Carrier opens his chapter on Acts with a single sentence that summarizes the scholarship in the field: “The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction” (p. 359). This short summary, along with the extensive peer-reviewed literature Carrier cites, makes clear that there is no support in Acts for historicity. However, in several ways there is support for mythicism, as we shall explore below. I will in this essay begin with the two categories of evidence from Acts that affect Carrier’s probability calculations comparing minimal mythicism to minimal historicity, and then will discuss the other categories of evidence that Carrier discusses, each of which Carrier deems equally probable under mythicism and historicity.
Vanishing Family et al.
“The… peculiar thing about Acts is how thoroughly all the people associated with a historical Jesus… disappear from the historical record entirely…. Not only do Pontius Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea immediately vanish from Christian history (Pilate alone gets mentioned only as the crucifier of Jesus and only in speeches by Christians echoing Luke’s Gospel), as do Simon of Cyrene and his sons (Mk 15.21; Lk. 23.26), and Martha (Lk. 10.38-42; Jn 11.1-12.2), and her brother Lazarus (Jn 11-12), and Nicodemus (Jn 3.1-9; 7.50; 19.39), and Mary Magdalene (from Acts 2 on, none of these people is ever mentioned, or ever does or says anything, nor is their departure or lack of involvement ever noted or explained), but so does the entire family of Jesus” (p. 371).
Historicists can certainly accept that some of these figures never existed (such as Joseph of Arimathea) even while still holding that Jesus himself existed. Lazarus and Nicodemus in particular, who first appear in the Gospel of John, can easily be explained as inventions of John. Other absences, however, such as Pilate, are at least somewhat surprising on minimal historicity, but are completely expected on minimal mythicism. “It’s the complete disappearance of Jesus’ family that is really hard to explain on minimal historicity. After the report of her being with the congregation in Acts 1.14, mother Mary is never mentioned again…. Though Acts 1.14 also says Jesus’ brothers were present just weeks before the Pentecost announcement recorded in Acts 2, all of his brothers then disappear…. This includes, most conspicuously, his brother James, who is supposed to have been one of the most important leaders of the movement, one of the three pillars on which the new church was founded—if that is what we are to understand Gal. 1.19; 2.9 or 12 to mean, or 1 Cor. 15.7, as many scholars insist or suppose…. Later legend certainly had Jesus’ brother James lead the church in precisely the time covered by Acts. So why is he not in it?” (p. 372) There are two men named James mentioned in Luke-Acts, and both are distinguished from Jesus’ brothers.
“So after the first chapter of Acts, the moment Christianity’s history becomes public record, it suddenly appears as if Jesus had no family whatever. That is certainly more likely if there was no Jesus in the first place…. Minimal historicity, by contrast, cannot as easily explain this” (p. 373).
The most plausible (though still highly implausible) explanation would be that Luke had some motive to erase the family of Jesus from the history of the church. If he did, then why did he leave them in Acts 1? How did he expect an audience, already familiar with James as one of the original pillars of the church, to handle his absence? Luke had a demonstrated history of rewriting prior stories that he didn’t like rather than simply deleting them (such as Paul’s interactions with Peter and the Jerusalem church from Galatians 1-2); why didn’t he handle Jesus’s family in that manner?
We have two primary ways to deal with this problem. First, perhaps Luke was trying to write history, in which case it is surprising on minimal historicity that Jesus’s family wouldn’t be there but isn’t surprising on minimal mythicism. Second, perhaps Acts is nearly completely fiction, in which case it is again surprising on minimal historicity that Jesus’s family would be absent (because surely some stories he could have incorporated would have been part of the history he was working from), but is not surprising on minimal mythicism. Either way, we have to accept that the omissions are improbable (though not impossible) on minimal historicity, and yet fully expected on minimal mythicism. Carrier’s most generous estimate is that the evidence would be as we see it 80% as likely on minimal historicity as it is on minimal mythicism (4:5 odds). More realistically he estimates 2:5 odds, or a 60% chance on historicity that Luke “would have said something about these missing people and events” (p. 375).
The ‘Trial Transcripts’ of Paul
When, in Acts, the trials of Paul are examined, the historical Jesus disappears. Under minimal mythicism this is expected, since “only a cosmic, ‘revealed’ Jesus was attacked, defended and debated (and that appears to be what Acts reports to have happened” (p. 376), whereas under minimal historicity one would expect issues and facts related to what Jesus actually said and did to be not only pertinent, but even essential. “[W]hat we make of this strange omission depends on whether the author of Acts is making it all up, in ignorance of what actually happened, or whether he is adapting, reworking or rewriting some earlier source that portrayed what happened at those trials” (p. 376). In the latter case, this source doesn’t have to have been historical, because it would build on the assumptions at the time it was written.
