On the Historicity of Jesus by Richard Carrier
Critical Reviews from Amazon.com
"...the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying..." (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
An Impressive, but Complete, Failure -- review by David Marshall on Amazon.com
This review is from: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (712 pages, paperback)
In this book, Richard Carrier writes big checks on his own objectivity, knowledge, and sound judgment. He often appeals to his objectivity, while deriding that of scholars who hold opposing views, whom he hints are too hide-bound or fearful to come to the dark side and embrace his views. He makes dozens or hundreds of judgment calls, defending them in the first person ("I judge" "I am rejecting" etc). He refers readers frequently to his previous writings in which he claims to have "demonstrated X conclusively." And more implicitly, he asks readers to trust him when he offers thousands of citations -- we must believe that he is citing this cloud of ancient and modern witnesses accurately, or else take the trouble to look them all up, which few readers are likely to do.
In some ways, Carrier does seem a formidable character, and this seems far and away his most impressive book. Few 'mythicists' have gained doctorates in the history of ancient science from Columbia University: clearly, the fellow has brains. Carrier is clever and inventive, and the extent and variety of works he appeals to here is extraordinary. (Far eclipsing those to which Reza Aslan appealed in last summer's amateurish but best-selling book arguing that the historical Jesus was a "zealot.")
But Carrier asks readers to trust him on so many judgment calls, that one has to ask: even in the abstract, is it likely that a single young scholar would be right so often (the dating of Ascension of Isaiah, both Josephus passages, the purely subjective nature of Paul's experience and beliefs, etc), and hundreds of specialized scholars, experts in those exact fields, consistently wrong? What is the Bayesian probability of that?
And if Carrier really is so objective and fair-minded, why does he have such a thin skin? Why does he accuse scholars who hold alternative views of low motives? Why does he constantly poison the well by inserting the adjective "fanatical" before the noun "believers?" (And doesn't he have other pejoratives in his storehouse, just for the sake of variety?) Why react so heavy-handedly to criticism here on Amazon, including from myself? ("Don't read him! He's an apologist, and therefore dishonest! He lost a debate in Alabama!") [link to the excellent debate between Richard Carrier and David Marshall]. It is almost as if Richard knows, at some level, that he has built an impressive house of cards, but that any breath of critical analysis might blow it all away.
And that is the case. Despite its impressive facade, to call the structure of this argument "flawed" would be a compliment to flimsiness. It totters in dozens if not hundreds of places. If the termites (united by collective Promethian will) stop holding hands, it will immediately blow away in the wind, and leave not only the historical Jesus, but I would say the Jesus of the Gospels, calmly standing before us, bemused by the ruckuss, to which he has long been accustomed.
I will limit myself to ten brief examples here, but will go into more detail elsewhere.
It is a peculiar custom to define a known by an unknown: most people know the NT better than they know Greek mystery religions, so defining the former by the latter is more likely to confuse than enlighten. And in fact, Carrier seems confused. He gives four qualities that Greek Mystery Religions allegedly share, and that Pauline Christianity allegedly shared with them. Only some of those qualities are far too broad to help define anything so specific as Greek Mystery Religions. For instance, Carrier says such faiths are syncretistic. But almost all new ideologies (Islam, modern Hindu guruism, Nazism, Secular Humanism), syncretize, in the sense Carrier defines, including this very book. James Thrower argues that indeed, any valuable intellectual model of religions MUST embrace truths found in other systems. So this characteristic does not define Greek Mystery Religions in particular. (And indeed, I would distinguish syncretism from a Christian model that I call Fulfillment -- but that is another, longer, story.)
(See my reply to this 'Parallel Pagan' argument in my Conclusion: Christianity versus Pagan "Mystery" Religions)
On another point, Carrier says Greek Mystery Religions were evolving towards monotheism. But on his own telling, Christianity represented the evolution of Judaism in the OPPOSITE direction -- from strict monotheism, towards henotheism. And indeed, Rodney Stark argues that strict monotheism can be sustained only for short periods -- opposing powers and angels almost always appear very quickly, as they must. So the Jews seldom, if ever, were that strict in their monotheism. So Carrier is being extremely elastic with his own points -- and there were only four to begin with, which isn't much to prove Christianity is a "Jewish-Hellenistic Mystery Religion," or whatever term he uses. In the end, not a single one of Carrier's points survives even slight critical analysis, and he gives no reason whatsoever to classify early Christianity as a Judeo-Grecan "mystery religion" (on how he deals with Paul, keep reading).
He repeatedly claims people say things they do not say. He glosses them with opinions they do not hold. He often fails to note when they say things that disconfirm his thesis.
Christian apologist and philosopher Tim McGrew and I give some examples of how Carrier misrepresents or at least badly misunderstands Justin Martyr, in a book called True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel, 2014) and I have called him to account before for misrepresenting Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Luke, and others. I thought he might be more careful here, but he is not. I could give numerous examples, but let me settle for one related to Carrier's claim that early Christianity was a "mystery religion." (One of Carrier's 'fans' typically accused me of making this up, apparently because he could not find the reference in Carrier's index!)
