OHJ: The Covington Review (Part 3)


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.Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).

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This series has included another series begun by Nicholas Covington. I have commented on part 1 and on part 2. Today I shall comment on part 3.

Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf

In summary, Covington’s Part 3 is a useful read. It adds to better understanding of the reasons Jesus’s historicity is reasonably doubtable. And it provides examples for future scholars to build on my work.

I have one dispute to air, though, that is relatively minor in the grand scheme, yet elucidating it can be very helpful to many readers pondering the issues in this debate, most particularly the question, ‘Why not just straightaway conclude Jesus was mythical on the strength of the “mythyness” of the Gospels themselves?’ I’ve seen many laypeople advance that argument. “The Gospels are so obviously bogus, obviously there was no Jesus!” It’s not a valid argument. As I explain in OHJ, the premise is correct; but the conclusion does not follow. Covington isn’t so sure. He wants to make a more sophisticated attempt at that argument.

Should the Gospels Count More Against Historicity?

Covington starts with a good point. Although he gets wrong what I argue in the book, he is not too far off. Covington agrees the Gospels are too thoroughly mytho-symbolic to count as historical evidence. From this he concludes:

Naturally, if it is the case that the gospels are wholly symbolic, this would seem to lend tremendous support to the Christ myth theory. However, Carrier only argues that the gospels don’t count against his thesis. The reason for that? Well, he generated a prior probability for the Christ myth theory based upon information given in the gospels (which shows that Jesus fits the mythic hero archetype) and I suppose he thinks it’d be circular to then use the gospels to generate a posterior probability. I understand that position; however, if one uses the pieces of the gospel that conform to the mythic hero archetype to generate a prior it is still possible to use the rest of the gospel narratives to generate a posterior probability.

This isn’t quite right. He is referring to what I say in OHJ, p. 395, which is actually this (and I’m even truncating here):

We already know, as a general rule, that completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons and seemingly straightforward historical accounts can be written about non-historical persons. So which it is … will have to depend on what the remaining evidence indicates … There is one important exception to this point: the Rank–Raglan data, which was used to construct our prior probability … because it can be correlated with enough examples to derive an actual probability that such data would accumulate for a real man. But we have already employed that evidence in our calculation … Thus, the mythic character of the Gospels overall will affect our estimate of historicity. But only as much as it already has.

First, note how I am not arguing that I already used up all the Gospel data in generating the prior. I am arguing that I only used up a subset of that data. Which leaves plenty of data in the Gospels that can legitimately affect the consequents, just as Covington says (so, I actually said exactly what Covington says). The reason I find the remaining data indeterminate is not that I already used it, but that it’s just as likely to be there even if Jesus existed. In particular, “completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons.” Thus, even if we granted that the Gospels are completely 100% fictional, that can still just as easily be true if Jesus existed, and very little was remembered or transmitted about him (or what was, was simply unusable to suit the evangelists’ purposes).

Second, note what I say about this in OHJ, p. 507:

A more ardent skeptic could disagree. Here I am arguing a fortiori, and as such granting historicity its best shot. But some will still ask why the Gospels appear out of nowhere forty to eighty years after the fact, as fully structured literary myths, rather than there first being more mundane reports, memoirs and accounts, closer to the events concerned, only later evolving into increasingly grandiose myths.

I go on to answer that question, by pointing out this is really a question about the extra-biblical evidence, which I treat separately from the Gospels (in ch. 8 rather than ch. 10). In short, I do not exclude the Gospel data from determining consequent probabilities. I simply find their contents equally likely on historicity and myth even if they are completely fictional.

Covington’s point could be tweaked to make a different argument, that the Gospels’ extreme fictionality should trigger Law’s Principle of Contamination (OHJ, p. 394), such that the historicity of Jesus becomes less likely simply because the stories he’s placed in are so unhistorical (and often absurd). The argument here would be that it is more likely such mytho-symbolic treatises would be written about a non-existent man than an existing one–in other words, that the suspicion raised by the absurd claims should contaminate the mundane claims as well. But I don’t know how one would prove that. It seems to me that, so far as we know, this outcome is equally likely either way.

I do argue in OHJ that “it’s much easier to make up things about a person who never existed than about one who actually did” (p. 237; a point I expand on on p. 250), but the effect of that quite undeniable fact is too small for minimal historicity to significantly affect our math. This is therefore the same problem confronting the extra-biblical evidence (as I note in OHJ, p. 356): certainly, if we posit Jesus was famous, the Gospels become notably less probable on historicity (just as the extra-biblical silence does); but if we posit he was a virtual nobody, and that even his own followers were disinterested in preserving much detail about him (as defenders of historicity are actually forced to argue in order to explain the Epistles: OHJ, pp. 514-28; see especially the point I make in pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82), then it’s no longer significantly harder to make up stories about him decades later.

This is reinforced by the fact that several stories in the Gospels can be “pruned” of embellishments and implausibilities until they are mundane enough that one can say their core is as likely to come from historical memory as from literary license. Although one can get no further than that. One cannot argue that they “probably do” come from historical memory, just from the mere possibility that they could (that’s the possibiliter fallacy: Proving History, Axiom 5, pp. 26-29). But one also can’t prove they “probably don’t,” either (from that datum alone).

