Book Review: On the Historicity of Jesus (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
What really happened back at the beginning of Christianity?
Measured by trashy novels like “The Da Vinci Code” and last year’s best-seller, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” public interest remains keen on this topic. We’ve moved from “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to “The Greatest Detective Story Ever Told.”
Scholars have been sifting the evidence for a couple hundred years now, and they’ve clearly established that the Christian gospels are not presenting literal history. But the gospels must be based on something that really happened, right? Historians have widely agreed there must have been a real person, Jesus, who kicked the whole thing off.
The problem is, when it comes to the question of what actually happened to Jesus or what he really said or did, historians and bible scholars are all over the map.
“Mythicists” propose an answer as to why they disagree: it’s because Jesus never existed in the first place.
As someone who’s had an interest in early Christianity for at least forty years now, I’ve long been aware there are people who argue that Christianity started with a myth, not a real person. I didn’t take them seriously because (1) historians have been in consensus that Jesus existed, and (2) I couldn’t imagine how a mythological figure could come to be taken as a real person.
Well, Richard Carrier’s recent book, “On the Historicity of Jesus,” presents a very serious challenge to the historians’ consensus, and has given me a clear picture of how the events could have unfolded under the mythicist scenario.
The subtitle of his book—“Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt”—exhibits false modesty, as Carrier spends over 600 pages explaining why he believes we have plenty of reason for doubt. For people with the requisite stamina and obsessive interest in the topic to plow through the book, it is worth the effort.
Carrier has a Ph.D. in ancient history and it shows. He leads the reader through a fairly comprehensive tour of the pertinent evidence, loaded with footnotes to experts’ publications in peer-reviewed books and articles. I caught up with scholarship on topics I already was somewhat familiar with, and learned a lot of things I did not know.
Carrier is also a prominent atheist, and arguments with and about him have lit up the internet. The debate about the historicity of Jesus is often a proxy for a theological debate between atheists and more conservative Christians, but it is in some ways beside the point.
Even if it were proven Jesus never existed, that would not prove God does not exist. And the non-existence of someone can never be conclusively proven anyway, so Christians can go right on believing Jesus existed even if historians come to agree that it is very unlikely. Believing what other people find hard to believe has been a point of pride for Christians at least since Paul was writing.
On the other side, even if it were proven that Jesus did exist, that is still a long way from proving that he rose from the dead, worked miracles, or said anything he is claimed to have said, let alone that he was the Son of God who died for our sins.
Theological disputes aside, the important question here is how to do history. The greatest value of Carrier’s book is that he presents a sound method to follow in attempting to answer the question of whether something actually happened.
First, according to Carrier, you must define the “reference class” of the topic you are examining to determine its “prior probability” of actually happening. In this case you have to have background knowledge of the ancient world, as the story of a god-man who dies for sins and rises to heaven in triumph fits a much larger class of myths about dying and rising gods. This knowledge establishes an estimated probability of the historical reality of Jesus as a person before examining the rest of the evidence.
Second, you create competing hypotheses to explain how the claim for historical reality came to be. Here the first hypothesis is that there was a real man, Jesus, who inspired the myth-like story, and the competing hypothesis is that there was a myth of a dying and rising god that came to be believed as an historical event.
Third, you survey all the relevant evidence, and with each piece of evidence you estimate the probability that that evidence would exists under each hypothesis. Carrier’s survey includes both biblical documents (the Acts of the Apostles, the four gospels, and those epistles established to be early and authentic), and extra-biblical documents (the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Papias of Hierapolis, Hegesippus, Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, and others).
Lastly, you follow the correct mathematical procedure to total the overall probability that each hypothesis is true, based on the prior probability and all the probabilities that each piece of pertinent evidence would exist under each hypothesis. Carrier estimates a 0 to 33% chance that Jesus existed, which means a 67 to 100% chance that he did not.
The important thing is that he tells you exactly how to go about coming up with a different estimate. You have to either present another method that is as good or better than his, give defensible reasons for estimating different probabilities, or offer evidence he did not consider and calculate that into the totals.
I think his method is a sound one. If his opponents take up the challenge, the debate would be enlightening.
But I fear many of them will not, and that it may take attrition and a new generation of scholars to move the debate forward. I was reminded of a book that was required reading when I was in graduate school, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn described how intellectual communities can remain married to a theory despite accumulating incongruous evidence, until there is a “paradigm shift” in their dominant way of thinking.
That process is never easy. It doesn’t take theological commitments to impede it, as reputation, psychological resistance to questioning one’s worldview, social pressure, and other mundane forces are sufficient.
As for me, I had already come to a place where I was willing to entertain mythicist arguments. I didn’t pay much attention to Carrier’s probability estimates, as I was more interested in understanding the mythicist interpretation of what happened and seeing how he would handle the evidence that I think would be the most difficult to account for. (For the record, Carrier addressed that evidence in Chapter 11 on the epistles. I think he did a good job, and would like to read rejoinders to his arguments.)
For those who got this far in my review, here is the payoff of a brief summary of the mythicist version of early Christian origins:
Between the 20s and the 40s a Jewish sect adopted a belief that a celestial divine figure, Jesus (which means “God saves”), descended from the highest heaven down through the celestial realms into the sub-lunar realm just above the earth, where God gave him a human body and Satan and his demons crucified him. Jesus then rose from the dead, destroying their demonic power over the earth and ascending in triumph back to the highest heaven. This belief was an amalgamation of common mystery religion themes and an interpretation of Jewish scriptures.
The sect was led by people like Peter and, later, Paul, who received messages from Jesus via visions and interpretations of scriptural passages. They believed Jesus’ sacrificial death enabled them to abandon the corrupt Temple sacrificial cult and receive forgiveness of sins via faith in Jesus and participation in ritual baptism and a sacred meal. The latter were again themes common to mystery religions.
Between the 30s and 70s some Christian congregations developed a longer allegorical story of Jesus’ life, sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension, with the inner meaning taught to higher initiates (the “telios”) and an outer, historicized story presented to new converts. This was also something that happened in other mystery religions. Persecutions, famines, and the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 disrupted the early churches and led to a “dark age” of the Christian movement from the 60s to the 90s or so. Most, if not all of the original Christian leaders died during this time.
It was during this “dark age” that the canonical gospels and Acts of the Apostles were developed, using the common techniques of adopting and adapting sayings, events, and literary models from other writings, primarily the Jewish scriptures. None of it was based on an historical Jesus, and the people involved in writing and rewriting them were writing guides to Christian living, not actual history.
In the second century there were competing versions of Christianity, and the one which prevailed was one which preached an historical Jesus rather than one who spoke only via revelation or the interpretation of Jewish scriptures. They sanctioned the Christian writings which could be used to support their position and suppressed writings which contradicted it. From that point on the history of the church is clearer.
Carrier’s claim is that this version fits the evidence better than the alternative version that things started with an actual person, Jesus. Read his book and judge for yourself whether he made a good case.