Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus

As Richard Carrier explains in this talk given at a skeptic’s conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last spring, most academics who are paid to think, write and teach about Jesus will tell you that, while it’s really impossible to know for certain if Jesus was a historical figure, even the most secular of scholars in the field agree with near certainty that he probably did exist in some form or other. The key word there, of course, is the weasel word “probably.” Carrier doesn’t say so here, but these scholars are also very impatient with the alternative idea that Jesus probably wasn’t historically “real,” even though the degree of difference in certainty between their position and Carrier’s (and my) position is virtually non-existent. What the “historicists” have that Carrier and I don’t have is numbers in the academy who agree with them. That’s all they have, and when you get right down to it, that isn’t much at all.

When people who believe in a historical origin for the Jesus story find out how shaky the theoretical ground really is under their feet, they sometimes turn the conversation to less discomforting terrain, stating, for example, that it actually doesn’t matter if Jesus was real at all in the way the Bible says he was or was just made up out of thin air. The point is the wisdom in the religion and the good (or evil) that it hath wrought–or more neutrally, the impact it had on the rest of history. I disagree that this evasion is a suitable response to the challenge posed by Carrier and other mythicists. Their challenge is not aimed at the content of the religion. It’s aimed at the methods of historical research and the question of whether Christian history should be treated as a special case from other types of history,  one where it is not permitted to get too close to the central questions about its origins.

If  you think whether or not Jesus existed in history is an interesting question,  you’ll probably find Carrier’s cogent presentation on reasons not to believe in it provocative, to say the least.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

12 thoughts on “Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus

  1. Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
    I always like to share new discoveries in blogging. Here is a good blog that I’m enjoying recently. They’ve just posted an entry about whether Jesus existed. Good stuff. Stop by Tragic Farce, say hello and explore a bit.
    The reading material at the end of the video is at:http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/published-in-faith-and-philosophy-2011.html and http://www.richardcarrier.info
    I’ve been looking for some information that is a bit more scientific than what we usually see regarding this topic. I personally think that there is no credible evidence for the existence of the Jesus who did miracles etc. In the video Carrier discusses how to make up history in just one generation. It doesn’t really take that long. The Chinese have erased ‘Tank Man’ from their history in about 20 years. Chinese under the age of 20-ish do not know about Tank Man and when shown a picture of him stopping the tanks cannot imagine why he is doing what he is. Completely gone from history as far as they know.

    • Robin, yes I have. I’ve been involved in this dialogue between believers and skeptics for about ten years now. The field for this battle has been pretty small for all that time, but I think Richard Carrier and an associate of his named John Loftus (a former pastor turned atheist–Google him) are opening it up and changing the whole game.

  2. How can you say that anything in history is actually “real”? If written records don’t cut it with you, this can be applied to any written records – at all. If nothing written convinces you that something happened in the past – then that should be applied to ALL written records.

    • Robin, corroboration by multiple independent sources confirms historical characters. Afraid to say, but outside the gospels (which cannot be considered evidence for multiple reasons, not least of all they’re anonymous) there is not one scrap of evidence for a jesus. There’s plenty of evidence for Batman in his comics, but like jesus nothing outside those comics to indicate batman actually ever existed.

    • Richard Carrier (the guy in the video) approaches the question of what actually happened in history with the aid of an actuarial tool (one used by the insurance industry) called Bayes’ theorem. He has a YouTube video called “Bayes’ Theorem: Lust for Glory” that explains this powerful tool. It’s complicated, but in a nutshell, the formula can help determine the probability that something said to have happened actually did happen. It isn’t 100% accurate; it’s not a truth machine. But it clarifies the strength of cases for and against hypotheses about historical events. Carrier has employed it to investigate one of the least plausible aspects of the plausibility-challenged story of Jesus: the resurrection. I don’t know enough about his case as this approach to the historicity problem is new to me. But it’s clearly something to look into if you’re interested in this subject, as you seem to be.

  3. Pingback: Loving Christianity Better Than Truth: The Craig-Price Debate « Tragic Farce

  4. I would not believe anything Richard Carrier says: he does not even know that Jesus is mentioned many times in the Talmud. But Jesus is mentioned as Yeshu the Nazarene in Sanhedrin 43, and called Balaam in many other locations. If Carrier does not even know this, then of what value are his other pronunciations?

    If you want to find the real historical Jesus – the person, not the demigod – the complete evidence for this is contained in the books ‘King Jesus’ and ‘Jesus, King of Edessa’.

    Jesus was a king of Edessa called King Izas-Manu (while Jesus was called King Jesus Em-Manu-El). And all the kings of Edessa wore a ceremonial Crown of Thorns.

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