25 November 2014

Book Review: On the Historicity of Jesus

Posted by at 9:33 PM Read our previous post


Volume II
Mythicism, the notion that Jesus was more likely a fictional character rather than an actual human being who played some role in the founding of a world religion, is not a very popular idea in New Testament studies departments. Less than a minority view, it is a fringe position, one that only a handful of scholars have seriously considered, much less adopted. Richard Carrier opens his new book, On the Historicity of Jesus, (Vol. 2 to his previous 2012 work, Proving History) by admitting as much. Ordinarily, like most people, myself included, Carrier depends (and insists) on the epistemological authority that academic consensuses afford us. After all, were it not for a reliable standard of expertise on a given subject or field of study, how would we be able to discern or to weigh the truth of any claim?  It's common sense. If you need help with your car you take it to someone who knows about cars, i.e., a mechanic. If you want to get medical advice, you find a trained physician. You need meat? Go to the butcher. It’s an often-heard cliché formula, and it's true most times. In almost all cases, it is best to go with the professional/academic consensus. 

Indeed, Carrier cites “fringe-ness” as the reason that he was initially reluctant to read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle (1999), even though trusted peers had recommended that book to him as a well-argued and well-written work. He finally relented and decided to read it, but his intention at the time was in fact to use it as an opportunity to debunk mythicism once and for all. Something happened on the way to the Coliseum, however. When he did read the book, thrashing it turned out to be not as easy a task as he had imagined it would be. Not only did he discover that Doherty had in fact laid out a fairly cogent and well-sourced case, but in the process of examining the methodology used in New Testament studies to analyze the pertinent evidence, Carrier was also surprised to learn that all of the scholars who had written specifically about currently used methods in New Testament studies (the criteria of embarrassment, of multiple attestation, of discernible aramaisms, etc.) had found them all to be flawed in significant and demonstrable ways. Curiously, although these criteria are consistently shown to be logically unsupported, many mainstream New Testament scholars persist in making a big deal of these tainted “criteria” and they continue to employ them nonetheless.  There's a certain obstinate dependence on them.  They stick to scholars' fingers. But why should this field in particular get a pass when it comes to methodology? Philip Davies poignantly asked in 2005:
"Can biblical scholars persuade others that they conduct a legitimate academic discipline? Until they do, can they convince anyone that they have something to offer to the intellectual life of the modern world? Indeed, I think many of us have to convince ourselves first."
Before he could tackle the historicity of Jesus specifically, Carrier felt the need to address this institutional issue. The first goal of Proving History was thus to mathematically demonstrate the inherent flaws in New Testament "criteriology" (exposed most recently by scholars like Davies and Hector Avalos),  by applying Bayesian statistical methods to them.   

Volume I
Once the spuriousness of the current methodological paradigm in New Testament studies has been brought to light in this way, any consensus that is dependent on those faulty methods is pretty much rendered moot.  And once shown to be specious, a consensus loses its epistemic authority and can thereafter be challenged. The inherent invalidity of the New Testament studies paradigm can be seen in how inconsistent all the professional proclamations coming from this field are. When you think about it, it's no wonder we don't know much about Christian origins. It's because when we bring our "car" to some New Testament "mechanics," it soon becomes obvious that they cannot agree on a single datum regarding the car—Is it an SUV? What color? What year and make is it?  Two-doors? Four? Automatic or standard? Diesel or hybrid? Indeed, every detail of the story we get as many discordant opinions are there are "mechanics" advising us. Doesn't that in itself suggest that something is probably woefully wrong with these "expert" opinions?  By contrast, if we were to ask a roomful of physicists about the characteristics of a light spectrum from a specific distant star, or about the distances between detectable celestial bodies, or even about how to make these kinds of determinations, we should not be surprised to find that their answers will be more or less consistent across the board (and fairly precise to boot).  That such agreed-upon precision is virtually unknown in New Testament studies is telling.  

So, if criteriology doesn't work, what does?

Carrier's second goal in Proving History was to propose an alternative methodological framework for historical inquiry, one that is more empirically based.  He makes a case that Bayesian reasoning can be foundational to this end.  So what does that mean, anyway? What's Bayesian reasoning? Well, essentially (at least in the simplified model of Bayes' Theorem that Carrier uses), it means that the resultant probability of any event can be expressed as a ratio between three variables:

