Richard Carrier on Acts as Historical Fiction

Richard Carrier on Acts as Historical Fiction March 13, 2014

John Loftus drew attention to the lecture above. Here are some comments on it.

The presentation starts with best books, mentioning Richard Purvo, Dennis MacDonald, and John Dominic Crossan. This was misleading, because these scholars do not draw the distinctive conclusions that Carrier does.

Luke-Acts is said to have been written by the same guy, and as a response to Matthew, which in turn was a response to Mark. Brief and oversimplified summaries of the aims of each Gospel. Carrier mentions the consensus (Q) but says that it is a non-viable hypothesis that never ought to have been proposed. This is the same unfortunate kind of thing you get from Christian apologists. While one may well be able to make a scholarly case against an earlier view, the idea that those earlier scholars were foolish is ridiculous. Scholarship is progressive, and it is often possible to see more clearly in light of what others did before us.

“Luke was an outstanding historian” – this quote from Maurice Casey is said by Carrier to be absurd. Carrier says he was not a good historian, or even trying to be a historian. Luke doesn’t identify his qualifications (Luke does say in his preface that he researched the subject!). He doesn’t name or evaluate his sources. Even Suetonius indicates his methodology (he acknowledges being a gossip-monger?).

Carrier then says that Luke was pretending in his preface! And he says that Luke in his preface espouses a lousy method, where Carrier previously said that Luke fails to articulate his method at all. And he interprets the preface to mean that he says he would slavishly reproduce his sources, and then criticizes him for not doing so!!!

Carrier mentions Colin Hemer, who shows that the background information in Acts is often verifiable as accurate. And so implicitly, Luke must have been a superb author of historical fiction. But if Luke was aiming to record history, and got background information accurate consistently, then perhaps a different conclusion is at least possible?

Talking about Acts as in the genre of ancient novel, Carrier treats Paul and Lydia as a nod to the chaste couple who are reunited! He mentions that novels always have travel, divine revelations, and exciting escapes. And he says Acts lines up “perfectly” with the ancient novel.

Carrier says that Luke is “lying” because of disagreements with and omissions in comparison with Paul’s letters. Calls it “revisionist history” – but how can it be that and a novel? He assumes that Paul is telling the truth in Galatians.

Mentions Jesus flying off into outer space.

His suggestion that Luke mistook “Gerazim” for “Galileans” seems unlikely. But he does present an interesting summary of the possible evidence for Luke drawing on Josephus, which some mainstream scholars have proposed. But once again, Carrier says that in reproducing Josephus, Luke is thus “not writing history,” which is rather bizarre. Drawing on a historian does not by any stretch of the imagination prove that someone is not trying to write history!!!

He mentions the parallels that are made between characters in Acts and Jesus in Luke. Showing parallels between a key figure and that person’s followers is not uncommon, although certainly ancient writers do not do that in ways that modern writers would. He says that Ananias and John are “the same word” or a palindrome.

In the Q&A, he emphasizes that his “peer reviewed academic papers” show that the references to Jesus in Josephus and Tacitus were added by Christians. But he says that even if Tacitus wrote what is attributed to him, it doesn’t corroborate the historicity of Jesus.

Carrier says there are 6-7 people with PhDs who are agnostics about the existence of Jesus or think Jesus didn’t exist.

He assumes that Jesus was “God” for the earliest Christians!

Carrier says that Irenaeus was referring to people who thought that Jesus was born, lived, and died in outer space, but Irenaeus misunderstood them and we do not have the works of those who held those views! He also says that 2 Peter is talking about Christians who say that the Gospels are myths. That is quite a stretch, to read modern mythicism into that brief reference!

It would be unfair to assume that a speech of this sort does justice to the person’s more carefully articulated academic publications. But if this is an accurate summary of Carrier’s arguments and stance, then it is a disappointing mess of contradictory claims.

"I just wanted to share this blurb about the movie:THE DIVINE PLAN: REAGAN, JOHN PAUL ..."

ReligionProf Podcast with Rob Orlando (and ..."
"This essay is a good argument for eliminating the federal control of public and private ..."

Manufacturing Conflict
"This timeline gives a sense of how the climate has changed over time:"

Not Liberal, Just Literate
"The evidence indicates that the climate has been changing for several billion years. The evidence ..."

Not Liberal, Just Literate

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I listened to the first one-third of that video.

    I do not find Carrier credible. I’ll grant the possibility that he might be right. But his presentation failed to persuade me.

    As I saw it, Carrier was presenting his opinion. He failed to make a persuasive case for it.

  • Neko

    “By the way, divine beings don’t appear to people in reality, so that’s another sign of fiction.”

    You heard it from Richard Carrier first!

  • Andrew Dowling

    Carrier and Ken Ham . . brothers from different mothers!

