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The “Mythic” Jesus’ Last Hurrah

November 30, 2017

For several years now, the “mythic Jesus” notion has been re-asserted and, with the aid of the internet, has gained some widespread attention, much to the puzzlement (and often amusement) of serious scholars in the field of origins of Christianity.  I’ve commented on the phenomenon in earlier postings (here, here, here, and here, this last posting with a link to an interview with a leading scholar on the historical Jesus, Dale Allison).

In the eyes of fans of the “mythicist” Jesus view, it appears, Richard Carrier is the key figure, whose books are pointed to as presenting a scholarly defence of it.  Carrier’s two books on this subject are (1)  Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2012), and On the Historicity of Jesus:  Why We May Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Academic Press, 2014).  Occasionally, readers of my blog ask for references to scholarly engagement with Carrier’s books.

In the main, however, scholars (of all religious or non-religious stances) have tended to view Carrier as more of a polemicist than an original scholar, at least as concerns questions about the historical Jesus.  To see good examples of how scholars in relevant fields have judged his books, note, e.g., James McGrath’s rather patient-but-telling review of Carrier’s book on Bayesian logic in historical work here;  a rather damning evaluation of Carrier’s use of Bayes’s Theorem (and by an otherwise declared sympathetic reviewer)  here, and another scholarly review here. For one scholar’s (somewhat bemused) review of Carrier’s more recent book, On the Historicity of Jesus, see here.

Despite Carrier’s evangelistic prophecies that the scholarly world will come to see that he, though now a voice in the wilderness, is correct in judging Jesus of Nazareth to be a mythical invention, there is in fact no sign of fulfillment.  He is a paid advocate of his views (having been hired to produce these books), not a disinterested or dispassionate assessor of things.  He is not expert in the very subjects on which he writes in these books, and his mishandling of the evidence shows this all to clearly.  I conclude that, in so far as scholarly judgment of the matter is concerned, Carrier’s often-strident efforts will be judged as the last hurrah of the “mythicist” claim, although internet die-hards are likely to remain doggedly committed to it.

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21 Comments
  1. pierwszy permalink

    How can you reject something not reading it ?

    Serious question

    • “Pierwszy” (real names please, on this site): If I know that the claims of a work are readily falsified by the primary data, then I don’t need to read it. In the case of Carrier’s work, that is the so. It’s more important to know the primary data. Carrier bleats on about his work not being read. I’ve read parts of it, sampling it, and have shown the samples (crucial bits in his larger case) to be fallacious. It doesn’t require or merit a point by point refutation, which would be tedious.

  2. Dr. Hurtado,
    It’s helpful to hear a calm voice like yours in these troubling matters. We should definitely give greater trust to the more authoritative scholars—those that have made the grade in their particular field before they use the internet. And thanks for pointing out Carrier’s strident tone. That definitely sheds new light on the reliability of his argument as well as do the Bayesian errors you know that he makes. Talk about “re-ordering the subject of Jesus”! And the nerve of getting paid for writing on something in which he is so unabashedly interested. But, most damning of all, is the word out now that he selected his own peer reviewers. Spread it around. His argument may be misleading. Not to be trusted. Thankyou Professor Hurtado.

  3. I’m a distinct amateur in NT studies, but over on my own blog I’ve written a bit about Dr. Carrier’s particular claim that there was a pre-Christian belief in a celestial figure named Jesus. In my humblest of opinions, it seems wholly untenable, which is rather problematic when one considers that it’s a necessary condition for his Christ Myth hypothesis.

  4. Robert permalink

    Not to be mistaken for defending Richard Carrier or anything like that, but this blog post contains a lot of ad hominem – especially that final paragraph.

    • Robert: It isn’t “ad hominem” to note that a given person isn’t an expert in a given field, and that his prose is “strident”, or that he’s paid to write some things, if all those things are true.

      • Robert permalink

        Larry, with all due respect, it is irrelevant whether the things said about the opponent are true or not – what matters is relevance. But I’ll keep your definition in mind for next time I engage your work.

      • Robert: With all due respect, what I said about Carrier is relevant. He is strident (not necessary, but his style), even though he’s not really competent in the subject of Christian Origins, Jesus, etc. And he has predicted that his view will win out, which is not likely

      • From Carrier on p. 604 of his book, which I have read.

        “Until then, my conclusion represents our current state of knowledge.”

        Gotta love the humility right there.

  5. It’s a peculiar academic world in which its members make up excuses to not read the latest peer reviewed literature in their own field. How can we trust the opinions of scholars who do that?

    • Dr. Carrier: It’s a peculiar world (but sadly now all too familiar), when someone obviously out of his depth in a given field to revolutionize a field. Why should I read your 700+ pages when your own summary of your claims shows how fallacious your position is? Better ways to use my time. So stop trying to play games.

      • Doesn’t it seem odd to anyone else that Richard Carrier, who has never held an academic position at an accredited University, is taken seriously as a scholar? This is bizarre.

      • Carrier holds a PhD in ancient history (on ancient roots of science) from Columbia University. He’s not a village idiot by any means. He’s just out of his depth in trying to re-order the whole subject of Jesus and origins of Christianity.

      • For John MacDonald, it’s not odd at all. Most people on the internet don’t care about expertise and credentials and things of that sort. You can find your heroes in most any fringe movement out there and Jesus mythicism is a popular one. The people want to hear that Jesus didn’t exist and they will cling to Carrier since he’ll tell them what they want to hear. Just go on YouTube and look at the internet atheists there. Look at how many people in debates cite Wikipedia as if it was authoritative. Go get a copy of Tom Nichols’s book “The Death of Expertise.”

  6. Gene Bourland permalink

    What is the best book on early(first 2 or 3 centuries) Christian history.

    • I don’t know that there is one “best book.” If you mean a book suitable for “lay” readers, one recent contribution I’d recommend is this one: Michael J. Kruger, Christianity At the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017)

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Isn’t Robert M Price the more important advocate of mythicism? I’d be more interested in engagement with his work, in particular The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.

    In terms of the direction of scholarly travel, Price points out that most serious scholars now accept the patriarchs as mythical, although this also began as a minority view.

    Time will tell if mythicism gains acceptance or whether it’s experience a last hurrah.

    • I don’t know, Donald. Price is older, has written more than Carrier. But he’s written as much on his own idiosyncratic mystical belief system as on any scholarly subject. I think that Carrier is the scholarly poster-boy for mythicists (and he certainly wants to be). Price is incorrect. Most OT scholars likely think that the Patriarchs are *legendary* figures, not “mythical”. Part of the problem with Price and Carrier is their failure to understand and use correctly historiographical categories. Yes, time will tell. And sooner than you think!!

      • Dr. Hurtado,

        You state: “most OT scholars likely think that the Patriarchs are *legendary* figures, not “mythical”. Despite being off topic, would you kindly provide your opinion as to why most OT scholars believe this? Is it an evidental issue, or is it perhaps anti-supernatural presuppositions at work?

        Please share your thoughts.

      • You should really make inquiry of OT scholars and/or consult scholarly works introducing critical study of the Pentateuch, but a very brief response from me. The biblical writings that contain stories of the “patriarchs” bear the marks of being written much, much later than the purported time of these figures (just, e.g., read Genesis 22 and catch the allusion to much later cultic practices). There are curious duplicate-type accounts (e.g., Abraham and Isaac both passing of their wives as sisters), and other things that look like what happens in the growth of legends about figures from the distant past.

      • Price isn’t the main one because Price isn’t out there trying to please internet fan boys and Price really doesn’t promote himself. Carrier presents himself as world-renowned and a recognized expert and tells the people exactly what they want to hear.

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