OHJ: The Lataster Review

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.A variety of early online reviews have appeared of my new book On the Historicity of Jesus (including Amazon reviews, to which my responses, if any, will appear there in appended comments). I will blog a series on them this week. If you know of any reviews I don’t cover by the end of the first week of July, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).


One of the early reviews posted will be published in the Journal of Religious History later this year, by Raphael Lataster, a doctoral student in religious studies and a historicity agnostic. His review is accurate and positive. But he states one criticism:

My only real criticism is that the minimal mythicist theory fits the evidence so perfectly which some may see as suspicious. This could be because the theory is simply true, or because it has been carefully crafted for this purpose, and suffers from a lower prior probability as a result (cf. apologists who inadvertently damage their hypotheses by inventing evidentially-unsupported excuses to counter the evidences of evil and hiddenness, in arguing over God’s existence). It is up to historicists, however, to show that this theory is inherently implausible.

What he means is that he is uncertain how much I have gerrymandered the theory (see Proving History, index “gerrymandering”). That’s a valid concern, and one might not notice the care I took to avoid it. The basic idea is that if we have theory h and a collection of excuses c, the addition of c may make h fit the evidence well, but it necessarily reduces the prior probability of h, unless the contents of c are highly probable independently of h or e (the evidence h must explain). And that means b, the background evidence, must on its own entail that c is highly probable. I explain the concept further in PH.

To see how I dealt with this, two examples will serve as models. You can then see how I used the same technique throughout the book, especially following the implicit guide I provide in OHJ, pp. 606-16, where I show how b features in assessing the prior probability of any assumptions relied upon in h or in h’s connection to e. An obvious example that I didn’t bother to mention but which illustrates the concept is that b includes the fact that Paul is biologically human. Thus any assumptions about what Paul could or couldn’t do that make e probable on h (assumptions that are not themselves in h and thus would be c) are highly probable, because “Paul is a biological human” is highly probable, and any assumption a that is entailed by being biologically human is therefore as highly probable (technically more probable, if a would also be true of people who aren’t human, but the increase would be trivial, because the probability he wasn’t human is trivial).

So to see this at work, look at how I treat the five elements of the minimal mythicist theory in OHJ, pp. 52-55 (which I explain the relevance of again, crucially for the point I am making now, on pp. 246-48), and thus explain their high priors relative to the prior probability of mythicism. Because there the question is not what the prior probability of those elements is independently of mythicism but what they would be if mythicism were true; their actual independent priors would then equal that probability times the prior probability of mythicism as a whole. For example, if the prior for mythicism were 1% and the relative prior of an element I employ is 99% then the independent prior probability of that element would be 1% x 99% = 0.99% or basically still just about 1%, or technically that plus its prior on historicity if it can also be true on historicity, although I designed the hypothesis so few elements of it would be, so I could get a proper dichotomy to test (that is actually required by the logic of Bayes’ Theorem, since it must be the case that P(h|~h) = 0).

In that section, I show that each element I adopt is almost certainly true if mythicism is true, because the alternative (another mythicist theory with a different element) is too improbable to credit. Therefore those elements share nearly the whole prior probability space for mythicism and therefore do not reduce the prior probability of the theory I am testing (except too trivially to show in the math, as I there explain).

The second example is my treatment of the question of the flesh created for the cosmic Jesus being Davidic and Jewish, OHJ, e.g. p. 581. I show that independently of whether mythicism is true or not, the scriptural requirement that the last messiah (the one who would eternally rule) must be of such flesh is so overwhelmingly strong that it would be effectively impossible (i.e. extremely improbable) that any Jewish innovator constructing a cosmic Jesus would do so without working it in. Because otherwise their scheme would not fulfill prophecy and thus would be deemed false. To sell it, it had to fit prophecy. So we could have predicted in advance that a final cosmic Jesus would be imagined to have been Davidic and Jewish. Therefore, we do not have to gerrymander that as an assumption. It is an assumption entailed by the background evidence. It therefore does not reduce the prior (by any significant amount).

As for those, so for all others. It is possible I overlooked something, but I was very careful, so if I did, someone else will have to find it. This would not include, of course, occasions where I speculate but don’t use that speculation in my argument–if I don’t use it in determining any probabilities, it is not relevant to my probabilities, and thus not relevant to my conclusion. Lataster would not make that mistake (he knows how logic and Bayes’ Theorem work), so I only mention it here to forestall others who might. Criticizing my conclusion by criticizing a speculation I make but don’t use is called a straw man.


For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.


  1. EmmaZunz says

    But are you convinced that the David reference in Romans 1 is original?

    If, as the radical critics think, the Pauline originals were Marcionite or Simonian, and anti-Judaic, then the David reference might be a Catholic interpolation. IMO the same likely goes for verses like Gal. 4:4 again about the status of Jesus at birth.

    And doesn’t Mark 12:35-37 show that even a text canonised by the Catholic Church, which regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, could contain a rejection of Davidic descent?

