Finishing my Mythicism Article Series

Finishing my Mythicism Article Series August 26, 2015

I have a new article published in The Bible and Interpretation: “Mythicism and the Making of Mark.”

I think that this will be my last article in this series about Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, not only because I am now on sabbatical and have other things to focus on, but because (as my articles about the book hopefully make clear) I honestly don’t think what Carrier has argued is significant or interesting enough – to say nothing of plausible enough – to merit further engagement. And more than that, in the conclusion of my most recent article, I suggest that Carrier has concocted a viewpoint which is compatible with any evidence, and as a result, unfalsifiable.

Of related interest, Daniel Gullotta drew my attention to an episode of the God Theory Podcast on the question of Jesus’ historicity.


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  • Cecil Bagpuss

    In a word: brilliant! (Loved “it’s [sic]”)

    • Did I let a typo slip through? 🙁

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Sorry, I should have made that clearer. It was Carrier’s typo, not yours and you pointed it out:

        “whose real meaning (it’s [sic] esoteric meaning, that of a cosmic event) would be explained only to initiates.”[2]

  • arcseconds


    I was sure you must be exaggerating when you were saying that his account is unfalsifiable!

    It’s odd feeling disappointed with someone one doesn’t really have a particularly high opinion of in the first place, but I had thought that while it seemed it was being bent towards a preferred outcome, there was something scientific in Carrier’s approach and that at points he showed himself capable of original and critical thinking.

    So seeing him reduced to the worst sort of amateur pseudoscholarship, so often used to support some crank hypothesis (frequently of an otherwordly nature, either in a spiritual sense or an extraterrestrial one) is indeed disappointing.

    • I really hoped that Carrier would at least offer a serious argument which one could disagree with and yet appreciate for its creativity or insight or something.

      • arcseconds

        What I vaguely was expecting/hoping for with the start made in Proving History was a Bayesian treatment which was… I was going to say ‘halfway decent’ but maybe not even quite that, something that was perhaps flawed but could be seen as the start of something.

        One thing that might have come out of this is a framework of Bayesian reasoning where it could have been obvious (to us if not to Carrier) that he’s choosing slanted priors and likelihoods, and if more defensible values were chosen the story would be different.

        Such a treatment would have real value even if it failed to prove the point.

        Incidentally, even if Carrier was right about Mark writing a book full of esoteric symbolism where nothing should be understood as really bearing its prima facie meaning, it kind of seems beside the point as far as historicity of Jesus is concerned. After all, a historical figure can have their story rewritten to match an estoteric agenda as much as a story about a celestial suffering and dying messiah.

        I am wondering still how this fits into Carrier’s overall argument. Is the allegory he thinks he sees a corollary derived from his main mythicist conclusion, or is it part of the argument for mythicism?

        The quote Cecil Bagpuss provides suggest that he is performing something like a naïve enumeratio simplex (dressed up in more sophisticated bayesian language) to argue that ‘this bit is allegorical, this other bit is allegorical, this still other bit is allegorical so probably everything is allegorical’ which is obviously a dubious line of reasoning. Does he mean to conclude from this that none of it can be historical?

        Carrier apparently believes that most of what is written in Mark originates with the author of Mark, so wouldn’t a similar argument give us that probably all of Mark is original, leaving no room for Carrier’s celestial Jesus myth?

        • He says in the book that this isn’t positive evidence for mythicism, just a removal of evidence long assumed to support historicity. But he does indeed say that if he can show that some of it is allegorical, then we should assume it all is until someone proves otherwise.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Here is a quote from Carrier’s book:

    I think it is more than clear that even if we started with no assumptions about Mark, and then analyzed one pericope after another, in each case updating our prior probability, we would end up with a low prior probability that anything in it is historical, and a high prior probability that all of it has an esoteric, allegorical or symbolical purpose.

    I can imagine people reading this and thinking, “Wow, this is scientific. This is what biblical studies has been missing.” But to whose satisfaction has Carrier demonstrated that one pericope after another has a symbolic meaning? His own, apparently. The language may be scientific, but the methodology on which it is based is anything but.

  • It seems to be a very good critique of Carrier’s book. But I guess if I were going to be fair, I would have to read his book, which I don’t look forward to doing. Does he provide anymore evidence that there was already belief in a celestial Jesus that could have been … would “historicize” be the correct term?

