Posts Tagged ‘Mythicism’

A Quest For The Historical Jesus Part 2: A Review of Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity Of Jesus

Laurens
Laurens
Wed Dec 09, 2015 9:13 pm by Laurens

In my last post in this series I described how in my opinion the best argument I had heard for the historicity of Jesus did not stand up to scrutiny. The next step in my quest I had decided was to read what has been hailed to be the best case for mythicism that has so far been put out there, to see whether it was convincing. That case being On the Historicity of Jesus by Dr. Richard Carrier. In this post I shall review his book and summarize where I now stand on the issue of whether or not Jesus was a historical being after having read it.

On the Historicity of Jesus is a peer reviewed scholarly work with extensive footnotes and references to the latest literature. Do not let that put you off however, I had little to no prior knowledge of the subjects covered before starting and I found it easy to follow. That being said this is not a casual bedtime read, it requires concentration, but no more so than any book containing lots of information.

Carrier begins by positing a hypothesis of minimal historicity and a hypothesis of minimal myth. ‘Minimal’ meaning the basic tenets that if shown to be false would collapse the entire hypothesis. Minimal historicity is that there was a man named Jesus who gained devout followers during his life, these followers continued to expound his teachings and theology beyond Jesus’s execution at the hands of the authorities. Eventually some of his followers began to worship Jesus as a God. Minimal myth posits that Jesus began as a celestial entity who endured incarnation, suffering and death in a supernatural realm (as did the gods of many pagan mystery cults at the time). Jesus communicated with his followers via visions, dreams etc. At some point Christians began to create allegorical myths about Jesus as a historical entity. These were eventually believed to be accounts of a real earthly person.

The remainder of the book sets out to use Bayes Theorem (described in his previous book Proving History) as a method to analyse the background knowledge and evidence in terms of its likelihood to exist on each hypothesis. This is done first by analysing the background evidence, that is; all of the cultural, religious, political knowledge that pertains to the origins of Christianity. In these sections we learn about the dying and rising saviour gods that were prevalent in many cultures around the time that Christianity emerged. We also learn that a suffering Messiah was not actually anathema to the Jews, and that Christianity was a perfect response to the Roman occupation of Judea and the corruption of the Jewish temple cult. There is a heck of a lot of information in these sections, all of it fascinating and enlightening. The information is divided into numbered elements which make for easy reference when anything is bought up later on in the book, something that made it very easy for me to follow.

The analysis of the background data concludes with an unusual fact, that Jesus scores very highly on the Rank-Raglan list. This is essentially a list of qualities that were common to a lot of mythical entities. Carrier notes that there are no known historical people who score over half of the items on the list, Jesus scores 20 out of 22. The odds that a historical person would also be a Rank-Raglan hero are therefore very low.

We are then taken on a tour of the evidence in the following order. Extra-Biblical evidence – of which there is nothing that confirms Jesus as a historical figure (excluding interpolations such as those in Josephus), at best the mentions of Jesus in extra-Biblical sources are not independent of the Gospels and are therefore not usable evidence. Acts – which is shown to be largely historical fiction, with some oddities that may be better explained on mythicism than historicism. The Gospels – which are repeatedly shown to be allegorical fiction and therefore we are unable to derive any useful historical information from them even if there is any contained therein. Then finally the Epistles – which are curiously lacking in any historical details about Jesus as an earthly person.

All throughout his analysis Carrier is granting as favourable odds towards historicism as he feels able. Arguing a fortiori as he calls it. Even given this overly generous approach historicism does not come out well when the figures are punched in to the Bayes equation.

This method, of arguing a fortiori is what sealed the deal for me. Even if we bend over backwards to allow for extremely generous odds in favour of historicism, it still doesn’t come out on top. I can safely say that this book has pushed me from the agnostic camp to the mythicist. That being said, I am not in a position to check all of Carrier’s source material, or look up any of the scholarship that might argue against his points. What this book desperately needs is a rebuttal, with the best case for historicism yet. Preferably in a similar accessible style so lay people can assess both. As things stand though On The Historicity Of Jesus is pretty damning of any case for the existence of a historical Jesus. Until such a time comes that someone puts out a sound rebuttal to it, I must say I am firmly with Carrier in his conclusion: Jesus probably did not exist.