    Thus it’s possible that the Davidic descent was only imposed on Jesus by interpolation into once-mythicist texts once he became historicised.

    NB. I have not received your book from the publisher yet so apologies if you address this possibility there.

    PS. I see people have started receiving copies but I haven’t yet although I pre-ordered in the UK. Impatiently waiting!

    • says

      If, as the radical critics think, …

      The more complex and speculative any theory, the less probable it is. And the more complex and speculative premises your theory requires, the more complex and speculative your theory.

      …doesn’t Mark 12:35-37 show that even a text canonised by the Catholic Church, which regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, could contain a rejection of Davidic descent?

      That isn’t what Mark intended by writing that (however later Christian sects may have tried to “reinterpret” it). Mark would not include such a thing, since Mark is adamant that Jesus is David’s son (several other passages, e.g. in Mk. 10). And Mark is certainly fabricating this passage (Jesus’s argument here is based on the Greek…which is impossible for the actual Jesus). So he knew what he was doing. There would be no purpose to directly and intentionally contradicting himself.

      Mark more clearly means Jesus to be arguing that David acknowledged the messiah would be greater than himself (because David called him “my Lord” and not “my son,” hence David would bow even to his own son)–thus, not that he wouldn’t be his son in any sense at all. This might be a veiled attack on military messianism (and thus an apologetic for why Jesus didn’t return to defend the temple in the War, which much of Mark is a response to: Jesus is no mere king of Judea; he is Lord of the World). But in any case, Mark never has Jesus say he is not David’s son; he merely asks a rhetorical question that requires his audience to work out the mystery of how he is David’s son (i.e., in what sense, by what means), when even David said he would be subordinate to him (the reverse of ordinary filial honors).

      I don’t address this in the book, though, it being too excessive a digression (the book would be thousands of pages long if I addressed everything like this). Most commentaries (esp. recently) acknowledge that Mark cannot mean Jesus was saying he was not David’s son. And we can be certain Jesus never said this. So at most we must discern from it what Mark was thinking by it. It doesn’t help us work out the original sect’s beliefs.

  2. Bernard says

    You said,
    “So we could have predicted in advance that a final cosmic Jesus would be imagined to have been Davidic and Jewish.”
    I disagree. Only somebody who has been human on earth would be imagined Davidic and said Jewish.
    Cosmic Michael, the Messiah for the Jews in Daniel 12 did not have to be Davidic or a Jew.
    From where did you get a cosmic entity could be descendant of an earthly man who lived long ago and part of an ethnic group?
    Cordially, Bernard

  3. EmmaZunz says

    I get your interpretive principle and your interpretation of the passage, Richard, but would you not have to conclude that Mark has willingly expressed his point in a dangerously confusing and prima facie heterodox manner? If he were trying to combat a case that the Psalms passage invalidated Jesus’ messianic credentials, he would have been better off having Jesus explain the point you have propounded: “Does not David call his son, the Christ, Lord because he is greater?” Instead, on the common interpretation, Jesus comes off as a gadfly who is more interested in confusing the scribes than in explaining himself. Are the “great throng” gladdened by his words supposed to follow the unstated argument, or will they not rather come away with the idea that Jesus has proven the non-Davidic ancestry of the Messiah? If we look at how Jesus answers the other questions in this chapter, his answers are plain, and not at all understated: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. … For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. … The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one…” The plain sense of the David monologue is a non-Davidic Messiah.

    What if Mark’s Jesus, a Northerner with no apparent Judaean aristocratic connections or status, teaches the non-Davidic Messiah, yet bears with the crowd and beggar who hail him in Davidic terms? I’m not sure Mark is anywhere “adamant” about Davidic ancestry, although of course his Jesus accepts Bartimaeus’ faith in those terms. I don’t think these verses are quite adamant enough assertions to overrule the plain meaning of the Temple monologue. Maybe the latter is meant to be a clear enough teaching to show up the error of these people. After all, isn’t gMark largely concerned with people misunderstanding Jesus? And doesn’t Jesus display a strange unwillingness to go beyond the bare minimum to publicise the truth about himself? (3:12, 4:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:30, 15:2-5)

    I don’t think Bartimaeus necessarily needs to correctly state the truth about Jesus in order to gain the right to be healed. Presumably some of the crowds healed in 3:10 or 6:56 would be the sort of people who thought Jesus was Elijah or, later, John the Baptist: they didn’t need to know the truth to be healed. We could even take 8:29 to imply that none of the crowds recognise Jesus as the Christ. The blind man at Bethsaida (8:22) does not appear to have any faith of his own at all, since it is the townspeople who urge his healing. The key belief seems to be simply in Jesus’ ability to heal, as per 9:23-4. If healing then does not require correctness in faith, then Jesus’ acceptance of Bartimaeus’ faith does not constitute acknowledgement of the truth of Bartimaeus’ identification of Jesus as Son of David. Nor, a fortiori, does Jesus’ silence towards the crowds welcoming him into Jerusalem indicate his acceptance of their Davidic praise. Thus there is no adamant assertion of the Davidic Messiah in gMark.

