how to argue against them.

(Lataster, p. 452)

There have been several responses to the work of Carrier and myself which cannot be dealt with in detail here; I shall point out their failings elsewhere. This includes the articles and blog posts by Christina Petterson, Daniel Gullotta, John Dickson, Michael Bird, James McGrath, Brenda Watson, and Simon Gathercole (and Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti, who responded to Stephen Law’s agnosticism). None of them add anything substantial to the debate, mischaracterising our work and typically focussing on attacking the person instead of the argument. Additionally, every single one of them completely ignored our most salient points.

(Lataster, p. 463)

Responses by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole have been addressed in-depth on this blog. Lataster’s criticisms are entirely on target. A decade ago a colleague of Philip R. Davies (to whom Lataster’s book is dedicated) spelled out in detail the unscholarly tactics of “conservative scholarship” in addressing the so-called “minimalists” who dared question the historicity of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Niels Peter Lemche’s description of those tactics applies just as much to the critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus:

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists [substitute mythicists]. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [substitute Doherty, Brodie, Carrier, Lataster]; read books [or articles] about them!

For a more detailed account of Lemche’s criticisms see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche).

As we have seen, Lataster mentioned in the opening of his book names of mainstream scholars who accept the legitimacy of doubting the historical existence of Jesus. More names are added in his final chapter.

Lataster’s concluding call for agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus contains all the punch of the preceding 440 pages. His argument has been three-fold:

  1. the case for historicity (part 1, chapters 1 to 3) demonstrated the frequently unscholarly and generally fallacious efforts of recent attempts by mainstream scholars to present an argument for the historical existence of Jesus, and how such efforts effectively (unintentionally) support the case for agnosticism;
  2. the case for agnosticism (part 2, chapters 4 to 6) demonstrated the hollowness of the foundations (both source foundations and the methods by which certain inferences are drawn from these sources) for any assertion that Jesus did exist
  3. the case for mythicism (part 3, chapters 7 to 9) demonstrated that one does not need a historical Jesus to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins and that Christianity began with a belief in a heavenly (not historical) Jesus is indeed plausible.

Lataster has made it abundantly clear where the sound scholarly approach lies:

But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop. Scholars cannot be allowed to continue building on previous scholarship in the field, when the foundations – such as the appeals to hypothetical sources – are highly conjectural to begin with. If we ahistoricists argued like they do, we would be overlooked (well, more than we already are), and rightly so. These historicists did not argue in a transparent probabilistic fashion; they merely declared that their hypothesis is true or almost certainly true, and that anybody who’s anybody agrees with them. Contrast that with the approaches of Carrier and myself. Who are the ones trying to posit a wealth of non-existing foundational sources, whilst disregarding the impact of numerous actually existing sources? And who are the ones simply applying and asking others to apply transparent probabilistic reasoning to the sources that we do actually have access to?

This all should make it easy to figure out which scholars have an agenda, and which scholars merely go where the evidence leads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the arguments of the people that used evidence, and logic, and had no real desire to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus, or if you prefer the wild and unsubstantiated claims about near-infinite non-existing sources, and just so happen to arrive at conclusions that placate their ultimately Christian benefactors. I strongly encourage philosophers and historians, and even other scholars, from outside the field to continue to scrutinise the methods and conclusions of these Biblical specialists. Several educated outsiders – and even some insiders – so far have done so and discovered that the emperor has no clothes.

(Lataster, p. 450)

Exactly. As for mythicists being driven by some need to debunk the existence of Jesus, such an accusation is entirely without evidential support and actually flies in the face of the evidence.


But I have jumped ahead. Before driving home the above conclusions Lataster drew together the Carrier-based arguments of the previous chapters and set out first, Carrier’s probabilistic summaries of them all, and secondly, his (Lataster’s) alternative calculations. Fortunately for some, no doubt, Lataster greatly simplifies Carrier’s Bayesian conclusions and makes it clear that even if one does not accept every evaluation one can scarcely deny that there must be some room for doubt about Jesus’s existence. Lataster further quotes at length Carrier’s lengthy proposal for how Christianity could plausibly have arisen from belief in an entirely celestial Jesus. The minimal facts that can be established by sound appeals to historical reasoning about the sources are also listed and they, too, leave room for Christianity having arisen without a historical Jesus. The common objections — that the Jews would never have invented a dying messiah, certainly not a crucified one — are contradicted by the clear evidence.

One would love to find a serious critique of Carrier’s overall case for mythicism:

Unfortunately, apart from myself, nobody has provided a proper critique of Carrier’s defence of mythicism in the academic literature.25 Indeed, Bart Ehrman has explicitly rejected the challenge. On his blog, Ehrman declared that he is “pretty much staying out of the mythicist debates”, even though he effectively fanned the flames by publishing his now infamous Did Jesus Exist?26 A fan of his, who thanked Ehrman for changing his life, left the following comment:

I have read Did Jesus Exist, and many other of your books, I’m a big fan… but not a scholar. The fact is that we just don’t have enough evidence to make a final judgment whether Jesus existed. Both sides of the argument are fascinating, and I don’t think there is a greater question to be answered… I am hanging on every published word from you titans of scholarship… I do really think that Dr. Carrier has made a very serious case against Jesus’s existence, and I would love to read your next book that attempts to refute his arguments in much the same way that Lataster trashed your book. I have the highest respect for you Dr. Ehrman, but there has been a gauntlet thrown down…please pick it up!

