I have recently finished reading Richard Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. It was a difficult read, even for someone like me who is quite adept at reading highly technical material both in my fields of specialty and outside of them. I was particularly distracted throughout by the insanely repetitive nature of the writing style; the book was nearly 700 pages long, and I think it could have been written in probably 250. There may be some technical reasons why he was making the same or extremely similar arguments in so many different places, but if so those reasons escaped me. Additionally, he made several stylistic choices for his terminology that were extremely distracting. Most notable of these was his insistence on calling everything above the atmosphere “outer space.” When talking about early religious traditions that contained multiple levels of the heavens that were thought to be literally above the Earth, he consistently called these regions by that name, and so when he started drawing comparisons to early beliefs of Christians on the minimal mythicist theory (which I will describe shortly), he specifically discussed Jesus dying and being resurrected “in outer space.” While this discussion makes perfect sense within the context of a discussion of the heavens if we accept his definition uncritically, it comes across as unnecessarily dismissive and belittling. Surely a less offensive phrase could have been picked.
That said, Carrier’s arguments themselves are extremely strong. I found them strong enough that I have in fact changed my position on the issue, and now find it significantly more likely that Jesus Christ did not exist as a historical figure than that he did. Given the difficulty of making it through Carrier’s tome, however, I strongly suspect that many people that might find something interesting in it won’t even read it. I can’t blame them. It is likely as well that good rebuttals to his points might not even be composed because of this inaccessibility. This bothers me a great deal, because Carrier makes good points, and if they are wrong, I would like to see why.
I am therefore going to do what I can to reconstitute Carrier’s arguments in a more straightforward way. I will be much less comprehensive than he was. I will also reorganize the information in a manner that I find more logical. I will, however, do my best to fairly represent Carrier’s arguments. I absolutely encourage any and all comments and criticism, but please keep in mind that I am not producing these arguments myself. I am in no way trying to take credit for these argument. But likewise if there are problems that are found in what I write, they might be inherent in Carrier’s arguments, but they also might be a fault of my interpretation/translation of them.
Carrier’s overall argument is quite involved, as you might imagine given that there is so much scholarly work that supports historicity, and nearly no scholarly work before Carrier’s that supports mythicism. That means there is a great deal that Carrier has to rebut before his position is even worth considering. Given that, it would be impossible for me to present my overview of his arguments in a single essay. The following set of eleven essays take us through the argument and evidence in detail:
- The competing theories: minimal historicity vs. minimal mythicism
- Historical methodology
- Background context
- Jesus’s “reference class”
- Background support for reference claims in the minimal mythicism hypothesis
- Primary sources: an overview
- Extrabiblical evidence
- The Epistles
- The Gospels
- Drawing conclusions
Edited to add: If anyone would like an even shorter summary of Carrier’s argument, lacking much of the supporting detail, I recommend this hour-long talk that he gave to his funders reporting on his findings. Hopefully my summary will still be useful, because I include a lot of information that he didn’t have time to cover.