Richard Carrier: meet Barnum & Bailey.

A slogan (attributed apocryphally to PT Barnum) holds that there is no such thing as bad publicity. And it can safely be said that Richard Carrier’s scathing review of Joe Atwill and the Flavian Origins theory of Christianity brings this slogan to mind. At our Postflaviana website, we do not mind returning the favor; as I now turn to an evaluation of Carrier’s recently published magnum opus, “On the Historicity of Jesus”.

In his book, Carrier claims to establish that the odds that “historical Jesus” existed, are somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 12500. With such amusingly wide ‘error bars’ resulting from the book’s elaborate mathematical scaffolding, the weakness of Carrier’s approach should be self-evident.  And in a sort of pre-critique posted at his blog in Oct. 2013, Carrier further undermined the importance of his own effort as follows:

… criticizing Christianity with a lead of “Jesus didn’t even exist” is strategically ill conceived–it’s bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.


Supernatural miracles, and disembodied minds, and blood magic, have odds of millions or billions or even trillions or quadrillions to one against. So why would you hang your case against Christianity on a mere 1 in 12,000? You can make a far better case against that religion by granting historicity and then showing the odds against it are trillions to one. The additional reduction in the probability that Christianity is true that is added by calculating-in the possibility Jesus didn’t exist is relatively so minuscule it’s honestly not worth troubling yourself over (the more so as no Christian will accept estimates that get you to 1 in 12,000 without first having already given up their faith…so the most you can hope for is to get them to that measly 1 in 3, and even that won’t be likely, and it’s weak tea anyway).

Nevertheless, for Christian apologists, Carrier’s book is obviously red meat – as can readily be seen by looking at the book’s customer reviews at Amazon. As of this writing, 45 of 56 reviews are five-star, highly complementary reviews by Carrier’s fans — but a negative review by apologist David Marshall drew some 555 comments, in which the debate between the Christians and the Heretics is a circus that would make Barnum & Bailey proud. In this context, we can only wonder whether the provocative image featured above (showing Carrier flashing the Satanic 666 hand sign) is a regrettable accident, or further bait for the culture wars. (Lest anyone accuse me of having gone off the wagon here — I’m well aware that from a Bayesian perspective, the prior is that at least 99 out of 100 times that someone gives that hand sign, they mean either “OK” or “NADA”; while real Illuminati Satanists are rare as hens’ teeth, and obviously Richard is too much of a rationalist to be attending any witches’ covens.)

However, if we take Carrier at his word, his book is not ostensibly targeted towards Christ’s faithful followers, but rather aimed towards academic specialists, as well as a popular audience of religious liberals, humanists, atheists, and agnostics. And of course, Carrier is hoping that those readers will be persuaded that the odds of Jesus’ existence are closer to his allegedly most realistic (“a judicantiori”) estimates – that is, 1 in 12500.  But even in that goal, Carrier is tilting against an essentially meaningless windmill. Carrier formulates “just three minimal facts” defining his historical Jesus (Chapter 2, § 4):

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).

This is minimal indeed: this man need not have been called “Jesus” during his lifetime, but only later; he need not have actually been executed, so long as his followers thought he was; and of course, he need not have been a god, or even done anything remotely manifesting any higher nature (aside from whatever he did to attract followers), so long as those same followers thought so.

In contrast to the theory that Christianity had at its core some human figure as defined above, Carrier offers the following five-point definition of “minimal mythicism” (Chapter 3, § 3):

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).