And this, ladies and honoured transgenders and gentlemen, is the historicist champion’s emphatic response:

Frankly, I’d rather spend my time doing other things!!

We can thus add another element to Ehrman’s Law. If a critic notes deep flaws in your method, just ignore them, and continue to pretend that your case has been well made.

(Lataster, p. 436)

As Lemche said (quoted above), that kind of response is a tactic. It is meant to shut down the debate by declaring it is not worth a professor’s time. We have one more instance here of a public intellectual short-changing his responsibility for advancing public knowledge.

Lataster follows his discussion of Carrier’s probabilistic assessment of the evidence with his own. Lataster proposes even more generously than Carrier odds in favour of historicity. Let’s grant the canonical gospels to be equally valid evidence for both hypotheses, historicity and mythicism. The same for the epistles. Even then we are obviously left with ample justification for agnosticism.

Devil’s advocate

Finally, Lataster discusses ways one might challenge and overturn Carrier’s overall case for having reasons to doubt the historical existence of Jesus. In short, the way to do that is to demonstrate that Carrier’s probabilistic analyses of the various strands of evidence are seriously flawed. Some critics have strongly objected to Carrier’s point that the Jesus of the canonical gospels scores relatively high on the Rank-Raglan hero scale claiming that Carrier has thereby unfairly prejudiced the argument in favour of Jesus being a mythical character. But to overthrow Carrier’s point the critics need to face the fact that Carrier acknowledges that genuinely historical persons do also score relatively highly on that same scale and to demonstrate that Carrier’s point has in fact unfairly skewed the final result. The point of the Bayesian approach is to make the most reasonable assessment of all the data, returning and revising previous estimates in the light of new information, and so on. It matters not so much where one begins, Lataster points out, if along the way all of the relevant data is factored in; that being the case the end result should work out the same.

“Glory of agnosticism”

The final pages embrace a discussion of the reasonableness of being agnostic about the existence of Jesus. Agnosticism speaks of humility and intellectual honesty at the best of times but especially so given the very patchy state of the evidence we have to work with. Further, with a major portion of that evidence being the Pauline writings, agnosticism is doubly obligatory given the extent of our uncertainty about the original state of those letters, which ones (and how much of each one) are truly genuine, along with the many ambiguities and questions that arise from them.

Lataster reminds readers of another point he (with Carrier) claims is very significant, and that is the appearance of Christianity “just at the same time” as would have been indicated by a reading of Daniel by messianic Jews. I am not so sure that the evidence does support that notion (the belief that Daniel prophesied the appearance of a messianic figure around the time Jesus supposedly appeared), but I certainly do see ample justification for linking gospel narratives to the historical destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (or even, just possibly and allowing for radical re-interpretations of sources, 135 CE).

We have already spoken of Philip Davies and his declaration that biblical scholarship must allow for agnosticism on the Jesus figure in order to reach “academic respectability”. Here at the conclusion Lataster informs us that a few months before his death Davies informed him that he is himself agnostic concerning the existence of Jesus.

Lataster commends another scholar who was a colleague of Davies, and that is James Crossley. (We spoke earlier of Crossley, too, as the author of the Introduction to Questioning the Historicity of Jesus.) I find Lataster’s discussion of Crossley’s position encouraging: it places Crossley in a somewhat courageous light, I think. Not that Crossley is a mythicist, but he is clearly sympathetic to allowing full freedom for the discussion to take place. Crossley is a colleague of Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne running The Jesus Blog, and Keith has made his “forthright” views of mythicism (and me) “painfully” clear in the past. Crossley is also on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Another member of that same board is Michael Bird who has stated that the journal will never publish anything sympathetic to an argument questioning the historical existence of Jesus. Crossley was also the student of the same Maurice Casey who wrote Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? And Crossley is highly esteemed by Jim West (who also highly esteems Brill who has published Lataster’s book) who is not known for having kind words for anyone “tainted” with suspicion of “being a mythicist”. The pressure is collegial, personal, institutional, not intellectual. Indeed, Lataster has well established his case:

All of Carrier’s claims about mythicism proper, and my own, could all be mistaken, and yet Historical Jesus agnosticism is still assured, since the hypothesised failure of the case for mythicism doesn’t address the problem that the case for historicity is nowhere near a standard that objective philosophers should accept.

(Lataster, p. 458, my bolding)

After all, as Lataster explains, we only need to focus on two points to justify this position: the unreliability of the gospels and Paul’s focus on a heavenly Jesus.

And that’s the benefit of agnosticism. It is far more defensible than outright mythicism, as Lataster makes clear (p. 459, my formatting):

  • If the aim is to argue against the truth of Christianity in general, ‘mere’ uncertainty over Jesus’ historical existence still carries with it tremendous polemical power. . . .
  • If the aim is to expose bad scholarship and make the Academy more transparent and accountable, agnosticism does that fine, without the burden of having to simultaneously argue for notions too ahead of their time.
  • If the goal is to advance mythicism, an important step towards that goal is assured, akin to how many theists moving towards deism go on to become de facto naturalists. . . .

Lataster places his hopes in “future generations” of scholars, especially as more retiring scholars speak openly as they open the doors to that new generation.