    • Eric


  • David Hillman

    It is a very entertaining and convincing lecture. It has finally convinced me that Q did not exist, after changing my mind often. It had so many aha moments. That Luke was written as a response to Paul explains the differences between the nativity stories so that suddenly everything falls into place so logically that you wonder why you did not think of it oneself. I had already been convinced, by the arguments of the most rational and least polemical scholars (I mean those who might argue strongly but do not nit-pick only for point scoring, transparently) that Luke used Josephus and MMattew, that Matthew used Mark, and that Mark used authentic Paul, and had no doubt that the interpolations by Christians into Josephus were entire interpolations. Carrier is building on this to make much more make sense. And with a sense of humour too (and he does not by the way mislead us as to the opinion of other good scholars)

  • David Hillman

    I meant Luke written as a response to Matthew of course. That’s what happens when you dash off a response.

  • C. Bauserman

    … Luke was definitely a good historian, at least by the standards of his day. Although, I might admit he put a bit of spin on some events, and possibly got some of them out of order, but such is to be expected for a person who is getting eyewitness accounts (regarded as one of the most unreliable sources of information).

    • The only evidence I know of that is used to argue Luke was a “good historian” comes from apologists. Anyone who has studied ancient historiography knows Luke committed all the worst sins as a historian that a satirist like Lucian mocked and that a historian like Josephus flatly condemned.

      But by his own lights he no doubt thought he was doing a good job — but he was not writing history as we understand it.

      Ancient historians were free to simply make up events if they believed they were “true” to what “human nature” would have done in the circumstances and if their story conveys the right message for the audience.

      Even the “scientific historian” Thucydides did this.

  • Nothing new from what the outline conveys here. Sounds pretty much like the standard view of modern critical scholarship — especially among those of the Acts Seminar (e.g. Pervo, Penner, Matthews, Tyson, Walker et al). Only apologists would argue, I think 🙂

  • $41348855

    It’s interesting to read the comments on John Loftus’s website. Virtually everyone is a mythicist. A few people were debating whether the existence of Jesus was more or less probable than that of the abominable snowman. I wonder whether believing there was a historical Jesus is an offence for which an atheist can be excommunicated.

    • guest

      There are plenty of atheists who think Jesus probably existed. I am one such atheist. I don’t find the mythicist’s claims credible at all. In fact they embarass me.

      Obviously, it’s impossible for an atheist to be excommunicated, since there is no official body that decides who is an atheist, and hopefully never will be. Don’t mistake the commentators of one website for all of atheism, which encompassess a diverse bunch of people and philoshopies

      • $41348855

        Thank you for your comment. I was being slightly facetious, but I also thought there was a bit of a serious point.

      • Neko

        since there is no official body that decides who is an atheist

        It seems to me that Hemant Mehta and such like are working on building atheist orthodoxy (and, yes, mythicism is apparently one of the commandments). It rankles. If I want orthodoxy I’ll return to the RCC which unlike organized atheism has great aesthetics and a moving story.

        • $41348855

          Very interesting observation.

  • Herro

    >He assumes that Jesus was “God” for the earliest Christians!

    Well, IIRC Carrier has said that he thinks Jesus was a god (whether he was called that by early Christians or not), not “God” in the sense of the highest god.

    • I don’t think he does justice to what that would have meant in a Jewish setting – nor to what it meant to say that someone with the ordinary Jewish name Joshua was the anointed one descended from David.

      • Herro

        >I don’t think he does justice to what that would have meant in a Jewish setting…

        I don’t understand what you mean by that. Care to elaborate?

        IIRC he says that in the Jewish setting they had spirit beings that would be classified as gods according to the pagans (and apparently also according to Carrier’s use of the word ‘god’). Jesus was a spirit being like that, hence a god. Sure, people like Paul wouldn’t call him ‘god’, but we aren’t forced to use terms the same way as them.

        • There were a range of possible ways that “god” could be applied in a Jewish context, including to human as well as angelic agents. The fact that the person to whom Paul and other early Christians attribute this status is Joshua the anointed one descended from David does not suggest that the latter was an angelic being. We do not find ordinary human names given to angels with any great frequency in ancient Judaism.

          • Herro

            Sure, whether Jesus was thought of as a god/angel by early Christians is worth debating.

            I just thought that your disagreement with Carrier here was more of a semantic one, i.e. Carrier shouldn’t say that Jesus was thought of as a god, even if he was some sort of a powerful spirit being/angel.

            But anyway, it’s at least wrong to say that Carrier thinks that Jesus was thought of as a “God”, with a capitalized g, since he doesn’t think that they thought of Jesus as the greatest god, the guy on the top. 😉

  • Eric

    Didn’t watch the video, but I think Richard is crazy when it comes to Luke and Acts. He wouldn’t have a damn problem with Acts and Luke if he didn’t hold to mythicism. Most modern scholarship agree that Acts was of the historical genre.

  • Dave Burke

    I see Carrier’s presentation skills are still rough as guts. His consistent failure to improve in this regard can only be the result of dedicated effort!

  • I found Carrier’s lecture fascinating. I found James’ review here peppered with too many “!” and very little substance to subtract from it.