The problem with this formulation as a basis for applying Bayes’ law, as pointed out in a very astute review by Thomas Colignatus, is that these two hypotheses are by no means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is highly likely that both hypotheses are true; as I will now demonstrate by arguments taken directly from Carrier’s own book, which consists primarily of a series of “definitions” and “elements” describing background information which Carrier considers well-established, followed by an analysis of the “evidence” which he finds relevant to the question of Jesus’ historicity. Carrier seems to strangely miss the import of the following item, with regards to his own thesis:

Element 4: “Palestine in the early first century ce was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah.” (Chapter 4, § 5)

Carrier goes on to discuss four ‘Messiah’ figures documented by Josephus, known by him as ‘The Samaritan’, ‘Theudas’, ‘The Egyptian’, and an (unnamed) ‘imposter’. Each of these four, according to Josephus, attracted a following which compelled a mass military response from the Romans. Carrier continues:

…all four of these messiahs, as reported by Josephus, were equating themselves with Jesus (Joshua) and making veiled claims to be the Christ (messiah). In other words, here we have in Josephus four Jesus Christs. Ours simply makes five. The Gospel character of Jesus thus fits right into the trend documented by Josephus. (Chapter 4, § 5)

Carrier’s argument that the Pauline epistles constitute evidence against the likelihood of ‘minimal historicity’, is crucially dependent on his view that the authentic writings of St. Paul described a celestial and mythical Jesus, rather than an earthly one. Overall, Carrier assigns just a 6% “a judicantiori” likelihood P(e|h) that the epistles are consistent with a historical Jesus. However, this argument completely fails once we realize that Paul might be describing only one out of two or more pre-Christian sects of his time, including historicizing as well as non-historicizing sects.

According to Carrier, we can be reasonably certain that Paul was writing during the 5th decade of the first century, and that his observations were true descriptions at least of his own sect. In this presumption, Carrier is neglecting not only the recent and very well-known book by Robert M Price entitled “The Amazing Colossal Apostle” , but also the entire school of Dutch Radical Critics, as discussed in Herman Detering’s peer-reviewed 1996 article. It’s just as plausible, according to these critics, that our extant Pauline corpus is largely or even entirely a pseudepigraphic product of the 2nd century.

But regardless of any of that, taking Carrier (and Paul) at their own word:

 Element 21: ( a) Paul and other NT authors attest that there were many rival Christian sects and factions teaching different gospels throughout the first century. In fact, evidence of such divisions and disagreements date as far back as extant records go. Yet we know very little about these other versions of Christianity (and in some cases nothing at all). And (b) of these only a few amalgamated sects survived the process of competition to remain in the Middle Ages…

We therefore cannot simply assume surviving texts report what was normative for the original or earliest sects of Christianity. (Chapter 4, § 7)

Noting that Carrier refers to the survival of “a few amalgamated sects”, how can he deny the plausibility that while one or more of those “amalgamated sects” were initially mythicizing sects as Carrier believes Paul was describing, while yet others of these sects were initially messianic Judaising sects composed of followers of the likes of ‘The Samaritan’, ‘Theudas’, ‘The Egyptian’, or any other ‘imposter’?

Carrier’s belief that the “mythical Jesus’ argument is somehow exclusive of the ‘historical Jesus’, can only be based on an implicit model of institutional church growth, postulating that the start of Christianity was something like the start of Mormonism — where a singular kernel exploded through a process of conversion driven by evangelism and managed by a tightly controlled hierarchical leadership. Yet as Carrier himself admits, nothing could be farther from the truth such as we know it about the chaotic nature of early Christianity.

So even if we agree that Paul’s epistles accurately describe an authentic early 1st century Christian sect that believed in a celestial Jesus, that would in no way deny the existence of the sects that followed the various other messianic figures of that time. All that would be required for any of those messiahs to have met Carrier’s definition for a “historical Jesus” would be for their sect of followers to have continued to exist through the first century, and eventually become “amalgamated” with the greater Roman church.

Literally speaking, it is difficult to say that any sect “survives” the deaths of its founding members; but in terms of ideological and generational (that is, genetic family) continuity, it seems obvious that the 2nd century church(es) must have merged and preserved the diverse aspects of their 1st century predecessors. At any rate, it would surely be impossible to demonstrate that Christianity survived solely as a product of the celestial sect or sects, to the exclusion of the personally driven messianic sects — when we have every reason to believe that both of them must have existed.