On page 111, Carrier cites 1 Corinthians 13:2 to support his claim that the Christianity of St. Paul was in fact a 'mystery religion' with layers of secret knowledge made only to Christians of "sufficient rank" who had jumped through all the hoops of initiation: "Paul elsewhere mentions there being many mysteries (which together constituted complete 'knowledge') and implies only the most advanced knew them all (I Cor 13:2)." Anyone who has read Paul should know that Carrier is completely misrepresenting him on this point. Paul emphasizes not that Christians advance through ranks, but that Christians are given widely different individual gifts, each for the "building up of the body" as a whole. The analogy is repeated: every gift is useful, and each Christian therefore has something unique to contribute. And this verse in particular, if quoted, would not only not support Carrier's point, but badly undermine it: "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."
Where does Paul describe Christian virtues, or the spiritual gifts (he includes examples of both in this passage) as stages in the life of a single Christian rising in the ranks? That is clearly not what he is talking about here, or when he lists those virtues and gifts, and says Christians should ALL seek the better ones, or should contribute what they have "to the body." There is no hint here of Carrier's scheme at all. Read I Corinthians, and the whole Pauline corpus, from beginning to end, and that is not what you will find. ("Oh, but these are mysteries, so the truth is being hidden!" Hidden, indeed.)
Furthermore, what Paul clearly IS saying, is that love is more important than any gift or even act of kindness or heroism (such as he mentions in other verses.) Then he describes love with great eloquence and insight in a completely democratic way -- anyone can and should strive for this greatest virtue. THAT is Paul's point. Carrier is just imagining his own doctrine here, and projecting it on Paul, based on nothing.
And that is far too typical. I could give many more examples. All those thousands of citations look very impressive. But if one cannot trust them, if one is obliged to check the original every time a source is mentioned, then they become more a liability than an asset, an albatross hanging around the neck of Carrier's theory.
Carrier lists 22 qualities that fit within this rubric, arguing that the Jesus of Matthew meets at least 20 of them, maybe more. And since far more myths than historical persons (Carrier notes that hundreds of millions of people lived in ancient times) fit within this myth (Carrier lists 15 he thinks does, and Jesus is second from the top), therefore it is initially far more likely that Jesus was a myth, not an historical person. This is a convoluted, unsound, and just plain weird argument.
(Mike Licona responds to a similar argument from Carrier in a Review of the DVD 'The God Who Wasn't There')
First, the relevant question is not how many people lived, but of how many people do we have sufficient knowledge to say whether they fit R-R.
Second, if we agree to count ghosts, then let's also count ghostly myths as well. By Carrier's own definition of myth, as a writer and educator, I have myself invented hundreds of them. If the average ancient created just 100 myths in their lifetime, then trillions of myths existed, and one would expect far more RR myths than RR persons, anyway.
Third, why does Carrier focus on Matthew, which he sees as later, and not Mark, who he thinks represents the earlier stratus of the Christian myth? Of course, because Matthew's Jesus seems to fit this pattern better than Mark's Jesus -- especially if you concentrate on the infancy narratives. Carrier bizarrely justifies including later elements on the grounds that Baynes does not allow us to discriminate -- RR heroes turn out to be mythical if they are EVER ascribed these traits, even much later on.
This is magical thinking. Are we seriously proposing that if, in the future, someone who does not know the facts makes up a story in which Richard Carrier is a king, that invention will somehow act retroactively to render the historicity of any biographical accounts of Carrier's life less likely? Call it science fiction if you like, but an atheist historian should not be allowed to use such fanciful and anachronistic thinking. Matthew, or the later builder of sepulchers, could not travel back in time to render Mark's account less credible.
Fourth, anyway, even in Matthew, Jesus does not in fact meet 20 characteristics. The Gospels do not, for instance, claim he was an actual king, just a metaphorical one. Carrier insists that we be "rigorous" in applying these standards, using his own alleged rigor as a reason to exclude historical figures like Alexandria the Great. But if we rigorously apply his own exact wording to Matthew, Jesus meets between 6 and 8 of the RR qualities.
Fifth, and most of those have to do with Jesus' childhood, which I readily admit is not as historically-evidenced as his later career. Sound history should differentiate between these two bodies of data.
Anyway (sixth), Carrier has not even tried to point to any LOGIC behind this argument.
Finally, as a Christian fulfillment thinker in the line of C. S. Lewis, I think the Gospel is indeed "like myth in some ways," and unlike it in others -- more below.
Another critic points out that Abraham Lincoln has been said to meet all the RR characteristics. I won't look into that, for now, since the points above are more than enough to show how weak, not to say bizarre, Carrier's discussion of prior probability is.