    Meanwhile, since you briefly mentioned in your article that there is universal agreement that the author of Mark was not an eyewitness, I thought I would offer my two cents on the matter.

    Two of the events recorded in Mark’s Gospel make me suspect that the author either was or had directed access to a native of Jerusalem, who was an eyewitness to those events:

    First, in chapter 11:11, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” What appears to be such an embarrassingly anticlimactic event that the other Gospels decide to leave it out. But something an eyewitness might decide to leave in.

    Second, in chapter 14:51-52, “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” Again, an event the other Gospels decide to leave out, but that an eyewitness might decide to leave in.

    Some identify the author of Mark’s Gospel with the person known in Acts as John Mark. What is interesting is that Acts chapter 12:25 seems to imply that John Mark was from Jerusalem, “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.”

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are events recorded in Mark about Jesus’ Galilean ministry that have those little details that only an eyewitness might be likely to notice. Thus it suggests to me that the author either was or had access to an eyewitness to some of the events in Jerusalem.

    • These are good points. Whether Mark could have been an eyewitness to something even if he was not an eyewitness to everything is a question worth asking. And as you point out, an author who was not an eyewitness may have access to eyewitnesses and may even do a bett job as a result than a single eyewitness would have, giving their own perspective.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Carrier’s best “evidence” is perhaps 1 Cor. 2:8 “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

      The “rulers” are supposedly Satan and his demons who live the lower heavens. If it was they who crucified Jesus and they live in the sky then the crucifixion must have happened in the sky.

      There are two problems with this. Firstly, the context of 1 Cor. 1 and 2 strongly suggests that the rulers are human. Secondly, even if the rulers were Satan and his demons then they would have brought about Jesus’ death by controlling events on Earth, not by direct action. Ephesians 2:1-3 shows how that might have happened:

      “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

      Carrier’s “evidence” generally evaporates on closer inspection.

  • arcseconds

    I mentioned that when I read the blurb on this blog, I thought you must be exaggerating about the unfalsifiability. I vaguely thought you would be just repeating the same claim you made in a recent comment to nconvington89 :

    Mythicism fits any evidence, simply by saying “people made this up.” It explains anything and everything neatly, and thus explains nothing at all.

    You do, of course, repeat this charge, but with a caveat I will get to later.

    There is certainly an important criticism to make here, and indeed I’ve made a similar point myself independently: the way I’ve generally phrased it is “mythicists think they can get ‘they made it up’ for free”.

    But as a general criticism of mythicism, saying it will fit any evidence is an exaggeration. Obviously it’s only textual evidence that this explanation will fit, which you do make clear in your article, and even then I think most mythicists indicate they would accept some amount of textual evidence as being good proof for the historicity of Jesus (say multiple contemporary sources, including non-Christian ones).

    So as a general rule it’s probably unhelpful and potentially unfair to say to a mythicist that their position is unfalsifiable even on textual grounds… I’m trying to find some way of hitting home the point that in order to avoid whatever it is they’re trying to avoid by saying it’s all a myth, they’re committing themselves to believing in a rather unlikely. unprecedented, and perhaps anachronistic literary endeavour, and “they made it up!” isn’t to be had for free, or even necessarily at low cost, but rather some things are more likely to be made up than other things.

    Maybe the fact that they do seem to acknowledge that some textual evidence would be strong evidence for historicity is an opening to show that they already accept that “they made it up!” doesn’t work in all cases (they’re prepared to accept that it’s unlikely that a pagan would be engaged in the same literary project, for example) is an opening to start discussing the relative likelihoods of materials being made up.

    However, from your article it really does seem as though Carrier has put himself into a situation where nothing can make trouble for his position. The important caveats you make are “especially if one excludes in advance the possibility of using traditional critical methods and criteria for determining that some details may reflect actual historical events.” and “and any details in a text can be allegorized if one is determined to do so”. If one abandons any criteria of likelihood of being made up versus recording something historical and allegorizes in an unconstrained fashion, then of course your theory can ‘explain’ everything and anything!

    And he apparently seems to think this is an advantage!

    I have long suspected that one of the motivations for creationism (and perhaps often for theism in general) is a desire for epistemic closure. It’s hard to separate this out from other things that are going on — dogmatic religious allegiance, going for specious cheap-shots, etc. — but I sometimes get the impression that they honestly do believe that a true science has an answer to everything, and they’re uncomfortable with “we don’t know!” as an answer to how the Universe came into being, or how life originally evolved, or even some specific question like how the flagellum developed.