  1. A 'prior' probability, given our basic knowledge about the world, 

  2. The probability of a claim given a (complete) body of evidence, and 

  3. The probabilities of all other rival claims given the same body of evidence

Already, before we even get to the meat of Carrier's thesis, I suspect that this Bayesian approach will be a stumbling block for many. For starters, Bayes Theorem is a mathematical formula, something too many people seem to have a phobia toward. There's an old adage in publishing that says that you lose half your readers with every math formula you include in a work. I think there's some truth beneath that bit of hyperbole. Math seems to scare the hell out of people for some reason, even people who are otherwise quite bright and daring. But math formulas aside, what will be even more problematic for some will be Carrier's unmitigated audacity in even attempting to quantify that which has heretofore only been considered qualitatively.  Carrier is treating history as something more than a "social science." Those who believe that history (in general) and New Testament studies (in particular) are not things that one can (or should) apply mathematical thinking to because of the nature of the questions history explores will balk right from the starting gate. Come to think of it, most of Carrier’s work revolves around this central idea – i.e., that the academic discipline of history and its correlates should be regarded as a proper science, which is to say … that it should be held to an empirical and naturalistic standard, with an emphasis on verisimilitude, parsimony and falsifiability. The knee-jerk reaction of some will be, "Falsifiability? In history? That's crazy talk!" But those who assume that the study of Christian origins cannot be made a quantifiable matter, Carrier looks right in the eye and tells, “It can too! And I'll show you how!”  His proposed methods could of course be wrong, it goes without saying, and they may indeed turn out to be wrong in the end, but that is to be determined by an engagement with his thesis, and not by simply prematurely dismissing it by appealing to some impenetrable ambiguity (the general “unscienciness” of history). This predictable kind of academic line in the sand, this potential barrier, is what makes the first volume of this work necessary (and why I begin by referencing Vol. I in this way).  Volume II will go right over the head of anyone who insists on staying safely behind the hard-science/social-science line in the sand, or who doesn't realize that there is a problem with the consensus in the first place, or who is otherwise content to continue to adhere to this broken consensus simply because it's mainstream ('a little epistemological vagueness never hurt no one ... Right?')

Down to the Minimals

That preliminary work completed, Carrier now aims to bring this versatile statistical methodology to bear on the specific question of the historicity of Jesus. This is the subject of On the Historicity of Jesus. One of the crucial points to remember about the methods laid out in Vol. I is that a theory cannot be analyzed in isolation.  To gauge the probabilities of a historical claim in terms of only its consistency with itself is to engage in question-begging circularity. Without comparatively referencing how the evidence (ALL the available evidence) might also fit a conflicting theory, such an analysis is necessarily incomplete, logically fallacious, and therefore invalid. 

So the first step is defining the terms. Lest a careless reader mischaracterize him as arguing for some of the more bizarre and convoluted forms of mythicism out there that have been formulated (to his credit, he mentions no names), Carrier frames what he calls "minimal" mythicism:

  • At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity.
  • Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus 'communicated' with his subjects only through dreams, visions, and other forms of divine inspiration.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Subsequent communities of worshippers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only 'additionally' allegorical).

In addition, lest he similarly be misconstrued as straw-manning some of the more bizarre forms of historicism as normative in any way, he also defines a counterpart "minimal" historicism.

  • An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
  • That is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
  • This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshipping as a living god (or demigod).

He narrows his focus to these "minimal" rival theories so to pare away any accretions, mythicist or historicist, that can easily be shown to be superfluous or to depend on some significant amount of ad hocness or gratuitous speculation or special pleading, thus forfeiting their validity. This ad hocness lowers such a claim's probability to something close to zero. On the historicist side, this eliminates from the field, right off the bat, all fundamentalist apologist formulations which posit a superhuman Jesus and also those that posit similarly fantastical magic-mushroom-eating, or vampire-magician,  or Holy Grail/Holy Blood "historical" Jesuses.  On the mythicist side, this eliminates from the field, right off the bat, similarly ad hoc formulations such as the astrotheologically-derived Jesus or the Flavian-conspiracy Jesus, hypotheses which depend on forced, Pesher-ish or inordinately parallelomaniacal readings of the evidence. From a Bayesian perspective, the prior probabilities that we can justifiably calculate for these kinds of ersatz hypotheses are simply too close to zero to be statistically nudged at all in the direction of veracity by the available evidence (if anything, such ad hocness brings our posterior calculations even closer to the zero asymptote).  

A Fortiori

The bulk of On the Historicity of Jesus' 710 pages is devoted to a careful and exhaustive consideration of the evidence forwarded in support of both minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. All the pertinent evidence. The epistles. The gospels. Acts. The patristics. Josephus. For the sake of accuracy, it is important that the likelihood that we would wind up with a given bit of evidence under either scenario (historicist or mythicist) be calculated as clearly and objectively and honestly as possible. This need for honest thoroughness under both paradigms is why this work is as hefty as it is. It has to be. Despite its density and its exhaustiveness, though, Carrier's method is fairly transparent and simple. You take each piece of evidence one at at time, evaluate it under contrasting scenarios, and then plug the result of this analysis into a Bayesian formula. It's simple math.

