Debating the Historicity of Jesus

Debating the Historicity of Jesus February 13, 2014

I was notified about this event coming up in April. Given how the Ham-Nye debate went, maybe this is something to approach with hope rather than excessive concern? It is being organized by the Center for Inquiry in Ottawa. A Facebook page has been created for the event.

Did a man named Jesus live in Palestine 2000 years ago? Zeba Crook, professor of religious studies at Carleton University thinks so, but historian and philosopher Richard Carrier disagrees.Join us at the Centrepointe Chamber Theatre for a lively discussion on this controversial topic.

Tickets on sale now: $15 general admission, $10 for CFI members

If you want to see why, whatever the popular impression happens to be after the debate, I don’t find Carrier’s treatment of this topic persuasive as scholarship, simply take a look at his recent post responding to a recent article in The Bible and Interpretation. He begins by acknowledging that mythicism thus far has not offered a substantive case. But he then goes on (at his typical irritatingly unnecessary length, given the paucity of genuine substance in that section) to attempt – very much in the same way other mythicists have – to score cheap apologetic-style points which any scholar or historian of the relevant periods and sources can easily see are worthless.

The comparison with the Patriarchal narratives is a good example. Suggesting that, because religious scholarship once assumed that the Patriarchal narratives were based on history (and we do not know for certain that they are not legends based distantly on history), written as they were more than a millennium after the alleged events occurred, therefore secular and other non-Christian historians are wrong to conclude that Jesus, about whom people held the view that he was historical within a matter of decades, is about as fallacious a case as one could possibly make.

He also makes ludicrous and unsubstantiated sweeping statements such as “virtually none of what he says or does makes any plausible sense on any known human psychology.” Those who study ancient Jewish sources from close to that time disagree with Carrier’s assessment. Merely asserting such things is not going to persuade those familiar with scholarship on ancient Judaism and/or the historical Jesus. Indeed, Carrier’s comparison of Jesus, claimed in our earliest sources to be the awaited Davidic anointed one, to demigods suggests that Carrier isn’t even in the appropriate ballpark of ancient Judaism. To extend the metaphor further, if you haven’t made the case that you are in the right ballpark, then the fact all the other players are playing the game in a different one ought to be cause of concern.

Carrier draws frequently on the self-published work of Earl Doherty, whose book I blogged part of the way through on this blog previously. There are plenty of serious scholarly arguments that are nonetheless wrong. Doherty’s work is not that – if it were merely unpersuasive scholarship, I would have respectful appreciation for it, even if I found it unconvincing. But what it is is painfully bad pseudoscholarly bunk. Until Carrier understands why it seems that way to those who work in the relevant fields, it is hard to see how he can make a case that will persuade those he hopes to persuade.

If what he wrote in his blog post is the sort of thing that Carrier offers in the upcoming debate, then it will most likely resemble the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham one. And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though any evidence would persuade Richard Carrier that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure.

Of related interest, see Mark Goodacre’s untypically-long snow-day NT Pod on beginning historical Jesus research.


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  • beallen0417

    It is certainly worrisome when someone makes ludicrous and unsubstantiated comments. I’d like to see a citation for your assertion that there was someone who believed there was a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth within decades of his supposed existence. It should include the original name of the work, the exact date the work was written, and the exact name of the author of the text. Thanks.

    • You came out of the woodwork to write that? How exact of a date do you need? I have in mind in the first instance Paul’s letters, but the earliest of the Gospel sources would also fit. But you know all that. Are planning on pretending we have never had this conversation before? You are free to call mainstream scholars’ views “ludicrous and unsubstantiated” while your own anonymous blog comments presumably you think are something else. But unless you have something new to offer, this is probably not going to be any different than all the other times you have had the same conversation here on this blog.

      • beallen0417

        Paul never mentions “Jesus of Nazareth”, as I am sure you are aware. The Gospel authors are anonymous as I am sure you are aware. So I’m assuming you don’t have a work that meets the stated criteria and are aware of that, which makes your claim unsubstantiated as far as I can see.

