When was Jesus born, when did he preach, and when did he die? The diversity of opinion on these issues among early Christian sects is quite remarkable. Carrier opens the most eye-opening of his chapters, chapter 8, covering the extrabiblical evidence, with a discussion of this issue: “Jesus was born around the time of either Herod the Great’s death (4 BCE) or the Roman annexation of Judea (6 CE), then preached in Galilee and was crucified under Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE) during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE). Right? Well, we’re not really sure. Because Christians weren’t really sure. Some Christians believed Jesus died during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE). Others believed he was executed by a Herod, not Pilate. And still others were certain he was born and died in the reign of King Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE). That’s right. Some Christians believed Jesus had lived and died a hundred years earlier than our Gospels claim” (p. 281).
The Christian scholar Epiphanius, in the late fourth century CE, compiled an extensive collection of all of the ‘heresies’ he knew of, called the Panarion, which translates to, ‘Medicine Chest.’ One of these heresies concerns the Nazorians, who were practicing Jews who were a sect that descended directly from the original sect founded by Peter, John, and James (the so-called pillars of Galatians 2) before Paul’s move to eliminate Torah observance. Epiphanius says that these Christian claimed Jesus had lived and died in the time of Alexander Jannaeus. To wit: “The priesthood in the holy church is [actually] David’s throne and kingly seat, for the Lord joined together and gave to his holy church both the kingly and the high-priestly dignity, transferring to it the never-failing throne of David. For David’s throne endured in line of succession until the time of Christ himself, rules from Judah not failing until he came ‘to whom the things kept in reserve belonged, and he was the expectation of the nations’. With the advent of the Christ the rulers in line of succession from Judah, reigning until the time of the Christ himself, ceased. For the line fell away and stopped from the time when he was born in Bethlehem of Judea under Alexander, who was of priestly and royal race. From Alexander onward this office ceased—from the days of Alexander and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, to the days of Herod the king and Augustus the Roman emperor” (Ephiphanius, Panarion 29.3).
The Babylonian Talmud more than confirms this; “its Jewish authors appear to have known no other form of Christianity” (p. 282). One passage states, “when King Jannaeus was killing our rabbis, R. Jesus ben Periah and Jesus [the Nazarene] escaped to Alexandria, Egypt, and when peace was restored [they returned]” (Babylonian Talmud; see footnote 4 on p. 282 in Carrier for more details). The account continues, stating that Jesus the Nazarene (explicitly identified as such) was “condemned for immorality, sorcery and worshiping idols, and eventually executed because he ‘practiced magic and led Israel astray’” (p. 282). This means that the Jews that lived east of the Roman Empire in the third to fifth centuries were reacting to this Nazorian Christianity. Elsewhere this Jesus is identified as ‘Ben Stada,” meaning ‘Son of the Unfaithful’, a woman identified as Mary who committed adultery with Pandera, which is most likely a popular nickname for Roman soldiers. Carrier details much further information linking this account of Jesus to the biblical Jesus, including for example his execution ‘on the day before Passover’ or ‘on the Sabbath eve.’
“How can the descendants of the original sect of Christians have come to believe Jesus lived and died a hundred years before our Gospels say he did? It is nearly impossible to imagine how such a doctrine could have developed. Unless there was no historical Jesus…. if originally Jesus was not placed in history, then when he was [finally] placed in history—after the sects had split, ideologically and geographically—each sect could place him differently, developing their own myths in accord with their own needs and creativity…. if this was done twice, in separate regions, once inside the Roman Empire and once outside, those could have become the seeds of two different traditions spreading and developing independently of each other” (p. 285).
Even in the West, the dates and narratives for Jesus’s birth and death weren’t agreed upon. Matthew placed his birth under Herod the Great, and Luke placed it under Quirinius over ten years later. John placed his death on the day before the Passover of 30 or 33 CE, whereas the Synoptics placed it during the Passover of 27 or 34 CE. And while it might be reasonable to expect this amount of confusion at this level for the dates, there was far too much disagreement over who it was that had executed Jesus:
- The canonical Gospels have the Romans execute him at the command of Pontius Pilate. Interestingly, only Luke inserts Herod into the story at all (Mk 15.15-20 becomes Lk. 23.11 through adapting Pilate into Herod).
- The Gospel of Peter has the Jews execute him at the command of King Herod Antipas. Interestingly, Acts 5.30 combined with Gal. 3.13 and the interpolation in 1 Thess. 2.15-16 seems to be more in line with this reading.
