On the Historicity of Jesus

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Devil's in the details

On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt is Richard Carrier's June 2014 work is "the first comprehensive pro-Jesus myth theory book ever published by a respected academic press and under formal peer review".[1][note 1] The book was introduced to Carrier's peers per the trade journal The Bible and Interpretation.[2]

Prior criticism of historical Jesus studies[edit]

The 2012 book Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Carrier[3] is an exploration of Bayes’ theorem as a method to be applied to historical studies, albeit with specific application to the question of the historicity of Jesus.

Carrier notes the failure of historical Jesus studies to make any advances in reaching agreement upon anything about the historical Jesus. He cites well-known biblical scholars who have conceded the unreliability or invalidity of the criteria that have been used in the most recent “quest for the historical Jesus”: Gerd Theissen, Stanley Porter, Dale Allison.

For Carrier, there are three reasons these criteria have failed to yield progress in the historical quest:

  1. Specific criteria are invalidly applied
  2. Specific criteria are invalid
  3. The “Threshold Problem”: that is, how do we decide if and when a question that passes criteria tests tells us anything more certain than simply that something plausibly may have happened?

Bayes' theorem[edit]

Carrier is well known for his advocacy of the use of the Bayes’ theorem and has enumerated its advantages:

  1. Helps to tell if your theory is probably true rather than merely possibly true
  2. Inspires closer examination of your background knowledge and assumptions of likelihood
  3. Forces examination of the likelihood of the evidence on competing theories
  4. Eliminates the Fallacy of Diminishing Probabilities
  5. Bayes’ Theorem has been proven to be formally valid
  6. Bayesian reasoning with or without math exposes assumptions to criticism & consequent revision and therefore promotes progress[4]

The reason 2, 3 and 6 stand out is because they are at the heart of past criticisms of historical Jesus studies that typically begin with assumptions of historicity, and avoid (or fail to comprehend or even attack) alternative explanations that do not support those assumptions. One does not really need Bayes' theorem to expose the assumptions to criticism, but the formality of this method does potentially encourage stronger awareness of where one may be failing to do this adequately.

The position[edit]

Carrier's work starts out by stating the the majority of 'Jesus didn't exist as a human being' theories are at best ill conceived and at worse long discredited nonsense. That said, Carrier points out that the historical side also has a lot of nonsensical driftwood, much of which involves experts just repeating what they have heard without double checking as to its accuracy.

Carrier makes a point to separate the Jesus of the Bible (Triumphalism) from a possible man of that name around whom a myth grew (Reductivism), stating "Either side of the historicity debate will at time engage in a fallacy here, citing evidence supporting the reductive theory in defense of the triumphalist theory (as if that was valid), or citing the absurdity of the triumphalist theory as if this refuted the reductive theory (as if that were valid)".[5]

This echoes Ian Marshall who warns, "We shall land in considerable confusion if we embark on an inquiry about the historical Jesus if we do not pause to ask ourselves exactly what we are talking about."[6]

The Elements Of Christian Origin[edit]

This is the framework from which Carrier draw his conclusions

Background Elements to Christianity[edit]