His conclusion from this study is that people lived such short lives that leadership in the Church, and the witnesses, would have passed from the scene very quickly. But Carrier's figures imply that just to replace the population, an average ancient woman would have had to give birth to some 13 or 14 children each. And that's even if every woman and her partner(s) were fertile, and the years of childbirth themselves were magically free of danger. In fact childbirth itself was highly dangerous, and not all women were fertile or married, so the average woman would have had to give birth so about 20 children just to replace the population. (If you don't see how ludicrous that is, ask your mother!) Yet Rome had enough surplus population to waste on gladiator games, infanticide, abortion, and crucifying sages. These mortality figures must then be ludicrously high.
He repeatedly throws out real or alleged (one need always check) parallels, waves his hands, and says something like, "That must be really improbable on historicism, but I'm going to be generous and assign it just a little improbability." Once in a while he tries to make a slightly more careful argument, but in general, all this subjective hand-waving can at best keep the mosquitoes away while we attempt more serious arguments.
(Again, see my reply to this 'Parallel Pagan' argument in my Conclusion: Christianity versus Pagan "Mystery" Religions)
He gives ten 'characteristics' that Acts allegedly share with 'adventure novels' in the ancient world:
Carrier thinks he's really onto something here. "If Acts looks exactly like an ancient novel (and it does), are we really going to chalk this up to coincidence?"
But Peace Child, my friend Don Richardson, arguably includes EVERY SINGLE ONE of these elements. (Including more romance and tension in his separation from his wife.) And many true stories about modern missions include most or all of these elements. So does the biography of Gladys Aylsworth. So does that of Goforth of China (by his wife, who was there). So does the autobiography of George MacKay in Taiwan.
In fact, these elements are NORMAL for Christian missions, which after all is about going overseas, to often hostile and adventurous lands, leaving loved ones behind, and often stirring up the crowds. (And yes, as I explained to Richard in our debate -- too bad he didn't listen -- chock them up to a desire to solicit funds if you are wed to a materialist worldview and don't know the principals, but reports of miracles are a normal part of missions, too -- even from real people.) So this whole construct collapses on the fact that Richard Carrier doesn't know anything about missionary history. And so, I think, will almost all his other attacks on the NT from parallelmania, grabbing bits and pieces from hither and yon and claiming THAT is where the NT got its stuff.
Read the Acts of Peter, and try to tell me with a straight face it is exactly like the Acts of the Apostles. Or Golden Ass, which Carrier seemed to claim was just like the Gospels. Or Apollonius of Tyana. (I show this latter, the most popular alleged parallel, in detail, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.) The truth is, neither Richard Carrier, nor any other skeptic, can find anything in the ancient world remotely like the Gospels, and that's why they offer such absurd parallels, apparently hoping no one will read the originals. (Or lacking literary judgment themselves, which I think is true of Richard.)
He appeals to his suggestions in this book, but does not follow them! For instance, in Proving History Carrier lists some 20 remarkably stringent conditions for using the Criteria of Embarrassment. Yet as I pointed out, Carrier has himself used that criteria in the past, without even pretending to begin to see if his use passes such a strict test. So does he apply his own method to his own use of either history or that one criterion in this book? Heck, no! In fact, on the top of one page, he refers readers to his rules, then in a footnote on the SAME PAGE he ignores them in making a CE argument himself!
The truth is, if we applied Carrier's 20-odd principles, history would collapse. Nothing would survive such severe skepticism. Apparently Carrier knows that, at some level. But if he does not pay more attention to his own demands, why should anyone else?
This is particularly absurd when Carrier is talking about how if "historicism" were true, early Christians would have saved far more early documents than they did, Jesus' real estate transactions and what-not. He compares Jesus in this regard to Socrates, about whom he said many people wrote books even while he was alive, whose names we know. If so much has been preserved from the time of Socrates, why not from the time of Jesus, who was said to be the Son of God? This, Carrier argues, is a terrible dilemma for "historicists," giving a few bad options for them to choose between.
But this is nonsense. Homer was the Greek Old Testament, Socrates was its New Testament. He was the most famous man in the most literate and powerful city of his time: the source of the civilization that swept out upon the Mediterranean world through the conquests of Socrates' own great-grand-student, Alexander. First Century Christianity, by contrast, was a persecuted and outlawed sect within a marginal, broken, and failing ethnicity on the borders of the empire.
"The unusually high rate of survival of texts from classical Athens is a product of medieval selection, not of any discernible difference in volume of literature produced." (290)
This is obviously untrue. First of all, a thousand years lay between the Athens of Socrates and Medieval Europe. If ancient Greeks and Romans hadn't copied the works of Athens till their fingers dropped off, the Medievals would never have heard of them. And when they did, they got lots of their texts from the Muslim world, which also found them valuable.
How does Carrier claim to know that the difference between "production" in Athens and elsewhere is "undiscernible?" What does that even mean? Is he admitting ignorance? If he doesn't know, then why is he guessing? If he does know, why not give figures?
Athens was the center of Greek culture, its strongest state during that period, and the source of much or most the Greek culture that was carried by Alexander the Great in his conquests of much of the ancient world. The playwrights are already commenting on the flow of cash that keeps Athens above the rest, with hundreds of subordinate cities paying in.