To compound the problem of determining what happened, as Carrier further tells us:

Element 22: (a) We have no credible or explicit record of what happened within the Christian movement between 64 and 95 ce (or possibly even as late as 110 ce). (Chapter 4, § 7)

At the beginning of this era of silence, we have (perhaps) St. Paul’s church, St. Peter’s church, and probably a motley crew of other assorted Messianic sects; and at the end of the era, we begin to see the emergence of Gospel-driven Christianity spreading all over the Roman empire, out of the chaos of the Jewish war.

Carrier also makes much of the silence from history about a world-renowned Jesus figure living during the first half of the first century; but when you think about it, if there really was a Pauline Christian Church that was spreading all over the Mediterranean during Paul’s time, surely the near-silence of history regarding that exploding Church is far more significant, and far more damning to the view that Paul’s epistles reflect the genuine historical state of the Christian movement  circa 50 AD. It seems far more likely that Paul’s church is a highly fictionalized version of one or more cults that really did exist at that time.

Having said all that: in terms of Carrier’s hypothetical dilemma of a ‘minimal historical Christ’ vs. a purely ‘Mythical’ Christ, I don’t believe any serious mythicist would have a problem loudly proclaiming “BOTH”. The reason, of course, is that Carrier’s ‘minimal historical Jesus’ is such a non-entity that only the most extreme fanatic would put any energy into denying that such a person (or persons) existed, or might have had a role in Christianity’s embryonic development.

From a point of view of the Roman Origins theory, perhaps the most interesting part of Carrier’s book is his discussion of Plutarch’s description of Romulus. Carrier wrote (Chapter 4, § 1):

In Plutarch’s biography of Romulus, the founder of Rome, we are told he was the son of god, born of a virgin; an attempt is made to kill him as a baby, and he is saved, and raised by a poor family, becoming a lowly shepherd; then as a man he becomes beloved by the people, hailed as king, and killed by the conniving elite; then he rises from the dead, appears to a friend to tell the good news to his people, and ascends to heaven to rule from on high. Just like Jesus.

Plutarch also tells us about annual public ceremonies that were still being performed, which celebrated the day Romulus ascended to heaven. The sacred story told at this event went basically as follows: at the end of his life, amid rumors he was murdered by a conspiracy of the Senate (just as Jesus was ‘murdered’ by a conspiracy of the Jews— in fact by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish equivalent of the Senate), the sun went dark (just as it did when Jesus died), and Romulus’s body vanished (just as Jesus’ did). The people wanted to search for him but the Senate told them not to, ‘for he had risen to join the gods’ (much as a mysterious young man tells the women in Mark’s Gospel). Most went away happy, hoping for good things from their new god, but ‘some doubted’ (just as all later Gospels say of Jesus: Mt. 28.17; Lk. 24.11; Jn 20.24-25; even Mk 16.8 implies this). Soon after,   Proculus, a close friend of Romulus, reported that he met Romulus ‘on the road’ between Rome and a nearby town and asked him, ‘Why have you abandoned us?’, to which Romulus replied that he had been a god all along but had come down to earth and become incarnate to establish a great kingdom, and now had to return to his home in heaven (pretty much as happens to Cleopas in Lk. 24.13-32; see Chapter 10, § 6). Then Romulus told his friend to tell the Romans that if they are virtuous they will have all worldly power.

… There are many differences in the two stories, surely. But the similarities are too numerous to be a coincidence— and the differences are likely deliberate. For instance, Romulus’s material kingdom favoring the mighty is transformed into a spiritual one favoring the humble. It certainly looks like the Christian passion narrative is an intentional transvaluation of the Roman Empire’s ceremony of their own founding savior’s incarnation, death and resurrection…. Other elements have been added to the Gospels— the story heavily Judaized, and many other symbols and motifs pulled in to transform it—and the narrative has been modified, in structure and content, to suit the Christians’ own moral and spiritual agenda . But the basic structure is not original.

