• On the Historicity of Jesus, Part 3.

    So begins the third part of my review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The first part is here and the second part is here.

    The gospels are loaded with symbolism from front to back, which is something I have written on before, and Carrier adduces a large number of examples in each of the gospels. Naturally, if it is the case that the gospels are wholly symbolic, this would seem to lend tremendous support to the Christ myth theory. However, Carrier only argues that the gospels don’t count against his thesis. The reason for that? Well, he generated a prior probability for the Christ myth theory based upon information given in the gospels (which shows that Jesus fits the mythic hero archetype) and I suppose he thinks it’d be circular to then use the gospels to generate a posterior probability. I understand that position; however, if one uses the pieces of the gospel that conform to the mythic hero archetype to generate a prior it is still possible to use the rest of the gospel narratives to generate a posterior probability.

    Most scholars of the New Testament recognize that the gospels are filled with symbolism, and yet they do not conclude that Jesus was a myth. The standard view is that although there are many mythical elements in the gospels, there are at least certain pieces of it that are historical, and plenty more that could represent real events whose form was fashioned with parallels to the Old Testament and such. However, Carrier previously argued in Proving History that all criteria used by Jesus scholars are bankrupt, to the point where even New Testament scholars agree that the criteria are incredibly problematic (see here, here, and especially Robert Price’s discussion of the subject in Incredible Shrinking Son of Man). Suffice it to say that scholars have no way of showing that any event in the life of Jesus probably happened, as many of their methods are not logically sound and/or assume things that we do not know to be true.

    You might think that the genealogy of Matthew 1 provides prima facie strong evidence of a historical Jesus: after all, either the genealogy listed there is true or it is false. If it is true, then Jesus existed. If it is false, one would think this shows at least that Matthew was attempting to create propaganda about a historical man, and if Matthew believed in a historical man, surely there must have been one (Matthew wrote around 50 years or so after Jesus died, which seems too early for myth to have evolved into fact). Not so: scholars have long pointed out that Matthew’s genealogy is symbolic. Update: A really thorough explanation of Matthew’s symbolism can be found here.

    That brings me to yet another argument used as a shield against the mythicist theory. I find that when people first hear of the gospels being symbolic, they balk, point to some story in the gospels, and say, “Gee Whiz, This Doesn’t Look symbolic to me!

    Anyone who gives the “Gee-Whiz defense” should learn a huge lesson from the example of Matthew’s genealogy. The fact that it does not look symbolic to you does not mean that it intends to convey historical truth. Of course, the other side of the coin is that we don’t want mythicists to have too easy of an explanation when it comes to potentially problematic data: in other words, whipping out the “it-has-a-hidden-meaning-that-we-have-not-figured-out-yet” card cannot be played too often or it’d look suspicious. This is why I suggest that we look at the gospel material as a whole. Just based on what I know about the gospel material, I’d say about 4/10 of the material is definitely symbolic and not at all connected with historical events, 5/10 of it is plausibly symbolic, and then about 1/10 of it has no known symbolic explanation. Does the one-tenth argue for historicity? Not really. If an archaeological dig turned up documents from an ancient cult, and we found that 4/10 of the documents were symbolic, 5/10 were plausibly symbolic, and the remaining tenth had no known symbolic explanation, we would chalk that up to our incomplete knowledge of history. No one would grasp at straws and try to save some of the stuff as historical, but that’s exactly what New Testament scholars insist is the case. The overall pattern of the gospel material suggest they are probably myths, a conclusion which is more readily explained under the Christ myth theory than the historical Jesus theory.

    Another desperate protest I’ve seen is the defense that the symbolic nature of the gospels doesn’t absolutely mean that Jesus was a myth. Uh, yeah, no one maintains that there’s any absolute certainty on the matter. However, under the hypothesis that Jesus was a myth, we only have a few possible explanations concerning why anyone would write an apparent history of him inside the first few decades after Christianity began. The most credible possibility is that they were written as symbolic myths.* Under the hypothesis that Jesus was historical, though, we would not necessarily expect to see the pattern of a largely symbolic narrative like I outlined above. If the gospels derived from real historical memories, it’d be just as likely that we’d end up with most or all of the stories having no plausible symbolic explanation. As such, the gospels count as good evidence that Jesus was a myth. Their symbolic nature is more probable under the mythicist theory than under the historicist theory.

    Is There Any Way Out?

    The only way I think a historicist could destroy this argument is if they showed that one of the Jesus stories was such that we would probably never expect to see it unless under the mythicist theory, or if the story only made sense as symbolism about a real historical figure and not a celestial being like Carrier proposes. However, I know of no such argument to that effect, and so it must presented and argued well before we can count it as evidence of a historical Jesus.

    Last but not least: There is an excellent online commentary on the gospel of Mark from Michael Turton here.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."