Historicity by Richard Carrier

On the Historicity of Jesus

A book released in late June of 2014: On the Historicity of Jesus by Dr. Richard Carrier. Carrier chose to have it published by a scholarly press that specializes in religious books, to lend his work more credibility.


This book examines a daring question: whether there is a case to be made that Jesus never existed. That the Jesus we know originated as a mythical character, in tales symbolically narrating the salvific (having the intent or power to save or redeem) acts of a divine being who never walked the earth. Later this myth was mistaken for history or deliberately repackaged that way, and embellished over time.

All historians have biases, and only sound methods will prevent those from too greatly affecting our essential results. Carrier has developed and follows a formal historical method for approaching this debate. A method which produces as objectively credible a conclusion as any historian can reach. The author has a PhD from Columbia in Ancient History. He has read the original texts in their original Hebrew or Greek (including the Septuagint, a second-century translation of the Old Testament into Greek).

Believers and their apologists have a vested interested in proving that Jesus did exist. “For them, if Jesus didn't exist, then their entire worldview topples. The things they believe in (and need to believe in) more than anything else in the world will then be under dire threat. It would be hard to expect them to overcome this bias, which makes bias a greater problem for them than for me. They need Jesus to be real; I don't need Jesus to be a myth.”

Chapter 1: The Problem

This chapter illustrates how a mythical figure can become historicized.

For over a hundred years now some scholars (and not just cranks) have argued there was no real Jesus Christ in any real sense at all. They maintain the Christian religion began with the idea of a mythical man, not a historical one. The 'historical' Jesus, on their account, was entirely a legendary development, eclipsing the original myth and leaving us with the mistaken impression that there must have been a real Jesus who was later known as Christ.

Most scholars agree some elements of the things said about Jesus aren't historically true. We have no criticisms of Christianity of any sort well into the second century, far too late for critics to know the real truth of the matter.

The theory Carrier explores says that ‘the earliest Christians preached a celestial being named Jesus Christ, then later this godlike figure was fictionally placed in a historical setting just as other gods were, and the original concept eventually forgotten, dismissed, or suppressed’.

Mythicists versus Historicists

direct quote from Carrier:

Though many mythicists may seem as crazy as their theories, the proposal of mythicism itself is not crazy. A model example is King Arthur. Like Jesus, many detailed historical narratives and biographical facts about this 'great king' are on record (along with a widespread belief that, like Jesus, he will one day return). Yet after considerable inquiry it seems almost certain no such man ever existed. Michael Wood provides a good survey of how myths like this arise and why, and how the Arthur legend incorporates old stories and elements from various cultures and times, and persons (both real and fictional), which were all co-opted and incorporated into Arthur's story, including elements from British, Scottish, Welsh and French traditions, and from both Christian and Celtic pagan religions. King Arthur was essentially created by assembling pieces from numerous facts and myths, into a new unified—and unifying—myth that had great cultural resonance, persisting even to this day. This myth essentially became historicized by a culture-wide application of an affective fallacy: the more powerfully a story affects a people, emotionally and morally, the more it is believed to be real. Eventually the truth of what the story symbolized was confused with the truth of the story itself.

There is nothing crazy or bizarre about that. Mainstream historians are entirely comfortable with King Arthur being a mythical hero historicized, by some such process, even if they debate the exact details or confess the details can't be known. Of course, the King Arthur legend developed over centuries. But centuries are not required, as I'll show in Chapter 6.

The King Arthur legend sold a particular product: a unified England. Anyone who believed dearly in that goal was likely to believe dearly in King Arthur. Much the same could be claimed of Christianity, with different movements co-opting the Jesus story to promote their own ideals, and a unified church arising only later. The aim would always be the same: to promote unity within the movement and (it would be hoped) society by promoting a popular myth to rally behind and believe in. And often success at that depended on selling the myth as true.

Even in biblical studies there is nothing new or crazy about this idea. The patriarchs are safely assumed now to be nonhistorical, and thus entirely mythical. This is no longer considered radical or fringe, but is in fact the most widespread mainstream view among scholars. Thus Moses is now regarded as fictional, yet like Jesus he performed miracles, had a whole family and huge numbers of followers, gave speeches and had travels, and dictated laws. No mainstream historian today believes the book of Deuteronomy was even written in the same century as Moses, much less by Moses, or that it preserves anything Moses actually said or did—yet it purports to do so, at extraordinary length and in remarkable detail. No real historian today would accept as valid an argument like 'Moses had to have existed, because so many sayings and teachings were attributed to him!' And yet if this argument is invalid for Moses, it's invalid for Jesus.