        You also fail to understand that Carrier uses the Patriarchs not as a direct example of ahistoricity, but as an example of a consensus scholarly opinion that changed radically.

        If you want to ban people from your blog, you are of course welcome to.

        • Why would I ban you when you have performed such a useful service in the past, illustrating the sorts of tactics and claims one can expect from mythicism. I am sorry that you do not provide this service more frequently! Without it, people might think that my criticisms are an unfair caricature.

          Are you suggesting that the Jesus of Nazareth we encounter in the Gospels is intended to be a completely different individual from the Jesus spoken of in Paul’s letters? Do you have evidence for this? Are you aware of the evidence which suggests that they are intended to refer to the same individual?

          Do you have some reason to think that, of all the examples of a scholarly consensus changing, Carrier chose this one despite being fully aware that the analogy was not close and the comparison therefore misleading?

          • beallen0417

            “Are you suggesting that the Jesus of Nazareth we encounter in the Gospels is intended to be a completely different individual from the Jesus spoken of in Paul’s letters?”

            Christians east of the Roman Empire believed him to have lived 100 years earlier (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29, 3:3 “but after his birth in Bethlehem of Judea the order ended and was altered in the time of Alexander, a ruler of priestly and kingly stock”) I’m sure you are aware of this. So it is entirely possible this is the Jesus paul refers to, which can’t be the one who died in the time of Pontius Pilate unless he was a superhero … this seems like pretty good evidence. I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests they are the same individual, neither is Gerd Ludemann who states:
            “In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.”

          • And other than your deep desire to support your viewpoint, why is it that you view the much later testimony of Epiphanius to be more likely to be correct than our earlier sources?

            And why do you mine quotes like a creationist? Here is the context of Luedemann’s statement:

            “Paul thought that a person named Jesus had lived and that he now sat at the right hand of God in heaven. Yet he shows only a passing acquaintance with traditions related to his life and nowhere an independent acquaintance with them. In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.”

            So Luedemann is addressing Paul’s reliability and independence, not supporting the bizarre mythicist claim that Paul believed in a purely celestial Jesus.

            But even if the statement by Gerd Luedemann supported mythicism, why should trump the overwhelming consensus of historians and scholars? And why do you seem to always copy and paste the same quotes?


          • beallen0417

            Why quote a statement that clearly establishes that a major current scholar of Christianity does not believe that Paul’s Jesus = Historical Jesus of Nazareth when asked why I believe that that is not established?

            Really? …


            You are aware of his quote, yet you still seem to think you don’t have to show your work. It would seem you pick and choose which parts of the scholarly consensus are authoritative just like anyone else.

          • Wow, you seem to be easily upset. I suppose you do not like having your quote-mining exposed, but I don’t recall having failed to do so in the past, and so I am not sure why this would now catch you off guard.

            I do not pick and choose what parts of the scholarly consensus are authoritative. For you as a person ill-acquainted all of them ought to be. As a scholar, my work depends on exploring challenges and alternatives to prevailing consensuses, and so that is what I do for a living. But no one who is not a professional scholar ought to follow my lead, until such time as the consensus changes, or there is no longer a clear consensus.

        • Jim

          Maybe someone can help me? I’ve gone through a half a dozen beers and
          still don’t understand Carrier’s comment “So how does he [Bermejo-Rubio]
          reach that conclusion [re that a single identifiable person named Jesus
          lies at the root of the Gospel tradition] having admitted the evidence so pervasively

          I somehow missed the part where Carrier “unequivocally” proves that a
          historical Jesus of Galilee “did not exist”. Maybe a few more beers and
          his post will start looking logical?

          • beallen0417

            Maybe someone can help me? I’m still waiting for the named individual who claimed there was a living human being named Jesus of Nazareth within decades of his supposed life.

          • Jim

            Hmmm, I’m wondering why at least one of Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Josephus, Thomas, etc. don’t fit the bill as naming/implying Jesus within decades of his life?