What do we have from Egyptian preachers? From Iraqi preachers? From eyewitnesses to the ministry of Lao Zi? Even from Roman preachers? What amazes me is how much 1st Century Christian material has survived.
Why don't Clement, Paul, and so forth mention the life of Jesus more? Why don't they quote his actual earthly words? This sort of Argument From Silence dies, I think, on reading Acts. Even Carrier agrees the book is a sequel to Luke. So Luke not only believed in the historical Jesus, he described numerous graphic details in the life of Jesus in one book -- then almost ignored it in the next! And every writer knows that if you write a book about one subject, you are MORE likely to mention it in later books. Carrier and other mythicists demand baby pictures of Jesus in letters written to teach Christian morality, but who are they to decide how to write a letter? I'm not even sure I often quote the Gospels in my letters, and I firmly believe in Jesus' historicity.
Carrier seems to assume that once an ancient book was "published," it was instantly sent in an attachment to every Christian writer in the Roman Empire, so they could reference it in their own writings the next week. He makes far too little allowed for how slowly writings can sift into society even today, and how much slower they would have been when paper cost a small fortune and no copy machines were yet in existence.
No one denies that Plato lived long before Jesus, and that his teachings had had a profound influence in creating suspicion among Greeks towards the material world. No one denies that Gnosticism was rife in the 2nd Century. James Robinson's Nag Hammadi library is easily purchased and read, showing that what the early Christians said about the Gnostics was pretty close on. So why does Carrier write as if the fact that Christians faced Greek notions of an unearthly Jesus was somehow surprising, on historicism? These notions were part of the Zeitgeist: they are no surprise whatsoever. (See my "The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'")
In fact, Carrier absurdly argues from a pair of Gnostic texts, which he fails to so identify, that Christians were liable to making up "Gospels" on the spur of the theological moment. But the text he cites ("Sophia of Jesus Christ") is in no real sense a gospel, and the dialogue it furnishes doesn't even faintly resemble anything in the Gospels. It is simply an attempt by Gnostics to "cash in" on the name-recognition of a rising religious star by putting Gnostic sentiments in Jesus' mouth, cutting and pasting from Eugnostos the Blessed.
I say "seems to" because I have not yet finished his long, last portion on the Gospels, but the pattern seems evident.
The most famous Christian scholar of modern times was C. S. Lewis, who was described by one contemporary as the "best read man" of his time. Lewis was a magisterial and judicious literary scholar. Under the prodding of JRR Tolkien, Lewis realized that the Gospels are "like myth in some ways, unlike myth in other ways." In my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, I pinned that down: the Gospels share some "theological" traits with some myths, but also share dozens of historically-relevant traits with the more trustworthy ancient historical works. (NOT Apollonius of Tyana!)
Carrier clearly never read that book before our debate, and gave a glib response that was totally false to my claims about the Gospels (books like Golden Ass and Tobit share "every characteristic" of the Gospels -- complete nonsense). Nor does he deal with the positive challenge of the Gospels here -- he seems unable to recognize any virtue in anything Christian (almost). If he wants to ignore me, fine. But he shouldn't ignore literary scholars of the caliber of Tolkien and Lewis.
To sum up in colloquial language, Richard Carrier's ego is writing checks that his intellect can't cash. That's no slight on his intellect -- this is always the way with Promethean rebels. Be they ever so brilliant as the anti-hero of Milton's Paradise Lost, they are ultimately outmatched by reality, and their egos get in the way of critical thinking.
I hope one day to see great things from a humbler, wiser, and much more careful, Richard Carrier.
review by David Marshall on Amazon.com
This is the LAST ONE! -- review by B. Tate on Amazon.com
This review is from: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (712 pages, paperback)
This is absolutely the last atheist book that I will read! I'm a life-long Christian, a Bible-thumping Baptist fundamentalist. Yet because I want to understand both sides, I have also read a lot of atheist literature. I have read:
And now "On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt" by Richard Carrier, and the only reason I read this one is because I promised myself I would read the follow-up to "Proving History". To give you the bottom line up front -- none of this has convinced me to abandon my Christian faith. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I am probably one of the few people (and even fewer Christians) who will read "On the Historicity of Jesus" word-for word, cover-to-cover. I have to give Carrier credit -- it's a good book. This is the first time that I've seen so much of the Jesus scholarship & evidence gathered in one book, and Carrier analyzes it all in painstaking (excruciating?) detail. The man IS thorough. But I don't agree with his conclusions. Despite Carrier's veneer of exacting scholarship & analysis, by the end of the book the reader knows that much of it rests on Carrier's opinion & interpretation.
First, Carrier presents absolutely nothing new. For all his thoroughness, everything that Carrier presents has been known and analyzed for centuries, and Jesus scholars of all stripes have consistently come down on the side of Jesus being a historical person. Carrier simply does not bring anything new to the argument.