After all, as Lataster points out,

every crucial aspect of the best cases against historicity, and for agnosticism and mythicism, is already accepted in mainstream scholarship. That is not to say that all – or even a majority – of scholars accept all of them, but that each of these components is held to by a significant number of mainstream scholars, and even Christians. In other words, these sceptical theories may not be so ‘fringe’ or ‘unthinkable’ after all.


– Pre-Christian Judaisms were very diverse, and much is still unknown about them.
– Pre-Christian Jews believed in multiple realms, and heavenly counterparts.
– Pre-Christian Jews searched and reinterpreted the old scriptures for contemporary guidance and prophecy.
– Pre-Christian Jews believed in a divine and celestial Messiah/Christ.*
– Pre-Christian Jews believed in a suffering, dying, and rising messiah.
– Pre-Christian Jews required and developed spiritual solutions to the physical problems caused by the inaccessibility/destruction of the Temple.
– Early Christians reinterpreted the old scriptures and perceived Jesus as a divine, suffering, problem-solving Messiah.
– The Epistles – especially Paul’s – say little to nothing about a Historical/Earthly Jesus, and show little to no awareness of the Gospels.
– The Epistles – especially Paul’s – describe a Celestial Jesus communicating from Heaven.*
– Paul depicts Jesus as being killed by celestial demons.
– Paul’s writings are influenced by Pagan ideas, and by Philo (or sources Paul and Philo share in common).
– Paul’s stated sources for Jesus are the old scriptures and revelations.
– Paul is himself an unreliable source.
– Paul’s writings were cherished by ‘heretics’ and later edited by the ‘orthodox’ to make the existence of the Gospel Jesus more obvious.
– There are no authentic pre-Gospel references to Jesus having any biological siblings.
– Early Christianity has much in common with the secretive mystery religions.
– The case for Jesus’ historicity effectively rests upon the canonical Gospels.
– The Gospels post-date the Epistles, especially Paul’s.
– The Gospels and later documents tend to ‘flesh out’ the story.
– The Gospels’ Jesus has much in common with purely mythical figures.
– The Gospels are unreliable, filled with supernatural and mundane fictions.
– Current use of the Criteria of Authenticity is very flawed.
– The later Gospels build on Mark, the first Christian document to unambiguously situate Jesus on Earth, in recent history.
– Mark allegorises Paul’s writings.*
– Mark allegorises – directly and indirectly – the Old Testament.
– Mark is significantly based on other Jewish writings.
– Mark is significantly based on Pagan writings.
– Mark and the other Gospel writers fabricated much of their Gospels.
Positing hypothetical sources underlying the Gospels is illogical, unnecessary, and diverts attention from extant sources.
– The Christian extrabiblical sources are of little use.
– The non-Christian extrabiblical sources are of little use.
– The best evidences for Jesus’ historicity are inauthentic.
– In light of the state of the sources, it is possible that Jesus did not exist.

The three asterisked points “demonstrate that the Celestial Jesus theory is reasonable, and alludes to an organic development from already-existing Jewish beliefs” (Lataster, pp. 460 f)

One final quote

Interestingly, while progress is slow in academia, laypeople seem ready to accept that Jesus’ existence is far from certain. A recent “Church of England survey found that four in 10 people did not believe Jesus was a real person”. Astonishingly, only around 2 in 10 people surveyed were identified as atheists or agnostics; Christians made up the biggest group. See BBC. “Jesus ‘not a real person’ many believe,” accessed 04/11/2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-34686993.

I have to thank Brill for giving me access to a copy of Raphael Lataster’s book in order to share my thoughts on it here. And, of course, I have to thank Raphael Lataster for undertaking the research to complete such a thorough assessment of the case for holding some reservations about the historical existence of Jesus and offering a simplified overview of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.

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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  • James Barlow
    2019-10-27 09:58:17 GMT+0000 - 09:58 | Permalink

    Lastater: “But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop.”
    Granted; and herein lies part of my problem with Carrier’s effort: if appeal to authority is among the illegitimate tactics historicists use, why is Carrier so desperate to position himself as an indisputably established ‘authority’? And if among the not exactly intellectually honest modi vivendi among historicists Lastater lists “appeal to possibility,” isn’t the whole questionable nature of the Bayesian gambit made just so much worse by rather lamely raising the whole question of likelihood by means of a stilted misuse of statistical logic; an unnecessary distraction from thoughtful perusal of the evidentiary matters at hand?
    I still feel Carrier’s sort of mock courtroom dramatic pretensions and unjustified grandiosity do little more than mimic the sort of oblique appeal to ‘common sense’ so misplaced by biblebangers in these discussions.
    In spite of his reliance on Carrier’s formidable weaknesses, Lastater’s work is in the true, nonbadtardized line of descent from the great Doherty!

    • db
      2019-10-27 11:51:39 GMT+0000 - 11:51 | Permalink

      if appeal to authority is among the illegitimate tactics historicists use, why is Carrier so desperate to position himself as an indisputably established ‘authority’?

      This commendable “tactic” ensures that his argument can not be ignored/misrepresented by those publishing on historicity in academic publications—at least in theory, if not actuality, cf. “Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus”. Vridar.

  • 2019-10-27 13:47:28 GMT+0000 - 13:47 | Permalink

    It is one thing to assert one’s credentials as a scholar in order to claim an automatic status of bona fides among other scholars. It is quite another to assert that one’s position must be accepted solely on the basis of one’s credentials, without respect to further argument. Carrier’s claim of authority is in the first category; Ehrman’s claims are in the second.

