On the Historicity of Jesus
Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt
- by Richard Carrier
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014
712 pages, paperback
Review by Jim Walker
The vast majority of biblical scholars, classical historians, and scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus once existed as a human being. Most of these scholars also think that Jesus mythicism theories have no merit or the authors of those theories have no scholarly qualifications or background information capable of establishing a workable theory.
Richard Carrier (a mythicist, oh my) not only daringly questions the existence of Jesus, he argues that Christianity more likely originated from beliefs of a mythical celestial being, born from Jewish and Hellenistic literature and then grew from an outcast Jewish cult that believed in revelation, dreams and visions, rather than from the words of an itinerate rabbi who walked the earth.
Needless to say, a historian that goes against the grain of scholarly consensus has his work cut out. Yet this book reflects exactly the kind of scholarship needed to combat the beliefs by academics and theologians about the existence of Jesus. Moreover, one cannot argue that this mythicist lacks scholarly credentials. Richard Carrier holds a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University and specializes in early Roman history, especially during the formation of Christianity (who more than a qualified historian should examine the evidence for a historical person?). Moreover, Carrier uses a scientific method of examining historical claims (rare among historians) by using Bayes' theorem as a method to establish the limits of the probability of Jesus's existence.
If you think about it, searching for a historical Jesus is like a physics problem. It's attempting to locate an object in spacetime, except that this object is alleged to be a human who lived in Palestine during the early first century who triggered the largest religion in the world. The problem comes from the lack of good evidence, so like any physicist evaluating this kind of difficulty, one must turn to probability math.
This book is actually the second of two volumes. Carrier wrote the first volume, Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus with a purpose to set the foundation for historical scholarship by using Bayes theorem and how it can apply to historical claims. Although one does not need to read the first volume to understand this book, the reader should become aware of the gist of Baye's theorem, and one can do no better than to view Carrier's talk about it here.
If at this moment you appear skeptical about any mathematical theory that makes claims about what you believe you know, consider that Bayes' Theorem describes a math for all reasoning about empirical claims. According to Carrier, "every time you reason correctly, you are following Bayes' Theorem, even if you don't know it. And if you aren't following it, you aren't reasoning correctly." If you insist that you don't need to argue in mathematical terms, think again. Whenever you use the words and phrases like, maybe, probably, greater than, smaller than, rare, likely, etc., you are, in effect, using English to describe a mathematical claim, even if your maybes and likelihoods describe your beliefs.
I see Bayes's theorem as a kind of belief-bias filter where you turn your beliefs into prior possibilities and then it spits out a probability number minus your beliefs. Of course one can still believe or disbelieve in the probability outcome but it serves no purpose because the probability itself serves as all one can say about the likelihood of an event happening.
Note this book stands on its own, and only rarely goes into the calculations (the 1st volume does) so you needn't worry about getting bogged down in mathematical calculations. Carrier wrote this book, not just for historians, but for laymen as well. He not only bucks the trend of pretentious scholarly writing methods but he uses "contractions, slang, verbs in the first person, and other supposed taboos." This reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould who also rejected the use of turgid academic writing, yet (in my opinion) wrote some of the greatest scientific essays ever written.
You should also understand how Carrier presents his arguments. He argues by a method called, a fortiori, which means in Latin: from strength. It describes a method of argument which grants the opposition the greatest latitude possible within reason. Similar to playing devil's advocate, one ascertains probabilities as far against your own theory as possible. According to Carrier, "This will produce a conclusion a fortiori, which you can assert with as high a confidence level as could ever be obtained on the available data--because any adjustment of your estimates toward what they truly are will then only make your conclusion even more certain."
For example, Carrier gives the eleventh chapter of the Ascension of Isaiah a probability of authenticity as low as one in a thousand (an a fortiori rate of interpolation in Christian texts) while he thinks the assumption of authenticity more likely a million to one, at best. In his final conclusion, Carrier estimates a 12,000 to 1 odds against existence of Jesus, but in his a fortiori conclusion, he estimates the odds at around 1 in 3 (at most) that Jesus existed. Can anyone else improve the odds? Carrier challenges others to, "prove it."