On the Historicity of Jesus is precisely what mythicism needed in order to be taken seriously. One can only hope that it will be treated with the respect that it truly deserves. When I dived into the book I was expecting, or hoping to find some weak links in his case, but I really didn’t. The only arguments that I was unsure about were treated in favour of historicity as far as the probabilities went (this being the possibility that the Epistles mentioned Jesus’s brother), and the case for historicity did not triumph because of it. All in all, whether you are a staunch historicist, an agnostic on the matter, or a curious mythicist I would definitely recommend this book.

I really cannot fault this book, and therefore score it:

5/5

 

The Quest for the Historical Jesus Part 1: Awkward Facts or Overambitious Tales?

Laurens
Laurens
Mon Nov 16, 2015 10:42 pm by Laurens

Several months ago, before I really cared that much about the issue I would have conceded that there more than likely was a historical figure behind Christianity. Recently though, in one of those YouTube suggested video clicking journeys I winded up on a talk by Richard Carrier* who rather eloquently put forth the argument that Jesus was a mythical figure who was later written into history (euhemerism). I originally dismissed this idea because the field is so fully of quackery and conspiracy (see Zeitgeist), but Carrier highlighted another more scholarly and well reasoned side of the movement. I am far from having made my mind up on the issue, and I have a lot of reading to do, but something about the question has piqued my interest and I wanted to share with you my findings on the quest for the historical Jesus as they arise and the conclusions that I draw from them in a series of blog posts on the subject.

 

If you were to have asked me previously why I thought that Jesus was a historical figure I would have probably paraphrased the argument that the late Christopher Hitchens made in God Is Not Great:

“[…] the jumbled “Old” Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be born in the city of David, which seems indeed to have been Bethlehem. However, Jesus’s parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication—concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius—is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem (where, by the way, no “stable” is ever mentioned). But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place, without any needless to-do? The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfil the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent.”

God Is Not Great page 114-115

This does at first glance seem rather convincing. Why on Earth would both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to get Jesus of Nazareth to Bethlehem? A plausible explanation is that it was a response to criticism, that people looked at the scriptures and noted that if Jesus—a known Nazarene—was the Messiah he would have been born in Bethlehem not Nazareth. From this we can derive the conclusion that Jesus was a historical individual. For the interests of clarity I shall henceforth refer to this as the Nazarene argument. 

Before discussing this further let us establish some facts that pertain to this argument. With one fact in particular that impacts how we perceive the conclusion of the argument.

Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth

Matthew 2:23 states:

 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

Scholars are unsure as to which prophecy this refers

Though there are plausible contenders (of which one I shall posit is a likely explanation) there is no definitive agreement as to which (if any) prophecy the above verse refers.

Matthew mentions a prophecy with regards to Jesus being a Nazarene, but we have no idea to what he is referring, though there are some candidates. This is all we can legitimately say that we know with regards to the term being applied to Jesus in the notoriously unreliable Gospels. Although the term is used in Mark which pre-dates Matthew, Matthew is heavily derivative of Mark and it could be that Mark used to term assuming that the reader already knew the prophecy to which Matthew refers.

 

Let’s now look at hypotheses as to why Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth in light of the fact that people can’t seem to agree on what he is referring to:

1. Matthew could simply be fraudulently claiming there to be a prophecy that did not exist.

This is plausible, but it is unlikely considering the motive ascribed by the Nazarene argument. If the author of Matthew was addressing criticism about a Messiah claim not fulfilling prophecy, this critique is likely to have been delivered by people who were aware of scripture and prophecy. Thus we are required to believe that Matthew boldly claimed there was a prophecy when his critics would easily have retorted that there wasn’t. If there was no prophecy and Matthew knew this, there is no motive for making it up (at least in the context of addressing a criticism) he might simply have said “he was born in Bethlehem as spoken by the prophets, then he lived in a town called Nazareth which is why he is known as a Nazarene.” I don’t think this completely rules out this possibility, Matthew may have been extremely bold, or fabricated it with a different motive. However, I find this an unconvincing hypothesis as any criticism would be sufficiently addressed by the narrative without a fabricated prophecy, if anything a fabricated prophecy would make his case weaker (if we assume that the Nazarene argument is true).