  • Bob Jase
    2019-10-27 13:47:31 GMT+0000 - 13:47 | Permalink

    Ya know if there was solid evidence for a historical Jesus none of this debate would be happening. Like contemporary accounts of the miracles, earthquakes, etc but instead nothing. No one alive during Jesus’ supposed lifetime noticed him despite all the risen dead and perambulating stars.

  • G. Shelley
    2019-10-27 14:30:59 GMT+0000 - 14:30 | Permalink

    Demonstrating historicity should not be hard. They can either show that the verses in Paul that suggest historicity are so overwhelmingly unlikely with a mythic isn’t position that they settle the case (rather than “well, that would be a bit odd with a mythical Jesus, he must be real” as happens now) or they can come up with a way of reliably identifying parts of the gospels that are extremely unlikely to have been simply created (instead of “well, his followers would have told stories about him, some of these must come from them” as we have seen)

  • Steve Ruis
    2019-10-27 15:51:25 GMT+0000 - 15:51 | Permalink

    There is no way I could justify the purchase of this book so I deeply thank you for these reviews. (I also dropped something in your PayPal Tip Jar.)

    While I haven’t read anywhere near as much as scholars have, I have read a great many books and articles and fallen into a great many incorrect conclusions (I get my exercise by jumping to conclusions). I am currently reading Earl Doherty’s book and I find myself fairly solid in the mythicist column. My reasoning is simple. If one wants to claim that a god walked the earth, then that is an extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence, which should be available, no? (Why is no copy of Q available, or any early ms. of the gospels, or …) In the absence of such evidence I don’t find much solace in the claims of historical inertia because of all of the nonsensical things that have been believed for millennia. Especially, as Doherty and others have pointed out, that actual NT scriptures contradict their standard narratives.

    I will continue to read and ponder these things, but sitting agnostically, as Lasater claims, makes no sense to me, urgings toward intellectual humility notwithstanding. An historical Jesus being an “ordinary” charismatic preacher does not provide underpinings for Christianity. Only the existence of a supernatural god-man suffice. And, as yet, the evidence for anything happening supernaturally is missing.

    And, if one steps back and asks a few questions, one sees the roots of other beliefs folded into the mix. For example:
    • What need does an all-powerful god have of “helpers/messengers?” The effort to explain the message to the messenger can’t be any less than explaining it direct to whoever the message is for. The angles/messengers were folded in from prior beliefs.
    • Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful entity brook any opposition to his plans. A Mafia don would have had Satan whacked a long time ago for making too much noise in the newspapers.
    • Why would an aseitic god create a race of sentient animals to worship him? This shows less than aseity, no?
    • An all-out battle on the plains of Armageddon is promised, with Jesus riding in on a horse? How about an F-16? Actually how could any army oppose and all-knowing, all-powerful entity who knows their plans before they do and can thwart them with mere thoughts?
    • Why is there so much blood magic in the Bible? Clearly this is nonsense.
    I’m sorry, I could go on for days asking these questions, questions that do not accept that standard narratives as a starting point. But they show how seriously tainted any evidence centered on the Bible is.

    • db
      2019-10-27 16:57:16 GMT+0000 - 16:57 | Permalink

      I am currently reading Earl Doherty’s book

      • Which revision?

      Doherty renamed the 2009 second edition of The Jesus Puzzle.

      Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications. 2009. ISBN 978-0-9689259-2-8. “New edition, Revised and Expanded, Originally published under the title: The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? – Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus

      Friedrich Nietzsche, called Paul “the first Christian” and “the Jewish dysangelist” (i.e., a bearer of bad rather than good news). So if you want to take up the cross and spread the news…

      • Rutherford, Jonathan (2015). “The Gospel of Mark as Theological Allegory”. Rational Realm. “An eighteen page essay – Online PDF”

      • Carrier (25 October 2019). “Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

      • Quotable gems:

      John MacDonald sarcastically comments: “If only historical Jesus scholars had Price’s analytic skills!”

      R. G. Price responds: “Do you doubt that text mining techniques that are used to find relationships between texts for personal identification or plagiarism can be used to identify relationships between texts of the Bible? If you doubt the value of such a background I’d like to hear your explanation for why I identified relationships in Mark that are previously un-published by other “biblical scholars”. The irony is people thinking that a degree in theology is more of a qualification for understanding relationships and patterns among biblical texts than a background in data science. Quite honestly a background in quantitative analysis, cryptography and other such fields is a much better qualification for biblical studies than divinity and theology.”

      • The cornucopia of awesomeness that is the Vridar blog, Neil Godfrey writes:

      <blockquote>Following Thomas L. Thompson’ overview of the way the Jewish Scriptures were written I tend to see the Gospel of Mark as yet one more story in the same tradition as other (OT) biblical narratives.
      The same story of being lost, then called, then obeying, then falling away, then punishment, then restoration is told over and over. Each story warns the “new Israel” not to fall into the errors of the “old Israel”.

      The Gospel of Mark (and its [embellished] variants, Matthew, John, Luke) continue that same tradition of literature and theology. . . . The same story of the displacement of the natural order or privileged generation in favour of the younger and chosen is repeated in the Exodus (the old generation must die and the new enter the land of promise), in the stories of the prophets and their promises for a new generation, in the selection of the younger/initially disposessed over the older, right through to the New Testament.