Using Up the Gospel “Mythyness” to Generate the Prior Probability

This leads to another key point: why I allow a lopsided result for the Rank-Raglan class, but assume everything else is 50/50. I assume everything is 50/50 for which I have no data demonstrating it to be otherwise. I have data for the Rank-Raglan class demonstrating it to be otherwise. But, Covington could ask, isn’t that true for a few other things as well, and not just the fact that Jesus is a Rank-Raglan hero? Maybe. But…

I noted in Element 48 (in OHJ, p. 230; and also, less obviously, in my development of Elements 31, 46 and 47) that there are many other attributes the Gospel Jesus shares in common with mythical persons more frequently than historical persons besides the Rank-Raglan criteria (a fact often overlooked by people who despise the Rank-Raglan criteria and think my prior probability hinges all on that…it doesn’t). When we include them all (all those criteria, e.g. the classes Jesus falls into in Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48), Jesus falls even more certainly in a reference class over-loaded with mythical persons and under-occupied by historical persons. We just don’t have the sample size for those classes that we have for the Rank-Raglan class, so assessing priors from them, even though that certainly (even a fortiori) would always favor ahistoricity for any randomly selected member (and therefore Jesus), would still be more subjective, and thus harder to explain why it has this effect on the prior (not impossible, just harder).

More importantly, being more certainly in a myth-heavy class is not the same thing as being in a class that is more myth-heavy. For example, the ratio of mythical-to-historical persons in the super-class of all persons conjoining Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48 may be entirely the same as the ratio in the Rank-Raglan class. But what we gain by noticing that Jesus actually belongs to that super-class is that his being in it is even less likely to be an accident than his being in the Rank-Raglan class. Thus, those other Elements (as well as the additional criteria I mention on p. 230) create high confidence that the result derived from the Rank-Raglan class alone is applicable and correct. Covington might want to argue that “surely” members of that superclass are less commonly historical than even members of the Rank-Raglan class alone are. But there isn’t really any data to establish that…and what there is, looks pretty much just like the Rank-Raglan data.

In summary, adding more mythic markers to Jesus than are included in the Rank-Raglan class, even though Jesus does indeed possess those markers, does not make Jesus any more likely to be mythical. At least not significantly (as in, enough to show up relevantly in our math). Once you are that mythical, adding even more mythic markers makes little further statistical difference. At least, I cannot see how to prove otherwise in any convincing fashion.

So we could pull a lot more data from the Gospels into generating our prior probability estimate…and it would not significantly change the prior. Which means, leaving that data in the evidence-pool instead will not generate any significant difference in the consequent probabilities, either. (Because mathematically, those two statements mean the same thing: every prior is the output of previously calculated consequents; so no change in a prior, means no difference in the consequents.)

Adding to My Treatment of the Gospels

Covington makes a really good point about the use of the Gospel genealogies in the historicity debate, well worth reading. There were tons of things I had to leave out of my treatment in the book, since to save space I only needed to prove a generalization with enough examples. But one can extend that project all the way through every single piece of every single Gospel. And I think a lot of benefit could be had by doing that, and collecting it all in one place. Covington provides an example, by noting scholarship showing the mytho-symbolic nature of the genealogies (there is much more, particularly in print, than even he mentions), destroying any prospect one may have had of using them to argue for historicity. Covington is also astute enough to note that this topples even such uses that admit the genealogies are fake.

He then expands this point into a really sharp generalization, about what he amusingly calls the Gee-Whiz Argument:

I find that when people first hear of the gospels being symbolic, they balk, point to some story in the gospels, and say, “Gee Whiz, This Doesn’t Look symbolic to me!” Anyone who gives the “Gee-Whiz defense” should learn a huge lesson from the example of Matthew’s genealogy. The fact that it does not look symbolic to you does not mean that it intends to convey historical truth.

Bingo. I give plenty of examples myself in OHJ ch. 10, so many that I’m sure you’ll find several stories covered there that you may have “Gee Whizzed” at, which are exposed as mytho-symbolic. This should train you to update your priors. Because this happens so often (a seemingly mundane story turns out to be obviously mytho-symbolic) that every other time you “Gee Whiz” a story in the Gospels, you should be deeply worried that you are missing the author’s point. Which is indeed my own point (OHJ, pp. 508-09).

Covington even goes on to explain the effect of this on your priors. In his hypothetical (which you should read) we are left with a 90% chance any remaining stories with unknown symbolic meanings have actual symbolic meanings after all and our not knowing them is simply a product of lost data. I make this point myself regarding the number symbolism in the Gospel of John (OHJ, pp. 498 and 505-06); and I make a similar point about family names in Mark (OHJ, pp. 445-56). I also discuss the method of iteration Covington is implying (OHJ, p. 509; see PH, index, “iteration”).

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My commentary on part 4 will go live in a few days. See my commentary on part 2, if you want to walk back in the series. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here). 

Covington has also responded to another’s (rather off-topic) question about part 3 (part 3a, with more discussion of the point in part 9), on whether my claim of a Philonic Jesus theology holds water (he confirms it does). I have nothing further to add to that, except that there is even more evidence cited in OHJ on this point than Covington already astutely summarizes (e.g. that the Philonic Logos is the celestial High Priest is explicitly stated by Philo in several places, and not just an inference from his saying it is the same figure in Zechariah 6). And my book already addresses all the objections commenters raised on his blog (OHJ, Element 40).

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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.

Comments

  1. Jim Reed says

    In America this is an issue between the Christians and the anti-Christians. The potential existance of an historical Jesus who is not the Jesus of the Bible, and otherwise not of any historical significance, is of no interest to us on either side of this battle. The probability that any historical Jesus is the Jesus of any of the books of the Bible seems to be 0. Like it or not, that is why your book is important.

  2. gshelley says

    Not using the rest of the gospels as evidence against Jesus was something that also seemed a problem to me (though of course, it would have only made Jesus less likely) and like Covington, I didn’t find the answer in the book convincing, though I think you almost have me now.

