A first reaction on Richard Carrier “On the historicity of Jesus”

I have not completed reading Richard Carrier On the Historicity of Jesus. Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (OHJ) (2014). Yet I have read enough to advise you to consider it. The book might mark (not cause) a change in collective perception from a historical to a mythical Jesus. Carrier regards the book as a watershed himself:

“the first comprehensive pro-Jesus myth book ever published by a respected academic press and under formal peer review”.

Carrier apparently doesn’t claim a new unique argument but he collects those of many others and his own past, and provides a framework that the academia will have a hard time to neglect. Some earlier books by professor Robert M. Price appeared at the ‘American Atheist Press’ that might be looked-down-upon by the academia (they might also have been published by the “International Do Not Read Me Press”). My own book The simple mathematics of Jesus (SMOJ) (2012) is printing on demand which doesn’t seem attractive to the academia either (and I don’t want to be a historian of course, see SMOJ).

Apart from this advance praise we can also identify some risks. These risks should not stop you from considering the book. You cannot live without risk, and I only advise you to read with care.

Failure of the academia

Let us first establish that the academia are a failure in this realm of research. The academia with their “peer-review” have been biased ad nauseam. Theologians presume the existence of God, and don’t mind a “deus ex machina”. Researchers in New Testament Studies presume that the gospels are “history” and neglect evidence to the contrary. Plain historians of antiquity would be more open to doubt but have stayed close to the earlier groups, producing fallacy after fallacy. Historians act as if they are judges of the past but this is unscientific, see below.

Carrier himself is not at the academia. After his Ph.D. he apparently opted for writing articles and books. This present book has been supported by a collection of $20,000 from sympathisers.

Nevertheless, it is a fine surprise to see the academic references by Carrier. It is not clear to me how large the output of the Jesus research is. Perhaps if one article is quoted from a journal we might calculate that 50 articles aren’t quoted, per year, but such articles might be useful for other topics. Overall, it would be advantageous to conquer these academia for science (including the humanities), with their annual inflow of fresh young minds eager to learn science before they are culled to a tradition of failure …

The historian as a judge

Carrier seems to think that historians would be judges of the past. It are they who determine what truly happened and what didn’t happen. I have explained before that this attitude is unscientific. The basic historical issue is to indicate the uncertainties that exist rather than hiding those behind a decision. Steve Mason in What is history? clarifies that “history” originally just means “analysis”, in comparison with believing ‘evidence’ at face value, or passing on stories, or mere keeping of records.

Bayes’s Theorem

Carrier develops uncertainties, indeed. His goal however is an aggregate grand view. I advise against that goal of trying to be a judge over the past. The relevant information about Jesus Christ is lost in history and it is no use to kick the absence of information till it confesses. But I admit that once we have all those uncertainties laying about, and a simple technique to estimate degrees of acceptability and aggregate them, then it might be informative to do so.

His choice of technique is probability theory, with Bayes reasoning. Bayes’s Theorem merely is a technique that allows us to work systematically with (conditional) probabilities, for example the probability of the truth of a hypothesis given the evidence. It is useful to observe that some evidence drops out (in relevance) when it supports both historical or mythical views on Jesus. It seems that the use of this technique indeed allows Carrier to order the material, which supports the “comprehensiveness” of his analysis.

I haven’t further checked his dealing with the method. I have my doubt about this kind of use of probability theory.  I see more scope for logic and better treatment of data. The true problem is the failure of the academia, and it would be nonsense to think that the solution came from Bayes reasoning.

But one reason for me to recommend OHJ as it stands is that it provides for both a structure and lots of historical detail, so that it is useful even when its use of probabilities is overdone. In other realms we use “Delphi techniques” for “expert views”, and it might be useful to record those and reflect on what those tell us – and whether there really are experts.

I still wonder what to do with “lack of evidence” e.g. caused by destruction by church authorities who didn’t like some materials. Perhaps Eusebius had a report about a nazirite Joshua (and could we translate this as “nazoraios” or “lestes” ?) who healed some people but also committed more violence than fitted Eusebius’s image of the Good Lord, and he destroyed that material and instead inserted the Testimonium Flavianum (TF) to maintain the notion that there was historical evidence. Stranger things have happened. I enjoyed reading Carrier confirming that also others suspect that Eusebius inserted that TF anyway.