Interestingly, one of the book's recurring themes is his granting to minimal historicity the greatest latitude possible in his calculations. That is, at every step, he intentionally argues against mythicism as far as his method will allow, at times granting things that are not even realistically warranted by any stretch of imagination, so that it can be fairly said that the probability of historicism must be lower than the intentionally conservative range estimate given by this kind of 'devil's advocate' calculation.  He calls this arguing a fortiori.  With each respective piece of evidence, he first calculates this a fortiori probability, and then, after that is out of the way, he also calculates where he really thinks the probability lies. This more-realistic estimate is considerably closer to mythicism than the a fortiori one, of course. Doubling down on his calculations in this this way precludes any potential accusation that he might be weighing the evidence in his favor in any way, and it also shows a willingness on his part to be fair with historicists while also being honest to his own intellect. It also serves to provide a defensible upper and lower limit to the range of probability for any given datum.  It seems to me a very clever and useful technique.  When after reviewing all the evidence he finally estimates that it is between 70% and 100% probable that mythicism is the correct theory of the two, it's important to keep in mind that the lower limit was calculated a fortiori, which all but guarantees that it is higher still. In fact, Carrier's more realistic calculation is virtually 100% in favor of mythicism (something like 12,000 to 1 if I recall). 

Is he correct?

I think so. Probably. I more or less agree with his assessment, but then I started accepting mythicism as a viable theory years ago. It was in fact Doherty's work (and Robert Price's) that convinced me of mythicism's viability.  I am thus part of the "choir." But although On the Historicity of Jesus was not the book that converted me,  I nevertheless think this is a very important work, if not the most important book on the topic so far. Not only do I think he is right, but what I think is Carrier's main achievement with this book is the systematic organization of the desultory, interpretive ideas of previous minimal mythicists like Doherty and Price (and to some degree, of Wells and Brodie, et al) into a more cohesive and comprehensive theory, one that does not stop at merely engaging Jesus' historicity, but one that takes this historicity (or lack thereof) into accounting for the origin and the subsequent early development of the Christian religion that the myth inspired. This is something that has been sorely lacking in previous monographs. In fact, Carrier's Christ myth theory is cohesive enough that I would even recommend this book as a general introduction to the origins of Christianity to a neophyte.  That his is the first book defending the mythicist case that has undergone the formal rigor of academic peer-review is also noteworthy, especially since the very idea of mythicism is being unduly mocked and derided by a small number of reactionary scholars, defenders of historicism, who, like a united front of self-appointed guardians of an obsolete paradigm, have regularly resorted to mischaracterizing the previous, less-quantitative formulations of these ideas. 

The most important novelty, nay the most important function of On the Historicity of Jesus, in my opinion, comes after he has laid out his thesis. At the very end of the last chapter of the book, Carrier directs a sober, clear, and direct challenge at this peanut gallery of complacent "experts" who find the whole idea an unsophisticated laughing matter:

[...] if readers object even to employing Bayes's Theorem in this case (or in any), then I ask them to propose alternative models for structuring the debate. If, instead, readers accept my Bayesian approach, but object to my method of assigning prior probabilities, then I ask them to argue for an alternative method of assigning prior probabilities (e.g. if my choice of reference class is faulty, then I ask you to argue why it is, and to argue for an alternative). On the other hand, if readers accept my method of assigning prior probabilities, but object to my estimates of consequent probability, then l ask them to argue for alternative consequent probabilities-not just assert some, but actually argue for them. Because the mythicist case hinges on the claim that these things cannot reasonably be done. It is time that claim was properly put to the test. And finally, of course, if readers object to my categories and sub­ categories of evidence or believe there are others that should be included or distinguished, then I ask them to argue the case.

I know many devout Christian scholars will balk and claim to find all manner of bogus or irrelevant or insignificant holes or flaws in my arguments, but they would do that anyway. Witness what many Christian scholars come up with just to reject evolution, or to defend the literal miraculous resurrection of Jesus (which they claim they can do even with the terrible and paltry evidence we have). Consequently, I don't care anymore what Christian apologists think. They are not rational people. I only want to know what rational scholars think. I want to see a helpful critique of this book by objective, qualified experts who could live with the conclusion that Jesus didn't exist, but just don't think the case can be made, or made well enough to credit. And what I want from my critics is not useless hole punching but an alternative proposal: if my method is invalid, then what method is the correct one for resolving questions of historicity? And if you know of none, how can you justify any claim to historicity for any person, if you don't even know how such a claim can be justified or falsified at all? Also correct any facts I get wrong, point out what I missed, and if my method then produces a different conclusion when those emendations are included, we will have progress. Even if the conclusion is the same, it will nevertheless have been improved. But it is the method I want my fellow historians to correct, replace or perfect above all else. We can't simply rely on intuition or gut instinct when deciding what really did happen or who really did exist, since that simply leans on unexamined assumptions and relies on impressions and instincts that are often not reliable guides to the truth. We need to make explicit why we believe what we do rather than something else, and we need this as much in history as in any other field. And by the method I have deployed here, I have confirmed our intuitions in the study of Jesus are wrong. He did not exist. I have made my case. To all objective and qualified scholars, I appeal to you all as a community: the ball is now in your court.

I recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in Christian origins.


1 comment:

  1. I have one of my feet and most toes of the other planted in the mythicist camp pioneered by Dutch Radicals, Doherty, Price, et al. I liked the way you laid this review all out on the line.


Comments left anonymously may or may not be posted.

© quixotic infidel (the) is powered by Blogger - Template designed by Stramaxon - Best SEO Template