Biblical scholars and historians have established beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Jesus of faith, as described in the New Testament, is more myth than history. Was there an actual person, however, that inspired the tales? This series of posts examines one historian’s case, published by an academic press specializing in biblical scholarship, that maybe there wasn’t. That historian is Richard Carrier and the book is On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (OHJ) (also available through Amazon).
The idea Jesus didn’t exist enjoys very little support within academics, however, not none. In 2012 respected Biblical scholar Thomas Brodie published his memoirs where he revealed he hadn’t thought there was a historical Jesus since the 1970’s. As his Wikipedia entry details, the Catholic church wasn’t too happy about it.
There is also Thomas Thompson a scholar who helped to overturn the notion that the Biblical patriarchs, like Abraham, were historical individuals. He has adopted an agnostic stance with regards to a historical Jesus. His view is that, whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no need to refer to him to explain the documents of early Christianity we have. The cultural setting and theological agendas of the Biblical authors are enough.
Robert Price is certainly more than qualified to have an opinion on the subject, with two relevant PhDs, and having participated in such venues as the Jesus Seminar. In his The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems he details how just about every bit of the Gospels appears to be derived from stories in the Old Testament, retold about Jesus. That being the case what need is there to propose a historical Jesus? On this basis, among others, Price thinks it unlikely there was such a person.
There are a couple of others that could be included in the agnostic camp but that’s about it (that we know of). There is however at least one scholar who, despite thinking there was a historical Jesus, sees value in discussing the notion of a mythical Jesus openly in the field.
Given the otherwise consensus view in favor of a historical Jesus, a reasonable stance for anyone not wanting to spend time on the question is to just trust the experts and be done with it. No one can investigate everything themselves and, as long as the experts seem to be doing rigorous work, trusting them seems a reasonable course.
Others might not quite trust the experts in Biblical studies. After all the field is overwhelmingly composed of Christians with confessional interests to protect. There is some validity to this concern, and an apologetic tendency can be traced within the field. When Thomas Thompson, mentioned above, published his work arguing against the historicity of the patriarchs there was a massive, knee-jerk, reaction to the work that saw his dissertation suppressed and him eventually driven (temporarily) from the field. Today though most everyone accepts he was right after all. Still, even if one doesn’t trust the experts, that at most argues for being agnostic about the question, if one hasn’t investigated it themselves.
Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think the field generally does its work with competence. We’re not talking about fundamentalists here (especially since there are some secular people in the field as well). I think there is a legitimate respect for the scholarly enterprise and researchers in the field are trained in the relevant languages and the relevant documents and approach the subject with care and reason. That doesn’t mean, however, they’ve got everything right! Nor does it mean they display competence and rigor on every subject.
I’ve opted for a third option: examine the evidence and try to decide for myself. Not possessing the specialized knowledge of the experts puts me at a disadvantage, obviously, but I believe that is a reasonable course for a layman to pursue if done carefully (and with some degree of humility).
In his book Carrier compares two theories with the goal of deciding which one the evidence best supports. I’ll just give a shortened (and paraphrased) version of each.
Minimal Historicity (OHJ Ch. 2):
An actual man named Jesus acquired followers during his life who continued as a recognizable movement after his death. Some of those followers claimed he had been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities and soon began worshiping him as a living god or demigod.
Minimal Mythicism (OHJ Ch. 3):
Christianity started with a Jesus Christ who was a celestial deity (existing only in the heavens). Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects through dreams and visions. He was believed to have undergone incarnation in human likeness, death, and burial in the supernatural realm. Later allegorical stories of this Jesus were written that placed him instead on earth. Later communities believed and/or taught that the invented allegorical stories were real.
The second theory isn’t exactly new. Almost 20 years ago, in 1996, Earl Doherty started promoting this idea on his website and in 1999 published a book called The Jesus Puzzle. Carrier has refined the theory and the arguments supporting it in order to meet the standards of an academic press.
Doherty had noticed what many scholars had. The documents we have from before the gospels, the epistles (letters) of Paul and others don’t seem to care anything about, and don’t tell us anything about, the life of Jesus on earth. They relate the crucifixion and resurrection of course, but never explicitly place it on earth. As to any of the other details of Jesus they seem to care not one whit. Nothing about a ministry or any teachings, no direct quotes of Jesus except ones said to be received in visions, no cleansing of the temple, no healings or exorcisms, no empty tomb, and no talk of disciples (only apostles). The only gospel event mentioned directly, the Eucharist, Paul says he saw in a vision directly from Jesus in heaven.
Think of how strange that is. Supposedly God’s chosen son (in their view) had just recently been walking the earth and no one seems to care to mention anything he did. Imagine any modern day preacher writing 20,000 words (roughly the combined word count of Paul’s letters) about Jesus and never mentioning anything he did on earth! It seems all but impossible today and, despite the excuses trotted out to explain it away, it has seemed equally strange to many scholars of the Bible. Maybe it is because the story of Jesus walking the earth hadn’t been invented yet.
Now it should be said that some have tried to read the gospel stories back into the epistles. Examining a particular passage or other, they say it must be referring, obliquely, to an event, or quote, mentioned in the gospels. It is possible they are right, in which case there are a handful of such mentions after all. There are also a handful of passages that, while not relaying a particular gospel story, seem to be either referencing or outright stating an earthly existence. If a theory of a mythic beginning is to prevail it is going to have to explain these passages. It must be pointed out however that every theory about Jesus has such passages to overcome, including that he was a historical person, and Doherty and Carrier have highlighted several such passages that are hard to explain on the assumption that Jesus lived.
My Personal Take
My opinion has evolved over the years. I don’t really care what the answer is; the Jesus of faith is certainly not true either way. I must admit however that I find the subject fascinating. Originally I was a bit awestruck by Doherty’s thesis and I still think it would be really cool if it was true; much more interesting that the historicist theory. However, before reading Carrier’s book the first time through my opinion was that there is just enough evidence to support the existence of a man named Jesus who inspired the Christian religion. I now plan to read it again and to use the framework Carrier provides to see how my final judgement comes out. That’s what I’ll be doing in these posts.
Unfortunately before diving in I’ll probably need one more preliminary post on Carrier’s use of Bayes’ Theorem as the framework for deciding the question. Really I just want to dive right in and not spend a lot of time laying the ground work, such as discussing the current techniques used in biblical studies, or cataloging all the potential sources of evidence, etc. After the post on Bayes’ Theorem I want to look at a couple early Christian documents that provide a model for the mythicist theory.
A Note on Comment Policy
I understand there are a lot of strong feelings on this subject. Some Christians simply cannot abide it. Some atheists as well can get pretty upset by it feeling that it makes atheists look bad considering the academic consensus (or as a proxy war in some intra-atheist feud or other). Other atheists, despite often knowing little to nothing about the subject, are insistent there is absolutely no evidence what-so-ever for Jesus having lived.
Anyone who is a friend is free to ask whatever they like but everyone else should know that I’m going to be a bit of dictator with any comments. Stay on the topic on the post, don’t cheerlead or “me too”, try to provide a reference for any claims you make, and don’t bash or slur other groups (atheist or Christian). I’m doing this for myself and not to convince anyone else of anything so I’ll have very little patience for any non-sense.
Carrier has spent considerable time on this book, and has managed to meet the standards of an academic publisher that specializes in biblical studies. That doesn’t mean he is right but it does mean that it deserves to treated seriously. I’m not interested in rationalizations you have come up with for dismissing it out of hand.