Overall, even if a calculation would result into a 99% versus 1% split of the probabilities, then one could still opt for the minority opinion (i.e. the 1%), for there still would be a chain of logic. Probabilities are just one of our instruments. It seems that Carrier overestimates the value of the Bayes-framework for improving his field of history of antiquity, also by suggesting that “most probable” could replace judgement. See Appendix A. But perhaps see the video.

Minimal theoretical versions h and m

Carrier presents hypotheses of the historical (h) or mythical (m) Jesus, but in minimal versions. This allows him to argue:

  1. All relevant (larger) historical or mythical theories should satisfy at least one of those minima.
  2. Relevant is the comparison of the marginal probabilities, with μ = Pr[m] and η = Pr[h].
  3. When both events would occur, i.e. that there was both a sect with a myth of some redeemer (Yehoshua means “saviour”) and at the same time a historical Joshua being crucified, with later perhaps some merger, then the joint probability ε would not be relevant for one’s view, and may be regarded as zero. (I am not sure yet whether I correctly interprete Carrier’s view on this.)
  4. When both events would not occur, i.e. no mythical sect and no crucified Jesus, then there would be no reasonable explanation for the rise of Christianity, and the joint probability (δ) would be zero. For example, the deliberate political creation by the Romans in the theory by Joseph Atwill (see below) might be argued to fall in this category. However, the latter would still fit m and thus let us indeed take δ = 0. (Adapted 2015-01-29.)
  5. From the latter two zero’s it indeed is a matter of μ versus η (see OHJ:55).
  6. His estimate is that μ = Pr[m] ≥ 67% and η = Pr[h] ≤ 33%, so that the evidence makes it twice more likely that Jesus was a mythical than a historical figure.
Probability h (historical Jesus) not-h sum
m (mythical Jesus) ε μ – ε μ = Pr[m]
not-m η – ε δ = 0 1 – μ
sum η = Pr[h] 1 – η 1

The joint case with ε is an issue. Are h and defined sufficiently sharp to prevent an overlap ? Perhaps ε is actually quite large, so that it dominates the outcomes for μ and η, so that the distinction between the latter is rather meaningless. Both groups would be right, somehow. There might be various Jesuses, also called Brian. Consider the Egyptian, below. Or consider some person like Flavius Josephus who saved some people from the destruction of Jerusalem, and got a story going that he was a saviour. Perhaps some stories of such remarkable persons got mingled with existing stories about angels and other mythical beings. One might argue that only the existence of such a myth story would allow the absorption of such stories about real people. Others might find joy in being able to point to such an inspiring person. So that the distinction somewhat evaporates. Crucifixion is important, and let us look at how many preaching Jesuses might have been crucified in that period: which is the proper one ?  (My calculation is a bit more complex than OHJ:31.) Carrier is right that the methodology causes us to focus on the arguments around ε. But it seems that researchers did so already before. The real problem is that they have not been willing to take a scientific attitude and allow that there is no historical Jesus. See Appendix B for another example of a possible blur, now on the minimal myth version m.

No reference to Acharya S

Since I regard Acharya S (D.M. Murdock) as major contributor to the analysis of a mythical Jesus, I was interested in what Carrier has to say about her analysis. But she isn’t mentioned in the index. We could infer that Carrier doesn’t regard her work as being of peer-review status and thus not worthy even of mentioning.

This is curious. Carrier focuses on a window of say 100 BC – 200 AD and presents a “Minimal Jesus Myth Theory” (MJMT) with five properties, and the first property would be that “Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity”. We can imagine that this might be some kind of minimum. However, the idea of celestial beings doesn’t drop from thin air. There has to be a history of how people got to believe in such celestial beings. Enters Acharya S who looks at 5000 BC – 1000 AD and shows that astro-theology gives a perfect explanation. Her “Christ in Egypt” is a marvel.

