• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Questioning the Historicity of Jesus


EDITOR'S NOTE: Today kicks off a four-part series concerning the historical evidence for Jesus. Popular atheist writer Richard Carrier, probably the world's best known Mythicist, begins with his response to our previous article titled “Did Jesus Exist? An Alternate Approach”. Tomorrow, Catholic writer Jimmy Akin will respond. On Wednesday, 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.

The hypothesis that Jesus never really existed has started to gain more credibility in the expert community. Some now agree historicity agnosticism is warranted, including Arthur Droge (professor of early Christianity at UCSD), Kurt Noll (associate professor of religion at Brandon University), and Thomas Thompson (renowned professor of theology, emeritus, at the University of Copenhagen). Others are even more certain historicity is doubtful, including Thomas Brodie (director emeritus of the Dominican Biblical Centre at the University of Limerick, Ireland), Robert Price (who has two Ph.D.’s from Drew University, in theology and New Testament studies), and myself (I have a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University and have several peer reviewed articles on the subject). Still others, like Philip Davies (professor of biblical studies, emeritus, at the University of Sheffield), disagree with the hypothesis but admit it is respectable enough to deserve consideration.

The most credible alternative theory of Christian origins is that Jesus began life as a celestial being, known only through private revelations, who was believed to have been crucified and resurrected in the lower heavens. The Gospels were the first attempts to place him in history as an earthly man, in parables and fables meant to illustrate Christian theology and ideals. Their picture of Jesus then became the most successful among the competing varieties of Christianity over the ensuing generations, and the eventually triumphant sects only created and preserved documents supporting their view, and very little supporting any other.

To date the best case presented for this hypothesis is by amateur historian and classics graduate Earl Doherty (in his two books, The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man). My own forthcoming book, probably titled On the Historicity of Jesus, inspired by his work, will be the first making the case for this hypothesis to pass academic peer review. It will be published this February by the publishing house of the University of Sheffield.

The significance of all this is that a commonly voiced objection to this hypothesis is that only cranks and amateurs find it convincing. That is clearly no longer the case. It deserves serious consideration. In the 1970s, the view that Moses and other Old Testament patriarchs were mythical was considered scandalous, but now is largely mainstream. It is now pretty much the standard view in secular academia, and even has begrudging support from many devout Jewish and Christian scholars. The same hypothesis for Jesus is now where that hypothesis was in the 1970s. Within forty years, the same outcome may prevail.

Strange Notions has featured two articles defending the historicity of Jesus, and I was asked to write a short piece on how we advocates of the alternative view respond to the kind of arguments in them. I will address one of them here, and the next in a sequel.

In “Did Jesus Exist? An Alternate Approach”, Jimmy Akin is aware of much of what we find fault with in the evidence presented. (Although he seems unaware of why both passages in Josephus are Christian interpolations, and that Josephus probably never mentioned Christ or Christianity in any respect at all. I present the evidence and scholarship establishing that point in volume 20 of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.)

His alternative approach is to argue that the Christian movement is well attested as originating in Judea in the first century and spreading across the Roman Empire within a couple generations, rapidly and well-organized. But these facts do not argue against the mythicist hypothesis. Mythicists generally agree with both; they simply regard the first apostle (most likely Peter) to be the actual founder of the movement, not Jesus. On our view, at that point the apostles (like Peter) only claimed to be receiving communications from Jesus by revelation (as in Galatians 1). The Gospels had not yet been written. Their version of Jesus only came to be popularized half a century later, when no evidence indicates any of the first apostles were still around. (There actually were Christian sects that said Jesus lived a hundred years earlier, and Akin does not seem aware of this, but I haven’t space to digress on that fact here.)

On our theory, this revealed being, the heavenly Jesus, was the one who chose and “sent” the apostles to spread the gospel. Which is why Paul says no Jews could ever have heard the gospel except from the apostles (Romans 10:12-18). Evidently the myth of Jesus having preached to the Jews himself had not yet developed.

Akin says the “earliest accounts we have agree that Jesus of Nazareth founded the Christian movement, recruited and trained its earliest leaders, and then sent them out as his apostles,” but 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.

Jesus was probably not originally a Nazarene (Greek nazarênos), but a Nazorian (Greek nazôraios), based on a now-lost scripture (Matthew 2:23). This was actually one of the original names for the Christian movement (Acts 24:5) and remained the name of the original Torah-observant Christian sect (Epihanius, Panarion 9). It clearly did not mean “from Nazareth” (Christians did not hail from there, and the words do not share the same roots). Scholars speculate on what “nazorian” may have meant (Proving History, pp. 142-45). But its attachment to the town of Nazareth appears to have been an invention of the Gospel authors. At the very least, we have no evidence otherwise.

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. Only in his case, Jesus was eventually placed in history in mythical tales about him (as was a common trend to do with celestial deities at the time), and that belief became the most popular (as also commonly happened with celestial deities).

Obviously a great deal more can be said on all these points. I treat all the best objections and suggestions and debates surrounding all the evidence in my forthcoming book. I could only be brief here. But this at least can give you an idea of where this new approach to Christian origins is coming from. A great many advocates of it online (and in print) do have their facts wrong or make invalid arguments (often both). But it is fallacious to assume the conclusion of a fallacious argument is false (that’s literally called the fallacy fallacy.) We have to look at the best case for a conclusion, not the worst, before we can conclude on its merits. And producing that best case has been the object of my research the last several years.
(Image credit: Namaha)

Dr. Richard Carrier

Written by

Dr. Richard Carrier is a published historian and philosopher, specializing in the philosophy of naturalism and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome. He's a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard with a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in History and Classical Civilizations, and a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University. He has written extensively for the Secular Web and in various periodicals and books, and discussed his views in public all over the country and on TV. He is best known as the author of Sense and Goodness without God, Not the Impossible Faith, and Why I Am Not a Christian. His latest book is Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. He is currently working on his next books, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, and Science Education in the Early Roman Empire. Follow Richard through his website, RichardCarrier.info.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.