    It may just be argument from personal incredulity, but to me, it seems odd (with all that entails), that people would write a history of the founder and not bother to include anything he actually said and did – no actual details at all. I don’t know if such entirely fictional biographies of real people exist, and if they do what the context they were written in – It might be easier for Mark to write an entirely fictional account 50 years after the event, hundreds of miles away, than it would have been for someone in Palestine in the 50s. Similarly, just because we no longer have it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It may be possible that one of the gospels at the time included genuine historical details. Again, to me, it would seem odd that if Jesus was a real person, and actual oral accounts existed, the historical elements were wither abandoned, or so heavily mythicised that they can’t be extracted, but I suspect the sample size is too small to say it doesn’t happen, even if we don’t see it in our known examples

    • says

      Do note, though, that if after reviewing all this you still think the Gospels are less likely to exist in their present form even on minimal historicity than on minimal mythicism, then you would indeed just alter the ratio in the math to whatever you think it is (e.g. p. 597, for P(Gospels|h), you would replace 1/1 in both columns with what you actually think it should be [second column] and what you think even a denier would have to admit it at least is [first column]).

      I am composing a commentary on Covington’s later parts where I think he might have convinced me to change this number. So stay tuned.

      But note some flaws right now…

      …that people would write a history of the founder and not bother to include anything he actually said and did – no actual details at all…

      This statement assumes the Gospels don’t have any truth in them. That is one thing I point out in ch. 10 we actually can’t prove. For example, my treatment of Simon of Cyrene shows that that story is as likely as not to be mytho-symbolic…but that means it is also as likely as not to be based on a historical reported fact. Since it’s 50/50, we can’t say the Gospels are all fiction. We can only say they are as likely to be all fiction as to contain some facts. And so, they are indeterminate. And note, the ability to extract those facts is not relevant…that is, just because we can’t extract them, i.e. admitting the historical Jesus is unknowable, does not entail they aren’t there; those are two different claims, with two different probabilities.

      …if Jesus was a real person, and actual oral accounts existed, the historical elements were wither abandoned…

      On minimal historicity (take note: minimal), it is not a given that “actual oral accounts existed.” If the significance of the preached Jesus was everything that transpired after his death (the soteriological interpretation of that death), then evangelists wouldn’t have cared about his life, that simply wouldn’t be the important “good news” (and if they were continuing to get teachings from him by revelation, there would rapidly cease to be any meaningful difference between his teachings in life and his revealed teachings after death). By the time the Gospels were written, what had been preached far and wide was not a biography, but a theology. The Christians’ own mission thus simply erased all the biography of Jesus. So when someone wanted to write a biography (if we were to suppose that’s what the evangelists were doing), they had to make one up from whole cloth…but not because Jesus didn’t exist, but because up until then no one cared about his biography.

      Now, that scenario has its own improbabilities. And that is my point in ch. 11 (on the Epistles, cf. esp. § 2). But once I have already factored that (i.e. already assigned a probability estimate to it), I can’t double count the same factor.

      Think of it this way: if the “no one cared” thesis is true, then the probability of no biographical facts in the Gospels is as good as 100%; so when to defend the Epistles historicists say the “no one cared” thesis explains their silence, that’s true, in the sense that if that theses is true those Epistles would as good as 100% look like they do; it’s the thesis itself that is improbable. But that’s just one probability, not two.

      That probability can be factored into the prior (by reducing the prior: see Proving History, pp. 80-81) or the consequents (but not both). And in the latter case, what is being said is that b entails such a thesis is improbable, so when h does not include that thesis, we are asking how likely it is that h would cause that thesis and thus our e. Mathemetically the effect is the same.

      I do the latter: when I estimate 2:1 against this silence (in the ‘Things Jesus Did’ column) I am already factoring in the “no one cared” thesis. But by having already accounted for that (by accounting it improbable), I must allow its effect on the Gospels to be the same as on the Epistles (as in fact it is).

      Now, one can argue I am being over-generous to historicity with that estimate (and Covington in future entries makes a good argument that I have been). But that’s a different question.

    • gshelley says

      OK, I see that. I think I was confusing the gospels being obviously and unambiguously mythical with completely mythical and not considering that the low probability (as such) for the “no one cared” hypothesis was included in the analysis of the epistles. Would it be right enough to say that there are multiple possibilities for the gospels
      1) The authors completely made them up
      2) The authors mostly made them up, but included information from either other lost works or oral traditions, believing these fiction
      3) The authors mostly made them up, but included information from either other lost works or oral traditions, believing them historical.
      4) The authors mostly used some previous tradition, but changed and added parts to suit their own theology
      and that while we may be able to say one or more of these is more likely, we can;t be confident enough to assign any probability that would make a difference to the overall argument?

  3. says

    One point which Nick made which I found valid is that the narrative may appear to be mythic in many respect but still be based on history. Hollywood, of course, does that all the time. That is why the approach I take in Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark may be helpful. I attempt to show that myth is not merely sporadic but systematic and that it figuratively reflects history in chronological sequence, the history not of Jesus but of Israel. Jesus is but a symbol of salvation, a symbol of God saving, and the story of Jesus recapitulates the history of salvation. There is not one historical Jesus, there are many historical Jesuses, from Joshua on. That leaves very little room for the history of one particular person named Jesus actually located in the surface story. Historical reality is displaced from the narrative. I think this methodology makes the historicity of a specific Jesus no longer axiomatic but decidedly problematic, and is well within the parameters of Richard’s theory.

  4. Bryan says

    David Marshal wrote a lengthy review of your book on Amazon that he is persuaded no one is able to respond to. It would be cool if you wiped the smug look off of his face.

    • says

      He is famous for writing absurdly long rants that barely contact logic or reality. It is rarely worth the bother of fisking them. They tend to be so awful as to be manifestly self-refuting.