      The motifs for new beginnings are also repeated — the splitting of the waters at the initial creation is repeated again with the renewal after the Flood, and then again in the Exodus and Red Sea crossing, and then the crossing of Jordan as those waters also divided, then with Elijah and Elisha at the Jordan, then again at the baptism of Jesus.

      The stories are retold, recycled, in their different mutations, and they are re-written for new generations who may have come through some crisis or are desirous of a new start as a “new” people of God who are now learning the lessons of the old generation, both in their real experience and in the stories themselves.

      • Jonathan Rutherford
        2019-10-29 11:05:15 GMT+0000 - 11:05 | Permalink

        Hi dB,

        Just to say nice to see you are reading my essay on Mark :). Of course I can’t claim anything much original – just summarizing the work of people like RG price, Dykstra, Mary Tolbert and others. If you ya e not read Tolbert – sowing the gospel, I highly recommend; brilliant literary analysis of Mark. My views have probably changed a bit since writing that piece, though stand by the thrust. One day I’d like to write a commentary on Mark showing what an amazing yet misunderstood little work it is…

        Jonathan Rutherford

        • db
          2019-10-29 13:52:45 GMT+0000 - 13:52 | Permalink

          I highly recommend; brilliant literary analysis of Mark [by Tolbert]

          • Tolbert, Mary Ann (1996). Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. Fortress Press. p. 195, n. 31. ISBN 978-1-4514-1440-0.

          The disciples’ change of state from initial faith to fear and failure . . . has caused considerable confusion in Markan scholarship. Some scholars, emphasizing the deeply negative depiction of the disciples in the later chapters, have argued that for Mark the disciples are the opponents of Jesus or the object of the author’s strongest polemic (see, e.g., Weeden, Mark—Traditions in Conflict, 26–51; and W. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 97–99, 125–29).

          R. M. Price opines that the author’s treatment of the disciples in the Markan text as “buffoons and dullards” is consistent with Marcion’s viewpoint, thus the Markan text may be related to Marcion’s work in some way, such as both authors being from the same “haireseis” school/faction, etc.. This possibility is given greater weight in light of Marcion being the initial collector and redactor of the Pauline material.

        • db
          2019-10-29 14:30:05 GMT+0000 - 14:30 | Permalink

          I can’t claim anything much original – just summarizing the work of people

          Perhaps not a “strong lever-bar”, but…
          • “Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world.” —Archimedes
          Thus as a cogent “fulcrum”, I have also cited your work on “Jesus myth theory“. RationalWiki.

  • luke burrage
    2019-10-28 09:12:58 GMT+0000 - 09:12 | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this review! These chapter-by-chapter (or section by section) discussions of academic books are my favourite Vridar blog content.

  • 2019-10-28 15:11:20 GMT+0000 - 15:11 | Permalink

    Good review. Nice summary by Lataster. I must say I’ve never been fond of Carrier’s doctrinal Bayesianism. Too often the numbers he throws out seem contrived and like a crutch. I’ve just never viewed it as necessary, nor have I read any other historical works that rely on the method the way he does. IMO just making the case and leaving out the Bayesian business makes for better reading and comprehension. If anything, relegate the Bayesian analysis to an appendix or something.

  • Diogenes the Cynic
    2019-10-29 04:58:30 GMT+0000 - 04:58 | Permalink

    I am not a mythicist and tend towards minimal historicity, but the responses of most mainstream scholars, even critical scholars like Ehrman, has ranged from underwhelming to appalling.

    The best way to debunk Mythicism would be to prove historicity, yet that seems to be the response that the anti-mythers are least interested in. I wanted to see Ehrman really make a case for historicity that left it no doubt. I wanted to know what we really know. While Ehrman did make some interesting and compelling points for at least a minimal historicity (and none of the actually compelling points were the usual Josephus/Tacitus/Paul said “brother” canards that are usually trotted out, but the evidence for a rising Christology), but too much of what he did was just launch ad hominem broadsides against mythers in general and harpooning easy targets like Freke and Gandy and Acharya, etc. The “Zeitgeist” stuff that gets packaged as “mythicism” in toto. I don’t think he actually read Carrier. I don’t believe many of the sneering reviewers of that book have actually read it because I frequently see them raise objections or make arguments that are fully responded to in the book, yet they will claim Carrier has no response them.

    What I don’t see is comprehensive, persuasive arguments for anything we can know with any confidence about this figure who so obviously existed that it’s stupid to doubt. Providing solid evidence for historicity would shut every myther up, but instead of trying to do that (hey scholars, I really want to see somebody nut up and make an honest methodological case. How can it be that no one has done that yet?), they respond to honest questions by honest scholars with reflexive derision, dismissal and hostility that is not shown to scholars with far more eccentric, radical and absurd views (i.e. NT Wright). Even simply silly stuff like ancient aliens or Holy Blood/Holy Grail is met with polite dismissal, but not with the strange anger that mythers seem to arouse. That’s because they actually know they can prove those things are crap. Even as a cautious historicist, I can sense a bit of the Emperor having no clothes with this one. It’s not that the case for historicity isn’t there, it’s just that it’s a very marginal, probabilistic and minimalistic case. What they call “Jesus” is arguably question-begging, since the Jesus they all agree existed is still not the character in Gospels even if he existed.