A case can be made for this latter interpretation from the “remarkable disparity between these trial accounts, and speeches and sermons that take place elsewhere” (p. 376). If Luke fabricated everything, we would expect these accounts to be consistent (representing the gospel in the same way in each case). But this is not what we find. “Everywhere else, the speeches and sermons in Acts are conspicuously historicist; but when Paul is on trial, where in fact historicist details are even more relevant and would even more certainly come up, they are suddenly completely absent. This is very strange; which means, very improbable. The best explanation of this oddity is that Paul’s trial accounts are not wholesale Lukan fabrications but came from a different source than the speeches and sermons Luke added in elsewhere—a source that did not know about a historical Jesus” (p. 376).
There are two trials that Paul faces in Acts. The first, before Gallio (Acts 18.14-15), is too vague to useful. It is the second set of hearings, in Judea, that are more conspicuous. I will leave out Carrier’s summary of this second set of hearings, and simply note that throughout the entire affair, which spans Acts 22-26, “[w]e only hear of a cosmic, revelatory Jesus…. This is very much unlike Paul’s speech to the synagogue in Antioch (Acts 13.23-41)” (p. 379) despite that speech and Paul’s trial statement (Acts 26.1-23) being of similar length. “The only mention Paul makes of the death and resurrection of Jesus is to say that ‘Moses and the prophets said it was going to happen’, not that anyone had actually seen it happen nor that there was any real evidence it did, much less that Pontius Pilate played a role in it and Roman records would confirm it (26.22-23)” (p. 379).
In this context, it make sense why Festus, the governor, answers, ‘You’ve gone mad, Paul! Your abundant learning has driven you mad!’ (26.24). “Since the only thing Paul says he was accused of preaching is what he learned from scripture and from voices in the sky, the only rebuttal Festus could offer is that Paul had gone off his rocker” (p. 379). “As the Pharisees had already said of Paul at the first court inquest starting this whole series of hearings, ‘maybe a spirit spoke to him, or an angel’ (Acts 23.9). Indeed. In this whole account, from Acts 23 to Acts 26, that’s all Paul appears to know about” (p. 380).
Even if it were fiction, “the historical deeds and fate of Jesus would be crucial rhetorical material for both the prosecution and defense in all of Paul’s trials. They should have been arguing over the facts of Jesus’ ministry, teachings, miracles, the facts of his death and the fate of his body, the charges against him and the significance of his conviction, and whether he was still alive and at large, and what he was instructing his spiritual soldiers to do. That Luke wouldn’t even think of this when inventing these narratives is hard to explain, especially since when he provides us with speeches elsewhere, not just from Peter but even from Paul…, he gives us something of what we expect. Whereas here, all of those details have mysteriously vanished, despite this being collectively the longest and most detailed series of trial hearings related in Acts. I have to conclude it’s at least somewhat more likely that Luke is reworking some narrative he received, a lost Acts of Paul, in which there was no Jesus executed by Pilate, but a cosmically dying-and-rising Christ known only through revelation and scripture” (p. 380).
The certainly level here is not high, which Carrier reflects in his assigned probabilities. He assigns only a 9:10 odds when arguing a fortiori (that is, it is 90% as likely on historicity that these trial accounts would be as they are compared to mythicism). When assigning what he considers more reasonable probabilities, he thinks it is twice as likely that these trial accounts would look as they do on mythicism as on historicity (a 1:2 odds ratio).
Acts as Historical Fiction
Having covered the two areas of Acts where Carrier sees a difference in likelihood under the two minimal hypotheses we are considering, I will now briefly discuss the other topics Carrier covers. I will deliberately not go through the full arguments, since in the end the point is merely that they do not provide evidence in favor of historicity over mythicism. The first of these is the overall nature of Acts as historical fiction.
Carrier points out that the only historical source for Acts that has been confirmed is Josephus, which, as I discussed in another essay, has no reliable content about Christ or Christianity. Luke’s usage of material from Josephus is primarily to provide background material. “All the other sources we can discern in Luke are literary, not historical” (p. 360). These include:
- A rewriting of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in Kings casting Jesus and Paul in the main roles.
- Quoting Dennis MacDonald, a New Testament scholar, Carrier notes, “the shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].” In addition, “Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus is based on the fallen Elpenor. The visions of Cornelius and Peter are constructed from a similar narrative about Agamemnon. Paul’s farewell at Miletus is constructed from Hector’s farewell to Andromache. The lottery of Matthias is constructed from the lottery of Ajax. Peter’s escape from prison is constructed from Priam’s escape from Achilles. And so on” (p. 361).
- “[T]he prison breaks in Acts share themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks in the Bacchae of Euripedes” (p. 361).
- Many elements from the Septuagint.
After an extended analysis of the Peter/Cornelius episode, Carrier concludes, “Obviously the author of Acts is not recording historical memory here. He’s assembling a story using literary structure and motifs from sources that have little or nothing to do with what actually happened to Peter or Paul. And he is doing all this to sell a particular (historically fabricated) account of how early Christianity abandoned the requirement of Torah observance, one that made it seem approved even by Peter all along, complete with the confirming approval of divine revelation—when in fact we know from Paul (in Gal. 2) that Paul was for a long time its only advocate and was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter” (p. 362). Summarizing this idea, Carrier continues, “Every other story in Acts is like this: a fictional creation, woven from prior materials unrelated to any actual Christian history, to sell a particular point Luke wanted to make. Maybe there was some authentic source material behind some of what appears in Acts, somewhere. But how can we find it? From beginning to end Acts looks like a literary creation, not a real history” (p. 362). For five and a half more pages, Carrier details and references the peer-reviewed literature for numerous examples to make this point. Some of these examples are truly fascinating, but since Carrier’s ultimate evaluation is that this fabricated material doesn’t end up providing any evidence that helps us distinguish minimal historicity from minimal mythicism (i.e., they are equally likely or unlikely on both hypotheses), I will not go into the full list of examples here.
