Was Jesus a real person who actually lived, or is he instead an ancient fictional or mythological character?
Dr. Richard Carrier votes fictional or mythological. Carrier earned a Ph.D in ancient history from Columbia in 2008. Since 2014, his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt has enjoyed popular success. However, the book was published by a university press (Sheffield Phoenix) specializing in biblical studies. The book was addressed to academics in that field, “the guild” as they style themselves.
Over the years, the Uncertaintist has covered some of the tense interaction between Dr. Carrier and members of the guild (link). We now await his follow-up volume, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, due out in September. As is obvious from the flippant title, the new book won’t be addressed to the academy. That’s not because the scholarly battle has been won: all but a few guild researchers still premise their work on a Jesus who really lived.
Is that because five or six years is too soon to expect to see widespread change in dominant attitudes? Maybe, but Carrier acknowledges that much of his main thesis resembles that of Earl Doherty, whose writings have been available since the 1990’s (link).
What most clearly distinguished On the Historicity from other “mythical Jesus” works was to frame its argument using Bayesian methods, introduced by Laplace in 1814. Carrier assessed specific probability numbers and ratios to express the weight of evidence and how confidently his conclusions should be held. That idea hasn’t swept the guild by storm, either.
In this short series, the Uncertaintist will look at the historicity question within the framework of a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but adapt the method to the subject matter and forget about numbers. The findings of the series can be summarized by reference to the subtitles of the two Carrier books mentioned. That we might have reason to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus can probably be supported. To convince many others that any specific mythical Jesus hypothesis is what the earliest Christians really believed about Christ probably remains out of reach for now.
This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Bushels of those are already on the web. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for continuing work, now that Dr Carrier himself seems to have left us for, well, outer space.
Prerequisite step: prospective or retrospective?
Bayesian methods are versatile. They can be applied prospectively to the design of planned investigations (laboratory experiments, polls, medical diagnosis, …). They help model how much information can be expected to be gained from different investigative proposals, and at what expense.
Alternatively, the same Bayesian methods can be used retrospectively to analyze evidence that has already been collected. These studies often take the form of a “fictitious investigation.” That is, the analyst traces through what would have happened to her confidence in various hypotheses had she begun from some initial state of information about the problem and then observed the available evidence one piece or a few pieces at a time.
In the historical-mythical Jesus problem, all of the important available evidence has long since been gathered, and both sides largely agree on what that evidence is. The rest of the series, then, will be a “fictitious investigation” that starts by carefully specifying the hypotheses to be investigated.
Step 1: hypothesis selection and specification
Bayes is also versatile in its latitude about how finely we divide up the universe of uncertain possibilities, and about whether we compare all the possibilities at once, or choose just a small number at a time to compare their plausibilities assuming for the sake of argument that one of them is true. Computers have become good at fine-grained everything-all-at-once investigations. People sometimes do much better dealing with broader brush strokes, at least at first, and taking on only a few alternatives at a time. Bayes accommodates both strategies.
Carrier chooses a two-hypothesis approach, a “minimal” historical Jesus hypothesis versus a single complementary mythical Jesus hypothesis. These two possibilities won’t cover everything that might have really happened, but the loser in this smaller world cannot be the winner in any larger hypothesis set which includes both of these contenders.
On the other hand, the winner in a restricted universe of possibilities won’t necessarily do well when compared with a richer, more complete set of hypotheses. No matter by how much the winner trounces the loser in match play, we can’t assess how much confidence we ought to have in the winner until we’ve compared it with a full range of seriously possible alternatives.
The logic of emphasizing the loser’s fate is similar to Karl Popper’s eliminative induction approach to scientific reasoning, even though Popper was an anti-Bayesian philosopher. Bayes doesn’t require you to believe in it for it to work – that’s often a good sign for a practical method.
But so far, so good. In Carrier’s subtitle, what we might have reason to doubt is that Jesus really lived. Assuming that that hypothesis actually does perform poorly against some chosen alternative, then that’s reason to doubt its truth, perhaps to treat it as an open question.