    Now it seems this may be motivating Carrier, and possibly other mythicists (nconvington seems to like the fact it can allegedly explain alleged references in later text to Jesus existing a century earlier than commonly thought, so maybe he’s also attracted by this). No more dangling threads and “I don’t know”s!

    • Given that references to things as mundane as being born, being Jewish, having a particular ancestry, being killed in a particular way, and being buried are explained away, and given that we do not have for many ancient people deemed historical a source that had met the individual’s brother, I would love to know what kind of texts would genuinely convince a mythicist of Jesus’ historicity, and why.

      • John MacDonald

        Price said he would accept something like a letter mentioning in passing that the writer had seen Jesus in person.

        • But mentioning in passing that he had met his brother is not enough, even though the brother of a historical figure is likely to be a historical figure. How convenient for Price – it is almost as though he looked at the evidence for Jesus, and set the bar just somewhere else. But I suspect he accepts as historical figures that do not meet his evidence criterion.

  • louismoreaugottschalk


  • John MacDonald

    Mark develops the biography of Jesus by rewriting all kinds of Old Testament stories (haggadic midrash) because he is pretending Jesus fulfilled all kinds of Old Testament scripture in order to win converts. The main point of original Christianity was pretending Jesus was fulfilling all kinds of Old Testament scripture in order to sell Him and win converts:

    (A) 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

    (B) The Great Commission

    16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

    (C) Sending out Emissaries

    Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be conquered, so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).

    To match the image of the spies returning with samples of the fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 1:25), Luke has placed here the Q saying (Luke 10:2//Matthew 9:37-38), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.”

    And Jesus’ emissaries return with a glowing report, just as Moses’ did.
    (Deuteronomy 1; Luke 10:1-3, 17-30)

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      It has also been suggested that the story of the twelve disciples was derived from the twelve tribes of Israel. This raises an interesting question. Carrier’s argument is that if you can think of a reason why an episode in the Gospels was invented, then that rules out the episode as a potentially historical piece of information. But what if you can think of two different reasons why the episode might have been invented? Does that make the episode even less likely to be historical? Or does it just show how easy it is to dream up reasons why something might have been invented?

      • John MacDonald

        Well, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says the Jesus infancy narrative in the gospel of Matthew recapitulates the story of Moses in the Old Testament. This provides two hermeneutical poles with lots of room in between. On the one hand, we can suppose that the author of the gospel of Matthew started with facts about the historical Jesus and then shaped them to resemble the story of Moses. On the other hand, we can suppose that the author of the gospel of Matthew simply rewrote the story of Moses without there being any historical information about Jesus in the narrative. Price, in his article “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” in “The Encyclopedia of Midrash (see here: ) ” tries to argue that the form of the entire gospel tradition resembles what is going on in the infancy narrative in the gospel of Matthew. Dr. Alan Avery-Peck says that Price is mostly right in the examples of haggadic midrash he identifies, and that “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” carries forth the discussion in a fruitful manner. Whether or not there is any historical core in the gospel’s structure of Old Testament scripture fulfillment is anyone’s guess. And to take the above example, one has to ask why the author of the gospel of Matthew would want to portray (pretend) Jesus as the new Moses? I think it’s because the author of the gospel of Matthew thought it would help sell the Jesus story if potential converts thought Jesus was fulfilling Old Testament scriptures regarding Moses. But then Price proposes the entire gospel is this type of haggadic midrash. What does that mean?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          The infancy narrative is one of a few cases where there is general agreement about why a story was invented. But the real issue is whether everything has been invented. Even if Jesus was a fictional character, it would be absurd to claim that we know exactly why every single episode in the Gospels was invented. But that is what Carrier does.

          Carrier is notorious for accusing people of being not just incompetent but insane. I think it is time to turn the tables on him. By claiming to know exactly why everything in the Gospels was invented, Carrier demonstrates that he is actually insane. He clearly has genuine psychiatric problems.

          Carrier dismisses the Gospels and Acts as evidence. One reason for dismissing Acts is that it supposedly has all the characteristics of an “adventure novel”, of the kind that was popular at the time. One of the characteristics is that the hero of the novel goes on an epic journey. But we know that in this case the “hero” – Paul – really did go on an epic journey. Paul really did travel around the empire spreading the gospel.