In order to argue for or against a hypothesis, Carrier defines the criteria for two competing hypotheses (historical Jesus vs. mythical Jesus), and they both must be considered against each other. However, because both hypotheses vary widely depending on the historian's biases, which theory about Jesus should be chosen for each camp? In the historical Jesus hypotheses, Jesus varies from a simple itinerate rabbi, to a Zealot leader, to a philosopher/teacher, etc., depending on which historian you wish to believe. Those in the mythical camp have proposed that Jesus was an invention stolen from pagan religions and sun gods to a son of God predicted by Hebrew scripture, or a revelation from dreams and visions (or combinations of them). Carrier chooses a minimal approach reducing both arguments to common denominators such that both camps can agree about their side of the argument. He calls these theories: The Minimal Theory of Historicity and The Minimal Jesus Myth Theory, defined as follows:
The Minimal Theory of Historicity 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).
The Minimal Jesus Myth Theory 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).
Carrier then sets the stage of his argument by establishing background knowledge about the early period from which Christianity began. He places these pieces of knowledge (based on a consensus of historians) into 48 Elements describing the known facts about early Christianity and the known context background information. I won't go into all of them, but some of the more important appear as follows (note, these are only brief outlines, most of the Element descriptions take several pages for explanation):
Element 2: When Christianity began, Judaism was highly sectarian and diverse. There was no 'normative' set of Jewish beliefs, but a countless array of different Jewish belief systems vying for popularity.
Element 3: When Christianity began, many Jews had long been expecting a messiah: a divinely chosen leader or savior anointed (literally of figuratively 'christened', hence a 'Christ') to help usher in God's supernatural kingdom.
Element 4: Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism.
Element 7: The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic fever of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah's arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 CE. This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.
Element 8: Many messianic sects among the Jews were searching the scriptures for secret messages from God about the coming messiah, in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint.
Element 11: The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.
Element 15: Christianity began as a charismatic cult which many of its leaders and members displayed evidence of schizotypal personalities. They naturally and regularly hallucinated (seeing visions and hearing voices).
Element 16: The earliest Christians claimed they knew at least some (if not all) facts and teachings of Jesus from revelation and scripture (rather than from witnesses), and they regarded these as more reliable sources than word-of-mouth.
Element 17: The fundamental features of the gospel story of Jesus can be read out of the Jewish scriptures.
Element 29: [W]hat are now called 'Cargo Cults' are the modern movement most culturally and socially similar to earliest Christianity, so much so that Christianity is best understood in light of them.
Element 30: Early-first century Judea was at the nexus of countless influences, not only from dozens of innovating and interacting Jewish sects (Element 2, and 33), but also pagan religions and philosophies.
Element 31: Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea.
Element 32: By whatever route, popular philosophy (especially Cynicism, and to some extent Stoicism and Platonism and perhaps Aristotelianism) influenced Christian teachings.
Element 40: [T]he Christian idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God called the Logos, who was God's true high priest in heaven, was also not a novel idea but already held by some pre-Christian Jews; and this preexistent spiritual son of God had already been explicitly connected with a celestial Jesus figure in the OT (discussed in Element 6), and therefore some Jews already believed there was a supernatural son of God named Jesus--because Paul's contemporary Philo interprets the messianic prophecy of Zech. 6.12 in just such as way.
Element 41: The 'Son of Man' (an apocalyptic title Jesus is given in the Gospels) was another being foreseen in the visions of Enoch to be a preexistent celestial superman whom God will one day put in charge of the universe, overthrowing all demonic power, and in a text that we know the first Christians used as scripture (1 Enoch).
Element 44: In Jewish and pagan antiquity, in matters of religious persuasion, fabricating stories was the norm, not the exception, even in the production of narratives purporting to be true.
Carrier's last Element (48), perhaps the most revealing of them all, describes the Rank-Raglan hero-type, based on two scholars who developed it. Twenty-two features describe the properties of mythical hero types. (to see the features, click here).
According to Carrier (and Raglan), only two features do not score for Jesus. The following list shows the scores based on 15 hero-type characters:
1. Oedipus (21)
2. Moses (20)
3. Jesus (20)
4. Theseus (19)
5. Dionysus (19)
6. Romulus (18)
7. Perseus (17)
8. Hercules (17)
9. Zeus (15)
10. Bellerophon (14)
11. Jason (14)
12. Osiris (14)
13. Pelops (13)
14. Asclepius (12)
15. Joseph [i.e., the son of Jacob] (12)
As you can see, Jesus scores a high 20 on the hero scale. As an experiment, try to find any historical figure that comes close to this.