OHJ:52 has this put-down:

“Despite countless variations (including a still-rampant obsession with indemonstrable ‘astrological’ theories of Gospel interpretation that you won’t find much sympathy with here) …”

This is a put-down but also vague. The peer-review editors should not have accepted is – which shows the limits to peer-review again. Perhaps it might be acceptable that Carrier is so frank about his dislikes that he cannot even read books on the subject. But he isn’t just frank but also expresses an opinion, while the rule is that an argument should be based upon actually reading the matter. People in antiquity believed in astrology and this affects the probabilities.

There appears to be more to the lack of “sympathy”. See this webtext with a protest from a co-worker of Acharya S who protest that Carrier has been putting down her work for some ten years now without actually studying it. This is a breach of scientific integrity. Note that Carrier earned his PhD in 2008, at least six years ago. Getting a PhD at Columbia didn’t teach him to look at material with an open mind. My proposal is that he reads and reviews her book “Christ in Egypt” so that we can check whether there is more than bias, or a cause for an apology. This is relevant to the issue. The Egyptian Book of the Dead influenced the Old Testament (OT). The NT is a rehashed summary of the OT. Thus the analysis by Acharya S has major meaning for the probabilities for the myth theory about the NT. See my SMOJ for also this exercise in logic.

No reference to Lena Einhorn

Also important is Lena Einhorn’s time shift hypothesis, holding (a) that the crucial events took place around the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, but (b) that the New Testament (NT) authors changed dates and names to 30 AD to reduce suspicion in the time when they were writing. Einhorn isn’t mentioned either, which means that Carrier’s “history” may be 40 years off-target. Interestingly, Josephus relates of someone “called The Egyptian” who wants the walls of Jerusalem to tumble. While Josephus commonly gives us names, he doesn’t provide one for the Egyptian. But perhaps he did indirectly with the midrash on Joshua and Jericho.

Maltreatment of Joseph Atwill

I haven’t read Atwill’s book on the deliberate creation of the figure of Jesus Christ by the Flavians with the help of Josephus, the Herodians and the nephews of Philo, i.e. the Jewish Alexander family in Alexandria. Atwill is not mentioned in OHJ. On the internet there is Carrier’s discussion of Atwill and his book, and I was shocked by the use of language. This personal abuse is totally uncalled for. Let us look at the steps:

  1. The academia have been failing for at least fifty years if not longer.
  2. Education levels rise overall and you cannot blame people to criticise the academic failure.
  3. Ptolemy Soter around 300 BC deliberately created Serapis to unify the beliefs of Greeks and Egyptians. Thus deliberate syncretism is a proven tool of government. There are various syncretic faiths where-ever the Greeks met local faiths. Thus some syncretism with Judaism is conceivable too: and this became Christianity. The development for the Jews took longer since Judah lay at the frontier of the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt and was constantly fought over, with a moment of independence. Apparently it took the Romans to clinch the matter. Thus it is not strange that Atwill developed the scenario – and it is a criticism of the academia that they couldn’t refer to relevant research to the same.
  4. Robert M. Price is critical of Atwill’s work too: but in civilised manner. It really is possible to do so.
  5. It may well be that Atwill is no trained researcher and that his claims are over the top. If Carrier thinks so, then he can state the arguments and leave it there. It indeed requires scholarship to weed out the nonsense. I would say to Carrier: keep the creative and interested audience, and help guide the discussion by setting the proper example. Atwill also deserves praise for opening up closed arteries and exposing the failure of the Ivory Tower.
  6. Carrier might hold that he has to be critical to academics and non-academics alike, and historicists and mythicists alike, and this is obvious so, but at issue is the abuse of language in Atwill’s case.
  7. Carrier’s personal error with Atwill apparently was getting too deep into a person-to-person exchange. Atwill hasn’t done Carrier any harm. Carrier only complains that it took too much of his time. It is his own responsibility to stop in the right and proper manner. He should have made his analysis on content more public at an earlier stage, so that Atwill would have the criticism of others too.
  8. Yes, Atwill apparently presents himself as a researcher and shouldn’t. When the academia are failing so much and use the Ivory Tower argument to silence criticism, then we must fear that they reap what they sow. The answer does not lie in vilifying non-academics.
  9. Carrier mentions eight reasons why Atwill’s “priors” would be dismally low. When I look at those, then I find much reason to criticise Carrier (see the section in this other text on failing historian Jona Lendering). Atwill apparently has voiced similar points, see vridar.  (I am no historian but it seems that Atwill has recovered something relevant on Gadara too.)
Preliminary conclusion