Carrier is also a committed & militant atheist. There is simply no room in Carrier's worldview for the existence of God, miracles, or divine inspiration. And both "Proving History" and "On the Historicity of Jesus" were written with a $20,000 grant from Atheists United. I would no more send Dr. Richard Carrier to investigate the historicity Jesus than I would send Dr. Billy Graham to investigate the validity of atheism. Carrier claims early in the book that he will be objective in examining the evidence, give Jesus every chance, and that it doesn't really matter to him one way or the other if Jesus existed or not. Yet at every point in the book Carrier attacks every shred of evidence in favor of Jesus with a grim determination that, after awhile, seems to border on desperation.
In his writing, Carrier skips from mainstream scholarship to radical fringe scholarship to his own opinion so seamlessly that it is hard to keep track, and he quotes his own earlier books as "The Authority" all too often for my taste.
Carrier tries to pass off Christianity as just another Middle Eastern 'mystery religion'. Yet that issue has been raised and debunked repeatedly. Christianity is radically different from mystery religions. Instead of a young woman willingly conceiving by the power God, mystery religions give us lusty gods raping human females. Instead of the Incarnation of the Son of God, mystery religions give us half-human half-divine superheroes subject to the same sins that we are.
(See my reply to this 'Parallel Pagan' argument in my Conclusion: Christianity versus Pagan "Mystery" Religions)
Along the same line, Carrier claims that early Christianity had "levels" of esoteric knowledge that were revealed only to "higher initiates", when even a casual reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus preached a simple gospel of faith and accepted anyone who believed in Him (Mark 2:5; 11:22; Matt 16:24; John 3:16, 36). In his letters, Paul railed against those who tried to complicate Christianity....he preached that faith (Rom 1:5; 3:23, 28; 4:5; 5:1; 16:26), with obedience and love (Rom 6:16; Gal 5:6; 1 Thess 1:3; 1 Cor 13:2,13; cf. James 2:24), was enough.
Carrier claims that early Christians were a group of "schizotypals" who hallucinated much of their knowledge of God. That is a huge leap of faith right there, and a massive assumption by Carrier.
Carrier knows the Bible inside out & backwards, but I honestly don't think he understands a word of it. He dismisses the Gospels as nothing but fiction...he flat-out calls John a liar. Carrier claims that Paul's Epistles never really mention Jesus, when even a casual reading shows that Paul believed that Jesus was a real person who suffered a real physical (earthly) crucifixion (1 Cor 1:13-23; 2:2-8; 15:1ff; Gal 2:20; 3:1,13; 6:12-14; Phil 2:8; Col 1:20; 2:14-15; 1 Thess 2:14-16; Heb 6:6; 12:2; etc) and experienced a real (bodily) resurrection. Carrier's effort to prove that James wasn't really the 'brother of Jesus' (Gal 1:19 "the Lord's brother"; also Josephus Antiquities, Book 20, Chap 9, 1 "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James...") is one of the most dazzling examples of twisted logic that I have ever read. Only the bulldog determination to read this book through to the end kept me from pitching it any number of times.
Carrier's dismissal of the extrabiblical evidence is unconvincing. Josephus is considered an excellent Jewish historian, even Carrier quotes him in this book -- except those pesky passages that prove Jesus existed....THOSE are pure bunk, of course! Carrier's backhand of Josephus reeks of bias. Ditto his dismissal of Pliny & Tacitus and the other evidence from outside the Bible.
Equally unconvincing is Carrier's dismissal of the fact that we have absolutely nothing from that time that debunks the existence of Jesus. The Epistles indicate that early Christianity had plenty of enemies, and Carrier does a good job of showing that. Yet he falls flat when trying to explain why we have nothing -- not a letter, not a police report, not a pharisee's journal, not a soldier's diary, not a scrap, nothing -- that says "I was in Israel and Jerusalem at that time, and there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth."
I could go on & on, but I don't want this to turn into one of those 5,000-word diatribes that masquerades as a book review. All of this leads to the linchpin of both of Carrier's books, the use of Bayes Theorem in Jesus studies. Carrier touts Bayes Theorem as a precision tool for historical studies, yet the theorem has been around since the 1700s and neither secular nor Biblical historians have ever grasped it with glad 'hosannas' that it will turn history into an exact science. Bayes Theorem works only when you have solid numbers to plug in to calculate probabilities. History is simply too subjective...too much depends on what numbers that you assign to historical sources. Any equation, any computer program, will say whatever you want it to say depending on the numbers that you plug in. Carrier's obvious biases and the low probabilities he assigns to the resources of Jesus scholarship make his low probability of Jesus' existence a foregone conclusion from page 1.
By the time the reader finally slogs to the end of "On the Historicity of Jesus" he is left with "HUH?!" Despite all the footnotes & bibliography, so much of this book rests on Carrier's own interpretation of the Gospels and Epistles, and he would have us believe that Christianity is based on nobody and nothing real. In the end, I did not find "On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt" convincing. It is the same with the other atheist books I have read, and since I began by talking about them I probably should end with a summation of what I have learned from reading them. I learned several things....
