Finally, There Will Be a Peer-Reviewed Case for Mythicism

Finally, There Will Be a Peer-Reviewed Case for Mythicism July 18, 2013

I’ve long described Richard Carrier as the last, best hope for mythicism. While other mythicists have been content to self-publish shoddy pseudoscholarship online or elsewhere, Carrier has been a voice of sanity, recognizing that a scholarly consensus is not something to be treated lightly, and that, if there is to be a serious case for mythicism, it needs to be made by trained scholars approaching the matter in the appropriate scholarly manner.

His book provisionally titled On the Historicity of Jesus has passed peer review and so can be expected in print within the next half a year or so. As Carrier puts it in his blog post:

The good news is that I believe this will be the first comprehensive pro-Jesus myth book ever published by a respected academic press and under formal peer review. That lends considerable weight to the work and will gain it significant academic attention in the field. Indeed, apart from Brodie’s brief confessional treatise supportive of myth (but not comprehensively arguing for it), which was also published by Sheffield-Phoenix (Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, released last year–see my review: Brodie on Jesus), I think this will be the first pro-Jesus myth book of any kind published by a university press in the last fifty years.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, having an academic book of this sort published does not prove that one is right. It means that one is approaching a question in a rigorous scholarly manner. And to have a mythicist do that is indeed a big deal. Those of us interested in this question will undoubtedly be delighted to finally have a serious academic work to serve as a conversation partner on the topic.


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  • I fully expected him to have to self-publish, and was pleasantly surprised by the news that it would be carried by a legitimate imprint. While I’ve had my issues with Carrier’s conclusions, you and he are both right. It’s a big deal. Given the current zeitgeist I can’t help but suspect that this will produce meaningful engagement. An exciting time for those of us interested in the subject.

  • GakuseiDon

    This is great news! It will do three things:

    (1) It puts the onus on the historical Jesus camp to respond with a similarly scholarly ‘best case’ for the historical Jesus. (Bart Ehrman’s book “DJE?” was very disappointing in that regard)
    (2) It will hopefully encourage some of the more popular ‘conspiracy mythicists’ (as opposed to those mythicists who understand the challenge of changing academic consensus) who had claimed that it is not worth going the peer-review route — because their ideas would be rejected a priori — to move in that direction.
    (3) It will focus attention on a ‘best case’ and so lessen attention on those mythicist cases that are mostly speculative and built by quote-mining 19th Century scholarship.

    I also think that it will direct a lot of the ‘conspiracy mythicist’ ire at Carrier, far beyond even that seen against Ehrman’s “DJE?”. Carrier’s book will be a bigger challenge to those pseudo-scholarly mythicists where his case differs from theirs, since he can’t be as easily written off as an apologist or brain-washed by ‘the academy’.

    • Yes, a lot of what Carrier has written about mainstream scholarship and consensus is directly opposed to what the internet mythicists claim, and so it will be interesting to see whether they change their tune about that or burn their bridges and reject Carrier as siding with the academy against them.

      • Toto

        Carrier is a professional historian and respects the *process* of consensus, but his opinion of much of the quality of mainstream academic pronouncements on the historicity of Jesus has a lot in common with Neil Godfrey’s.

    • sp1ke0kill3r


    • sp1ke0kill3r

      @gakuseiDon it puts the onus on the historical Jesus camp to respond with a similarly scholarly ‘best case’ for the historical Jesus. (Bart Ehrman’s book “DJE?” was very disappointing in that regard)

      Whether Carrier’s book “puts the onus anywhere” is still highly debatable. If I was to do as Carrier did with Bart Ehrman’s book, I could give you a lengthy review of why it doesn’t right now.

      But I’ll have to wait till I read the book first to form an opinion. Two or even four scholars “peer reviewing” his work may be enough for publication, but that is different from the peer review that might make it worthy of claims about it putting “the onus on the historical Jesus camp” Lastly I’m unsure how you find Ehrman’s volume disappointing

  • Keyra

    Carrier is far from “professional”, he’s not even a real historian, much less a scholar, he’s a blogger on historical, religious, & philosophical subjects (but obsesses over Jesus’ historically proven existence the most). And a guy who fixates on his opposition against the nearly unanimous cosensus for the historical Jesus. As if he’s threatened (otherwise, why would anyone be such a try-hard to disprove Jesus’ existence to no avail [which no one has], if he already doesn’t believe in God?). Self-assurance, much? Not the kind of guy I’d take seriously, but only applies to the Jesus Mythicist camp (in which the Christ Myth Theory itself has been repeatedly debunked & refuted [even laughed at], and to be the minority’s opposite conclusion of “nearly” all professional historians & scholars)

  • Ian

    Carrier was making noises that this book builds on the mathematical approach of Proving History. I hope this indicates that he’s taken a different tack. Though the ‘peer review’ is via a non-technical imprint, so could be either way. I hope not though, because if he’s based this book on his putative Bayesian probabilities, there won’t be much engagement with it. Because the subtext of proving history was: if you want to engage with my conclusions, do so on the mathematical level (i.e. before you criticize me, first accept that my highly tendentious methodology is valid). We’ll see, of course, but I haven’t been expecting much from this book based on his description of it so far.