While it is difficult to precisely date Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, the author is believed to have lived from about 46 AD to 120 AD, and thus his description of Romulus might very well have been written after Mark, not before. Moreover, as Courtney and Carotta would have quickly pointed out – the quoted aspects of the Jesus narrative also represent a close parallel to the birth narrative of Augustus Caesar, and the death narrative of Julius Caesar.  These narratives all seem somewhat mythologized, and may very well have co-evolved.

This review is not the place to evaluate Atwill’s theory that the Gospels should be seen as most tightly linked to the Flavian emperors (rather than to Romulus), but it is heartening to see Carrier’s acknowledgement that Roman literature was also part of the Gospel milieu. However, before concluding, I would like to point out a few other selected lacunae in Carrier’s work (that is, aside from the glaring flaw of his pathetically vague and yet demonstrably ridiculous conclusion.)

Many earlier reviewers have pointed out various flawed aspects of Carrier’s argument regarding Jesus as a Rank-Raglan hero. Most of those discussions have centered on whether Carrier is applying the criteria accurately to Jesus as well as other mythical or historical characters, or whether the specific criteria are even appropriate to the task of identifying which is which. But most fundamentally, Carrier has totally mis-stated and misunderstood the Euhemerist philosophical position. Euhemerus argued that the well-known mythological gods of his time, were actually historical characters that had been deified through the respect of their followers and heirs. Thus, the belief that there was a historical person at the root of the Jesus myth, would be a Euhemerist position, as explained at Acharya’s web forum. And, “euhemerization” is actually defined as the process by which a human person is converted into a myth.

Carrier is confused when he argues the opposite, that euhemerization is a fictionalization process by which mythical characters are provided with real earthly and historicized biographies. Aside from this semantic confusion, Carrier ignores the real philosophical point of Euhemerus as it applies to the modern era — which is that for ancient tales whose origin is lost in the prehistoric or paleolitic era, it is impossible to say for sure whether these tales are purely legendary, or whether there is some real-life hero  and some ancient tribe of his followers at the root of it all.

It is certainly well known that many historical rulers laid claim to some degree of divinity, ruling by divine right, and those claims were often enhanced by the passage of time. Carrier gives many examples in his book. So, how can anyone say whether some prehistoric ruler was the basis of Zeus, or Hercules? It is impossible to know, and moreover, it doesn’t matter. There is nothing of real historical value that can be recovered from this material, in terms of biographical detail. (Although, along these lines, Alexander Hislop in “The Two Babylons” (1853) argued that the mythical Hercules and Osiris were derived from heavenly Orion, and thus from the debatably historical human Nimrod.) From a scientific perspective, it might be perfectly reasonable to treat all those narratives as pure myth, because they might as well be. But it is surely foul play for Carrier to proclaim that all other ancient mythical heroes were purely myth with no historical basis whatsoever; and therefore Jesus must be too. It is simply making an assumption out of his theorem to be proven. Thus, while Carrier argues for an “a judicantiori” prior P(h) on ‘minimal historicity’ of 1/15 (0.0625), I would argue that there is no basis for any prior information at all in this argument.

In his very first element, Carrier proclaims:

The earliest form of Christianity definitely known to us originated as a Jewish sect in the region of Syria-Palestine in the early first century ce. Some historians would challenge this, but their theories have yet to survive peer review or persuade anything near a consensus agreement among experts. Rather than prove it true here, I will simply state it as a given fact of our background knowledge, to be revised only if it is clearly disproved. (Chapter 4, § 5)

And that is that. Of course Carrier is fully aware of who these historians are; and thus he is also well aware of the profound lack of archaeological evidence to this effect, as well as the corrupted nature of the surviving literature. Needless to say, I would certainly not agree: the earliest form “definitely known to us” was invented by the Romans no earlier than the last half of the first century, and probably had its headquarters in Rome from the beginning; while all earlier forms are a matter for speculation and conjecture at best.

