This is an overview of the recent three-part series. Links to the detailed individual posts are attached to the thumbnail pictures in the body of this post.
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. 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 specializing in biblical studies, addressed to academics in that field, “the guild.”
This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but one that adapts the method to the subject matter and avoids numbers as measures of personal confidence in uncertain propositions.
Because all the evidence has already been gathered, the investigation is retrospective. It takes the form of a fictitious investigation. That is, a walk-through of how a hypothetical Bayesian analyst might have formed their initial opinion about the questions of interest, then refined that view using evidence.
Step 1: hypothesis selection and specification
Carrier chose a two-hypothesis approach. The pair are rearranged here into statements of the uncertain contenders, plus a background information statement about some matters that few people dispute. The investigation goes forward on the assumption that one of the contenders is true, even though there are other possible scenarios for Christianity to have begun.
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.
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.
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.
Although Carrier includes an extensive presentation of background information, he defines an initial belief state based solely on a list of story features found in tales of heroic kings (Rank-Raglan, searchable). The Gospels have almost all of those features, as Carrier scores them, and high scores are more often found with mythological characters rather than historical ones. Carrier estimates an initial confidence of between 2:1 and 15:1 in favor of the mythical Jesus hypothesis over the historical one.
One serious concern is whether the proposed score is relevant to the actual problem being studied, the comparison of these two specific hypotheses. In other words, even if there is a defined set of high-scoring kingly heroes, is Jesus a typical member of that set, or can he be distinguished from other members based on background information? Could be. If we have such distinguishing background information, some would prefer to use it in crafting an initial belief state.
Step 3: assessing how the evidence alters the initial plausibility
Carrier claims to weight evidence a fortiori, by which he means something like as favorably as reasonably possible to the historical Jesus hypothesis. There are reasons to doubt that claim.
For example, Paul uses the phrase the brothers of the Lord. Does that refer to kin or close associates of Jesus in his natural life? Carrier’s offer of a 2:1 likelihood ratio in favor of the historicist interpretation falls far short of a guild member’s published demand that Paul’s phrase settles the question of Jesus’ historicity. It could be that a fair-minded upper limit of reasonableness lies between the two extremes.
More startling is that except for his use of the Gospels to form an initial belief state, Carrier otherwise gives them no weight at all, favoring neither hypothesis. While there are excellent arguments that the Gospels are poor sources for specifics about Jesus’ life and career, they are at least somewhat favorable to the bare-bones historical hypothesis, that Jesus was an actual man with surviving admirers.
There are also disputes between Carrier and the guild over the meaning he finds in some of the evidence that eludes other observers. Some of that disputation is “domain specific,” requiring special expertise to referee.
Other times, Carrier outrightly misreads his source, as when he claims that Epiphanius wrote about an early Christian sect whose “Jesus” lived about 100 years before the Gospel Jesus. Even when he reads a source correctly, his interpretation can seem strained. For example, he argues that Paul’s the brothers of the Lord refers to any baptized Christian, rather than somebody like a kinsman of Jesus or an important apostle, as the context suggests to most readers.
An especially notorious example is his theory that Paul taught that God had banked King David’s sperm for use in fashioning Jesus a thousand years later. That’s all very interesting, but even if true, it has little relevance to whether or not Christians believed Jesus was born to a human mother on Earth. Living Christians profess Jesus’ father was God himself and Muslims that Jesus had no father at all, but both teach that a blessed earthly mother bore a wonder-working earthly baby.
Step 4: sensitivity analysis
Carrier estimated final odds of between 2:1 and 11,999:1 in favor of his preferred mythicist hypothesis. That the final odds interval includes the initial odds interval means that some arguably reasonable persons might conclude that all the evidence except Rank-Raglan is a wash, favoring neither of the two hypotheses. That the odds interval widened rather than narrowed as additional evidence was taken into account is symptomatic of an outsized role for purely personal interpretations and estimates of bearing, possibly on both sides of the controversy.
There are also difficulties peculiar to when an analyst is nearly certain, as the guild is about the historicist hypothesis. Even strong evidence against the entrenched position might not “convert” the nearly certain analyst, even (especially?) a Bayesian nearly certain analyst.
Finally, there is an impersonal difficulty in the nature of the hypotheses themselves: the chosen pair “approximate” each other. That is, how different in effects objectively observable after two millennia is
some people worshiped a man as a new divinity soon after he died
some people soon came to understand a new divinity as a recently deceased man?
If the available evidence and background information are inadequate to support a foundational hypothesis that has withstood intense scrutiny for centuries, then it probably doesn’t strongly support any single novel alternative either. The critic of complacent consensus has a useful role to play in this affair, but heroically instituting a new paradigm without new evidence is unrealistic in any established field.
It is more productive to challenge the guild’s unwarranted initial confidence by exploring more seriously possible hypotheses and to call academic specialists’ attention to the inability of the existing background information or evidence to discriminate among hypotheses that “approximate” each other.