  • Element 1 The earliest form of Christianity definitely known to us originated as a Jewish sect in the region of Syria-Palestine in the early first century CE. (pp. 65-6)
  • Element 2 When Christianity began Judaism was highly sectarian and diverse. (p. 66)
  • Element 3 (a) When Christianity began, many Jews had long been expecting a messiah: a divinely chosen leader or saviour anointed … to help usher in God’s supernatural kingdom, usually (but not always) by subjugating or destroying the enemies of the Jews and establishing an eternal paradise.
    (b) If these enemies were spiritual powers, the messianic victory would have been spiritual; or both, as in the Enochic literature.
    (c) Jewish messianic expectations were widespread, influential and very diverse. (pp. 66-7)
  • Element 4 (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah.
    (b) Christianity’s emergence at this time was therefore no accident. It was part of the zeitgeist.
    (c) Christianity’s long-term success may have been simply a product of natural selection. (pp. 67-73)
  • Element 5 Even before Christianity arose some Jews expected one of their messiahs heralding the end-times would be killed before the final victory. (pp. 73-81)
  • Element 6 The suffering-and-dying servant of Isaiah 52-53 and the messiah of Daniel 9 have numerous logical connections with the “Jesus/Joshua Rising” figure in Zechariah 3 and 6. (pp. 81-83)
  • Element 7 (a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the messianic fervour of the age.
    (b) The text was widely known and widely influential, widely regarded as scripture by early Christians. (pp. 83-87)
  • Element 8 (a) Many messianic Jewish sects were searching the (Hebrew and Greek) scriptures for secret messages.
    (b) It follows that the Jews who became the first Christians had been searching the scriptures this way this long before they became Christians. (pp. 87-88)
  • Element 9 The early first century concept of scriptures embraced not only writings that became canonized but many more works, many of which no longer exist; further, of those that do still exist, including canonical texts, the early first century versions were sometimes quite different in details. Texts in places were been modified, changed, before their canonical versions were finally settled. (p. 88-92)
  • Element 10 Christianity began as a Jewish messianic cult preaching a spiritually victorious messiah. (pp. 92-96)
  • Element 11 The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.
  • Element 12 From as early as we can ascertain, Christians belioeved they became 'brothers' of the Lord Jesus Christ through baptism.
  • Element 13 Like all mystery cults, Christianity had secret doctrines that initiates were sworn never to reveal, and that would be talked about and written about publicly one in symbols, myths and allegories to disguise their true meaning (see Element 14)
  • Element 14 Mystery cults spoke of their beliefs in public through myths and allegory, which symbolised a more secret doctrine that was usually rooted in a more esoteric astral or metaphysical theology.
  • Element 15 Christianity began as a charismatic cult which many of its leaders and members displayed evidence of schizotypal personalities. They naturally and regularly hallucinated (seeing visions and hearing voices).
  • Element 16 The earliest Christians claimed they knew at least some (if not all) facts and teachings of Jesus from revelation and scripture (rather than from witnesses), and they regarded these as more reliable sources than word-of-mouth.
  • Element 17 The fundamental features of the gospel story of Jesus can be read out of the Jewish scriptures.
  • Element 18 Jesus Christ was regarded as having fulfilled by his death (and thereby replacing) the two greatest Jewish religious sacrifices - Yom Kippur and Passover.
  • Element 19 The apostle Paul is the earliest known Christian writer, yet he did not know a living Jesus.
  • Element 20 The earliest known Christians proselytized Gentiles bu required them to convert to Judaism.
  • Element 21 Paul and other NT authors attest that there were many rival Christian sects and factions teaching different gospels throughout the 1st century.
  • Element 22 We have no credible or explicit record of what happened within the Christian movement between 64 and 95 CE (or possibly even as late as 110 CE), and the leadership of the Christian church had been catastrophically decimated by the beginning of that period.

Background to Christianity - The Context[edit]