          If we had Acts but we didn’t have Paul’s letters and we were entertaining a hypothesis of minimal historicity for Paul, what would we say? Would we say that Paul might have actually existed but the real Paul probably stayed at home?

          This gives you some insight into the utter absurdity of Carrier’s methodology. Mythicism is madness.

          • arcseconds

            I think we have to be a bit careful about thinking it’s a problem if we come to incorrect conclusions on the basis of less information.

            If we were in the situation you propose, while it’s perhaps a bit silly to think Paul stayed at home, I think it actually would be quite reasonable to doubt that Paul’s travels were quite as extensive as proposed in Acts, and to think that possibly other people’s travels were being attributed to Paul.

            There are certainly precedents for folding similar sorts of stories into one story and attributing the whole lot to one figure. Every island colonised by Polynesians was discovered by a Polynesian explorer, but it wasn’t always Kupe. Pythagoras is widely understood to be attributed with all sorts of discoveries more likely to have been discovered by several different people. And I think the Talmud tends to attribute everything to a small number of legendary rabbis, whereas probably more were involved.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Hi arcseconds

            That does raise an interesting question. Carrier has said that we can be confident that Paul existed. This is because Paul is an ordinary person who, unlike Jesus, does not belong to a reference class whose other members are mythical characters; hence, there is a high prior probability that Paul existed. Furthermore, the epistles are more probable on the assumption that Paul existed than on the assumption that he was invented.

            But what if Acts was the only evidence. Carrier has made it clear that he rules out Acts as evidence. He has also argued that Acts has all the features of an adventure novel. What is the prior probability that a character in an adventure novel existed? Presumably, it is low.

            So would it be reasonable to believe that Paul never existed if Acts was the only evidence?

          • arcseconds

            “This is because Paul is an ordinary person who, unlike Jesus, does not belong to a reference class whose other members are mythical characters; hence, there is a high prior probability that Paul existed.” ← this is nonsense 🙂

            It’s surely correct to say that the Epistles and Acts combined are better evidence than either alone, and the Epistles are better evidence than Acts when taken separately. Someone had to write the Epistles, after all, and minus the obvious exceptions they seem to have been written by one person. And it’s an odd sort of literary form (and I think unprecedented in the ancient world) to use if everything is made up: it’s more reasonable to suppose that the ones that are completely made up are trying to ride the coat tails of ones that are genuine.

            So it’s certainly more reasonable for someone who only has Acts to conclude that Paul didn’t exist than it is for someone who has the Epistles.

            But is it reasonable? I’m not sure. I would say that if we have the Gospels, they’re probably enough to conclude that Jesus most likely existed (although the case isn’t nearly as strong without Paul). And we’d also probably think it likely that at least some of the Apostles existed (Peter at least). Which would make it more likely for Acts to feature real people as its characters.

            With Acts alone, though, I’m not sure we’d really know what to make of it.

            I think agnosticism would be more defensible than mythicism, though.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Yes, it is important to consider the way that pieces of evidence interconnect and the way that they might shed light on each other. Carrier is at pains to demonstrate the “mythical” quality of Acts, but what does that tell us? It certainly doesn’t tell us that Paul never existed, because we have independent evidence to show that he did.

            So it seems that Luke’s intention was to write about real people, albeit in a style that might be suggestive of mythology. And if that is the case, it would be very dangerous to assume that the “mythical” quality of Luke’s Gospel is an indication not just of embellishment but of total fabrication.

          • arcseconds

            I suppose a mythicist could reply that the author of Luke-Acts doesn’t know that, say, Mark failed to record anything about a real Jesus but was transmitting a myth. And so Luke wouldn’t have any difficulty incorporating this mythical source in with a largely fabricated account about real people.

            But on this account someone is doing some kind of Gonzo journalism here, taking a celestial mythical figure and retelling the story with real people. Maybe it’s Mark or proto-Mark, putting his mate Peter into the picture?

            I think mythicists, and others for that matter, are frequently projecting modern expectations of various kinds, including literary expectations, onto the past. I don’t know of a single example where we know a figure was ehumerized by their home mythic tradition and woven into recent history to the extent that Carrier claims Jesus was, who allegedly goes from prototypical Messiah, to a celestial figurer slaughtered by demons in a celestial realm, to the son of a carpenter who bickers with his mum at parties and is best mate with a fisherman and has a brother both of whom are probably real people and a real person claims to have met.

