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Four Reasons to Believe in Jesus: A Reply to Richard Carrier

Filed under Historicity


EDITOR'S NOTE: Today ends our four-part series on the historical evidence for Jesus. Popular atheist writer Richard Carrier began Monday with an article titled "Questioning the Historicity of Jesus". On Tuesday, Catholic writer Jimmy Akin responded with his piece, "Jesus Did Exist". Next, Richard offered a post titled “Defending Mythicism: A New Approach to Christian Origins". Finally today, Trent Horn provides a rejoinder.

I’d like to thank Dr. Carrier for responding to my article “Four Reasons I Believe Jesus Really Existed”. I’ve followed his work for quite a while and recommend that defenders of the view that Jesus never existed take heed of his advice (especially his rejection of mythicist arguments made in the vein of videos like Zeitgeist).

I’m sure he will agree that the debate over Jesus’ existence is an intricate affair that can’t be settled in a short blog post, but I’d like to comment on some points he raised in response to my original post which gave four reasons for why I believe in the historical Jesus.

4. It is the mainstream position in academia.

Like Aquinas, I agree that appeal to authority is the weakest of logical arguments (or, “so says Boethius”). However, mythicists who are not as well-read as Dr. Carrier may think that contemporary scholarship is legitimately divided on this issue, a misconception I wanted to make sure was cleared up before advancing my main arguments.

It is true that merely holding a fringe view does not mean that Dr. Carrier is automatically mistaken. It only means that he must put forward substantial evidence in order to defend a claim that nearly every other scholar in the relevant field, including fellow skeptics, have not found convincing. Or, as he is fond of saying in other contexts, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Dr. Carrier also points out that scholars do not have a unified consensus of who the historical Jesus was (i.e. cynic sage, prophet, revolutionary, etc.) and he says this counts against the mainstream position. But I don’t see why this disagreement should cause us to doubt there was at least a Jesus who scholars now study. There are many figures in history whose motives or deeds are hotly debated by scholars, but that debate is rarely used as evidence that those people never existed.

3.  Jesus’ existence is confirmed by extra-biblical sources.

Dr. Carrier dismisses the references made by Josephus and Tacitus as being unreliable. Unfortunately, Dr. Carrier provided no reason in his response to think the references in Josephus are unreliable. He merely referenced his own article on the subject that is published in the December 2012 issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies in his response to Jimmy Akin. As a result, I will stand behind the scholarly consensus that Josephus is at least partially authentic and wait to see how fellow Josephus scholars interact with Dr. Carrier’s paper on the subject.

In regards to these accounts being independent of the Christian tradition I will simply say that Tacitus’ disdain for Christians and his reputation as a careful historian, as well as Josephus’ intimate knowledge of Galilee after Jesus’ death, both bode well for their ability to vouch for the events they describe.

2. The Early Church Fathers don’t describe the mythicist heresy.


Dr. Carrier said that we simply don’t have enough information about what heresies existed in the early Church to know what happened to the mythicists. But this still does not explain the problem I raised. It seems incredibly unlikely that early gnostic heresies about Jesus being God disguised in human form could plague the Church for centuries but the mythicist “Gospel” preached by Peter and the other real founders of Christianity could simply disappear into thin air in the span of one generation, a length of time where those who knew the apostles could object that the events described in the Gospels never happened.

Dr. Carrier claims that even in the face of this silence there are “hints” pointing to the ancient mythicist believers. He cites 2 Peter 1:19 where the author says Christians did not follow “cleverly devised myths,” but this passage makes no reference to any particular myth or particular groups of people promoting a Jesus myth, so it could just be a general statement about the historical value of the Christian faith. Dr. Carrier also mentions The Ascension of Isaiah which features prominently in the writings of fellow mythicist Earl Doherty. However, the liberal Christian blogger James McGrath provides an excellent summary of why this apocryphal book does not support the mythicist thesis.

1. St. Paul knew the disciples of Jesus.

According to Dr. Carrier, Paul only knew apostles, or the deluded followers of a celestial Jesus who were “sent” to preach the Gospel after learning about it through a series of visions. Paul allegedly never describes interactions with people who were the disciples of an earthly Jesus. Of course, even if Paul did describe Jesus “discipling” the apostles, how could someone prove these “interactions” were not mere spiritual visions? If Paul’s descriptions of Christ’s death and resurrection could take place in the “lower heavens,” then why couldn’t these events take place there as well?

Dr. Carrier also replies to my argument that Paul is giving a biological reference about the apostle James when Paul mentions James as “the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. Carrier claims that Paul could be referring to James as a “spiritual brother” of the Lord and writes:

"All baptized Christians were the adopted “sons of God” (Romans 6:3-10) and thus were only “brothers” because they were brothers of their common Lord (Romans 8.15-29, 9.26; Galatians 3.26-29, 4.4-7). We cannot tell from his letters themselves whether Paul means brother of the Lord by adoption, or brother of the Lord biologically."

I’m curious that Dr. Carrier cites Galatians 4:4 as evidence that Paul viewed all believers as Christ’s spiritual brothers when the context clearly states that believers become adopted sons of God (or “brothers”) precisely because, as Galatians 4:4 says, God sent his son “born of a woman, born under the law to redeem mankind. This seems to be strong evidence that Paul saw Jesus as a “God-man” who became a man like we all did, by being born. Paul did not view Jesus as some kind of non-human cosmic savior figure.

Dr. Carrier is correct that other people did refer to themselves as having a kind of brotherly relationship with Jesus. In Ephesians 6:21 Tychicus describes himself as “the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord” and in 1 Corinthians 6:5-6 Paul refers to any believer as a “brother” in Christ. But it is very different to be a brother in someone, as in the spiritual sense that we’re all brothers “in the Lord,” and being the brother of the Lord. In Galatians 1:19 Paul says, “I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother” or in Greek, “ouk eidon ei me Iakobon ton adelphon tou kyriou.” The use of the genitive case for tou kyriou signifies that the corresponding English preposition is “of” the Lord, as opposed to “in” the Lord.

Another point in favor of this being a biological title is that Paul does not say Peter is a “brother of the Lord,” only James. This doesn’t make sense under the spiritual view since both men would have a claim to that title (Peter even more so as chief of the apostles). The biological view would make sense and be an easy way to identify James and not confuse him with James the son of Zebedee (another apostle) or James the son of Alphaeus.

Finally, Dr. Carrier says that we can’t conclusively prove Paul is referring to biological brothers of Jesus. That may be true, but I doubt that any of the arguments put forward in defense of the mythicist thesis could meet the standard of “conclusive proof.” The better standard to use is what is most probable, and I think a biological reading of the passage meets that standard.


While I disagree with Dr. Carrier’s conclusion I look forward to reading his upcoming book on the subject and hope that future posts at Strange Notions will be able to explore other facets related to the Jesus myth debate.
(Image credit: Hot Teapot)

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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