Similarly, it's now the mainstream view that the book of Daniel was written in the second century BCE and is a complete fiction, representing the elaborate adventures and speeches of the sixth-century prophet Daniel as if they were a fact. Historians doubt even the existence of Daniel. But even if he existed, historians are certain the book of Daniel does not contain anything he authentically said or did. Rather, this Daniel, and everything he is supposed to have said and done, was invented to create a historical authority for a new vision of society, to inspire a new unity and a new moral order against the immoral rule of dominating foreigners. We must accept that the same is at least possible tor Jesus.

So the idea that Jesus was originally mythical, like King Arthur or Moses or Daniel, is not inherently crazy. It could only be called crazy if the evidence for a historical Jesus were substantially more impressive than the evidence for the historicity of the likes of King Arthur or Moses or Daniel. Whether that's the case is what the present book will examine. But an increasing number of mainstream scholars are starting to at least reconsider the question. A conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry's Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion in Amherst, New York, in December of 2008 gathered numerous reputable historians to begin debating how much we could even claim to know about the historical Jesus—and most agreed the answer was very little, or even nothing. In fact a growing number of mainstream experts are expressing doubt that much of anything can be reliably known about the historical Jesus, as I showed in the first chapter of Proving History. And as I'll show in Chapter 3 here, more are coming to the side of doubt.

The Aim of This Book

This book will advance the debate in two respects. It will survey the most relevant evidence for and against the historicity of Jesus, and it will do so with the fewest unnecessary assumptions, testing the simplest theories of historicity and myth against one another.

The theories I will compare here are the minimal ones, the simplest possible theories that I think have any chance of explaining the evidence.

Chapter 2:

The minimal hypothesis that Jesus existed:    (direct quote from Carrier)

  1. An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.

  2. This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.

  3. This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod).

Chapter 3.

The minimal hypothesis of Myth    (direct quote from Carrier)

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.

  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus 'communicated' with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).

  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.

  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.

  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only 'additionally' allegorical).

Chapter 8. Extra-biblical Evidence

Josephus and the Testimonia Flaviana    (direct quote from Carrier)

There are two passages in the Jewish Antiquities (or Ant.) of Josephus, originally published shortly after 93 CE, that (in the present text we have) mention Jesus Christ as a historical person. However, both are almost certainly interpolations made by Christian scribes. In fact Josephus never mentioned Jesus Christ or Christians. We can therefore exclude these passages from our evidence. This is a somewhat controversial conclusion, so I will summarize the very reasonable basis for it.

The first passage in question is called the Testimonium Flavianum (TF). It now reads as follows:

And there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if we really must call him a man, for he was a doer of incredible deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth gladly, and he won over many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when, on the accusation of the leading men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease to. For he appeared to them on the third day, alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and countless other marvels about him. And even until now the tribe of the Christians, so named from this man, has not failed.

Of course, even at a glance anyone can see this would be an absurd paragraph from the hand of a devout Jew and sophisticated author who otherwise writes far more elegant prose, and usually responsibly explains to his readers anything strange. This passage is self-evidently a fawning and gullible Christian fabrication, in fact demonstrably derived from the Emmaus narrative in the Gospel of Luke, inserted into the text at a point where it does not even make any narrative sense, apart from being in a survey of the crimes of Pontius Pilate that contributed (in the long run) to inciting the Jews to war.81 There is no plausible way the above narrative fits that context: the Christians are not being connected with the war in any such way, and the Jewish elite are not outraged by the execution of Jesus but in fact endorse it.

81. This paragraph is so heavily indebted to the Gospel of Luke we can be certain that that is its source: G.J. Goldberg, 'The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke', Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), pp, 59-77. Goldberg demonstrates nineteen unique correspondences between Luke's Emmaus account and the Testimonium Flavianum, all nineteen in exactly the same order (with some order and word variations only within each item). There are some narrative differences (which are expected due to the contexts being different and as a result of common kinds of authorial embellishment), and there is a twentieth correspondence out of order (identifying Jesus as 'the Christ'). But otherwise, the coincidences here are very improbable on any other hypothesis than dependence. Goldberg also shows that the Testimonium contains vocabulary and phrasing that is particularly Christian (indeed, Lukan) and un-Josephan. He concludes that this means either a Christian wrote it or Josephus slavishly copied a Christian source, and the latter is wholly implausible (Josephus would treat such a source more critically, creatively and informedly). Supporting the un-Josephan character of the language and phrasing of this paragraph is Ken Olson, 'Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum', Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2 (April 1999), pp, 305-22; whose conclusions are only tempered a bit by Paget, 'Some Observations', pp. 572-79; and Alice Whealey, 'Josephus. Eusebius of Caesarea, and the Testimonium Flavianum', in Josephus und das Neue Testament: wechselseitige Wahrnehmungen (ed. Christfried Böttrich and Jens Herzer; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), pp. 73-116. Although I remain undecided, Olson has made an increasingly strong case that Eusebius is the forger of the TF, and even famed Josephus expert Louis Feldman agrees that's plausible: see Ken Olson, A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum', in Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations (ed. Aaron Johnson and Jeremy Schott; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 20l3), pp.97-l14; and Louis Feldman, 'On the Authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum Attributed to Josephus', in New Perspectives on Jewish Christian Relations (ed. Elisheva Carlebach and Jacob Schechter; Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 14-30. In fact, the most common arguments for its authenticity are actually among the best arguments for Eusebian forgery: see Ken Olson, 'The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus', Historical Jesus Research (August 13, 2013) at http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-testimonium-flavianum-eusebius-and.html.