      If I find the time I’ll take a look, but based on past experience, it’s probably a waste of time. He will just write something ten times longer and insist you can’t respond. Then you respond and he’ll write something a hundred times longer and insist you can’t respond. And so on, ad infinitum. Why bother, when what he writes is so obviously false no one needs me to point it out in the first place?

      But I welcome anyone else who wants to expose his lies, distortions, and fallacies. Have at him there! I would count it a favor.

  5. tyro says

    If we knew that everything written about the Jesus was fiction, how would it make sense to say that Jesus could be historical? Maybe this ends up being a semantic issue.

    When we talk about “Jesus”, we are implicitly referring to the character – his traits, actions, etc. Even if there was some person that was the basis or inspiration for the Jesus character, if there’s no overlapping traits, I’m not sure it makes sense to say that the character had an historical basis.

    As an example, I heard that the Superman character was based on a person the author saw running for a train (even if I’m mistaken, let’s suppose this were true). Apart from the fact both the person and the character chased a train they don’t have anything else in common except perhaps by accident. Would you say that there’s an historical Superman? I wouldn’t. Perhaps there’s a debate to be had, about how many traits the character and the real-life person need to share but I’d say that number is more than zero.

    • says

      If we knew that everything written about the Jesus was fiction, how would it make sense to say that Jesus could be historical? Maybe this ends up being a semantic issue.

      I actually answer that question in ch. 2 of OHJ.

      But if you want to explore the entire semantic basement of the idea, this is how it pans out. For example, when Paul says Jesus was killed. If that is false, then probably Jesus didn’t exist. But maybe he still existed and people mistook him as being killed (intentionally or accidentally). So even if that statement is false, there can still be a historical Jesus (the guy people thought was killed). And if there being a historical Jesus makes even that false statement more likely than there not being a historical Jesus would, then even that false statement is evidence Jesus existed.

      For instance, a historicist might say that “he could not be mistaken for dead if he didn’t exist, therefore there had to be a real man.” That amounts to saying, in mathematical notation, P(existed|reported dead) = approx. 100% and P(~existed|reported dead) = approx. 0%, for a ratio of maybe 100:1 or 1000:1 or whatever degree of certainty is warranted. Of course, we know this is every kind of wrong. “Reported dead” /= “Mistaken for dead” and e only includes “Reported dead.” And a non-existent person can be reported dead (Adam, Moses, Pan, Romulus, Osiris, Hercules, etc., etc.). And when his being reported dead is fundamental to the entire ideology of this breakaway Jewish cult (OHJ, Elements 5-8, 11, 14, 16-18, 23-29, 31, 43), there ceases to be any surprise at the notion they’d use a non-existent person to do the dying; and there is even in fact evidence that that is exactly what they did (OHJ, Elements 40, 42; and Hebrews 9, OHJ, ch. 11, § 5).

      So, yes, “he could not be mistaken for dead if he didn’t exist, therefore there had to be a real man” doesn’t work as an argument. But semantically, that’s an example of the sort of way one could leverage false statements into a conclusion of historicity. So “everything said is false” does not entail “Jesus didn’t exist.”

  6. says

    If you had a completely 100% fictional story using only a recognizable name for a character, there is a meme of a family thanking Jesus for their food with a Mexican in a farm field reponding “de nada”. How can you know this is supposed to be the same person and just not someone else with the same name unless you refer to at least one thing that would associate them? If there was even one thing, it wouldn’t be 100% fictional.

    Unless,… I could write a fictional story about a person called Spiderman who collected and studied spiders, but never did anything fantastical. Use of a fictional character without permission would be grounds for lawsuit, which I might be able to escape by showing there was 0% similarity between the two fictional characters other than the name. Any similarities to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental, but so are similarities to other fictional characters.

    People aren’t willing to accept the implications of the depth that such a large and long running game of telephone can reach.

    • says

      I answer that question in ch. 2 of OHJ. In short, I carefully define what a meaningful minimal historicity entails. Such that, if Jesus is any less historical than that, there is no longer any relevant sense in which he existed.

  7. tyro says

    So, yes, “he could not be mistaken for dead if he didn’t exist, therefore there had to be a real man” doesn’t work as an argument. But semantically, that’s an example of the sort of way one could leverage false statements into a conclusion of historicity. So “everything said is false” does not entail “Jesus didn’t exist.”

    Yes, as a matter of basic logic then you’re right of course. But I feel like it misses what I was getting at. Fortunately Tige Gibson did a better job of expressing what I was after, and you answered him. I don’t have OHJ yet to check that chapter, but I’m hoping to see you in Abbotsford which sounds like a great chance to pick it up :)

    • says

      Oh, no! Abbotsford won’t have copies of my book. Difficulties with trade laws. I’ve tried to note this wherever I’ve advertised the event. So you should get a copy via Amazon or similar source in advance (order right now) and bring it to the event.

      I can certainly discuss anything about it in Q&A at Abbotsford.

  8. humesapprentice says

    “Thus, even if we granted that the Gospels are completely 100% fictional, that can still just as easily be true if Jesus existed, and very little was remembered or transmitted about him (or what was, was simply unusable to suit the evangelists’ purposes).”

    I worry that postulating “very little was remembered or transmitted about him” is ad-hoc. That aside though, there’s a distinction between ‘fictional’ and ‘symoblic.’ And the heavily symbolical nature of the gospels is what bothers me. Allow me to add flesh to the bones of my argument.