Of course the book also goes into depth about the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and extrabiblical evidence. Carrier put so much information in this book that I can hardly cover all of its topics, but of those that should surprise a believer the most include: the lack of evidence for a historical Jesus; the evidence of interpolations and forgeries throughout the Bible; and something that I had little awareness of: many of the texts that should have mentioned Jesus have, suspiciously, been destroyed. For two examples: a mysterious gap in the Roman History of Cassius Dio from the years 6 to 2 BCE do not exist. Carrier writes, "A Christian would have expected Dio to discuss the slaughter of the innocents and the miraculous star and other amazing events surrounding the birth of Jesus." Also, in the Annals of Tacitus, a gap in the text occurs about two years from the middle of 29 CE to the middle of 31. This describes precisely the period of the alleged Jesus' ministry and crucifixion (according to Christian belief). So not only do we have evidence of Christian forgery, fraud, and editing, we can also suspect that they destroyed literature that should have confirmed Jesus' existence. Holy shit cakes!
I don't have the historical knowledge to critique the accuracy of Carrier's findings and I leave it to scholars to discover any problems. But note that this book has already undergone peer review and a well respected publisher (Sheffield Phoenix Press), known for its specializing in biblical studies, published the book. And no doubt that many of Richard Carrier's opponents are now busily looking into every word and sentence to discover any flaws.
I do, however, have a couple of things that puzzles me. Firstly, the subtitle of the Book: "Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt." Might? The word suggests a weak agnostic position (like the word possibly). The book, however, demonstrates a probability for doubt. In fact it shows, at best, a strong probability of 3 to 1 (at best) that Jesus did not exist. It seems to me that it should read: "Why We Should Have Reason for Doubt." I doubt Carrier had anything to do with this, however, because authors rarely have control over the title. I suspect the publisher decided on the final wording, perhaps for fear it might scare away die hard historists.
The second concern involves one of omission, the lack of explanation of why we should or shouldn't use hearsay as evidence. As a skeptic, I reject hearsay because it serves as very poor evidence for establishing facts about the world (and why should we use poor evidence as evidence at all?) In the subchapter, "What Counts as Evidence?" nowhere do we hear about hearsay as evidence. Moreover, the index doesn't even include the word (nor does it appear in the index of the first volume, Proving History (although Carrier does mention the word in one sentence). Carrier is not the only historian to omit hearsay. In fact, I have yet to find any historiographical book that includes it in the index or in a chapter heading and when it does use it in the body of the text, it's only in a brief sentence or two, and even then, to discredit it. To Carrier's credit, however, he does show the problems of hearsay evidence indirectly. I discuss this in my commentary Why do historians rely on hearsay for evidence of Jesus?
None of this concerns Carrier's conclusion, however, because even when accepting hearsay accounts in his a fortiori arguments using Bayes' theorem, he still, comes out ahead, even well beyond agnosticism. Adding multiple hearsay accounts can actually decrease the probability of your claims and can result in a Conjunction Fallacy. (Carrier explains this in a blog post, here).
I had an agnostic position before with a leaning toward mythicism, but now I have even more reason to think mythicism explains the Jesus story better. Sure Jesus might have existed, but from the lack of evidence and the strong evidence for mythicism, it looks more likely that Jesus did not exist.
This book reflects an extraordinary example of historical scholarship and provides us with the best, by far, theory of Jesus mythicism ever written. It is well constructed, thorough, and argues from both sides of the argument (even bending backwards, by arguing a fortiori, for the historical Jesus side), and yet the minimal mythicist theory prevails. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to know more about the historical details surrounding the time that Christianity originated, even if its main character probably never existed. Carrier concludes with an appeal to the community of scholars to disprove him: "the ball is now in your court."
