Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus: first impressions and initial thoughts

My copy of Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus arrived from Amazon on Monday, and I haven’t had time to read it all, but I want to jot down some first impressions and initial thoughts now, partly because I’m not sure when I’ll find the time to do a proper review.

First of all, I want to say that after skimming it, my fears about this book look largely unfounded. The book mostly sticks to the careful tone that Carrier was taking when he first announced the project, rather than the wild accusations of incompetence and insanity he’s been engaging in more recently. It’s worth quoting the preface at some length:

Though I shall argue it’s likely… that Jesus did not in fact exist, I cannot assume it has been conclusively proved here. In fact, it may yet be proved false in future work, using the very methods I employ (which were proposed and defended in my previous volume, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus).

Hence the point of this book is not to end the debate but to demonstrate that scholars need to take this hypothesis more seriously before dismissing it out of hand, and they need much better arguments against it than they’ve heretofore deployed. A better refutation is needed, and a better theory of historicity, which, actually, credibly explains all the oddities in the evidence. If this book inspires nothing else, I’ll be happy if it’s that. But this book may do more. It might inspire more experts to agree with the possibility at least that Jesus Christ was born in myth, not history. And their continuing examination of the case may yet result in a growing consensus against the grain of current assumptions.

Either outcome would satisfy me. For my biases are such as to make no difference what the result should be. I only want the truth to be settled… because this volume can’t address every single item of evidence (it merely addresses the best evidence there is), its conclusion may yet be brought down, even with its own method, simply by introducing something it omits. If so, I welcome it.

This is an admirable attitude, and it ties in with one of the main reasons I decided I had to purchase the book. I no longer follow debates over the historical Jesus as closely as I used to, but I’m very interested in how far we should trust expert consensus. I think that when amateurs claim to know better than the experts, the amateurs are almost always being foolish. But Carrier isn’t an amateur, he has a Ph.D. in history, making him exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be able to figure out if the current expert consensus were wrong on some historical issue. That’s how progress in academic fields gets made. So I come to Carrier’s book with some hope for it, though I’m partly waiting to see how the discussion of it by other academics plays out.

From what I’ve read of the book so far, it looks like Carrier makes some strong points. For example, he convincingly argues that the Gospel of Mark, which may seem relatively unembellished at first glance, not only contains myth-making but myth-making with an identifiable symbolic purpose. However, there are other parts that strike me as problematic. I’m sympathetic to Bayesianism, but I suspect it may work better as a source of heuristics and sanity checks, rather than trying to do Bayesian calculations directly. The latter is extremely difficult to do right, especially given known human psychological weaknesses, and I think Carrier’s book illustrates some of the potential pitfalls here.

For example, in chapters 2 and 3, Carrier defines the hypotheses of historicity and myth that he’ll be comparing. Carrier’s framing of the historicist hypothesis is extremely minimalistic, but gives a more detailed version of the mythicist hypothesis. He defends this move, by saying that alternatives to his favored version of the mythicist hypothesis are so improbable they can be ignored. In principle, this is a legitimate move. But on a psychological level, I fear Carrier may have stacked the deck in his favor, because we know that psychologically, adding details to a story often makes it feel more plausible, even when logically this makes no sense. In fact, later, in chapter 6 (pp. 246-8), Carrier claims that the complexity of his favored hypothesis doesn’t lower its prior probability, because alternative versions of mythicism are so very improbable. But if most versions of mythicism can be shown to be very improbable, shouldn’t that lower the overall probability of mythicism?

Another problem is the fact that common-sense notions of evidence match the definition of evidence used in Bayesian epistemology very poorly. In Bayesianism, something is counted as “evidence” for a hypothesis if it raises the probability of the hypothesis. This leads to the conclusion that, as long as we think someone is more likely to claim p if p is true than if p is false, then the mere fact that they claim p is evidence for p. Common-sensically, though, it sometimes makes perfect sense to say to someone making a wild claim, “you’ve got no evidence for that!”

This is why I cringe when I hear Bayesians attacking other people for saying there’s no evidence for such-and-such, on the grounds that there are a few observations which slightly raise the probability of such-and-such. That’s not what people normally mean by “evidence,” and it’s absurd to act as if it were. On the other hand, if you’re explicitly claiming to do a Bayesian analysis, as Carrier is, then you need to be extremely cautious about deeming something “no evidence.” Yet Carrier sometimes does make claims of the “no evidence” sort.

A final point is that Carrier, in trying to determine the prior probability that Jesus was a historical person, argues that we should determine that probability by putting Jesus in the reference class of mythic heroes, specifically of what he calls the “Rank-Raglan hero class.” But this seems to raise the danger of what Eliezer Yudkowsky once called “reference class tennis.” Why not, for example, put Jesus in the reference class of apocalyptic preachers, faith healers, and exorcists?

In any case, arguing that the prior probability of a historical Jesus is low because Jesus’ story shares many features in common with that of mythic heroes strikes me as extremely dubious. Consider, who is the following paragraph describing?:

He was descended from a long line of great leaders, but at the time he was born, his country was under foreign occupation. Thus, his birth happened in secret, yet nevertheless it was heralded by a swallow, caused winter to change to spring, a star to illuminate the sky, and a double rainbow spontaneously appeared. Miraculously, he was able to walk and talk before he was six months old, and as an adult performed many amazing feats, including having the ability to control the weather. At the time of his death, a fierce snowstorm paused and the sky glowed red above a certain sacred mountain, and the ice on a famous lake also cracked so loud that it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth. After his death, he was deified by his subjects, and his tomb became a shrine.

You might assume that this must be the description of some figure out of ancient mythology. But actually, it’s the story of the life of Kim Jong-Il, at least as told in North Korean propaganda. (The Kim Jong-Il analogy is not an original point, though I’m not sure where I got it from.)

Anyway, on that note, I’m going to head off to bed. I may say more later, though my hope is writing this blog post will get it out of my system for awhile, as I’ve got a lot of other things I need to get done this week.

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