    If Jesus was a celestial being, writing an account about him as if he had lived on earth is either intentional deception or it was not. Ruling out intentional deception as an unlikely hypothesis, the gospel accounts can be *intended* as literal truth or they are not. The hypothesis of *intended* literal truth is unlikely under the mythicist thesis (For brevity’s sake I’ll take this as obvious, if anyone needs an explanation I’d be happy to talk about it more). The only possibility left is that the gospels were intended to convey truth not of a literal kind but symbolic or figurative truth (Carrier discusses how this was done with other gods and how Plutarch approved of it). The hypothesis of mythicism predicts the gospels are myths with a very high probability. We cannot show with absolute certainty that all gospel material is symbolic. However, I think we can show that enough of Mark is to warrant an inference that the whole thing probably is. To borrow the analogy I used on my blog:

    “If an archaeological dig turned up documents from an ancient cult, and we found that 4/10 of the documents were symbolic, 5/10 were plausibly symbolic, and the remaining tenth had no known symbolic explanation, we would chalk that up to our incomplete knowledge of history. No one would grasp at straws and try to save some of the stuff as historical.”

    There’s a decent Bayesian argument that could be made from this: If mythicism predicts that “if there are apparent histories of Jesus, they will be symbolic” with, say, 90% certainty, and we know with 90% certainty that the gospel of Mark is a symbolic document, then this means mythicism predicts the evidence we have with over 80% certainty. (I’ve put it this way just to illustrate the overall logical form of the argument, whether the 90% figure needs to be lower is a topic that needs to be argued for thoroughly, which I may do at some point). Whereas I think minimal historicism, free of ad-hoc hypotheses, would predict the evidence of ‘probably symbolic biographies’ with much less than 80% certainty (how often does this happen, even with religious figures? Isn’t it just as likely, if not more so, that if Jesus had been a real figure we could’ve ended up with a biography that no symbolism in it, or only a little?). Again, there is much that needs to be discussed and demonstrated about this argument before I’d expect anybody to be persuaded by it, so this comment is just an explanation of my viewpoint.

    • says

      I worry that postulating “very little was remembered or transmitted about him” is ad-hoc.

      It may be (as I note in OHJ, pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82). It depends on whether it is entailed by minimal historicity plus b, or whether it is inherently unlikely even on minimal historicity given b, or whatever may be. I didn’t query that, to argue a fortiori. But one could query that to argue a judicantiori. So it may be a factor to consider. And you are right to ponder those factors.

      But this creates a more complicated mathematical model. You are now working a three-hypothesis model (Proving History, p. 284): minimal mythicism against historicity with an insignificant original Jesus and historicity with a significant original Jesus. The latter would predict the Gospels should be memoirs not symbolic allegories. But the former would not. So what is the split on that? On priors, is “historicity with an insignificant original Jesus” and “historicity with a significant original Jesus” a 50/50 split? Or does b contain information that allows us to say that “historicity with an insignificant original Jesus” is implausible or otherwise less likely to have been the case (on prior considerations alone)? Or vice versa? (And then we have the other possibilities I discussed, so probably even more than three hypotheses need to be weighed in.)

      So, I agree you might be able to gain fruit down that road. But it’s a lot of work.

      To carry your own analogy:

      “If an archaeological dig turned up documents from an ancient cult, and we found that 4/10 of the documents were symbolic, 5/10 were plausibly symbolic, and the remaining tenth had no known symbolic explanation, we would chalk that up to our incomplete knowledge of history. No one would grasp at straws and try to save some of the stuff as historical.”

      Suppose the “documents” in this scenario constantly reference a holy teacher. What is the prior probability that that holy teacher was a historical person? (And note I am asking prior; so prior to, say, considering any evidence specifically bearing on that question.)

      Using nothing from e, I suspect one could argue it would be very probable (the argument would be “most holy teachers throughout history have been historical”). And you could only get that reduced by using evidence in e to the contrary, which I suspect would just end up with the same prior I end up with. Hence I’ve already factored this in. (Or you could do a historical survey and prove that “most holy teachers throughout history have been historical” is false; but that’s even more work.)

      So, for example, how many historical persons in the Rank-Raglan class had legit memoirs written about them? None. So if we allow that 4 of them are historical (as I do a fortiori), we are allowing that being historical does not predict the production of legit memoirs. Thus, h + b does not get us a prediction of legit memoirs. Whereas to reject that conclusion, we have to say no one in the RR class was historical. Which is simply my a judicantiori prior.

      And that is the explanation of my viewpoint.

      Nevertheless, there is a way out. Most RR members, if they existed, lived before the age of writing legit memoirs. So you have an alternative explanation for that observation. Which allows proposing that b entails that in the first century, we should expect legit memoirs even for any RR hero. But in doing so you (a) have no data (no such RR heroes exist, outside the case we are examining) and (b) are leaning on your intuitions about the nature of literary society of the time, which I would agree may be defensible (although it’s not as straightforward as you think; early Christianity was not a movement of the literary elite), but it’s really hard to “prove” an intuition like that true. Especially to someone hell bent on denying the conclusion. Such argumentation is too weak to overcome cognitive bias. Still, that is not sufficient reason to always drop it. It just means the payout will be small, for an effort that is large.

      Which means, you should feel free to explore it. I just personally don’t see it as economical.

  9. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    At some point we get into a definitional question as to what counts as a historical Jesus.

    The book ‘Love Story’ has characters that were based in part on Al Gore and his wife Tipper who the author knew in college. That does not make the story any less fictional or in any way a biography of Al Gore.

    What seems to have many people tripped up is the possibility that Mark based his narrative on a real person’s life and added stuff. That is of course ultimately impossible to know one way or the other. There is no shortage of possible models we know about and it might well have been someone who didn’t get recorded at all.