What Happened to the Body?
Regardless of whether Luke had and used historical or semi-historical sources when writing Acts, “Luke obviously constructed tales affirming the historicity of Jesus, as well as the physical resurrection of his corpse, which left behind a conspicuously empty tomb, got touched by the disciples, slept and dined with them during a secret forty-day closed-door conference and then flew off into outer space before their very eyes (Luke 24 and Acts 1). This is all obviously nonsense. Notably, no witnesses are claimed for any of this but fanatical followers. No one else is reported to have verified any of it. Instead, the public history of the Christian mission begins only in Acts 2, which depicts the first time Christians publicly announced their gospel” (p. 368).
What is particularly surprising from the standpoint of minimal historicity (and thus improbable) is that in the rest of Acts (27 chapters spanning thirty years) neither the Romans nor the Jews “ever show any knowledge of there being a missing body” (p. 369). There is no investigation of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, offenses that warranted the death penalty, despite the fact that, supposedly, the Christians were trumpeting their risen savior with evidence of a missing body. Joseph of Arimathea, supposedly the last person to have custody of the body, would have been the first person brought in for questioning, and yet he vanishes from this, the earliest history of the church, as though he had never existed. The Christians would have been the next suspects, and yet while Acts records numerous cases of them being interrogated before both Jews and Romans for other offenses, there is no mention of them being suspected of or questioned concerning grave robbery. “Which means the Christians can’t really have been pointing to [an empty tomb]. If they had, they would have been questioned about it (and possibly convicted for it, innocent or not). Yet Acts shows there were no disputes at all regarding what happened to the body, not even false accusations of theft, or even questions or expressions of amazement” (p. 369).
From the Roman perspective, this is even more surprising. The “Christians were supposedly preaching that Jesus (even if with supernatural aid) had escaped his execution, was seen rallying his followers, and then disappeared” (p. 369). The Romans obviously wouldn’t have believed stories of his resurrection or ascension, which means that stories that he “had continued preaching to them and was still at large” (p. 369) would have spawned an enormous manhunt. But none of that happens. “No one asks where Jesus is hiding or who aided him. No one is at all concerned that there may be an escaped convict, pretender to the throne, thwarter of Roman law and judgement, dire threat to Jewish authority, alive and well somewhere, and still giving orders to his followers” (p. 370).
We have two possible explanations. Either Acts “deliberately suppresses the truth about what happened to the body and what was really being argued, said and done about it (which eliminates Acts as being of any historical value), or there was no missing body and no one was claiming there was” (p. 370). Ultimately, this leaves equally plausible explanations for both historicists and mythicists, according to Carrier, and thus this aspect doesn’t affect our probabilities.
Assessing the Evidence
Carrier also includes sections specifically discussing Stephen’s trial speech and the possibility of Aramaic sources for parts of Acts, but, while interesting material, neither is in the end judged as being any more likely on either minimal mythicism or minimal historicity, so I won’t go into the material in those sections. Carrier then summarizes his chapter on Acts as follows: “Luke’s wanton fabrications, including his use of Josephus to make his story seem more historically informed, and his complete rewrite of history to reverse the facts reported directly by Paul, and his overt attempts to make his books look like histories (e.g. adding such embellishments as Lk. 1.1-4; 2.1-2; and 3.1-2), pretty much establish that he is not honestly reporting the facts as he knows them. He is trying to create facts and sell them as the truth. This makes it impossible for us to know if Luke was a historicist himself, or merely trying to sell a historicist creed. But either way, we cannot use Acts as evidence for historicity. For anything in it will have been designed to convince us of historicity, with no assurance of any real basis in fact, and abundant reason to doubt there is any. But a text specifically fabricated to convince us of historicity, such as this, can give us evidence of myth, if material in it doesn’t make sense otherwise. The evidence in that case has slipped through—against what Luke obviously would have wanted, but due most likely to his not being able to think of everything, as most authors don’t” (p. 385).
We are left with the two types of evidence discussed above that, in Carrier’s analysis, seem to argue against historicity. The first, the Vanishing family, et al., Carrier assigned a 4:5 a fortiori (and a 2:5 more reasonable) odds estimate in favor of mythicism. The second, the Omissions in Paul’s trials, Carrier assigned a 9:10 a fortiori (and a 1:2 more reasonable) odds estimate. Combining these two, we get a 72% a fortiori estimate that Acts would look as it does on minimal historicity compared to minimal mythicism, and a 20% chance when Carrier’s “more reasonable” estimates are used.