            I suppose a good example of an eyewitness account might be reference to Plato (4th century BCE) and his works. His work is reconstructed from multiple sources including medieval manuscripts written ~9th-13th century CE. In the first century CE, Thrasyllus of Mendes compiled Plato’s works in the original Greek. The extant Medieval Greek manuscripts are based on Thrasyllus’ compilation, although his works have not survived to the present day.

            I know Thrasyllus was nearly an eyewitness of Plato (only 500 years apart) who claimed Plato was a philosopher, but to use your line of reasoning, how do I know that all the professional historians aren’t wrong and that Plato wasn’t actually a banana?

            Re Jesus, to quote from (quoting from Casey’s new release); “[Jesus mythicism] belongs in the fantasy live sof people who used to be Fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now.” As mentioned in that post “Sure, you might not consider him (Jesus) to be the miracle-working, divine Son of God that the New Testament portrays him to be, but to say that he didn’t even exist is quackery.”

            So to sound like a YEC/fundy, can you show me where a mythycist has “UNEQUIVOCALLY PROVEN” that a historical Jesus of Galilee did not exist.

            Much apologies to Dr. McGrath in advance, but I had just
            finished reading the freethoughtblogs post responding to Bermejo-Rubio which served to bring out my inner asshole.

          • $41348855

            Suppose that Paul had said in one of his letters that Jesus was a living human being. This would imply that there was a debate about whether Jesus existed at the time when Paul was writing. Considering how early Paul was writing this would be the best possible evidence for mythicism. Unfortunately, there is no such evidence.

          • Jeremiah J. Preisser

            I was on Richard Carrier`s blog last night and he explicitly says that Paul only knew Jesus as a celestial being. He`s got to be right, right?

          • $41348855

            I wonder whether crucifixion was a common method of execution in the celestial realm. Perhaps they were admirers of the Romans. Also, I would like to know in which letter Paul explains to a sceptical audience how a celestial being can die in the first place.

  • Jeremiah J. Preisser

    This beallen sounds similar to a guy I have been debating for awhile now, except recently he asked me how is it that we can know that Josephus was referring to the Jesus written about in the Bible because Jesus didn`t have a proper name and there were many “messiahs” Josephus refers to.

    I have mixed feelings about the debate. Surely it may help put the debate to rest, seeing as Carrier is the standard-bearer for Jesus mythicism, but then again, it may lend credibility to his position. Not to experts of course, but to his loyal followers who may point to it, just as they did when Ehrman felt compelled to address it, and say “it must have some validity, they are debating it.”

    • Matthew Jenkins

      “Josephus was referring to the Jesus written about in the Bible because Jesus didn`t have a proper name and there were many “messiahs” Josephus refers to.”

      Carrier loves to use what I call “ad-hoc” approaches to try to support his arguements. No one in that time period had last names, if that’s what Carrier is trying to impose. That’s also misleading to say that Josephus was referring to many “messiahs”. Josephus did refer to many Jesus, but it’s very obvious that Josephus is referring to Jesus Christ of Nazareth in both the Antiquity of the Jews, and the Testimonium Flavianum.

      Notice how carrier has to come up with some crazy idea to try and twist the evidence to make it seem like Jesus of Nazareth was just an idea portrayed by his followers.

      • Jeremiah J. Preisser

        It is this dishonesty which tanishes Carrier`s credibility. He will follow strict methodology up until the logical conclusion seemingly being that Jesus existed or was genuinely mentioned and then proceed to make some weird assumption which points in the other direction. Sometimes I wonder even if he realized that he was wrong would he admit it because he makes more money pandering to a significant but vocal minority of Jesus mythers then he would otherwise.

        • Matthew Jenkins

          I wonder how his book passed peer-review. I know that just because it’s peer-reviewed, doesn’t mean it’s true unless there’s enough research by the majority.
          Eventually, all his lying will catch up to him.
          I have a feeling his book will just be another shoddy piece of junk to impress the internet “infidels”.
          Even Dr.McGrath said that Carrier likes to borrow off of Earl Doherty, whose not really a credible historian because he only has a Bachelors and not a Ph.d. or Research in the field. Earl Dohetry’s work is mostly pseudo-scholarship, so I think this next book will be pretty much that.