A few quotes from the book:
Most secular scholars agree--even when they believe Jesus existed, they do not need to believe that. Believers, by contrast, and their apologists in the scholarly community, cannot say the same. For them, if Jesus didn't exist, then their entire worldview topples. The things they believe in (and need to believe in) more than anything else in the world will then be under dire threat. It would be hard to expect them ever to overcome this bias, which makes bias a greater problem for them than for me. They need Jesus to be real, but I don't need Jesus to be a myth. p. xii
There were many men named Jesus back then. In fact it was among the most common of names (the name is actually Joshua: 'Jesus' is just a different way to spell it now. p. 3
[W]e have no criticisms of Christianity of any sort until well into the second century, far too late for such critics to know the real truth of the matter, especially if Christians themselves had forgotten (or weren't telling). p. 5
[T]he more powerfully a story affects a people, emotionally and morally, the more it is believed to be real. p. 9
If it is realistically possibly that Jesus didn't exist, then it is no longer possible to argue that we know he existed. We can only argue that he may have existed, or probably did. p. 14
We have not a single contemporary mention of Jesus--apart from, at best, the letters of Paul, who never even knew him, and says next to nothing about him (as a historical man), or the dubious letters of certain alleged disciples (and I say alleged because apart from known forgeries, none ever say they were his disciples), and (again apart from those forgeries) none ever distinctly place Jesus in history (see Chapter 7 and 11). p. 22
History concerns not what scholars subjectively think 'must' have happened, but what the evidence allows us all to claim actually did happen. p. 25
There were thousands of men named Jesus in Judea in any given generation, so obviously countless historical men of that name 'existed' in a trivial sense. It's even statistically certain that several men of that name were crucified by Romans, even by Pontius Pilate. p. 31
[A]nyone who will wish to continue to deny the claim that Jesus never really existed will have to advance the field of Jesus studies with a theory of historicity that not only somehow maintains a high enough prior probability to have any chance of being true, but also successfully explains all the evidence, including a lot of evidence that is not so easy to explain (surveyed in Chapter 8 through 11). p. 35
[T]he skeletal structure of the story in the Ascension clearly derives from this pre-Christain religion--whether by circuitous route or not. We know the Jews were long familiar with this sacred story of Inanna's decent. Jeremiah 7.18 and 44.15-26 complain of the prevalence of Inanna-cult among Palestinian Jews, even in the heart of Jerusalem itself, and Ezek. 8.14 explicitly mentions women in Jerusalem weeping for the fate of Tammuz (which would be his dragging into hell at the behest of the resurrected Ianna), which ceremony is also known to have preceded a rejoicing at his own resurrection. p. 46
If the Jesus of the Gospels wasn't humiliated, tried and crucified, if he didn't originate the Eucharist (which is just another resurrection-securing ritual of food and drink), then the depth of mythmaking that very rapidly surrounded him is truly extreme--and if it can be that extreme, why would we balk at the idea that the rest is myth, too? p. 47
Jewish authorities did not establish a canon until the second century CE, so no actual "Old Testament' existed at the dawn of Christianity, just a sea of scriptures, from which different sects selected their own collections. p. 88
[I]n our earliest sources Jesus was always distinguished as a different entity from God, and as his subordinate. Even in Colossians he is the image of God, not God himself... p. 95
The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion. p. 96
Mithraism was a syncretism of Persian and Hellenistic elements; the mysteries of Isis and Osiris were a syncretism of Egyptian and Hellenistic elements. Christianity is simply a continuation of the same trend: a syncretism of Jewish and Hellenistic elements. Each of these cults is unique and different from all the others in nearly every detail--but it's the general features they all share in common that reflect the overall fad that produced them in the first place, the very features that made them popular and successful within Greco-Roman culture. p. 100
Christianity's monotheism was also not original. Indeed, it was entirely parallel to the henotheism already popularly promoted by the mystery cults. p. 104
The propensity to hallucinate is molded by cultural context (people hallucinate frequently in cultures that promote and accept it, but suppress their capacity to hallucinate in cultures that denigrate and reject it), but also exists on a biological spectrum, from almost no capacity to a crippling capacity--and everything in between. p. 126
Thus 'mass hallucination' occurs in various cults not in the sense that everyone objectively hallucinates exactly the same thing, but in the sense that everyone subjectively hallucinates what they believe is the same thing. p. 132