  • Element 23 The Romans annexed Judea to the imperial province of Syria in 6 CE bringing the center of the holy land under direct control of the Roman government, ending sovereignity over Jerusalem and the temple of the Most High God, along with most of the Holy Land that had been promised by God to the Jews.
  • Element 24 (a) Owing to their vastly greater resources ( in minerals, money and manpower) and superior technical ability (in the training, equipping and supplying of their armies) the Romans were effectively invincible and could never be expelled from Judea by force or diplomacy.
  • Element 25 The corruption and moral decay of the Jewish civil and temple elite (regardless of to what extent it was actual or merely perceived) was a widespread target of condemnation and often a cause of factionalising among Jewish sects.
  • Element 26 For many Jews in the early first century (in accord with the previous element) the Jewish elite became the scapegoats for God's failed promises (in accord with elements 23 and 24): the reason God withheld their fulfilment (and instead allowed the Romans to rule) was imagined to be the Jewish elite's failure to keep God's commandments and govern justly (already a common theme throughout the OT, e.g. Jeremiah 23 and 25, the latter being the very prophecy whose 'mystery' is decoded in Daniel to produce the timetable that was now indicating the messiah would arrive in the early first century: Element 7).
  • Element 27 (a) The temple at Jerusalem most the central focus of most Jewish messianic hope (as, for the Samaritans, was Mount Gerizim), which entailed that as long as the 'corrupt' Jewish elite controlled it, God would continue Israel's 'punishment' (in accord with Elements 25 and 26), and as long as the Romans remained in power, the would maintain the corrupt Jewish elite's control of the temple. Accordingly (b) Jewish religious violence often aimed at seizing physical control of the temple and it's personnel.
  • Element 28 A spiritual solution to the physical conundrum to the Jews would have been a natural and easy thing to conceive at the time.
  • Element 29 [W]hat are now called 'Cargo Cults' are the modern movement most culturally and socially similar to earliest Christianity, so much so that Christianity is best understood in light of them.
  • Element 30 Early-first century Judea was at the nexus of countless influences, not only from dozens of innovating and interacting Jewish sects (Element 2, and 33), but also pagan religions and philosophies.
  • Element 31 Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea.
  • Element 32 By whatever route, popular philosophy (especially Cynicism, and to some extent Stoicism and Platonism and perhaps Aristotelianism) influenced Christian teachings.
  • Element 33 In addition to its pagan influences, Christianity was also (obviously) influenced by several Jewish sects (see, in general, Elements 1-5), and can be understood only in this context too.
  • Element 34 Popular cosmology at the dawn of the Common Era in the Middle East held that the universe was geocentric and spherical and divided into many layers (see Chapter3, Section 1), with the first layer of 'heaven' often called the 'firmament' (being the foundation holding up all the others) and consisting of all the air beneath the earth and the moon (or sometimes the same term only meant the topmost part of this: the sphere travelled by the moon).
  • Element 35 Popular cosmology of the time also held that the sub-heaven, the firmament, was a region of corruption and change and decay, while the heavens above were pure, incorruptible and changeless.
  • Element 36 Because of this division between the perfect unchanging heavens and the corrupted sub-lunar world, most religious cosmologies required intercessory beings, who bridge the gap between those worlds, so God need no descend and mingle with corruption.
  • Element 37 The lowest heaven, the firmament, the region of corruption and change was popularly thought to be teeming with invisible spirits (pneuma or psychai) and demons (daimones, or daimonia), throughout the whole space, who controlled the elements and powers of the universe there, meddle in the affairs of man, and do battle with one another.
  • Element 38 (a) In this same popular cosmology, the heavens, including the firmament, were not empty expanses but filled with all manner of things, including palaces and gardens, and it was possible to be buried there.
  • Element 39 (a) In this cosmology there were also two Adams: one perfect celestial version, of which the earthly version (who fathered the human race) is just a copy.
  • Element 40 [T]he Christian idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God called the Logos, who was God's true high priest in heaven, was also not a novel idea but already held by some pre-Christian Jews; and this preexistent spiritual son of God had already been explicitly connected with a celestial Jesus figure in the OT (discussed in Element 6), and therefore some Jews already believed there was a supernatural son of God named Jesus--because Paul's contemporary Philo interprets the messianic prophecy of Zech. 6.12 in just such as way.
  • Element 41 The 'Son of Man' (an apocalyptic title Jesus is given in the Gospels) was another being foreseen in the visions of Enoch to be a preexistent celestial superman whom God will one day put in charge of the universe, overthrowing all demonic power, and in a text that we know the first Christians used as scripture (1 Enoch).
  • Element 42 There is a parallel tradition of a perfect and eternal celestial High Priest named Melchizidek, which means in Hebrew 'Righteous King'. We have already seen that a celestial Jesus was already called Righteous and King by some pre-Christian Jews.
  • Element 43 (a) Voluntary human sacrifice was widely regarded (by both pagans and Jews) as the most powerful salvation and atonement magic available.
  • Element 44 In Jewish and pagan antiquity, in matters of religious persuasion, fabricating stories was the norm, not the exception, even in the production of narratives purporting to be true.
  • Element 45 A popular version of this phenomenom in ancient faith literature was the practice of euhemerization: the taking of a cosmic god and placing him at a definite point in history as an actual person who was later deified.
  • Element 46 Ancient literature also proliferated a variety of model 'hero' narratives, some of which the Gospel Jesus conforms to as well; and one of these hero-types was widely revered among pagans: the pre-Christian narratives of the life and death of Socrates and Aesop.
  • Element 47 Another model hero narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus conforms, is the apotheosis, or 'ascension to godhood' tale, and of these the one to which the Gospels (and Acts) most conform is that of the Roman national hero Romulus.
  • Element 48 Finally, the most ubiquitous model 'hero' narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the fable of the 'divine king', what I call the Rank-Raglan hero-type.

Primary Sources[edit]

General overview of Epistles, Gospels, Acts which are discussed in more detail in the relevant "The Evidence of ..." chapters where they are discussed from youngest to oldest. For practical reasons this section is cut off at 120 CE where not only would anybody who actually witnessed the events be dead but there was an explosion of psudographical material.

Extrabiblical Evidence[edit]

This section covers both Christian sources as well as bringing up the missing evidence (both Christian and non Christian)


  • Carrier, Richard C. (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2. 
  • Marshall, Ian Howard. I Believe in the Historical Jesus. 2004: Regent College Publishing. 


  1. Despite Carrier's claims, there is no evidence that the book was peer-reviewed by relevant academics, other than those from whom Carrier personally solicited reviews.


  1. Richard Carrier (July 17, 2013) Update on Historicity of Jesus
  2. Carrier, Richard (2014). "Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?". 
  3. Carrier, Richard C. (2012) (in en). Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781616145606. 
  4. Carrier, Richard (2016). "Bayes’ Theorem for Beginners (PDF)". 
  5. Carrier 2014, p. 30.
  6. Marshall 2004, pp. 27-29.