    • db
      2019-10-29 16:54:30 GMT+0000 - 16:54 | Permalink

      Ehrman did make some interesting and compelling points for at least a minimal historicity

      Please enumerate those “compelling points” on why historicity is likely greater than 33% in the context of the following:

      Richard Carrier (OHJ p. 34.):

      [T]hree minimal facts on which historicity rests:

      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).

      That all three propositions are true shall be my minimal theory of historicity.

      • Diogenes the Cynic
        2019-10-29 20:13:53 GMT+0000 - 20:13 | Permalink

        The thing that is compelling to me is the low to high Christological development from Paul through the Gospels. The earliest Christology is only an exaltation after death. I would need to know why an originally preexistent angelic Christology (as per the Doherty/Carrier model of origins) would move all the way back to an posthumous Christology by the time of Paul’s letters. I don’t say this proves historicity but it has to be explained under the celestial model.

        • db
          2019-10-29 20:47:53 GMT+0000 - 20:47 | Permalink

          The earliest Christology is only an exaltation after death

          Per Bart Ehrman,

          I have been arguing that there were two separate streams of early Christology (i.e. “understandings of Christ”). The first Christologies were almost certainly based on the idea of “exaltation.” . . . The other type of Christology came a bit later. It was an “incarnation” Christology which indicated that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – for example, an angel – who became a human being for the purpose of salvation.

          What is Ehrman’s evidence? Hypothetical written sources which cannot now be scrutinised for authorship, age, genre, intent, and so forth. These hypothetical written sources are themselves based on oral traditions, that also cannot be scrutinised.

          A critical reading of Mark does not suggest a normal human. Neil has previously noted that Jesus is written about as an allegorical type of person on earth conversing with humans and spirits. Jesus also does many inexplicable things and speaks in ways that his hearers do not understand.

          • Godfrey, Neil (26 November 2018). “A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question”. Vridar.
          • Godfrey, Neil (8 July 2019). “The Mystery of the “Amazing” Jesus in the Gospel of Mark”. Vridar.
          • Godfrey, Neil (4 May 2019). “Once More We Rub Our Eyes: The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus is No Human Character?”. Vridar.

          Cf. Did “Mark” think Jesus was a celestial being?… @ https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/15934#comment-29013

          • Diogenes the Cynic
            2019-10-29 23:09:26 GMT+0000 - 23:09 | Permalink

            The evidence for a low to high Christology is traceable simpy from the Letters of Paul through the Gospels. In Roman 1, Paul say Jesus was made the son of God by the resurrection. Luke and Matthew have natal Christologies (Ehrman say Luke makes Jesus the son God at conception, but I think Ehrman is mistaken on that and that Luke does not describe Jesus’ conception at all), then John has a preexistent Christology. Speeches given to Peter and Paul and Acts revert to an exaltation Christology (which Ehrman argues meets the criterion of dissimilarity for Luke because Luke has a natal Christology), so Luke must have thought that Peter and Paul actually preached an exaltation/assumption Christology (something with ample precedence in Jewish mythology ala Moses, Enoch, Elijah etc). There is no need to suppose any other sources. Ehrman does not think Peter and Paul actually gave those speeches. I do not think Acts is the least bit historical (or the Gospels either, for that matter), but the earliest claim about Jesus was that he was a dead guy who started on Earth went to Heaven. The claims that he started in Heaven and came down to Earth all come later (I do not credit the Philippians hymn as authentic, and I am persuaded by Geza Vermes that it is an interpolation). Under the Celestial model, I would expect the “Heaven to Earth” motif to be first. The Celestial model is not the only conceivable model for an ahistorical Jesus, though.

            • db
              2019-10-30 01:37:59 GMT+0000 - 01:37 | Permalink

              Roman 1, Paul say Jesus was made the son of God by the resurrection

              • Per Matthew W. Bates contra e.g., Rudolf Bultmann, Robert Jewett, James Dunn, A.Y. Collins, and Bart Ehrman

              Bird, Michael (23 February 2015). “Rom 1:3-4 as a Non-Adoptionist Text with Christology of Incarnation and Enthronement”. Euangelion.

              [Per Rom 1:3-4] there is no adopionistic christology here since “the resurrection event was the occasion at which the Son of God, who was in fact already deemed the preexistent Son of God before the resurrection event, was appointed to a new office that was able to be described by the phrase Son-of-God-in-Power.”

              He [sc. Matthew W. Bates] would paraphrase Rom 1:3-4 as follows:

              The gospel concerning the Son of God, who was brought from preexistence into human existence by means of the Virgin Mary, the seed of David, as it pertains to the flesh, that is, to the fleshly realm characterized by human physicality with all its limitations. This Son of God was installed into a new office – Son-of-God-in-Power – as it pertains to the realm dominated by life in the Holy Spirit – by means of his resurrection from among the dead ones. This Son-of-God-in-Power is Jesus Christ our Lord.

              My spin:
              Our second-god was brought from celestial existence into human existence. Second-god was then installed into a new office—Holy Potentate—by means of his resurrection from among the human dead ones. This Holy Potentate is Jesus Christ our Lord.

              • db
                2019-10-30 02:42:41 GMT+0000 - 02:42 | Permalink

                Doherty, Earl (4 June 2012). “17. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.17”. Vridar.