[W]e also have confirmation in Paul that Christian leaders and congregants regularly hallucinated visions and voices... p. 134
In Gal. 1.11-12, Paul says he learned the gospel only from a hallucinated encounter with Jesus (a 'revelation') whom he experienced 'within' himself (Gal. 1.16). p. 135
Similarly, the fact that Christians regarded as inspired scripture such books as Daniel, which depict authoritative information coming from God through both visions and dreams, entails that Christians believed authoritative information came from God through visions and dreams (otherwise they would not deem such books as honest or reliable, much less scripture). p. 137
The epistles written during the first generation of Christians (from the 30s to the 60s CE) reveal a highly fragmented church already from the earliest recorded time, rife with fabricated new gospels and teachings effectively beyond the control of any central authority. p. 147
Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such a Christianity came to adopt the idea. p. 168
Origen also says that this invisible resurrection body was the original 'mold' for the body of flesh that Jesus had previously worn, and thus his fleshly body was only an earthly copy of his true, original (and final) body. p. 199
We have already seen that Paul's Jesus was a preexistent celestial being (Element 10). And here we see that this idea of a preexistent heavenly man predates even Christianity. p. 199
[I]n the final analysis Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was not awesome at all but trivial, as he know all along he would be resurrected and glorified (and thus he was not in fact sacrificing anything); so the fact that Christians never noticed this flaw in their logic should not surprise us... p. 211
Jesus' sacrifice, in fact, is based on the Isaac story, which had already been rabbinically linked with Passover. In legend both events occur on the same day, and the Isaac narrative is explicitly represented as the original Passover in texts such as Jubilees 17-18. Thus, in Galatians 3 and 4, Paul links Jesus with both Isaac and the Passover lamb. p. 213
In Jewish and pagan antiquity, in matters of religious persuasion, fabricating stories was the norm, not the exception, even in the production of narratives purporting to be true. p. 215
It's long been known that most of the OT is fiction (Exodus, Job, Ruth) or forgery (Daniel, Deutero-Isaiah, Deutero-Zechariah). p. 215
A classic example of this trend is seen in the phenomenon of euhermerization (Element 45). Thus, 'lives' of nonhistorical demigods were written, as if they actually existed and could be placed in history, and one could argue about which stories about them were true and which false, even though in fact they never existed at all (and so all the stories about them were false). p. 217
In fact, representing myth as fact became so popular, a trend arose of 'inventing' sources to cite as one's authorities, thus completing the representation that myths were actual histories. p. 217
[W]e find that most Christian faith literature in its first three centuries is fabricated--indeed, most by far. p. 221
There were in fact over forty different Gospels written, of which even fundamentalists agree only the canonical four are in any way authentic (while most mainstream scholars entertain the possibility that only one or two of those are, at best), plus over half a dozen different Acts. p. 221
Most of what Christians wrote were lies. We therefore should approach everything they wrote with distrust. p. 222
Religion at the time was, after all, a real, heartfelt, and very profitable business. In fact, the need to promote a brand was more important to religious institutions and communities precisely because they believed their mascots were real. p. 237
[T]he NT underwent a considerable amount of editing, interpolation and revising over the course of its first two centuries, and not merely as a result of transcription and scribal error, but often with specific dogmatic intent. p. 275
Independent or not, all extrabiblical mentions of Jesus come later than 90 CE, by which time a belief that Jesus was historical will already have arisen. Even the contents of the NT did not begin to be written until twenty or so years after Jesus is supposed to have lived, and most of it was written half a century or more after, some of it nearly as much as a century after. p. 279
No argument can follow from the premise that any disciple or eyewitness wrote the Gospels or Epistles, for example. If by an 'eyewitness' record we mean a record actually written by an eyewitness, we simply have no eyewitness record of Jesus ever existing, much less of anything that Jesus said or did. That alone proves nothing, of course, because it's as true of countless other historical persons. But they do not have an initially low probability of existing, whereas Jesus does... p. 280
So if the historicist wishes to maintain Jesus was really that famous, then historicity is refuted by the complete silence of all other literate persons of that age and region and of all who wrote about that region or about any famous persons and events like those. p. 354
The first we hear of anyone taking any notice of Christianity and taking any trouble to gainsay its claims is Celsus, who wrote in the latter half of the second century, well over a hundred years after the fact, half a century (then a whole lifetime) after any Gospels began circulating. p. 355