Although minimal is the term Carrier prefers, it might be better to say broad or non-specific. The guild offers many vividly detailed versions of what a historical Jesus may have been like (Jewish peasant, political troublemaker, religious mystic, …). Carrier seeks to encompass all of those in a single umbrella hypothesis. If any of the guild’s many incompatible “real” Jesuses is true, then the broader hypothesis we’re looking into will also be true.
In this series, we’ll stay close to Carrier’s specifications of the contending hypotheses, except to isolate some material in Carrier’s specifications that isn’t disputed. It is easier to assume these propositions as premises rather than to clutter the investigation as if they were seriously contended uncertainties.
Partial background: Early in the history of Christianity, some followers began worshiping Jesus as a living god or demigod. At some point, a story of this same Jesus was composed and told within the sacred community. Some or all communities taught that this story was real or both real and allegorical. The story situated Jesus on earth and in history as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, enemies, deeds, sayings and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
The generic historical Jesus hypothesis goes like this (Carrier’s “bullet point” numbers are dropped here):
Historical Jesus: An actual man who was at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death. Some of this man’s followers claimed that he had been executed by Jewish or Roman authorities.
This guarded phrasing is consistent with both Christian and Muslim beliefs about Jesus and his disciples. About half the world’s population thus has a religious commitment to the truth of this historical position. For that reason alone, it is a worthy object of study. The partial background statement similarly avoids conflict with either Christian or Muslim beliefs.
What should be chosen for comparison with this? The alternative hypothesis should be specific enough that we can understand how evidence bears on it. The historicist hypothesis above will turn out to have enough specificity for that. Its alternative should, too.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t be overly specific. In a retrospective investigation, the analyst knows what the evidence is. In match play, it would be a waste of time to “tailor” either hypothesis to fit the known evidence. We can be confident that the historical Jesus hypothesis isn’t “tailored” to anything because of its overall non-specificity. It would help reassure us of the analyst’s fairness if the alternative hypothesis were likewise non-specific.
Carrier’s alternative hypothesis balances these competing forces for and against specificity.
Mythical Jesus: At the origin of Christianity, Jesus was thought to be a celestial deity who communicated with his subjects only through inspiration, such as by dreams, visions and prophecy (past or present). Jesus was believed to have endured ordeals in a supernatural realm involving incarnation, death, burial and resurrection.
Finally, we may wonder why Carrier chose the match play format, with only two possibilities considered. Bayes allows this, but it may not best serve Carrier’s investigative goals.
The more hypotheses which perform better than a historical Jesus, the more reason there is for doubt. Plus, the more hypotheses which perform worse than Carrier’s preferred view, the better founded is his confidence that his favorite would dominate a comprehensive set of possible Christian first steps. That confidence seems to be the theme of his forthcoming book.
There are plenty of other ways some initially tiny movement might have started meeting together and only later embraced a single fictional earthly figure to worship. For example, the chosen versions of mythicism and historicism both hold that the movement was always focused on some concept of Jesus. What if it was the historically attested John the Baptist who brought together the first Christians-to-be?
Both hypotheses agree that Jesus was a leadership figure, whether that was on Earth or in heaven. What if he were a modest man whom Pilate crucified, whose unjust death haunted the dreams of some messianic Jewish witnesses to the hideous spectacle?
Both hypotheses posit that all the earliest Christians believed the same things about Jesus, all earthly or all celestial. What if Christianity emerged from some interaction between a “Samaritan school” focused on Simon Magus as an earthly god-incarnate and a contemporary “Jerusalem school” launched by Peter’s visions?
Regardless, the two hypotheses in hand are sufficiently well specified that we can proceed to study how they compare with one another, as one match in a larger undefined elimination tournament. Next time, we’ll assess how relatively plausible each hypothesis is in light of the available background information, and then look at how the evidence changes that comparison, if at all.
Photo credit: New York construction workers lunching on a crossbeam, anonymous, but often attributed to Charles C. Ebbets, New York Herald Tribune, October 2, 1932.