          • Jeremiah J. Preisser

            From Carrier`s blog it seems as if he barely passed but I`m pretty sure the book passed not on the conclusions it draws but because he follows proper methodologies. To Carrier`s credit he says he is trying to strengthen his position by not making the same methodological mistakes others make. The evidence which he proposes for his thesis is what I am most concerned with. I want to see a detailed explanation for how this apparently mythical Jesus developed.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            “To Carrier`s credit he says he is trying to strengthen his position by not making the same methodological mistakes others make.”

            So if I’m correct here, Carrier thinks that 99% of historians who have researched this thing for centuries are wrong because they follow a bad methodology? And he’s got the right methodology?

          • Jeremiah J. Preisser

            Part of my statement was Carrier`s own admission of mythicicst shortcomings in methodology application and him not trying to make the same mistakes, but yes, Carrier believes that professionals have been following fallacious methods and that his book will enlighten us all very soon. Haha.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            lol…so he’s the knight in shining armor whose going to enlightend our understanding of how to know what’s historically true or historically false?

            Why does he beleve that Alexander the Great existed? Or Plato or anyone else existed?

      • Jim

        What, no last name? But I thought Jesus was the son of Mr. & Mrs. Christ.

        • Matthew Jenkins

          Christ is a title in the Greek meaning the “Anointed” one. Or in other words the Messiah. Christ was also used as both a name and a title for Jesus of Nazareth.

          People usually shared the same names back then, so in order to avoid confusion, they would be called by their first name along with their title of where they’re from or what they do.

          Ex: Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, John the Baptist, Herod the Great,etc…

          • Jim

            I didn’t really think a lower class Aramaic couple living in Galilee in the first century would actually have a last name, especially a Greek last name (I was just being a jerk 🙂 ) But I did appreciate your comment, especially in light of some of the stuff on Carrier’s wall.

          • Matthew Jenkins

            hahah oh okay:DD… Is Carrier actually arguing that Jesus didn’t have a last name? Because if he is, then that’s pretty dishonest and shoddy of him

  • arcseconds

    Wasn’t Yeshua a pretty common name back then? surely this debate is heavily weighted in favour of the affirmative…

    • Matthew Jenkins

      This debate will not be in favor Carrier, but Crook. There were other Jesus, but not more till after Christ. All our sources are uninamous in mentioning Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

  • My position about mythicism is that I don’t really care either way if Jesus actually existed. I follow Jesus—a fictional construct or a real fellow—solely for his ethical teachings, not because he’s a magical fire insurance talisman going to save me from—oh Hell, Gehenna is a tourist attraction now.

    The coolest teaching of Jesus is the most difficult act to perform: solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

  • $41348855

    EDIT: in the original version of this post I very carelessly referred to the person in conversation as “Vince Hill”.

    There is an interesting conversation in the comments section of Richard Carrier’s blog between him and Vince Hart:

    The question is about what kind of person Jesus must have been to make people write about him as they did. Vince Hart suggests that Jesus might have been a rather ordinary figure who only came to be seen as significant after his death, to which Carrier replies:

    “That’s self-contradictory. If people thought he was the most plain and ordinary man, they would never have come to believe he was a preexistent superbeing who created and now rules the entire universe. You can’t have it both ways. Either Jesus was so incredibly charismatic and impressive that he could actually convince people he was a superbeing, or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, then Christianity would never have happened–unless Jesus didn’t exist and he was a celestial superbeing from the start.”

    In reply to this Vince Hart says that it might have been the visions that people had of Jesus after his death which convinced them of Jesus’ significance, not what he did during his life. Carrier replies:

    “Christian apologists have already rightly refuted this option, because if Jesus was just some unremarkable man resurrected, he would just be a resurrected man (a la Lazarus), not the Creator of the Universe … That’s such a vastly wild leap it would make zero sense … And for historicity to be as credible, you need an incredibly charismatic and influential man, enough to convince fellow Jews he was not just some resurrected guy but the Creator of the Universe … But an incredibly charismatic and influential man, enough to do that, would have produced a great deal more evidence of his earthly life and influence (i.e. for all that to disappear is very much contrary to any expectation–and that means: very improbable).”