    But the overwhelming weight of evidence points to Mark being a retelling of the Ascension of Isaiah set in contemporary times and that this is his primary intent. The same thing has been done with the gospels – Jesus of Montreal is the same thing.

    It is the fact that we have the plot of the gospels over a century prior to the time they are set that gives the whole thing away.

    • says

      At some point we get into a definitional question as to what counts as a historical Jesus.

      I devote an entire chapter to that in OHJ. (Chapter two.)

      And as to possible models, they can still be tested against all the evidence, e.g. the evidence of the Epistles, not just the Gospels. My prior (chapter six) comes to the probability that “Mark et al. had some person in mind as their basis” of around 33% or less. So that possibility is already accounted for, and found to be less likely than not, owing to it not being the usual order of things for similar treatises.

      But we have to keep clear what we mean, hence my chapter two. So, that Mark used a Jesus of the 60s AD as a model for his crucifixion narrative is very likely true (OHJ, pp. 428-30). But that’s not “the” Jesus because “the” Jesus was being worshiped for decades before that. And we only want to know if “the” Jesus existed, i.e. we want to know if that guy started Christianity. Not some completely irrelevant Jesus in no way connected with Christianity or its origins. Thus this is not a relevant “based on someone” instance. You cannot explain the origins of Christianity by saying “there was this Jesus in the 60s, see…” That’s interesting. But not relevant to the question we are asking.

      …we have the plot of the gospels over a century prior to the time they are set…

      I don’t know what you are referring to. Asc. Is. dates in the earliest recoverable redaction to the same time as the Gospels, not a hundred years before even them, much less before Pilate. Although some even earlier redaction of the Asc. Is. might date from there is a plausible hypothesis (Paul in that case even quotes it as scripture), but not one we can adduce any conclusive evidence for. And “merely possible” in, “merely possible” out.

    • Phillip Hallam-Baker says

      Yes, I read chapter 2. But the point is that folk can quibble about just how much grounding in actual people amounts to a historical Jesus. You set the bar rather high, other folk seem to instinctively argue to make the bar lower.

      I completely agree that a historical Jesus has to have been rather more than some random person used as a basis for building a character. Otherwise we get into absurdities.

      Since the climax of Mark is an allegorical version of the Passover sacrifice I think it rather safe to assume that part is pure fiction. And without a historical crucifixion there is no historical Jesus. Equally, if Mark is putting Paul’s words into the mouth of Jesus does that make Paul Jesus? Of course not.

      Another thing, since the whole point of the sacrifice is to show that there is no longer a need for the temple sacrifice, isn’t that a point that would have taken on a completely different dimension with the temple destroyed and the temple cult actively suppressed?

      Seems I was confused on the confirmed date of Asc. Is. Though it is hard to see how it could be later if there had in fact been a historical Jesus of consequence and Mark is his life history.

    • Phillip Hallam-Baker says

      OK here is a more compact test: Did Mark write a history of a person who he believed to be the son of God incarnate?

      If we take this as the starting point for the argument then things become a lot simpler because it is a test that I think a lot of folk who are agnostic on the point would accept as fair.

      Given that as the test, it becomes clear that someone who thinks that they are writing the biography of the Son of God is going to make sure they get their facts right. And lets face it, if they are really writing the biography of the genuine Son of God then God is going to make sure they get their facts right.

      What convinces me that the Gospels are bollocks is 1) the contrived structure, 2) the later gospels get longer and 3) every part of the gospels can be explained as serving an allegorical need.

      The guy keeps giving away the key to the mystery. Chiasmus: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” and the allegorical Jesus is teaching in the form of allegorical parables.

  10. Giuseppe says

    Hi Richard,
    I am a bit disappointed from reading the note 11 at pag.605-606 of OHJ.
    I confess that during the entire reading of first 10 chapters, I am been supremely agnostic on final outcome, even if the examined data (in these chapters) were going slowly to lower the probability expected on historicity (read: I did not permit them to outcome my strong agnosticism a priori).

    But it’s only from chapter 11 that I am like awaken from ‘tedious’ Jesus agnosticism, because only then, especially in §2 & §10 of Chapter 11 (quasi a smoking gun its effect), it seems that a historical man is very expelled from scenario at all, not only eclipsed.

    Then I wonder if we must recognize the weight of some istintive ”prior probability” about the weight that we tend to assign to our sources even before reading them. Because it seems very much ”obvious”, prima facie, that only the Epistles and some first Gospel (but about the Gospel the conclusion in consequent probability is obviously neuter at the end, see Chapt. 10) have major priority PER SE. All the rest (Acts and extrabiblical evidence): mere clues as presumed ”evidence of a progression from myth to history”. And to infer from clues remind me the absurd ”authenticity criteria” used into the Gospels. It is good to find these clues, but only after certain conclusion about the entire question, not before.

    This goes someway against your view that:

    «…it is not plausible that the evidence surveyed in Chapters 8 and 9 does not lend any support to minimal myth, as if all of it were perfectly expected on minimal historicity…»

    because the conclusion derived from Gospels (fifty-fifty) is so prominent to influence, willing or not, the entire our perception about all the other data examined in Chapt. 1-10.
    When you recognize that the Gospels are pure fiction even if Jesus existed and thus useless to resolve the question, that conclusion (so obvious and so bizarre at the same moment) must be extended in inevitable way on all the later sources like Acts (via the natural ”prior probability” about the specific rilevance we tend to assign to sources that come early and not after), Ignatius, Talmud, Ireneus, Revelation, Tacitus, etc.
    I refer to a kind of ‘magnet effect’ exercised from epistles and Gospels: any conclusion derived from them goes to eclipse totally any conclusion derived from the rest of our fonts (that are not already examined in background), conclusion which has no more effect than finding thin clues pro historicity (via infamous ‘criteria’) into the Gospels.