                [Ehrman, in support of adoptionism, presents] a couple of passages in Paul regarded as pre-Pauline creeds or Christological hymns. The one Ehrman points to here is Romans 1:4,

                . . . and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection from the dead.

                But this does not specify that it was at this point that Christ became the son of God. What happened after the resurrection is that Christ was given power. This “creed” alludes only to verse 8 of Psalm 2:

                Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession.

                Regardless of what verse 7 has said (the original “You are my son, today I have begotten you”), here the focus is on the “power” aspect of being the Son of God. If this creed was meant to reflect adoptionism, there should be no question that it would have worked verse 7 into its content.

              • db
                2019-10-30 05:57:26 GMT+0000 - 05:57 | Permalink

                • Carrier, Richard (2009). Not the Impossible Faith. Lulu. p. 250. ISBN 978-0-557-04464-1. “Romans 1:4 says Jesus was appointed into Power at his resurrection…”

                • Bird, Michael F. (2017). Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 9780802875068. [NOW BOLDED]:

                To sum up, according to Rom 1:3–4, the resurrection marks a transition from Jesus’s messianic mode and earthly abode of divine sonship, to a new display of divine sonship defined by a regal function exercised from his heavenly position as God’s vice-regent.

              • db
                2019-10-30 13:18:31 GMT+0000 - 13:18 | Permalink

                • Emerson, Steve (1 May 2018). “Bird’s ” Jesus the eternal son: Answering Adoptionist Christology” (book review)”. The Christian Librarian.

                Bird organizes his work around a detailed examination of several of the alleged adoptionist passages from the New Testament. These include an early creedal statement at the beginning of Romans, early apostolic speeches in Acts, and Mark’s account of Jesus’s baptism. In each case Bird concludes that a careful reading of the passage in its various contexts, literary and social, supports an incarnational rather than an adoptionist Christology. Bird goes into his greatest detail here in his consideration of Mark, convincingly arguing that the Markan account of Christ’s baptism must be interpreted in the context of Mark’s larger Christology, one that envisions a pre-existent Christ possessing transcendent characteristics

                • Carrier (23 September 2017). “Kristi Winters on the Historical Jesus: Part 1”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

                Paul’s creed was [both] incarnational and adoptionist. There is no reasonable possibility Mark did not know that. Which means when Mark doesn’t include incarnational theology in his Gospel, it’s because he is hiding it. Not because it didn’t exist or Mark didn’t believe in it. There is in fact no evidence of any Christian group at any time in the whole first hundred years of Christianity that ever believed in anything else. . . . Paul’s combined theology of incarnationism and adoptionism . . . made perfect sense when it was invented . . . Christianity began incarnationist (OHJ, Element 10 in Ch. 4, with Ch. 11).

        • db
          2019-10-30 21:37:53 GMT+0000 - 21:37 | Permalink

          The earliest Christology is only an exaltation after death

          • Assuming arguendo Rom 1:3-4 is an Adoptionist pre-Pauline text.

          • And Paul’s ‘Philippians poem’ is a Incarnational pre-Pauline text.

          QUESTION: Which is earlier, Rom 1:3-4 or ‘Philippians poem’?

          Ehrman presents hypothetical sources that prove Rom 1:3-4 is earlier.

          Lataster, Raphael (2016a). “Review Essay: Bart Ehrman and the Elusive Historical Jesus“. Literature & Aesthetics 26 (1): 181–192. ISSN 2200-0437.

          [Bart] Ehrman is of the belief that Paul’s ‘Philippians poem’ is pre-Pauline, which would make it earlier than our earliest extant sources, and yet he does not – unlike the mythicists – entertain the notion that the high Christology found therein is the earliest one. Thanks to Ehrman’s penchant for hypothetical sources, it simply does not matter which extant source is older; any scholars can invent sources to bolster her theory. —(p. 186)

          Geza Vermes insists the Philippians hymn is surely an interpolation, therefore Rom 1:3-4 is earlier.

          Comment by Richard Carrier—21 December 2012— per “The Goodacre Debate”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 20 December 2012.

          Larry Hurtado blogged on a really good recent article about this (rather, more generally, on the whole notion of early “high” Christology): see “Early High Christology”: A Recent Assessment of Scholarly Debate. In the comments there Geza Vermes gets into a snippy debate with Hurtado, insisting the Philippians hymn is surely an interpolation, and Hurtado keeps asking him what evidence he bases that on, and Vermes keeps avoiding the question. Pretty much a typical debate in Jesus studies these days.

  • Lowen Gartner
    2019-10-29 16:10:22 GMT+0000 - 16:10 | Permalink

    @Diogenes the Cynic

    Is it as simple as this? Jesus of the Gospels did not exist. Santa Claus does/did not exist. Saint Nicholas of Myra and may well be (one of) the minimal historical root(s) of the Santa Claus Myth. Some unnamed, unplaced in specific time or place person may have existed that is the minimal historical root of the Jesus myth. Maybe.

    Knowing whether or not there was a historical person that emerged into the Jesus myth has an outsized place in developing an understanding Christian origins and tracking the development of Christianity from about AD 60 to AD 200. It is not necessary to resolve it.

    (my elevator speech)

    • db
      2019-10-29 16:36:26 GMT+0000 - 16:36 | Permalink

      Colignatus, Thomas (2014). Review by an outsider of ancient history and new testament studies of “Maurice Casey (2014): Jesus. Evidence and Argument or MythicistMyths” [PDF]. thomascool.eu.

