Here’s an easy way to start an argument: Question the historicity of Jesus during your next conversation with family or friends. The location of your conversant’s religious beliefs along the atheist-theist continuum won’t matter – everyone has an opinion on this guy.
Many hard-core atheists who believe this 1st century Palestinian Jew was simply a charismatic mystic surrounded by myth and superstition will vehemently challenge the assertion of “mythicists.” Mythicists claim that Jesus was not an historical person, but a fiction or mythological character invented by early Christians. “Historicists,” on the other hand, believe his existence can be established with the available evidence.
The American cultural milieu that echoes Jesus-claims from every medium – from “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper stickers to Jesus tattoos to Jesus action figures – irrevocably distorts our intuitions. Of course Jesus was a real person – he’s mentioned far too often to simply be a fictional character. And let’s not forget that he’s mentioned in the Bible. He must be a real person, right?
Dr. Richard Carrier doesn’t think so.
The study of Jesus is rife with bias, misunderstanding and assumptions. A scholarly consensus on the 2,000-year-old historical figure seems unattainable. “It’s a mess,” were the words I used to describe these studies to Carrier during my recent podcast. He agreed. He said,
I think there are a lot of foundational issues that haven’t been well resolved. For example, the dating of documents has been poorly done. You often hear the claim, ‘The consensus is’ that a certain document dates to a certain period. But when you look at the actual evidence, that’s more of a kind of random polling of opinion rather than something that’s really evidence-based.
Carrier is a professional historian, published philosopher, and prominent defender of the American freethought movement. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in ancient history, specializing in the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, particularly ancient philosophy, religion, and science, with emphasis on the origins of Christianity and the use and progress of science under the Roman empire. He is best known as the author of Sense and Goodness without God, Not the Impossible Faith, and Why I Am Not a Christian. He is a major contributor to The Empty Tomb, The Christian Delusion, The End of Christianity, and Sources of the Jesus Tradition, as well as writer and editor-in-chief, now emeritus, for the Secular Web.
According to Carrier, it’s an overstatement when scholars cite that the Gospel of Matthew, for example, was “definitely” written in the 80s CE. It could be anywhere from 70 CE to 120 CE, a range more consistent with the data available. According to Carrier,
I think there has been sort of an excessive optimism about the ability to apply certain concepts to the evidence we do have for Christianity, and an unwillingness to admit that we really don’t have a lot of evidence regarding the origins of Christianity. The fact of the matter is we have very very little, the data is terrible, and highly biased.
In his latest book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, Carrier critiques the method and criteria historians use to do their work. He focuses primarily on the practice as applied to the historical Jesus, but his criticism is also directed at historical practices in general.
Carrier applies Bayes’ Theorem to the historical method. Bayes’ Theorem is a mathematical calculation formulated by the mathematician Thomas Bayes in the mid-18th century. While it has been used in probability theory, it has been recognized that the equation describes a logical argument. This is why Carrier is applying it to the practice of history, and more specifically, the historicity of Jesus.
I’ll briefly introduce Bayes’ Theorem during my next post, and discuss Carrier’s work in more detail. For now, I’m inviting some friends over for dinner. I hope they’re ready for a good debate.