Wednesday, January 7, 2015

On the Historicity of Jesus

I started reading Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt” a little while ago, and thought it was worth an in-flight review. I’m only halfway through, but I’m satisfied enough that it was money well-spent to write up some impressions.

First, my background is an unbeliever who - for decades - has felt that Jesus was initially pretty unremarkable in the 1st century, and only became remarkable through the accretion of legend and then “normal” religious development. On the Historicity of JesusI haven’t ever had any deep insight into how this might have happened, but the absence of independent extra-biblical references to Jesus, the (to my untrained eye, vague) internal inconsistencies in the New Testament and the obviously myth-like elements of the Old Testament all combined to effect my release from Christianity as a guiding principle in life. I guess that makes me a mythicist-in-waiting, and thus amenable to Carrier’s thesis that mythicism is more probable than historicity with regards to Jesus.

Carrier’s work is scholarly, written as if it was a doctoral dissertation, but more thorough. I’ve read the prequel “Proving History”, which will be helpful when reading this volume, but there’s enough different material here to make On the Historicity (”OTH”) worthwhile on its own. OTH is well-organized, copiously foot-noted, and apparently well researched.

For the non-believer, I recommend it as a thought-provoking treatment on the plausibility that Jesus was a myth that was later historicized.

For the believer, some advance warning. Carrier doesn’t sugarcoat anything. His project centers on Bayesian Probability, so when he uses the word “absurd”, he’s not being dismissive in a mean-spirited way. He’s being dismissive in a “this has a one-in-a-million-chance-of-being-true” way. If you beg to differ, I’m sure he’d appreciate a well written and argued rebuttal. You’ll see the word “absurd” a number of times.

The good news - for believers and non-believers alike - is that he dismisses the absurd theories in both the historicist and mythicist camps at the very outset, instead choosing minimal theories for each position to argue, and hopefully, establish a relative likelihood. Additionally, he argues a fortiori for historicism in order to establish the most charitable case for it (to the detriment of the mythicist position).

More good news, although mostly for the mythicist, is that there are lengthy, detailed discussions of background information shared by both positions, and evidence for or against each position. The breadth and depth of this info alone is worth the price of the book.

Bad news for believers: I’m halfway through the book, and even though Carrier’s a fortiori case for historicism is the best one could hope for, there haven’t been any biblical, extra-biblical or historical sources that you can point to and say “this is the smoking gun for Jesus’ historicity”. The best individual pieces of evidence for historicity have not been more probable on the historicist position than the mythicist position, and usually less so.

If you’re familiar with the New Testament and are reverent toward it, this book will be jarring at times, particularly if you’ve never been exposed to the idea that the Gospel stories are not the first NT books written, are based largely on Mark, and become more elaborate and differ over time, that Paul’s Epistles - some of which are the earliest in the NT canon - do not acknowledge Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person, and that Acts appears to be a largely literary invention by the author of Luke, and more.

I’m sure there will be more interesting stuff in the second half of the book, so back to my reading!


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