      Historicism is generally accepted in academic New Testament Studies, mythicism is often adhered to by non-scholars on the internet.

      The review uses the analogy of Santa Claus to bring forth a point that may have been missed by both professor Casey and the mythicists who he wishes to expose.

      If there was a historical preacher, healer and exorcist who got associated with already existing ancient myths of resurrection, then it becomes awkward to speak about a historical Jesus, just like with the “historical Santa Claus”, because such historical Jesus is at distance from what defines him for the story that people consider relevant to relate.

      • 2019-10-29 17:33:59 GMT+0000 - 17:33 | Permalink

        The “minimal Jesus” is a very odd thing that, for some reason, many people are drawn to, but in fact it makes no sense and isn’t really supported by any data. It’s more like just a sort of personal bargaining chip that people throw out so that they can both agree that the Gospels are exaggerations that don’t tell us anything meaningful and also that mythicism is bunk.

        But the issue is that there is no real data driven case for this “obscure lost Jesus” idea.

        Clearly the letters of Paul aren’t talking about some obscure person. The Pauline letters don’t attribute teachings to Jesus. Jesus is a Lord who has risen from the dead. There was no real person who rose from the dead. Nothing in Paul’s letters resembles any connection to some long lost half forgotten about person. Paul says over and that his knowledge of Jesus comes from revelation and scriptures. Knowledge of real people doesn’t come from those sources.

        And when we get to the Gospels, everything is explained as having come from either the letters of Paul, the scriptures, or other literary inspirations.

        This half forgotten long lost person has no role to play. It’s one of those things that sounds maybe reasonable but actually makes no sense at all.

        The things that make sense are either A) you agree with the analysis that the Gospel of Mark is a “fictional” story derived from the letters of Paul and the scriptures and everything else copies from Mark, or B) you reject that and make a case that the Gospels are based on lost sources (oral and/or written) that go back to the life of a real person who was killed during the reign of Pilate.

        Those are really the only things that make sense.

        And as for Saint Nicholas, as we know there was someone named Saint Nicholas, but nothing is known about him and the legends are all 100% just as fictional as Star Wars. To claim that Santa Clause is based on a real person if a fallacy. It’s like if I were to write a story about a man named George Washington that is set in modern day China, where George Washington is a bounty hunter who assassinates people with lasers. To say, Ahh, this George Washington guy “was real” because he has a name shared with another real person is of course nonsense.

        It’s equally nonsense to claim that the stories of Enoch are “based on a real person” even if one were to assume that the Enoch of Genesis were a real person. If that that Enoch were real, the 2nd century BCE – 2nd century BCE writings about Enoch are 100% imaginary and not based on any kind of actual knowledge about a real Enoch.

        For this whole “long lost Jesus” idea people need to specify exactly in which way they are proposing that information about this person, of any kind, even his name, influenced the development of the Jesus cult and the foundational documents of Christianity.

        I think most people drawn to this “minim Jesus” claim haven’t actually evaluated the mythicist case. I think most imagine mythicism as being simply a denial based on lack of evidence for the human Jesus, when in fact it is much more about the positive evidence for the origins of Jesus worship having started with the worship of a heavenly deity. They seem to fail to understand that its not simply about lack of evidence for a person, its about the affirming evidence for the development of a theology based on the prophetic interpretation of scriptures.

        • Diogenes the Cynic
          2019-10-29 20:59:46 GMT+0000 - 20:59 | Permalink

          I have a different view of what could constitute a “minimal Jesus” in that I think it could be more analogous to Robin Hood than St. Nicholas, not a single individual but an idealized type of “Messianic” outlaw resisters. Mark’s Gospel does at least draw on one real historical figure in the Jesus of Ananais story and I think he drew on other figures pulled from Josephus as well. I am talking specifically about Mark’s Euhemerization of Jesus, not necessarily the inception of the Christ figure. I see the origin of Paul’s “Christ Jesus” and the sources for the literary character in Mark as being different questions. Even if there was a real Jesus at some point, Mark knew nothing about him and Mark’s portrait is still completely fictive reconstruction based on OT sources and Josephus. I think Mark might have Euhemerized a real person. That’s what mean about Robin Hood. Even if there was some historical character who inspired the legend, the Errol Flynn character is still fiction.

          • db
            2019-10-29 21:51:28 GMT+0000 - 21:51 | Permalink

            I have a different view of what could constitute a “minimal Jesus” in that I think it could be more analogous to Robin Hood

            Raphael Lataster identifies three positions held by scholars, being: historicity; agnosticism; and mythicism.

            Do you take issue with agnosticism? The flaws in the work of Casey and Ehrman justify a de-facto position of agnosticism.

            • Diogenes the Cynic
              2019-10-29 23:17:55 GMT+0000 - 23:17 | Permalink

              Agnosticism would be a fair characterization of my own position. When I say “I am not a mythicist.” I mean that I am not persuaded that no historical personage is possible and am especially not that the particular Doherty/Carrier celestial Jesus model MUST be true. A lot of things carrier says I think are true – that the Gospels re not history, that Christianity has mystery-cult trappings, that Chritoans were influenced by the Enochic literature, etc., but I also think all that invention and development is also consistent with attempts to mythologize a historical personage for whom no new Testament author (not even Paul) had any actual biographical knowledge about.

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