            Ancient ehumerization (as far as I know and I’m no expert, but I’ve yet to be contradicted by an expert when saying this) sometimes takes the form of ‘yeah, probably just an ordinary guy’, but this is invariably a theory proposed by a Greek or Roman historian writing later and outside the tradition. Inside mythic traditions we have a form of ehumerization, but the figures remain plenty mythic. They go from gods living in heaven to mythic kings with magical powers in the ancient mythic past. Not to Joe with the coffee cart down the road who died last year.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Carrier is very cagey about the supposed motives of the Gospel writers. Presumably, he thinks that Mark knew the “truth” about Jesus and was deliberately writing fiction, but I don’t think that Carrier clearly states this in the book. And what about the other Gospel writers? Did they think that Jesus was a historical character, or were they also knowingly writing complete fiction?

            There are obvious difficulties with both scenarios. On the one hand, we have what must be the most spectacular misunderstanding in history, and on the other hand, we have the most successful conspiracy. I can see why Carrier would want to avoid getting into this, but it is dishonest of him not to address the question.

            Elsewhere in the book, Carrier laments the alleged failure of traditional scholarship in trying to make sense of Jesus. He says that we need a theory which explains all the facts. But Carrier has introduced a new “fact” – that the understanding of Jesus changed completely and rapidly – and he doesn’t even try to explain it. He makes no effort to chart the course of this change in understanding. His only aim in dealing with the Gospels is to rule them out as evidence.

          • arcseconds

            It seems to me Carrier’s account introduces several elements that don’t have any direct evidence for them and fail to unify the phenomena to any appreciable extent.

            On his account there’s a gap between the extant pre-Christian messianic literature and Paul, and there’s also a gap between Paul and Mark, which have to be filled in with rather specific developments, some of which seem to be historically unprecedented.

            There’s also smaller matters, like the need to introduce a hypothesis to explain ‘the brother of the Lord’, which is completely unnecessary on the assumption of historicity.

            And the account only makes sense of Jesus if you either think ‘they made it up!’ explains everything and you don’t have to look any further, or you wave your hands and say “it’s all an allegory!” for something you don’t explain any further. In other words, it makes sense so long as you don’t look very closely!

            Why would we expect Jesus and the accounts of Jesus to make sense, anyway?

          • John MacDonald

            Price/Carrier’s point seems to be that if we can say Matthew’s Jesus infancy narrative is modelled on the story of Moses, what is to stop us in supposing that this is the hermeneutic key to every New Testament pericope (that they are modelled on a prior Old Testament story). Hence, Price wrote this Encyclopedia article: “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” see:

          • His misuse of the term midrash aside, there are two possible answers. One is that there is nothing to stop us – one can make any and all texts of any sort squeeze into this paradigm. The other, and in my view preferable answer, is to say that since there is nothing to stop us from proceeding in this fashion, we ought to take extra pains to allow the evidence in the texts themselves constrain our overactive imaginations’ capacity to create parallels.

          • John MacDonald

            One could imagine the writers of the New Testament creating scriptures in such a way that New Testament scriptures have (1) an “exoteric” side, used to convert the masses (i.e., lots of exciting miracle stories), and (2) an “esoteric” side, used to convert “Learned Jews (i.e., every New Testament pericope has Jesus fulfilling Old Testament Scripture).”

          • John MacDonald

            Well, to take one example, the author of the gospel of Matthew presenting Jesus as “The New Moses” may have been an excellent selling point to potential “Learned Jew” converts: Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            There is nothing to stop you speculating about a possible reason why every pericope was invented, as long as you don’t claim to have *demonstrated* that every pericope was invented.

            The problem is that many of Carrier’s readers will think that he has actually “demonstrated” that all these episodes have been invented and won’t realise that he is engaging in speculation.

            Apparently, Carrier’s book has sold 4000 copies. The trouble is that 3995 of these copies have been read by people whose critical faculties were disengaged.

          • John MacDonald

            Carrier, who fancies himself a philosopher and an expert on everything, will often claim he has “proved” this or that in his works. Even a rudimentary philosopher understands the difference between “I have proved” and “I have argued for.” Carrier’s delusion of grandeur over his implementation of his brand of Baye’s theorem clouds his judgement over what is possible through hermeneutics.

      • arcseconds

        If one is sufficiently inventive, then one can think of reasons why not merely any episode in the Gospels was invented, but any episode whatsoever was invented.

        I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am in fact sufficiently inventive.

        I therefore rule out all of human history as containing any historical information.