  • Matthew Jenkins

    Dr. McGrath, Should we as Christians be worried about Richard Carrier’s new book? Or am I just over-reacting?

    • Since I did not find his methodological proposals in his Proving History to be compelling, and found the brief interactions with the New Testament evidence to be rather awful, I don’t expect a revolution in our understanding of this topic to result from his forthcoming volume.

      Christians can already be concerned about the fact that historical study raises difficult questions, and cannot “prove” many things that Christians wish it could. If the consensus of historians were ever that there was no historical Jesus of Nazareth, I would encourage Christians to wrestle with the implications of that. But no one should be either worried or enthusiastic as a result of one scholar making a case for a view either that they strongly hope is wrong or strongly hope is correct. There are scholars who have proposed just about every viewpoint. The thing to interact with if you are not a scholar yourself is the consensus, if there is one.

      • Matthew Jenkins

        Good point! So we can rest assured that Jesus of Nazareth existed?

        • You can rest assured that that is the overwhelming consensus of historians and scholars. If you are wanting more than that, academic historical study cannot provide it. 🙂

          • Matthew Jenkins

            Right, I mean the evidence is just too overwhelming. I don’t see how Carrier can deny the 4 gospels and the extra-biblical sources.

            He would have to somehow disprove that every extra-biblical sources was forged. Yet all the secular sources are verified and established. As well as the details in the 4 gospels.

            I’m suprised that his book passed peer-review if he denies all this, unless I have a misunderstanding of how the peer-review process works because I’m not a scholar but a lay person 😀

          • Peer review assesses whether work is undertaken using appropriate scholarly methods of analysis and argumentation. Even then it isn’t foolproof by any means. But it isn’t an assessment of whether the argument is correct, only whether it is scholarship. Every PhD is an attempt to find something new to say about a topic. Most of them turn out to be wrong. But if we couldn’t even get them published and read by other scholars, then the few ideas that will in fact pan out under closer scrutiny would be lost too. I think that many people outside of academia really don’t understand how this system works, and how impressively well it works for all its flaws and shortcomings.

          • $41348855

            There could be a particular problem in this case. Richard Carrier is attempting to apply Bayes’ theorem to biblical scholarship. So, in a sense, he is creating a new field in which there aren’t any experts (except himself :-)). A mathematician with no knowledge of biblical scholarship might review his work and approve his general use of Bayes’ theorem without understanding any blunders relating to biblical scholarship. And an NT scholar might be so blinded by the science that he fails to notice mistakes that would have been apparent if they had been expressed in more familiar language.

          • Indeed!

          • Matthew Jenkins

            That’s a good point

          • Matthew Jenkins

            Yeah, I find Carrier to be a bit “snobby” in his work and attitude. It seems like he wants to assume that everything we have is not sufficient. All his arguments seem to be “ad-hoc”. Take Josephus writing on James. Richard Carrier wishes to maintain that the passage mentioning Jesus, resulted from the accidental insertion of a marginal note added by some unknown reader. There’s no way for him to demonstrate that since all the manuscripts of that particular passage are the same. Including the ones written in Greek.

            He thinks that Tacitus wrote about Christ, based upon hearsay, and he wishes to say that Tacitus wrote about Christ as the result of a rumor. How about a direct proof that Tacitus reported a rumor as a fact knowing that it was merely a rumor and that it was a consistent habit of his?

            He’s grasping at straws to try to support his case of mysticism, which I think is on shifting sand.

          • $41348855

            Have you read Carrier’s latest blog post, which James just linked to? Carrier makes some revealing claims. He says:

            “By contrast, explaining a historical Jesus is extremely hard. Too much evidence is simply too baffling.”
            “We cannot easily explain Paul’s (authentic) letters on historicity, but we can easily explain them on mythicism. We cannot easily explain the incredibly rapid and massive legendary development around Jesus in the
            Gospels on historicity (as well as, already in Paul, his immediate quasi-deification), but we can on mythicism.”

            In fact, these things can be explained by the fact that the followers of Jesus believed he rose from the dead. The “quasi-deification” isn’t surprising if Paul thought that Jesus rose from the dead. Of course, then you have to explain how the belief in the resurrection arose. And this is Carrier’s problem. He assumes that the resurrection didn’t really happen, so his task is to explain it in mundane terms. His current position is that the resurrection is easier to explain if Jesus never existed, if the whole thing is a myth.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            So now Carrier’s attack is not so much on Jesus existence, but on the Resurrection?

