• On the Historicity of Jesus, Part 2a.

    Richard Carrier has responded to Part 2 of my review on his blog. Here’s an index of my review so far and its responses. Anyway, you’ll probably have to read Part 2 and Carrier’s response to get a sense of where this debate lies.

    Me: Under the proposition that Jesus really lived, Jesus had a brother names James who must have later on played a role in the church (perhaps not as an apostle, but as somebody at least) and that explains the two passages reasonably. The probability of the evidence is close to 100% under the historicist framework.

    Carrier: Notice that I do not agree with this reasoning. The evidence is actually to the contrary that James “must have” played a later role. In fact, not even the evidence that he merely “may have” is sound… Mark has Jesus simply disown his brothers. Mark has no evident awareness that any were even in the church later, much less famed leaders of it.

    Given that Mark doesn’t write anything about the early history of the church, I think this is a weak consideration. Mark could have written something about James later returning to the church or something, but I don’t think there is any overpowering reason he would have, so this is a very weak argument from silence.

    Carrier: Acts (written by Luke at the end of the century) also evinces no knowledge of a James the brother of Jesus ever being a leader in the church. Luke simply assumes generically that his brothers were Christians; but in Acts they disappear from history thereafter…

    If James the brother played a huge, major role in the birth of Christianity (as Peter and Paul undoubtedly did) I think this would be a strong argument from silence, to the point of being nearly conclusive. However, James the brother might’ve just played some subsidiary role during the birth of Christianity (and I see no reason to rule this out), and if that’s the case the argument from silence wouldn’t be so strong.

    Me: it seems to me that under historicism it is equally likely that either (a) Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ to refer to a literal brother or (b) use it to denote someone was a Christian

    Carrier:but per above I do not believe that is soundly assumed. To the contrary, under historicism, Paul would need to distinguish those two groups from each other. He could not therefore refer to a biological brother of Jesus as “brother of the Lord” and mean distinctly a biological brother rather than a baptized Christian. Thus, under historicity, the probability that he would do so is low, not equal.

    Under the historicity hypothesis, I grant that we’d be a little more likely to see an unambiguous phrase like ‘brother of Jesus’ or ‘brother of the Lord according to the flesh,’ I just feel very iffy about granting that this would be highly likely under historicity. It’s only a gut feeling, but it’s really all I have to go on.

    Carrier: Mark would know James became a revered leader of the church (or at least a member) and would write accordingly.

    Per Mark 14:72, the last we hear of Peter is that he has denied Jesus three times and has wept, and Mark never says Peter went on to become a revered leader in the church, either. As such, we can’t assume Mark would go out of his way to say any different about James.

    Me: It is also my judgement that the fact that Paul identifies this “brother” as someone with the same name as one of the brothers listed in Mark is more probable under the historicist explanation than under the mythicist explanation.

    Carrier: …There would have been dozens of men named James in the church even if historicity is false, therefore mentioning one for Paul is not unlikely.

    But what are the odds that, in the one place where Paul mentions a “brother of the Lord,” the name of this person is the same as one of the names on Mark’s list? That’s the probability I was finding, and I think such a congruity between Mark and Paul is expected on historicity but not so much on mythicism.

    I think the strongest point Carrier brings up is the point that Paul, if referring to an historical Jesus, ought to have referred to a non-legendary brother of Jesus. What do I mean by ‘non-legendary’? Well, as Neil Godfrey put it, commenting on the names of Jesus’ brothers in Mark:

    Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As historical Jesus scholar Paul Fredriksen remarks:

    It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth , p.240)

    As I recall, Carrier brings up something like this in the book, and I had neglected to take that into account when I was thinking about this issue. It seems improbable that the historicist reading of the gospel is right, and that weighs in on the issue pretty heavily, because then we might not expect Paul to call James the brother of the Lord regardless of whether historicity is true. I’ll spare everyone the bayesian details, but suffice to say that when we try to take this into account under bayes’ theorem, it dramatically brings down the evidential force of the whole ‘brother of the lord’ thing, to the point where it’s at best a very marginal piece of evidence for an historical Jesus (I think it’s pretty easy to see this without resorting to the math). I therefore probably will not even take into account when doing my final bayesian analysis, because as far as I’m concerned there is at least as much marginal evidence that mythicism is true that would cancel this out, such as the fact that no historian mentions Jesus within thirty years of his life.*

    In short, the reeds for historicist to cling to are becoming increasingly few in number. I don’t know where will end up, but at this point I wouldn’t be all that surprised if mythicism turned out to be true. But, I won’t leap to any conclusions just yet.

    * Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know the standard response: Jesus wasn’t really a big deal, so nobody mentioned him. I have a response to this: under mythicism, it’s effectively 100% likely that no historian would mention him. However, under historicism the odds are not exactly zero, and probably not even close. I recall Bart Ehrman talking about this issue in ‘Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet,’ and that he noted how odd this silence was. If the intuition of a historicist scholar like Ehrman tells him this is ‘odd’ (in other words: unlikely) I think we can safely assume the chances of this silence, given historicism, are well above zero, even under the ‘Jesus was a nobody’ theory. Of course, it could easily be the case that historicism entails this silence with, say, ninety percent certainty or something like that, and this still means that the silence counts in favor of mythicism, just not in an overwhelming way. Remember: Possibility does not matter, only probability, and this adds weight to the mythicist thesis, even if it is not conclusive evidence.

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    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."