Historians have tried to rescue this passage by rewriting, it, removing everything that Josephus would surely never say, and then claiming he surely said what's left and Christians just changed it up. But this is such an extraordinarily improbable thesis it must be rejected outright. For example, Josephus must have mentioned 'Christ' because he presumes it when he explains the name 'Christian' in the last line, but there is no plausible way Josephus would say this (or even 'he was believed to be the Christ', as some later quotations have it) without explaining to his intended Gentile readers what a 'Christ' was and what it meant for Jesus to have been one, and thus why Josephus is mentioning it or how Jesus even came to acquire the moniker. So we can strike those two sentences. Josephus cannot have written them. He also would not have written such fawningly unintelligible things as 'if we really must call him a man' or 'doer of incredible deeds' or ‘teacher . . . of the truth' without explaining to his Gentile readers what he meant—or giving examples, as Josephus normally would. So those sentences must be struck. He cannot have written them. Nor would Josephus say things like 'he won over' many Jews and Greeks, without explaining exactly to what he won them over—and thus what defined someone as a Christian, what doctrines they held. Josephus does this for every other sect he discusses (such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and, under the rubric of 'the fourth philosophy', the Zealots). So he certainly would do so here, the more so as his remarks would be unfathomable to most of his readers without that explanation. So we can strike that sentence. He cannot have written it. . .

That leaves us with only one sentence left over: ‘and there was about this time Jesus, a wise man'. After which no story follows. We can conclude Josephus didn't write this, either. He discusses several men named Jesus throughout his works, so he would certainly either identify this one (as we'll see, e.g., he identifies another Jesus as 'the son of Damneus'), or explain why he is suddenly interrupting his narrative to talk about this one. Otherwise this transition is simply too abrupt and bizarre for Josephus.

All these improbable sentences stack up to an enormous improbability that Josephus wrote any of this. And that's just from examining its content alone. The paragraph is simply unsalvageable. Nor should anyone desire to salvage it. It is obviously much too brief and much too obviously a simplistic Christian production based on the Gospel of Luke. Moreover, no other author had ever heard of this passage until Eusebius in the fourth century—not even Origen, who otherwise cites and quotes Josephus several times, so surely Origin would have mentioned this passage had it existed in his copy of the Antiquities. The probability of his silence is very low otherwise, and that probability reduces even further when we consider the silence of every other Christian and pagan author, even if (and even collectively) their silence is not as improbable as Origen's.

Considering just Origen alone, there are several passages where it's almost certain he would have remarked upon this paragraph, even quoted it, had he known of it. And yet there are two more reasons that are even more decisive, sinking this probability well toward impossibility: (1) since the very next paragraph begins ‘about the same time also another terrible thing threw the Jews into disorder' (Ant. 18.65), Josephus clearly had just ended with the sedition resulting in a public massacre (described in Ant. 18.60-62), leaving no logical place for the unrelated digression on Jesus and the Christians (in Ant. 18.63-64)—the original text obviously went directly from the massacre to the following scandal, with no digression in between; and (2) the fact that his very next story, also about a religious controversy (involving Judaism and Isis cult), is told at great and elaborate length (in Ant. l8:65-80, a narrative eight times longer than the TF, and yet on a much more trivial affair). The latter demonstrates that Josephus would have written a great deal more about the Jesus affair if he had written anything about it at all, whereas a forger would have been limited by what may have then been the remaining space available on a standard scroll for volume 18 (or by the space available in the margin, if that is where the passage began its life), hence explaining its bizarre brevity, in comparison with the preceding and following narratives" and in light of its astonishing content, which normally, as I've noted, would require several explanations and digressions which are curiously absent.

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