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Jesus Did Exist: A Response to Richard Carrier

Filed under Historicity

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Today we continue our four-part series concerning the historical evidence for Jesus. Popular atheist writer Richard Carrier, probably the world's best known Mythicist, began yesterday with his article "Questioning the Historicity of Jesus". Today, Catholic writer Jimmy Akin responds. Tomorrow, Richard will offer his take on “Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed" by Trent Horn. Finally, on Thursday, Trent will wrap up the series with a rejoinder.

I would like to provide responses to the arguments and evidence that Richard Carrier offers to rebut my argument that Jesus existed. This task is complicated because, in his response to my original piece, Carrier says a surprisingly small amount that engages my argument and a large amount that does not.

Approximately half of his piece is devoted to other matters:

  • running through the names of people who agree with him in varying degrees
  • recommending books
  • expressing hope for the fortunes of his thesis in future decades
  • plugging his forthcoming book
  • acknowledging the mistakes of fact and argument made by others who hold that Jesus never existed
  • discussing the goal of his own research.

Stating Your Position is Not an Argument

In the part of his post that does respond to the original piece, Carrier does not interact very directly with its argument. Instead, he makes a series of alternative assertions that state his own view.

His view does disagree with mine, but stating your own view is not the same thing as providing evidence in favor of it. Much less is it the same thing as providing evidence against the view you are responding to.

Carrier’s goal in the post does not seem to be so much responding to the original argument as “giv[ing] you an idea of where this new approach to Christian origins is coming from”—that is, sketching an outline of his own view.

What are Carrier’s Arguments?

Arguments for his view are apparently to be found in other people’s books, behind a paywall, or “in my forthcoming book,” where “I treat all the best objections and suggestions and debates surrounding all the evidence.”

I’m glad to hear that his forthcoming book will be so comprehensive, but the absence of arguments here makes it difficult to respond.

I could take any of the specific claims he makes in his post and critique it, but without knowing what evidence he plans to cite for it, he can simply say, “You’re attacking a straw man. Just wait until my book comes out.”

He does make occasional gestures in the direction of an argument—e.g., claiming that “There actually were Christian sects that said Jesus lived a hundred years earlier” or stating that Jesus probably was not from Nazareth—but he doesn’t put these together into a coherent argument.

I could try to form one out of the pieces he gives us and then critique it, but he could always say, “You’re attacking a straw man. That’s not what I would have said.”

So let’s set these aside and to the best we can with what Carrier has given us.

The Central Argument

The central argument I posed was based on evidence showing that Christianity was a movement that emerged in Judaea in the first century and then spread widely across the Roman world within a few decades, indicating that it had a substantial degree of organization and a founder who really existed. Carrier concedes these points.

The argument then held that it is most natural to look at the movement’s own account of its founding for information about who the founder was. Carrier’s attitude toward this is unclear.

My article then pointed out that the earliest records we have say that Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth. Carrier takes exception here and states:

"[B]ut that’s not true. The earliest accounts (in the letters of Paul) know nothing of Nazareth and never mention Jesus recruiting or training anyone. When Paul mentions Jesus communicating with and sending apostles, it is always in the context of revelations."

Carrier appears to misunderstand the reference to “the earliest accounts” to mean “the early Christian documents we have.”

The subject at hand was who the “founding leader” of Christianity may have been. The relevant accounts, therefore, are those that dealt with this question.

The earliest specific accounts that we have of that question must include the gospels and Acts, which clearly point to a historical Jesus as the founder of the movement. These documents are nowhere near so late as Carrier seems to think, but even setting that aside, what can we learn from Paul?

Paul on the Founding of Christianity

As Carrier acknowledges, Paul speaks of “Jesus communicating with and sending apostles,” pointing to Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But does he indicate, as Carrier says, that this was “always in the context of revelations”?

Not in the slightest.

It’s true that Paul acknowledged that his own contact with Jesus was through revelation (Gal. 1:12), but Paul acknowledges that his relationship was different than that of the other apostles, that he related to Jesus as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8)—that is, out of the normal sequence that governed how the others related to Jesus.