This hypothesis explains the lack of consensus as to where this supposed prophecy lies, but it ignores the complications associated with positing a fraudulent claim.

2. Matthew was referring to a known prophecy

As mentioned previously there are possible candidates for verses that were interpreted as a prophecy about Nazareth. He may have been referencing a line in Isaiah 11:1 which in English reads as:

“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.”

In Hebrew the word for branch is ne-tzer . Hebrew, being a consonantal language—with vowels not being indicated in ancient text—it may have been possible to read this word in Greek as Nazarene. The significance of this being that the branch (Nazarene) was symbolic of being descended from Jesse, father of David. Indeed the prophecy was popular in the New Testament era, being referenced by both Romans 15:12 and Revelation 5:5. We also know that it was popular for Jews to look for hidden messages and prophecy in their texts in this manner, so it is not beyond question that at the time the author of Matthew was writing this passage in Isaiah was interpreted as a prophecy.

Given the aforementioned popularity of the Isaiah verse, and the propensity in Jewish culture to look in their texts for coded messages, I think that this is a very plausible candidate for the prophecy that Matthew was referring to. Not only does it hint at a geographical location, but it also hints towards a lineage that goes back to David, a double whammy that I can imagine would have been viewed as being significant.

I cannot see any other relevant reasons as to why Matthew would refer to a prophecy in the text, although I am open to suggestions in the comments, and will amend this article accordingly. I sincerely apologise if it seems that I am positing a false dilemma.

 

I would posit, given the facts that 1 is less likely that 2, but neither is entirely conclusive. Thus we are led to more than one possible outcome. Either the Nazarene argument is true and there was a historical Jesus and the Gospels contrive a story to fix fact with prophecy. Matthew either conveniently discovered that Jesus was actually from one of the places mentioned by the prophets (unlikely), or he fabricated a prophecy to make his case seem a bit more legit (plausible, but questionable). It is either that or Matthew was not drawing on a historical figure at all (or if he was the actual historical facts did not factor into the story), and was simply contriving a mythical story that would hit as many prophecies as possible. This is supported by the fact that Matthew has Jesus et al go to Egypt until Herod died (Matt 2:15) (to avoid a massacre that never happened) just to get another ding on the prophecy-o-meter. In fact the whole first couple of chapters in Matthew read very much in this fashion with prophecies being reeled off here there and everywhere.

In this instance I have to say that I changed my mind. I am no longer convinced that the Nazarene argument provides a convincing case for the historicity of Jesus. The idea of Nazarene being symbolic of a descendent of David and also interpreted as a reference to a Galilean town seems plausible to me. If the Gospels are allegorical myths, full of references to the Old Testament, this is exactly the kind of multi-layered reference we would expect to find.  This makes sense when you look at the parallels that Matthew so clearly makes to Exodus with the slaughter of the innocents in his nativity story. It works when you look at it like that. It might not make narrative sense, and it may seem highly contrived, but that’s kind of the point; it is.

On the other hand the Nazarene argument would have us believe that either Matthew fabricated a prophecy—when it didn’t make a great deal of sense to do so—to bolster the claim that it was totally fine for the Messiah to be from Nazareth and Bethlehem. Or Jesus was actually born in a town that happened to possibly be the subject of a multi-layered prophetic reference to his Davidic heritage and Matthew capitalized on this, but decided it wasn’t enough and wanted him to get to Bethlehem as well.  The latter seems highly improbable, and the former is plausible, but in my opinion doesn’t work as well because it raises questions as to what his motives for lying were.

 

I couldn’t say with certainty that this is evidence of a mythical Jesus, but I do not see it as evidence for a historical Jesus. It might be the case that the Gospels were heavily mythologised but there still was a figurehead behind it all—about whom very little in the gospels accurately portrays. It may also be the case that the Nazarene argument is true, but I believe it would require some corroborative evidence to back it up.

 

* Note: I apologize, but I forget the exact video that I saw, however I can recommend searching his name in YouTube as much of his talks cover the same topics and are all equally fascinating.
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