Acts' reliability for demonstrating the historicity of Jesus is essentially non-existent. p. 385
At no point do the Gospels name their sources or discus their relative merits or why they are relying on them; at no point do the Gospels exhibit any historiographical consciousness (such as discussing methods, or the possibility of information being incorrect, or the existence of non-polemical alternative accounts); they don't even express amazement at anything they report, no matter how incredible it is... p. 396
In fact, we'll see that creating the Gospel narratives by rewriting both pagan and Jewish 'scripture' was the norm, not the exception. p. 399
In sum, Mark's Gospel leaves us with no evidence for the historicity of Jesus. But it also does not count as evidence against the historicity of Jesus, since some of its context could yet be historical--we just can't prove it--and even if none of it is, it's still possible to write a completely fictional story about a genuinely historical man. p. 444
Illustrating every point made so far is the Sermon on the Mount, which is a well-crafted literary work that cannot have come from some illiterate Galilean. In fact, we know it originated in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, because it relies on the Septuagint text of the Bible for all its features and allusions. It relies extensively on the Greek text of Deuteronomy and Leviticus especially, and in key places on other texts. p. 465
[T]he Beloved Disciple is not unnamed... it should be obvious that that author of John 'had taken sufficient pains to make clear' that the Beloved Disciple was Lazarus. p. 500
The Gospels generally afford us no evidence for discerning a historical Jesus. p. 506
They are not seriously researched biographies or historical accounts--and are certainly not eyewitness testimonies or even collected hearsay. p. 507
A more ardent apologist might disagree in the other direction, and ask how it is the cosmic myths became earthly myths. Isn't a historical Jesus in fact more mundane, and thus a shift in an unexpected direction? More mundane, yes; but unexpected, no. That very trend to euhermerize (and thus make more mundane the tales of cosmic gods) was actually typical (Element 45). p. 507
They are not mythographers; novelists; propagandists. They are deliberately inventing what they present in their texts. And they; are doing it for a reason (even if we can't always discern that that is). The Gospels simply must be approached as such. We have to stop thinking we can use them as historical sources. p. 509
To change this conclusion, historicists need to find a way to prove that something about the historical Jesus in the Gospels is probably true (not possibly true, but probably true). p. 509
Paul would never have written a single letter; nor would his congregation have so often written him letters requesting he write to satisfy their questions--which for some reason always concerned only doctrine and rules of conduct, never the far more interesting subject of how the Son of God lived and died. p. 512
If you approach the text with gut reactions of what you think Paul (or any other author) probably meant, you are not thinking in a logically sound way. Those estimates of probability are in fact measures of the strength of your bias toward one conclusion over another, and not the probability of those biases being correct. Hence those probabilities, those estimates, those gut feelings are precisely what you should discard. p. 512
The logically correct way to reason from evidence to a conclusion is to assume that a hypothesis is true (for the sake of argument--in other words, wholly regardless of whether you already think the hypothesis is probable or not, you much assume it is not only probable but in fact true), and then ask how likely the particular piece of evidence you are looking at would be in that case. You must do this for both competing hypotheses (thus generating two estimates of probability, not one), p. 513
The reason I make a point of this is that the most common, and wholly erroneous, way scholars look at arguments like the following is to simply assume, a priori, that a particular interpretation is unlikely. But that is simply a measure of the strength of your bias. It is not a measure of any logically valid effect of that evidence on your conclusion. p. 513
In fact, as we'll see in this chapter, the only Jesus Paul shows any knowledge of is a celestial being, not an earthly man. Paul's Jesus is only ever in the heavens. Never once is his baptism mentioned, or his ministry, or his trial, or any of his miracles, or any historical details about what he was like, what he did, or suffered, or where he was from, or where he had been, or what people he knew. No memories of those who knew him are ever reported. Paul never mentions Galilee or Nazareth, or Pilate or Mary or Joseph, or any miracles Jesus did or any miraculous powers he is supposed to have displayed. . . or anything about the life of Jesus not in the Gospels. p. 515
The fact that nowhere in Hebrews, in all its thirteen chapters, do any historical words of Jesus appear, yet Jesus is often 'quoted' by quoting scripture, is not only evidence the Gospels had not been written yet but that there was no historical Jesus to quote. p. 543