          • $41348855

            Yes, I think that is behind it. If I’m not mistaken Carrier was once described as the only “scholar” who believes that the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection. So he has a track record. You could look at it charitably. If Carrier genuinely believes that the resurrection is impossible then he might think that it would be justifiable to adopt any hypothesis, however implausible, if it could explain away the resurrection.

          • Obviously if there was no historical corpse then the disciples could not have stolen it! 😉

            But seriously, Carrier previously published some genuinely challenging analyses of the empty tomb and resurrection traditions, which are now thoroughly undemined by his turn in this dubious direction.

          • $41348855

            Yes, I’m sure he has done good work and has the potential to do more. I think he has been driven to pursue his lastest venture by the desire to refute the supernatural, which was also his motive for the earlier work. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong in having an agenda; you just have to make sure it doesn’t affect your judgement.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            True, but we all know that his agenda is wrong. He’s like the “Ken Ham and Kent Hovind of History”. I see in no way for him to win this arguement.

            I mean, I can’t believe that it’s 2014, and there are still people debating this topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth existed:D

            I think Carrier is going to have to deny that Alexander the Great, Josephus, Pontius Pilate, Socrates or anyone else in the ancient world ever existed since he claims our historical methodology “Sucks”, and is “cut and dry”.

          • $41348855

            Yes, I don’t think that in a hundred years people will look back on 2014 as the year when mathematical analysis was used to demonstrate that Jesus never existed.

          • $41348855

            A good example of the dangers of Carrier’s approach is in his essay on evolution. I accept evolution, so in this case we share the same “agenda”. Carrier argued that the evidence fits the theory of evolution 100%. It’s easy to see why this can’t be right.

            The theory of plate tectonics was generally accepted in the 1960s. In light of the theories of evolution and plate tectonics we can make sense of the way plant and animal species are distributed round the world. Before the 1960s we couldn’t. Therefore the evidence before the ’60s didn’t match the theory 100%; not because the theory was wrong, but because of our limited understanding.

            In another fifty years we will have a better understanding of evolution than we have now. So in another fifty years the evidence will fit the theory better than it does now. That means that the evidence can’t possibly fit the theory 100% now.

            I have the same potential bias as Carrier regarding evolution, but I try to make allowances for it. He obviously didn’t. By the way, his essay was in a John Loftus anthology. I’m not quite sure why Carrier was chosen to write about evolution.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            True, I am somewhere between Theistic Evolutionist and Old Earth Creationist. However, I’m open to the evidence.

            I find it odd that they would let Carrier write about Evolution, but usually Infidels and all those internet blogs let lay people or people who are not relevant in the fields of Science or History write about something as though it were a historical fact.

            Matt Dillahunty is a perfect example of this. He’s smart and educated, but he’s not a credible historian, scholar, scientist, or philosopher.

            I think his show “The Atheist Experience” is flat-out fallacious. Matt doesn’t even believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed either. So he tells other lay people this, and I notice he uses Richard Carrier’s arguements on Tacitus for example: He’ll say “Tacitus was just hearsay”.

            Hmmm. So Tacitus wrote about a rumor that he heard, but knew it was a lie and wrote it as history? Doesn’t make sense.

            These Internet atheists are just as bad as young earthers. Not that I have anything against my brothers and sisters who are YEC’s, just that the evidence is just too overwhelming to deny.

          • $41348855

            Another interesting thing about the essay is that Carrier was using Bayes’ theorem. So what he said was actually part of a supposedly formal demonstration. And he made a mess of it. This is the approach, remember, that he will be using in his forthcoming book. I don’t have high hopes for it.

            What we have with the reference in Tacitus is an attempt to explain away evidence. But how much evidence do you need to explain away? If someone never existed shouldn’t it be at least fairly obvious? You don’t have to explain away numerous pieces of evidence in order to show that Hercules never existed.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            Right, all you would have to do is look at the genre of the text and realize that Hercules was just a myth.
            Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Mara Bar-Serapion…….. + 4 gospels. Does he really think he can really get away with this

          • Matthew Jenkins

            Well, then I think they need to pull out his book from being published…hahaha:D

          • Matthew Jenkins

            Oh okay, I’m sorry. I had a feeling Peer-review is a tedious process.

            I hope someday to get a PhD:DDDD

          • Roger

            “You can rest assured that that is the overwhelming consensus of historians and scholars. If you are wanting more than that, academic historical study cannot provide it. :-)”

            Well why is there consensus in the first place then?

          • Because of extensive critical, skeptical examination of the evidence and intense debate among relevant experts over a long period of time.