Richard Carrier Illustrates Historical Jesus Methodology

Richard Carrier Illustrates Historical Jesus Methodology June 14, 2012

While one might or might not see fit to dispute Richard Carrier’s specific conclusions in his recent post, “The Dying Messiah Redux,” I think that the most important thing to note is the approach to history that it illustrates.

Carrier argues that, because certain views expressed in Jewish literature from several centuries after the rise of Christianity would not have been invented by Jews in that period, or indeed once Christianity became widespread, they must predate the rise of Christianity.

That principle is one that is well-known by those who are involved in the historical study of Jesus. Material in sources, even if they are disconcertingly later, are likely to contain information from an earlier period if it is inherently unlikely that the material was invented subsequently.

This is, of course, a basic working principle that historians use regularly. I confess that I still have yet to read and review Carrier’s book on the use of Bayes’ Theorem in historical study. But it is good to see that he still considers valid this generally-accepted mode of arguing about historical probability. If only mythicists would learn from his example. I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed mythicists either objecting to the use of such reasoning, or claiming that it is limited to the quest for the historical Jesus.

As for the rest of the post, I will leave it to Thom Stark to reply to most of it – if he does, it will inevitably be at ridiculously great length, if past precedent is anything to go by. Carrier’s view that the Dead Sea Scrolls envisage a Messiah who will offer himself as a sacrifice in an eschatological Day of Atonement seems to read much more into the texts in question than they actually say. I can only assume that he considers it self-evident that the term translated “cut off” in Daniel 9:26 can only mean “killed,” which suggests he may unwittingly be reading it through the lens of later Christian interpreters. He also may be assuming that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls cared about the original contexts of verses that they quoted, which anyone who has delved into their peshers will know is debatable. But again, such considerations are perhaps best left to one side for the time being, since they are not my focus in this post.

I will, however, point out one thing. Near the middle of his post, Carrier wrote the following:

“Christianity arose from a sect of Jews that came to expect a dying messiah” remains a plausible hypothesis…

I don’t see a problem with this statement as such. It could be, for instance, that Jesus saw himself as destined to be a dying Messiah that others had also discussed, even if the only actual evidence we have for such a view is written much later, and even if it remains likely from the literary evidence we have that most if not all Jews preferred their Anointed Ones to be victorious. All that is neither here nor there when it comes to the question of a historical Jesus – whether the expectation of a Messiah who would die existed prior to Christianity is not determinative of the historicity of Jesus, any more than the existence of Roman Emperors prior to Hadrian (for instance) is decisive about Hadrian’s existence.

But I would point out that Christians did not merely expect a Messiah who would die. They believed that the Messiah had died. And that surely has relevance to whether or not there was a historical Jesus. Perhaps others expected such a figure. Christians believed – and we have no evidence that their contemporaries disputed this point – that the figure had in fact appeared and had died. That is the key point when it comes to the existence of a historical figure of Jesus – which I realize was not the focus of Carrier’s post, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t point out the relevance of his post to mythicism, as others are bound to in this way or that.

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