    It seems that Carrier is playing by the same rules as the fundamentalists, but just reaching a different conclusion. No man could have inspired the writings that we have, so Jesus was either a real super being or an imaginary one.

    • Matthew Jenkins

      Carrier is very close-minded to the evidence. His arguements are just a cheap trick to convince his bloggers that he’s right, when in fact he is 100 percent wrong.

      • $41348855

        Indeed. Notice how flawed his argument is: “if Jesus was just some unremarkable man resurrected, he would just be a
        resurrected man (a la Lazarus), not the Creator of the Universe”. Since Jesus was the one who raised Lazarus people would hardly be thinking that Lazarus was the creator of the Universe. If Jesus had been brought back to life by a healer then no one would have thought Jesus was special.

        • Matthew Jenkins

          Right! It’s unfortunate that Carrier forget’s the claims of Jesus of Nazareth which are so vital to the 4 facts *Burial, Empty Tomb, Apperances, Origin of beleif in disciples.

          Jesus predicted his death and made special claims to be the Son of God. Even if one wants to argue that the disciples made up those claims about Jesus(which they didn’t), they would still have to ask themselves based upon the evidence “Is Jesus God”?

          Or they would have to ask “Is the explanation from the disciples that God raised Jesus from the dead, the best explanation based upon the evidence?”

          No other naturalistic hypothesis exists that isn’t full of logical contradictions and fallacies, and are nevertheless “Ad-hoc”.

          If Jesus was just a man, then we should expect his movement to collapse like the other messiahs prior to his time period, simply because his body would have been found in the tomb.

          But we know that it would have been nearly impossible for his fearful disciples to preach the Resurrection, unless Jesus had actually been risen like he said he would.

    • How did you come up with “Vince Hill”?

      • $41348855

        If you click on the link I gave it will take you to the conversation on Carrier’s blog. The other person is Vince Hill. He seemed to be making some good points. It’s not your alter ego, is it?

        • I thought he made some good points, too, but his name isn’t “Hill.”

          • $41348855

            My sincere apologies. He is, of course, Vince Hart. Although Vince Hart is a sceptic of historicism I think he would actually make an excellent advocate for it, because he was tying Carrier in knots.

          • Thank you. That is me and I’m skeptical of mythicism as well because they are working with the same extremely problematic sources as everyone else. It does seem to me that Carrier’s position involves more than a few “it-may-well-be’s,” which seem to me to be inherently speculative as there is always a corresponding “it-may-well-not-be.” I’ll be interested to see how well he ties up the loose ends in his book.

          • $41348855

            I have now edited my comment, but included a mention of my original carelessness. I thought some very interesting issues were raised in your exchange with Carrier. I posted a comment about it here in the hope that people would find it as interesting as I did. Again, my apologies.

          • No apologies are necessary. I was amused rather than offended. I am always happy when someone finds my arguments interesting.

          • $41348855

            By the way, Vinny, I was wondering what you thought of Maurice Casey’s explanation for Paul’s silence about the life of Jesus. Paul was solely concerned with the gentile mission and for him the death and resurrection of Jesus was all that mattered because it superseded the Law and made the gentile mission possible. So, in a sense, Paul had disowned Jesus’ earthly life as an observant Jew because it was no longer relevant.

          • It is hard for me to see how Paul could have gotten away with being silent about Jesus’ life because his rivals would have been citing the things that Jesus said and did in their disputes with Paul. Moreover, even if Jesus hadn’t done or said anything that was relevant to a particular issue. somebody would have fabricated a teaching in the same way that people fabricated letters from Paul in order to support their positions. I think that the authenticity of stories about Jesus and the meaning of the things that Jesus said and did would have been crucial issues in the early church and I would expect to see some reflection of that in Paul’s writings. That is why I think that if there was a historical Jesus, he might not have been a charismatic teacher or healer.