Paul says he was incarnated, suffered, crucified, died, and buried, and spoke about a ritual meal on the night that happened; and that he is humble, fair and loving. All of which can be true of a cosmically incarnated Jesus. As far as Paul seem to care, there were no miracles, no ministry, no trial, no names or dates or places or any details at all of anyone or anyplace involved, and quote simply nothing anyone witnessed before his death. That's all very odd. Which means very improbable. Unless, of course, minimal mythicism is true. Then it makes perfect sense. p. 573
The last evidence historicists appeal to (and in my opinion the only actual evidence they have) is that twice Paul mentions 'brothers of the Lord', once as a generic group (1 Cor. 9.5) and once naming a specific person as belonging to it: James (Gal. 1.19). p. 582
It must be noted as well that Paul does not say here (or anywhere) 'brothers of Jesus', but 'brothers of the Lord', which can only be a cultic title. One does not become brother of 'the Lord' until the person in question is hailed 'the Lord', thus the phrase 'brother of the Lord' is a creation of Christian ideology. p. 584
Is even my a fortiori estimate of historicity's prior probability wrong? Let's see you prove it. I am not certain you can't. I am only certain you can't dismiss my estimate with one of your own without a sound argument. I want to see that sound argument. p. 602
And were he not the figure of a major world religion--if we were studying the Attis or Zalmoxis or Romulus cult instead--we would have treated Jesus that way from the start, knowing full well we need more than normal evidence to take him back out of the class of mythical persons and back into that of historical ones. p. 602
What does that mean for Jesus studies? It means all later tales of a historical Jesus and his family need to be seen as legendary, mythical, and propagandistic inventions, and studied for their literary and rhetorical purpose and not for their specific historical content. p. 606
If early-first-century Jews could conceive of a dying messiah becoming a celestial Lord (and clearly they could), they could conceive of this being true of a celestial man as easily as a historical one. p. 610
That Christianity began as a visionary cult prone to hallucinating fantastical things (Element 15 and 16) makes it all more likely still--because it eliminates the need of a historical man to die. p. 612
It's worth emphasizing here that we have absolutely no evidence that any ancient Jews (much less all of them) considered the idea of exalting a slain messiah to be blasphemous or illegal or even inconceivable-- that's a modern myth. p. 614
What's possible is irrelevant. What you have to prove is that any story in the Gospels (even if stripped down to its core) is probably true, not that it 'possibly' is. And there is simply no valid argument to be made that they are. Some might be, sure. But that gets us nowhere. The Gospels, therefore, must be discarded as evidence. p. 614
1. The Problem
Isn't This Just Bunk?
The Debate Today
Myth vs. History
Mythicists vs. Historicists
The Aim of This Book
Summary of Remaining Chapters
Applying Bayes' Theorem
Elements and Axioms
2. The Hypothesis of Historicity
Myth from History
The Basic Problem
Hypothesis Formation and Prior Probability
The Minimal Theory of Historicity
3. The Hypothesis of Myth
From Inanna to Christ
The Basic Problem
The Minimal Jesus Myth Theory
4. Background Knowledge (Christianity)
A Romulan Tale
Elemental Background Knowledge
Elements of Christian Origin
Elements of Christian Religion
Elements of Christian Development
5. Background Knowledge (Context)
Elements of Political Context
Elements of Religious & Philosophical Context
Elements of Literary Context
6. The Prior Probability
Heroes Who Never Existed
Determining Prior Probability
Using the Rank-Raglan Reference Class
The Causal Objection
The Alternative Class Objection
The Complexity Objection
Rapid Legendary Development
7. Primary Sources
What Counts as Evidence?
Breaking Down the Evidence
The Problem of Compromised Evidence
The Role of Consequent Probabilities
8. Extrabiblical Evidence
The Socrates Analogy
Missing Christian Evidence
Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Papias of Hierapolis
Josephus and the Testimonia Flaviana
Pliny & Tacitus
Suetonius & Thallus
Missing Evidence: Contra Myth
Weighing the Evidence
9. The Evidence of Acts
Acts as Historical Fiction
What Happened to the Body?
The Mysterious Vanishing Acts
The 'Trial Transcripts' of Paul
Stephen's Trial Speech
The Possibility of 'Aramaic' Sources
Weighing the Evidence
10. The Evidence of the Gospels
How to Invent a Gospel
What Is Myth?
Examining the Gospels
The Mythology of Mark
The Mythology of Matthew
The Mythology of Luke
The Mythology of John
Weighing the Evidence
11. The Evidence of the Epistles
The Passion of Pliny the Elder
The Peculiar Indifference of Paul and His Christians
Epistles from the Pillars
The Earliest Gospels
The Gospel in Hebrews
Things Jesus Said
Things Jesus Did
Women and Sperm
Brothers of the Lord
Weighing the Evidence
The Final Calculation
On Trying to Avoid the Conclusion
What We Should Conclude
The Last Desperate Objection
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