To mop up my critique of Carrier’s evaluation of the consequent likelihood of historicity, I must also mention his analysis of the book of Acts, and of the “extra biblical evidence.” In both cases, even Carrier’s own “a judicantiori” estimates are relatively weak: 1/10 for the “extra biblical” texts (Epiphanius, the Babylonian Talmud, 1 Clement, Ignatius, the Ascension of Isaiah, and Hegesippus), and 1/5 for Acts. At his other extreme, Carrier himself accepts that all these sources are basically a wash with regards to historicity: “a fortiori”, P(e|h)=0.46 for “extra biblical” and P(e|h)=0.72 for Acts. But I think that even these latter figures are too stingy with respect to the case for minimal historicity. The only argument that has any merit at all in my view, is that Epiphanus and the Babylonian Talmud report that the sect of the Nazoreans believed that Jesus lived in the 1st century BC at the time of Alexander Jannaeus. Carrier argues that if there was a historical Jesus, there should at least be some agreement about the era of his life, and I would agree. On the other hand, it seems perfectly possible that late sources might simply make a chronological error; or that two or more historical messianic figures, widely separated chronologically, each gave rise to sects that were ultimately amalgamated into Roman Christianity. I’m willing to grant Carrier his  “a fortiori” estimate P(e|h)=0.8 on this term. The rest of Carrier’s “extra biblical” argument is based on the same fallacy as his argument about the epistles: my answer is that these documents might well be describing a mythicizing sect rather than one or more co-existing messianic sects, so there is no evidence against historicity contained within.

As to the book of Acts, Carrier argues that the trial speeches of Paul were referring to a celestial Jesus, and thus that they represent an originally Pauline source, rather than having been composed by Luke. Supposing that this is true, it only means that Paul represented a celestial rather than a historicizing sect, which does not constitute evidence against minimal historicity. And, Carrier notes that Acts does not mention anything about Jesus’ family or other earthly affiliates, who promptly vanish from the story. Contrary to Carrier’s statement “This a historicist cannot plausibly explain”, it is easily explained if the author of Acts was attempting to “amalgamate” two or more sects into one; in this case, the less alienating detail provided, the better. And this is widely agreed, that Luke was an “amalgamater”: at the very least, he was trying to smooth over the differences between Peter and Paul. So again, I see no evidence against historicity here, even at Carrier’s “a judicantiori” extreme.

As to a more reasonable “a fortiori” estimate (that is, generous to the argument for historicity): many readers will see abundant evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus of some sort in the book of Acts; much more so in the Gospels, which Carrier rates as completely worthless regarding the question. (Atwill’s thesis that the Gospels constitute veiled but undeniable evidence that their authors’ candidate for the true Messiah was the Flavian emperor Titus will, of course, remain controversial — at least for now.)

As to ‘peer review’, Carrier’s respect for this process is very selective: he certainly complains clearly enough about the poor results of the process in terms of the reliability of academic “historical Jesus” studies. As for himself, he takes pride in calling his book “peer reviewed” — but the standard academic peer review process is seldom if ever applied to books, but only to journal articles. At his website, Carrier describes the peer review process applied to “On the Historicity of Jesus”: he selected his own reviewers, and sent the book to them. This is not ‘peer review’, at best it’s ‘pal review’, and there’s a difference. For ‘pal review’, I send this post to Rick and Joe.  In the journal process, the editor selects articles based on their relevance & expected interest to the journal’s readership, a process rife with opportunities for gatekeeping and suppression of academic disagreements; after getting past the editor’s cut, the articles are sent to the editor’s selection of reviewers, whose identity is kept secret from the author. The latter part of the review process can also result in gatekeeping and suppression (they might send your mythicist article to Bart Ehrman, and of course he’ll say it’s no good), but it’s more likely to be an opportunity for corrections of errors and discovery of additional arguments and evidence. But, the anonymity of the process hopefully gives the reviewers the opportunity to be more honest, without damaging professional relationships.

One can only wonder whether the professional relationship between Carrier and the Post-Flavians is hopelessly ruined, or whether there is yet any hope for a recovery. All criticism aside, there is much to be praised in Carrier’s book. One can only hope that in the future, Carrier will realize that his clownish behavior is making New Testament mythicism look like a circus.

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