First, I learned that both Christians and atheists face the same problem -- neither can 'prove' their basic tenet. If we Christians could prove conclusively that God exists, I would not be writing this book review. And if atheists could prove conclusively that God does NOT exist, I would not be writing this book review. I found that fact very interesting.
Second, I also found it interesting that reading ONE atheist book will shake your faith, but reading A LOT of atheist books will actually nudge you back toward God. As a group, their arguments are no better than the Christian apologists. The atheists claim that their lack of belief in God is based on reason and fact, yet their primary tools are actually snark and ridicule. Much of their books are based on a stunning ignorance of God and the Bible and Christians and church history. And they are arrogant. The writing of most Christian apologists shows a certain level of humility, but atheist books reek of intellectual arrogance.
Third, I learned that they hate us...atheists genuinely HATE Christians and the Christian religion. I think I was on my fourth book before I realized that, but I vividly remember the moment and the shock that I felt. Once I recognized it, their hatred came through every page like 'background radiation'.
Their hatred of Christians made me angry, but the fourth thing that I learned scared me. There is one spiritual element missing from the atheist books. They kick God's ass, they kick Jesus' ass, they kick the Bible's ass, they kick Christian ass. But there is one ass they don't kick. I was on my third or fourth book before I realized that Satan is absent from almost every book, and I found that very strange. You would think that the atheists would spend at least one chapter debunking the existence of the Bible's main villain, but they scarcely mention him at all. ("On the Historicity of Jesus" mentions Satan and his demons several times, but not in any debunking way.) Once I realized that, it scared me deeply.
So "On the Historicity of Jesus" is the last atheist book that I will read. "The use of books is endless and much study is wearisome" as Ecclesiastes says. Sooner or later you have to make a choice, and my choice is Jesus and my Christian faith, and it was the atheist books themselves that pushed me there.
If you've made it this far, thank you for reading my review. It DID turn into a 5,000-word diatribe, and I apologize. I realize that it will probably bring the psycho-flamers out in force, but "On the Historicity of Jesus" is my last atheist book, and this is my last word on the subject.
review by B. Tate on Amazon.com
A Mythicist Historiography, But Why Is Bayes's Theorem Rarely Used?
-- review by F. Ramos on Amazon.com
This review is from: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (712 pages, paperback)
This is Richard Carrier's long awaited work on the existence of Jesus (2nd vol). The 1st vol "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus" is his methodology on the philosophy of history: using Reverend Thomas Bayes Theorem on historical questions in hopes of sorting out the current numerous contradictory historiographical reconstructions found in Jesus Studies. Carrier's use of Bayes Theorem on history is not the first since in the 2006 Bart Ehrman vs. William Lane Craig debate on the resurrection of Jesus, Craig used it from John Earman's "Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles" whereby Humean arguments were scrutinized under Bayesian analysis. Richard Swinburne's "The Resurrection of God Incarnate" (2003) was cited there too as getting 97% probability on Jesus resurrecting with Bayes Theorem. So from the start we can tell that Bayes Theorem can be used to justify anything from 'Jesus did not exist' to 'Jesus resurrected' -- is this a reliable method for use on historical contexts? Everyone can decide as they wish.
The issue is never Bayes Theorem itself. It has proven fruitful in many contexts before, but it does not work in all contexts. For instance, its been used in philosophy quite a bit, but it has not generated consensus on anything after all these years. Richard Price, editor of Bayes original essay on probability, thought it supported God's existence, other disagree. It's the limits of the context it is used in that could undermine its effectiveness. In historical contexts, misuses and even abuses of Bayes will not be clear nor obvious since even contradictory historiographical reconstructions do look pretty "plausible" under certain assumptions. Even historical errors and accuracies made in a source, or even by a historian, are hard to definitively prove. There simply is a lot of room to override any proposed reconstruction in history-which is why variant reconstructions exist: revisionist, cultural, a "people's" history, etc.
On to the book. Because Carrier had previously written a whole book on a quantitative approach and since I have mathematical training, I was expecting mathematical rigor and many calculations (perhaps graphs at least). Unfortunately, though its 696 pages long, it does not use Bayes Theorem much except very shortly in the last chapter and some mentions throughout. Some major probability calculations: Ch. 6 on "prior probability" and the ends of Ch. 8-11 "Weighing the Evidence" sections for "conditional probabilities" (some background from Ch.4-5 is used too). Surprisingly, little quantitative analysis was done after erecting a quantitative method in Vol 1. However, that being said, this book should be easy to understand because most of the book is like any other book in Jesus Studies -- an extensive survey.
Carrier's goal was to erect a "Minimal Theory of Historicity" and a "Minimal Jesus Myth Theory", assume both theories to be true, insert the evidences into both, calculate the probabilities for both, then see which was higher in the end. He built his background info in 2 chapters as 48 "Elements" -- some will be a common source of disagreement.