    I am undecided what to make of it. I don’t find either theory convincing yet, and I don’t think I can agree with your position that gMark is adamant about the Davidic Messiah. The anti-Davidic message is a possibility.

    Thank you for taking the time on this. Can’t wait for the book.

    • says

      …but would you not have to conclude that Mark has willingly expressed his point in a dangerously confusing and prima facie heterodox manner?

      As you will see in the background materials chapter in the book, that is by design. Mark even clues his readers into the fact that he is doing this throughout the whole book in chapter 4 (though ostensibly having Jesus explain to his Disciples why he is being so obscure, in fact Mark is secretly informing his readers how Mark has composed his whole Gospel). That becomes clear from the analyses I provide in chapter 10, much of which based on published literature in the field.

      In short, you should assume Mark is being obscure everywhere. If you aren’t, then you aren’t reading Mark correctly.

      The classic example is the fig tree cursing episode. Everyone makes fun of it as ridiculous, because they are reading it literally. Mark in no way intended it to be read literally (except by outsiders whom he actually intends to hide his point from). I provide the real point behind the story, drawn from the peer reviewed literature on it, in OHJ, pp. 433-35. Once you see what Mark really means by the story, it is not ridiculous but brilliantly constructed and deeply meaningful.

      Mark is not an idiot. He composes deliberately. That’s why we can be sure he would not contradict himself by inventing a speech in which Jesus denies something Mark has spent several passages establishing. Like the fig tree episode, which when taken literally makes no sense, you need to stop taking Mark literally and look at what his point must have been in context, fully accepting that he is making all this up for a specific purpose–and it won’t be a purpose that contradicts himself.

      …isn’t gMark largely concerned with people misunderstanding Jesus?

      Actually, Mark is largely concerned with having Jesus deliberately making sure they do (not just Mark 4 says so explicitly–and paradoxically–but Jesus’s constant efforts to silence the demons declaring him the Son of David serves the same point).

      Thus there is no adamant assertion of the Davidic Messiah in gMark.

      Remember, Mark is fiction. So when he has a moral hero say Jesus is the Son of David, Mark is telling his readers that Jesus is in fact the Son of David. It’s not as if a real Son of Timaeus in historical Galilee said this and Mark is reluctantly reporting it because it happened.

      And in any event, Paul is clear on the point, unless you adopt the ad hoc assumption of numerous interpolations (Paul asserts the royal flesh of Jesus many times, not just in Rom. 1, but also Rom. 9 and 15), so even if Mark a generation later felt the need to downplay this, it can’t have any bearing on the origins of Christianity. But since we can’t treat Mark as saying anything literally, and know instead that he is deliberately hiding his point behind wordplay, the common reading of the point of Mark 12 is most likely correct: Jesus is asking people to solve the mystery of how the messiah can be both Son of and Lord over David; those who solve it, will understand the Christ. And to create this trick of wordplay, Mark invents a speech for Jesus based on the Septuagint. So we know it was never anything any real Jesus said. And yet Mark does not use it to say Jesus was not of Davidic flesh, nor does he ever show any need to deny this or defend this or apologize for anything having to do with it. Mark is just never talking literally about anything, much less the metaphysics of cosmic somatology.

  4. says

    What is dishonest in my posting and the question I asked you?
    My remark was not on your book, but on what you wrote on your blog.
    I got no answer. Instead a personal attack.
    I suppose your answer would be, as you exposed in one of your lecture, in 2 Samuel 7.
    I have a blog post on that:
    Carrier`s use of 2 Samuel 7 in order to demonstrate it was believed God had a cosmic sperm bank in outer space in order to make an eternal heavenly Messiah from David`s seed
    I tried honestly not to misrepresent you. Does someone have to be a crank to oppose your theory?
    Cordially, Bernard

    • says

      Bernard, if you are not going to read my book, don’t talk about it.

      If you want to discuss the arguments in the book, read and respond to the arguments in the book.

      You keep doing this. It’s rude and annoying and a waste of everyone’s time. This isn’t just out of the blue. You have worn down everyone’s patience with your impertinence and your failure to listen.

  5. dannicoy says

    You might want to order that list in chronological order. If somebody checks out the first few of those links, they are going to see you rather irately replying to what could be innocent remarks, without context it would be pretty easy to conclude that you are just being an asshole.

    It is only by going to the earliest remarks that we see a pattern of escalation.

    • says

      You kind of answered your own question.

      The context, and chronological escalation, is self-evident. So much so, even you figured it out.

      We call that a problem that solves itself.

  6. No Way says

    This is awful to ask, since the book has just hit Amazon, but do we know when an ebook will be available?

    • says

      I don’t know. I hope to have it out by end of year. But I don’t even have a contract yet. That’s supposed to get resolved this month. Production can take a couple of months, depending on factors.