          • $41348855

            But what if the debate was not about what Jesus taught but whether what Jesus taught was relevant. In that case, Paul wouldn’t be drawn into debates about the specific details of Jesus’ teaching because for him it was all irrelevant. Jesus had lived as an observant Jew and all his teachings were about living as an observant Jew. And for Paul, none of that mattered any more. Paul may even have been embarrassed by Jesus’ life as an observant Jew.

            We know that Paul was involved in disputes with rivals. What if the rivals were trying to tell people that the teachings of Jesus were important and this was the message that Paul rejected?

          • It is of course hard to tell because we are only getting one side of the argument, but it seems more likely to me that Paul is matching his revelation against other revelations rather than his revelations against Jesus’ teachings. In an argument over circumcision, I think it almost certain that disciples who had known Jesus personally would have pointed out that he was a circumcised Jew and that Paul would have needed to confront the issue directly. At best, I think that Casey’s hypothesis is one of several possibilities that cannot be eliminated, but not one that can be deemed most probable.

          • $41348855

            I don’t think the fact that Jesus was circumcised would need to be singled out, because it was just one part of Jesus’ identity as a Jew. Paul believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection made the Law obsolete. So before that happened the Law was still in force, and it’s no surprise that Jesus followed it. Paul wasn’t debating which aspects of the Law should apply to gentiles, he was debating whether or not the whole thing had been superseded.

            Of course, this is, as you say, just a hypothesis. But I think it is a very significant one because it does offer a plausible reason why Paul wouldn’t mention Jesus’ life and teaching. Before, there just wasn’t any reason for Paul’s silence and that was a strong argument for mythicism.

          • I find it somewhat less plausible than you do, but not beyond plausibility. It’s like listening to someone on the train talking on his cell phone. There might be a half dozen different positions that the guy on the other end of the conversation could be taking that explain what you are hearing.

    • Guest

      I just read some of Carrier’s responses to Vince Hart. They were so lame I didn’t even bother to read them all. (I’m an atheist.)

      This is the best the mythicists can do? Game over.

      • $41348855

        I agree completely.

        • I didn’t think that his responses were particularly lame, but neither did I think that there were less speculative. As I have often said, it is like trying to figure out the picture on a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle when you only have about 75 of the pieces. It may be possible to put some of the pieces together into little clumps, but when it comes to what the spaces between the clumps look like, it’s hard to avoid speculation.

          • $41348855

            Sorry, Vinny, but I think you’re underestimating yourself. It looked like a first round knockout to me. I think the problem is the uniqueness of the claim. What on earth could have made people believe that someone had risen from the dead? That seems to be the issue for Carrier. The claim is so difficult to explain that the only answer must be that Jesus never really existed.

            Remember that Carrier has gone to great lengths to explain this before. He put a lot of effort into developing the “two body” theory of the resurrection. According to this theory, Jesus’ material body was transformed into a spiritual one. And that theory is completely incompatible with his new one. A celestial being can’t be transformed from a corruptible physical being into a spiritual one because it was a spiritual one to start with.

          • Guest

            Either Jesus was so incredibly charismatic and impressive that he could actually convince people he was a superbeing, or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, then Christianity would never have happened–unless Jesus didn’t exist and he was a celestial superbeing from the start.”

            Sorry, this is the lamest question-begging. All the other possibilities are somehow moot so it’s either/or? What if Jesus, instead of being “incredibly” charismatic was just charismatic enough? What if Jesus never claimed to be a ‘superbeing” but merely a prophet, or more grandly, a messiah, or possibly, a future king? What if…what if…what if….

            Carrier was supposed to be the guy who was going to put to bed all these NT scholars too bedazzled by the Christ to do proper historical scholarship. One hopes his comic-book debate style in comments is simply meant to titillate the fanboys and that his book will deliver a fraction of the hype.