For sure, this is the best book on mythicism today, but I am doubtful that it will persuade academia: his thesis is fringe. Bayes Theorem is a "subjectivist" statistical method so it only gauges probabilities on historians' subjective interpretations based on the limited evidence they consider (which is already handicapped by the poverty of the historical record) so it does not calculate the intrinsic probabilities of actual historical situations or events or claims themselves (for that you would need a more 'complete' historical record to better estimate or time travel); historians are generally not mathematically interested, converting interpretations into #s is not always transparent (evidence and background info), even when any numbers are crunched out, should anyone trust/believe them? A massive problem is that it lacks predictive scope & verifiability -- once a probability value is calculated (no matter if low or high) how would we "confirm" if it really reflected the historical reality or not? After all, even low probability events and situations do in fact occur.
Also the fact that his methodology has not been tested on numerous other historical figures' records leaves one agnostic. Calibration would be needed. In the book one can see how he makes his conclusions, emphasizes assumptions & speculations, dismisses nearly all the evidences available, excludes evidence (i.e. indirect archaeological evidences which could buffer the reliability of the sources that he assumes are myth), and even how his metaphysical naturalistic/Humean biases strongly influence much of his conclusions overall. It's clear that there is quite a lot of arbitrariness and "guesstimating" in the book because the historical record has many unknowns. And putting a number between 0 and 1 won't necessarily convince anyone about anything per se.
However, it is clear that he is interested mainly in affecting consensus views than anything else. And consensus does fluctuate a lot because historians' views change more often per generation than the amounts of evidences available at any given point. Historical debates are mainly about interpretations of evidence, not evidence per se. And historians' biases affect their interpretations and reconstructions (The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion & Historians' Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought) so the numbers they assign in Bayes could be affected greatly.
In the end, Carrier calculates that the likelihood Jesus existed is between 32.36% and 0.0008%, so the likelihood that mythicism is true is essentially between 67% and 100%. His "prior probability" of 33% (in Ch. 6) pretty much matched his final calculated probability of ~32% ("prior probability" dictated the outcome since his "conditional probabilities" on evidence for historicity and non-historicity were about the same, 33.176% & 34.7222%). In Proving History he used the "General" Form of Bayes Theorem more (which calculates probabilities directly) and most will have this Form in mind. However, he used the "Odds" Form of Bayes Theorem in the last Chapter (which does not calculate probabilities themselves, but ratios of probabilities -- "odds" are not the same as "probability" in this form) then converts to probability. In the footnotes on p. 599-600 he shows his calculations in the more familiar "General" Form, however.
Of course, his survey and even the validity of his approach can clearly be contested and questioned. His propensity to dismiss evidences on Jesus while being very conveniently lenient on all non-Jesus persons such as by not doing an extensive and detailed analysis of their sources as was done on Jesus' sources, and concluding on their existence/non-existence without using Bayes Theorem (i.e. King Arthur, Aesop, Socrates, Alexander and pretty much everyone else in the book) is problematic since it looks hypocritical and double-standard often (raise the evidential expectations incredibly high on Jesus' record and lower it incredibly low for everyone else). As in any mythicist literature, one can expect a negative case (NT was written anonymously or fabricated; supernatural impossibilities; everything religious is myth and historically unreliable; little or no reliable extra-biblical references can be found; arguments from silence, etc) and a positive case (paralleling the NT and early church to pagan cults and narratives, revisionist interpretations of scripture and other sources, etc).
Bayes Theorem has better utility in directly observable natural/social contexts (i.e. spam filters, drug testing, disease diagnosis, etc), than history, because there are more certainties in evidences & background data + calculations can get checked with actual live results (we can know who was right and who was wrong). The historical record, on the other hand, is not observable and is overwhelmingly fragmentary, with no way to check one calculation over any other (no way to really know who is right and who is wrong), except maybe in archaeology or natural history (which do provide live results and could be decisive). In principle, Bayes could work in history, but in practice its a different story since historians are prone to differ in many respects with each other even when reading the exact same source.
History is often an individualistic field. The fact that most sources are lost forever & only a small fraction has survived the ravages of time (i.e. surviving in very few manuscripts with numerous corruptions that are usually many centuries late [e.g. most Latin Classics barely survived by a very thin thread] -- see Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics) means that two important considerations needed in Bayes Theorem (evidence and background knowledge) will always vary significantly among historians. Let us not forget that we do not have much of the sources that were available to those in the ancient world. What we have today, is not a complete or representative record of the sources that were available to the ancients. Surely they had way more contemporary sources available at their disposal than what we have today (internal references exist in many ancient writings on lost sources).
Because of all of this, it looks like this book won't convert any minds and will leave one agnostic on any calculated results. For those who want to diversify their research, look at criticisms of how they handle the available evidence ("Principle of Convenience") in Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman noted that nonbelievers and those who have grudges against Christianity, mainly atheists, are the advocates of 'mythicist' views almost exclusively. Carrier is not an exception. Though Carrier claims to be arguing from some current mainstream views, it is clear that there are reasons as to why the mainstream views are not 'mythicist' in the first place after 200+ years of Jesus research -- Carrier's arguments do not necessarily lead to a mythicist position. Even the extreme group called the Jesus Seminar, which includes atheists, is not necessarily for mythicism except for very few like Robert Price. The work of the Jesus Seminar on the authentic sayings and deeds of Jesus are clear evidence of the 'historicist' view even from them. The consensus among scholars is that Jesus did exist.