    In other terms, I suspect that the points 4 and 5 of your definition of minimal mythicism (the invention of a allegorical-seeming ”historical” Non-Life for the Jesus of Paul, beginning from Mark) are fully expected even on minimal historicity: that is for me the true meaning of expression ”Gospels are pure fiction even if Jesus existed” . My creed is that the Gospels historicized the mythical Jesus of Paul completely beyond the fact that in past that same mythical Jesus of Paul eclipsed a historical man or was already totally mythological from start. Jesus, if existed, was already lost thanks the authors of epistles (that eclipsed totally him) and before the Gospels. The Gospellers were forced necessarily to invent ex novo all about Jesus. Then the fate of both (parallel) mythicist version of events and historicist version of events is one and the same AFTER the writing of epistles (having both in common the points 4 and 5 of minimal mythicism), making the other evidence (except epistles) totally useless. And then only the epistles have value, at end.

    Very thanks for your view about,
    Giuseppe

  11. John Samuel says

    Just finished reading OHJ, great book, lived up to my expectations, not much to complain about really. Perhaps one thing to mention would be the 48 elements in Chapter 4 and 5, I think they could really do with a more readily transparent structure, maybe a one-line summary of their content at the beginning of each element.to aid navigating through the maze (The table of contents does divide them into a few sub-categories but they’re unfortunately too vague to be of much use). Currently the elements read almost like a long continuous chapter with numbers occasionally popping up here and there. Also here’s some typos that I spotted while reading:

    p31 ‘Johanine’ should be ‘Johannine’
    p91 n62: it pleased Jehovah to nail him him up
    p406 n43: ‘Georgic’ should be ‘Georgian’
    p604: ‘last five chapters (7 through 10)’ should be ‘last five chapters (7 through 11)’
    Throughout the book: The author ‘Benedikston T.D.’ should be ‘Benediktson T.D.’

    Also I noticed that in mathematical formulas you occasionally use brackets in an unorthodox way: The orthodox order of operations is always from left to right with 1st) Everything within innermost brackets 2nd) exponents 3rd) multiplication & division 4th) addition & subtraction, but following this order leads to different results than you present at least in the following places:

    p241 n11: lacks brackets around denominator [(5/6) x (1/2)] + [(1/6) x (1/4)] and subsequent derivatives thereof.
    p241 n12: lacks brackets around denominator [(240/264) x (1/500)] + [(24/264) x (1/25)] and subsequent derivatives thereof.
    p244 n16: lacks brackets around denominator [(5/6) x (1/1000)] + [(1/6) x (1/100)] and subsequent derivatives thereof.
    p519 n13: 1 – (0.05)^60 should be (1 – 0.05)^60

    Note 1: The division operator “/” only takes the first term on its right, hence the need for brackets if additional operators are included in the intended denominator.
    Note 2: All the above brackets (safe the final corrected ones) are superfluous, i.e. whether present or not they don’t affect the order of operations, albeit it’s fine to use them for emphasis and a more transparent structure.
    Note 3: The calculations are done correctly, it’s just the notation that doesn’t lead to those results if you follow the orthodox order of operations.


    All the best, JS

    • says

      On structure to the elements, I tried that. Each first paragraph is a summary, sometimes even broken down into lettered parts. The problem with one-sentence summaries is that they will always be incorrect (for lack of nuance or qualification or specification). That’s not acceptable for peer review.

      But thanks for all the typos. I have been building a list. I’ll add all those. (Only one of them someone else had already caught, the notation error on p. 519.)

      (Except Georgic is a thing: it is sometimes used to refer to the dialect used in biblical manuscripts, now associated with Judeo-Georgian. Example. Judeo-Georgian is basically Georgian with loan words.)

  12. Giuseppe says

    I’m sorry I was afraid it do not make me understand.
    I hope to explain. The minimal mythicism, according your definition, supports points 4 and 5:

    4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
    5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

    Now, those two points can be true even under the assumption of minimal historicity?

    If you answer ‘yes’ then this means that from the drafting of the Gospels on the expected evidence is virtually identical with equal probability both on myth and on historicity: then is useless to ask extrabiblical evidence, Acts, Tacitus, Josephus, etc. Only to ask Gospels and Epistles has some value to resolve the question. Therefore against note 11 of pag. 605-606 of OHJ :
    «…it is not plausible that the evidence surveyed in Chapters 8 and 9 does not lend any support to minimal myth, as if all of it were perfectly expected on minimal historicity…»

    If you say ‘no’ then you are denying the possibility (not only the probability) that, under the minimal historicity, authors of the epistles as Paul have totally eclipsed Jesus then forcing the authors of Gospels to invent completely from scratch all about Jesus, and thus basically *creating* Jesus, even if (assume) Jesus had existed.

    I hope to be more clear this time. Thanks anyway.
    Giuseppe

    • says

      …those two points can be true even under the assumption of minimal historicity?

      No, only item 5 is shared in common with minimal historicity (as I actually say: OHJ, pp. 53, 55).

      Item 4 says a “story of this same Jesus” so 4 thereby subsumes the implications of 1-3. That is, 4 is specifically excluding a historical Jesus later deified.

      And even then, you have items 1-3.

      So these two hypotheses do not make identical predictions. I explain in particular how this works with respect to Acts in ch. 12.2, esp. pp. 603-05.

      Ditto the extra-biblical evidence, in particular that of ch. 8.1, 8.5, 8.6, and 8.8.