So how does Paul indicate that Jesus related to the others?

Brothers of an Unreal Man?

Paul indicates that some of them were his brothers. Later in Galatians 1 (which Carrier cites as an authentic text), Paul writes that once when he went to Jerusalem, “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19).

Paul acknowledges that James, together with Peter (Cephas) and John, was one of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9).

And this is not Paul’s only reference to the “brothers” of Jesus. He also asked: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brethren of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” (1 Cor. 9:5). So Jesus had “brothers” who were distinct from the apostles and other major Christian leaders such as Cephas/Peter.

An examination of early Christian sources reveals that James was the foremost of these “brothers” of Jesus. We can discuss precisely what their relationship was to Jesus (whether they were cousins, step-brothers through Joseph, etc.), but the early sources indicate that they were familial relations of Jesus, despite strained mythicist attempts to avoid this.

Paul also tells us that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3) and “born of woman, born under the Law [of Moses]” (Gal. 4:4). This clearly indicates Jesus’ birth as a Jew who belonged to the lineage of David (and who, as well, had both flesh and a woman as his mother).

All this indicates that Jesus was a real, historical individual.

Other Indications

In 1 Thessalonians, commonly regarded as one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul writes that the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” (1 Thess. 2:14-15).

He also states “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed” instituted the Eucharist and told his followers to perform it (1 Cor. 11:23-25) and afterward was “buried” (1 Cor. 15:4).

And, in 1 Timothy he writes that Jesus “made the good confession...in his testimony before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13).

Some would challenge the last document as post-Pauline, though not the former two, and the former two provide further indications that Jesus was a historical individual who gave instructions to his followers on a specific night, on which he was then betrayed; who was killed through the agency of earthly individuals, who also killed the prophets and drove Paul and others out of Judea (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14); and who was then “buried.”

This is all consistent with the idea that Jesus was a historical individual who lived, died, and was buried on earth, and there is no indication of this taking place in “the lower heavens.”

The Islam Analogy

Carrier acknowledges that the same logic used to support the existence of a historical Jesus also points to the existence of a historical Muhammad as the founder of Islam. He writes:

"Akin’s analogy to Islam is on point, and I would add Mormonism as equally apt: their founders, Mohammed and Joseph Smith, respectively, were “sent by” and “communicated the teachings of” non-existent celestial beings, the angels Gabriel and Moroni, respectively. In the most credible mythicist thesis, Jesus corresponds to Gabriel and Moroni."

I’m glad to see that Carrier recognizes the validity of the argument to this extent, but his own addition to it is problematic.

It’s true that Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism each had a founder who organized a movement that spread rapidly, but in each case the movement’s early writings point to that founder being a historical individual: Jesus, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith.

Their writings do not point to that founder being, on Carrier’s thesis, a spiritual being (i.e., a purely spiritual Jesus, Gabriel, and Moroni).

Carrier can’t have it both ways. He can’t say that the founding of Christianity, Islam, or Mormonism point to the existence of their claimed historical founders in two cases but not the third.

Not unless he has compelling evidence to the contrary.

Carrier’s Future Book?

Might he provide this evidence in his forthcoming book? We’ll have to wait and see, but the way that he handles evidence in this post does not provide much confidence. For example, at one point he claims that:

"Paul says no Jews could ever have heard the gospel except from the apostles (Romans 10:12-18)."

This is simply false. Paul says nothing of the sort. What he does do is stress the importance of preachers to spread the Christian message. But he merely indicates that people need “a preacher” (Greek, kerussontos) to tell them about Jesus, not “an apostle” (Greek, apostolos). (Romans 10:14; see here for Romans 10:12-18, the range of verses Carrier cites.)

Perhaps Carrier has some further, also-not-provided-here argument for why Paul actually meant what Carrier thinks he meant, but the fact is: It’s not what he said. It’s not even close.

What Carrier has provided does not give the appearance of a solid case against the existence of Jesus. It gives the appearance of a castle built of shaky inferences that strain to get us away from the plain meaning of the texts.

Including the Pauline texts.
(Image credit: GCSC)

Jimmy Akin

Written by

Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

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