Despite all of these issues, one can follow the book to see where it leads as he intended it. Some of these issues are addressed in "Proving History" and this book, but merely dealing with them does not mean the issues are resolved to his favor, of course. This cuts both ways since historicists (mainstream view) have dealt with many of his mythicist type arguments already, but this did not convince him either, so expect vice versa.
review by F. Ramos on Amazon.com
Lots of errors, but important
-- review by Don Gakusei on Amazon.com
I see the evidence for Jesus' historicity quite strong, but as an interested amateur in ancient history, I find mythicist theories fascinating. I don't regard the theories by current Jesus mythicists -- e.g. Doherty, Acharya S -- as compelling to any degree, so I have been looking forward to Carrier's "OHJ" as the best case for mythicism to date. Previous theories have relied heavily on speculation, outdated 19th Century sources and conspiracy theories. Carrier himself has said, slightly tongue-in-cheek, in one of his talks on YouTube: "[F]orget about all the other mythicist theories. There are tons of others: conspiracy theories, Da Vinci Code stuff ... basically, if you want a simple rule, if you don't hear it from me be skeptical of it."  So my expectation to see the best case for mythicism laid out with solid evidence was high.
On the positive side, Carrier doesn't disappoint. He outlines his case carefully, and generally backs each part up with evidence from primary sources. It gives readers an opportunity to inspect each element that Carrier uses to generate his probabilities for his final Bayes Theorem calculation. Carrier invites discussion on these points, encouraging readers to go over his evidence and calculate their own probabilities.
On the negative side, Carrier is wrong on some points and seems to be drawing a stretch on others. Some of these errors significantly undermine his case, while others given below are nitpicks. Examples include:
1. Carrier uses the Rank-Raglan hero scale to create a reference class that is used to calculate a prior probability for the existence of a historical Jesus. Now, I don't believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or was the Son of God. I certainly agree that the Jesus of the Gospels and the R-R Jesus hero didn't exist! But why would this discount Carrier's 'minimal historical Jesus'? I don't get it. Others have pointed out problems also:
2. Carrier is wrong that any versions of the Ascension of Isaiah imply that 'Jesus is commanded to go straight to the firmament and die' (page 41). Carrier has missed the implication that 'in your [human] form' in 9.13 exists in the Slavonic/Latin as well as the Ethiopic versions. Since the form of the Beloved (Jesus) is given in the firmament as the form of firmament creatures and in the air as the form of creatures of the air, the only place left for the Beloved to take on human form is on the earth.  This would then eliminate one of Carrier's best evidence for explicit reference to Jesus being crucified above the earth. In fact, it then also makes the AoI yet another example of 'historicist' literature with few historical details, as in the point below.
3. Carrier finds the silence in Paul as 'bizarre', 'unexpected', 'infrequent, which means improbable' (page 515). But Carrier has not looked at the wider literature in any depth to see how the silence in Paul compares with that in other early literature. In fact, the 'silence' exists in a large number of other letters.  Even more interesting, when Carrier notes the lack of specific details in the Epistle to Barnabas (which Carrier states is a 'historicist' letter), Carrier writes: "What few things Barnabas says about Jesus are rarely specific and never sourced anyway... It could reflect an early example of historicist theology, but as such it is no less expected on myth as on historicity and thus makes no difference to their consequents." (page 315) But if 'it is no less expected on myth as on historicity' I suggest that this needs to be taken into consideration (as well as all the other similar letters!  when evaluating Paul.
4. Nitpick 1: Carrier uses 'outer space' frequently in OHJ. Although he defines how he uses it, it isn't a useful term to use in context of ancient thought. Generally people at that time thought that the corruptible part of the universe existed under the moon or firmament. These incorporate the lower heavens, the realm of the air. Above the firmament existed the higher heavens, the true heavens, in which God dwelled. Metaphysically these were very different areas. Using 'outer space' as a catchall phrase can be confusing.
5. Nitpick 2: Use of 'Euhemerism.' Carrier seems to suggest at times that this term means taking a cosmic god and setting him in a historical time and place. Thus the Gospels are the 'end' part of the process. But ending up with a god-man on earth doesn't seem to match with how 'euhemerism' is defined: which is the idea that the gods were originally mortal men.
Even taking the above errors (if they are) and nitpicks into account, Carrier has produced the best case for mythicism, and one that needs to be taken seriously. I would love to see the best case for historicity produced, so that a comparison between the two theories could be examined. It may be that neither case is persuasive, though to my amateur's mind the case for historicity is very strong.
References for above:
(from 2012, about 33 minutes)
review by Don Gakusei on Amazon.com
edited by P from Amazon.com reviews
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