I don’t think that Carrier can neglect the authors Acharya S, Einhorn, Atwill. He falls in the same trap as the academia have done before.

Yes, it is a victory for Carrier to have this book now published in the academic community. But it is a misconception on his part that he should join the academic community in the disregard of those who are critical of that community.

It would feel much more agreeable and fitting when the community of people studying the Christ Myth could feel proud for what Carrier has achieved, instead of feeling estranged by what is happening now. Today them, tomorrow you.

Appendix A. Most probable (in some set-up) doesn’t mean true

In Proving History (on Bayes) Carrier gives a damning description of the emptiness of the Ivory Tower and the efforts to recover more about the historical Jesus. Then on p14 he states:

“When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned. Yet historians in Jesus studies don’t abandon the demonstrably failed methods they purport to employ. This has to end. Historians must work together to develop a method that, when applied to the same facts, always gives the same result; a result all historians can agree must be correct (which is to say, the most probable result, as no one imagines certainty is possible, especially in ancient history). If historians can’t agree on what that method should be, then their whole enterprise is in crisis, because agreement on the fundamentals of method is the first essen­tial requirement for any community of experts to deem itself an objective profession.”

Someone alerted me to this passage and its obvious rejection. If an exercise for 10 theories generates outcomes into the range of 9% to 11%, then we cannot hold that historians should agree on the outcome that seems most probable (here 11%). So it may be doubted whether Bayes would give the answer. But Bayes remains a framework to model your contribution.

It remains useful to note Carrier’s observation about the nonsense coming out of the Ivory Tower. It shouldn’t amaze that the outside folk start making critical remarks themselves.

Appendix B. Myth theory without a celestial Jesus

A minimal requirement for a mythical Jesus according to Carrier is: “Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity”. Carrier therefor pays a lot of attention to the Ascension of Isaiah, in which celestial Jesus has a celestial crucifixion. Supposedly this gospel got some circulation before church doctrine put it on the back list (and started changing it).

Note that the crucifixion has to be on a “celestial tree” as a copy of a “tree on earth”. This necessitates a theory that heaven and earth copy each other, see also my earlier explanation why Christ came down to earth. Carrier disapproves of a reading in terms of astro-theology, with the cross given by the ecliptic given by Plato in the Timaeus.

But there is a scenario in which there might not really be a need for a celestial Jesus, while we still could speak about a mythical origin. There is the docetic view like from Philo and the Therapeutae. This concerns God and not necessarily the Son of God. If Josephus lists all relevant sects then it is fair to start from one of those. (Though: I don’t know whether he also lists the sects in Samaria – in the distinction between the old two kingdoms Judah and Israel, and with apparantly some belief for Inanna there from Babylon.) The destruction of Jerusalem of 70 AD required a priestly response for those believers without a Temple. Judaism and the scrolls of the OT needed to be saved from obliteration. Deliberate syncretism cannot be avoided. Perhaps the playwrights in Alexandria put in extra hours. The sacrifice of the son of god is chosen to symbolise the sacrifice of Jerusalem, and there is the resurrection into the new community of survivors. The saviour is immediately fleshed out by Mark from Homer, in the manner described by Dennis MacDonald. Matthew makes sure that he becomes the son of David. This thus would be a mythical origin of Jesus without there actually having been a “crucifixion in the sky” as Carrier suggests.

Of course, when Paul adheres to a celestial view of Jesus, and when Paul would contain the first text, as Carrier suggests, then the scenario of the Ascension of Isaiah is likelier. But Paul might not be the start. In other words, the origin might be messier than suggested.

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