      …you are denying the possibility (not only the probability)…

      That is illogical. The possibility is included in the probability. For example, that the plot of Acts would show no knowledge of Jesus having a family or being a recently executed seditionist etc. is to some degree less probable on minimal historicity than on minimal mythicism (as the latter makes that more likely, whereas the former makes that less likely…and again, less likely does not mean impossible).

      …authors of the epistles as Paul have totally eclipsed Jesus then forcing the authors of Gospels…

      That is illogical.

      Christianity in its first five decades consisted of thousands of persons, and over a dozen apostles, across three continents. They were not constrained to the information in Paul’s letters (much less the extant letters; Paul also wrote other letters that we don’t have now, and Paul cannot have been the lone Christian leader writing letters in his day: hence OHJ, ch. 8.4). So there is no way Paul could have forced anything. And to suppose even that Paul did that, much less all Christian apostles as well (as this supposition requires), is to propose an ad hoc supposition that is not entailed by either hypothesis, and not intrinsically probable on any background evidence. So the force is improbable, and therefore any consequence of said force is improbable. Consequently, this force thesis, like all other possibilities allowing e to exist on h, is already included in the probability estimates.

  13. Giuseppe says

    In part 3 of his review, Nicholas Covington so writes about Gospels:

    The only way I think a historicist could destroy this argument is if they showed that one of the Jesus stories was such that we would probably never expect to see it unless under the mythicist theory, or if the story only made sense as symbolism about a real historical figure and not a celestial being like Carrier proposes. However, I know of no such argument to that effect, and so it must presented and argued well before we can count it as evidence of a historical Jesus. (my bold)

    I may find one of the Jesus stories that do this point. What follows I quoted from the book of Tom Dykstra (a historicist scholar that agrees with OHJ that the Gospels are pure fiction), Mark, Canonizer of Paul:

    ”And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ”Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God….”
    (Mark:13-14)

    As I pointed out earlier, the symbolism here represents Paul inviting the Gentiles into Jesus’ community, while the requirement of Law observance insisted on by Jewish Christian leaders effectively barred the door to entry by Gentiles. The language here remarkably parallels a similar scenario that plays out in Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. There the Apostle likens his Gentile converts to children:

    You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess 2:10-12)

    Following this text is one that decries ”the Jews” act of ”indeing” these children from hearing Paul’s voice, which in turn inspired God’s ”wrath”:

    For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesu sand the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved – so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!
    (1 Thess 2:14-16)

    Both contexts speak of anger stirred up by attempts to hinder the reception of children.
    (p.111-112, corsive original, my bold)

    The note 139 on the same page recites:

    …Mark kept the same Greek word for hinder (mè kolùete in Mark vs. koluònton in 1 Thess) but adapted the word for children and anger to the new context. The Greek word paidìa used by Mark fits better the idea of children in general than does tékna used by Paul to evoke a father and his own children. Likewise, the Greek word eganàktesen (”he was indignant”) fits Mark’narrative situation better than orgé (wrath).
    ——
    Then this may imply that 1 Thess. 2:14-16, contra OHJ’s conclusion that is an interpolation, was used from Mark to invent a story (not History) in his Gospel that fits better Pauline themes. And if it was used, then that passage was authentic. And then who crucified Jesus were Jews, according that passage. Then Jesus was killed on terra firma.

    How do you find this point, Richard? It’s only a coincidence the same pattern of similar Greek words showed from this scholar in both the contexts?

    Thanks again,
    Giuseppe

    • says

      As I pointed out earlier, the symbolism here represents Paul inviting the Gentiles into Jesus’ community, while the requirement of Law observance insisted on by Jewish Christian leaders effectively barred the door to entry by Gentiles.

      Yes, that’s spot on.

      But the order of causation with respect to 1 Thess. 2 goes the other way around (if there is any link at all; these links are weak, considering how ubiquitously both Mark and Paul use the proselyte-children metaphor): at most we might say the interpolator is inserting a Markan-inspired diatribe. Because that diatribe makes no sense for Paul, for all the reasons I enumerate in OHJ. Mark is not basing his myth on the interpolation. To the contrary, Mark appears to have no knowledge of it (the interpolation damns the Jews for all eternity as the enemies of God; we don’t see anything like that in the Gospels until the Gospel of John).

  14. colonyofcells del machine says

    Maybe Richard can write some commentaries on the new testament books to use all that education on the greek and new testament times.

  15. mrquestioner says

    Dr Carrier, i need help with understanding a verse in the gospel of matthew. there are christians who portray jesus as prince of peace and neighborly individual, but this verse :

    “Let the children first be fed, since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs! [kynaria]” But as a rejoinder she says to him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!”

    does not portray him as an equal rights prince.

    look at how matthew interprets mark

    A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ he answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

    But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘lord, help me.’ he answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Matthew 15:22-28)

    so matthew does not say , “let the children first be fed” matthew’s jesus does not want the dogs to receive even the left overs.

    in these passages ,is the jesus portrayed in them, alright with THROWING food at a people not from his house/race?

    jesus says that it is not fair/good/proper to throw special bread/miracle to the jews. it would be sacrilegious to throw something holy to the unholy.

    one cannot throw children’s food/jewish food to the dogs.

    the question is , can one THROW that which is not HOLY to the dogs/non-jews?

    It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Matthew 15:22-28)

    does ” and throw it to the dogs” indicate how jesus would TREAT non-jewish dogs i.e throw stuff at them?

    • says

      It’s all metaphor and allegory. The children are new initiates to Christianity. The dogs are outsiders who haven’t yet been inducted. The food is the gospel (or more particularly, the Christian mysteries). This likely derives from Paul’s use of the same food-children metaphor. See On the Historicity of Jesus, Element 13, pp. 108-14 (cf. pp. 122, 237).

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