Irenaeus, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 74, wrote, “For Herod the king of the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Claudius Caesar, came together and condemned him to be crucified. For Herod feared, as though [Jesus really] were to be an earthly king, lest he should be expelled by him from the kingdom. But Pilate was constrained by Herod and the Jews that were with him against his will to deliver him to death, [for they threatened him, asking] if he should not rather do this than act contrary to Caesar by letting go a man who was called a king.” Emperor Claudius reigned Caligula from 41 to 54 CE. Pontius Pilate was deposed by Tiberius in 36 CE.
Irenaeus’s description does not correspond to any known Gospel. What is key, however, is that Irenaeus was not doing history, but ‘scriptural math.’ Because Jn 8.57 said that Jesus had to have been nearly fifty when he died, and yet was around thirty in the year 29 CE because of Lk. 3.1-2 and 3.23, Jesus had to have died in the 40s CE, which was in the reign of Claudius. Apparently Irenaeus wasn’t aware that Pilate had been deposed at that time. This is the type of approach that “generates myths and legends” (p. 287).
Just as the euhemerization of Romulus was placed at the founding of Rome, the Jesus myth would naturally be placed at the founding of the Church, which from the letters of Paul we know was most likely in the late 30s CE. It is harder to determine, however, why a different offshoot of the original Christian sect instead decided to place him a hundred years earlier. Remember, we don’t have any of their Gospels or Epistles. All we know is that they did in fact place him that much earlier. We do have a clue, however. Epiphanius’s description of the scriptural math used by this sect used the assumption that the messiah would arrive when the last king died who could claim descent from David. They concluded that this king was Alexander Jannaeus, so that’s when Jesus had to have appeared.
We can now, based on this information, look at our first example of Carrier’s historical methodology that I described earlier. If Jesus actually lived in the 30s CE, that would explain why the Gospels placed him there, but it would leave unanswered why another sect, especially one whose doctrinal teachings remained closer to the original teachings of Christianity, placed Jesus 100 years earlier. On the other hand, the hypothesis that Jesus didn’t exist, but was instead euhemerized, explains both easily. The general principle is that it is easier “for a mythical man to be placed in different historical periods than for this to happen to a historical man, for whom there would only be one core tradition originating from his own time, well known to his worshipers and tradents” (p. 288). How much easier? Carrier estimates that the most reasonable conclusion would be that it is twice as easy, so a 1:2 probability against historicity. But, in the interests of arguing a fortiori, Carrier is willing to allow that it is 80% as likely on minimal historicity as it is on minimal mythicism that Jesus could have been placed both in the 30s CE and the 70s BCE in separate traditions, which is a 4:5 odds ratio.
Since this is the first example of Carrier assigning odds to a set of historical evidence, let me take a moment to discuss these odds a bit more. Someone that already favors mythicism will look at the evidence and consider it to be strongly in favor of their hypothesis. Someone that favors historicity will look at the evidence and consider it to be inconclusive. Both of these impressions are consistent with the odds Carrier gave. This evidence, by itself, does not demonstrate mythicism is correct. But I hope that even the staunchest historicist will agree that the evidence presented is more expected if mythicism is true than it is if historicism is true. The odds have to favor mythicism in proportion to how strongly we feel the evidence favors it over historicity. 4:5 odds say that mythicism is only barely favored over historicity based on this evidence, whereas 1:2 odds says that mythicism is twice as likely as historicity based only on this evidence. I have a hard time believing that any reader that looks at this evidence honestly will find 4:5 too generous toward mythicism. And while I think there will be numerous readers that think the 1:2 ratio is too generous toward historicity, we will find that it doesn’t matter in the end.
Carrier argues that to understand the surprising magnitude of the documentary silence concerning Jesus, it is worthwhile to compare him to Socrates. Jesus and Socrates are comparable “in being… famous sage[s] whose influence was profound and everlasting… without having written anything [themselves, their] influence being entirely through [their] ‘disciples’, who each developed communities that then fragmented and modified [their] teachings into many competing sects” (p. 298). Despite this similarity, there is no doubt about the existence of Socrates. Why? We have over a dozen eyewitnesses who wrote books about Socrates. We know the titles of some of these books, and have a number of paraphrases and quotations from them that survive in other sources. In two cases, Plato and Xenophon, we have the books themselves. We also have a comic play, The Clouds by Aristophanes, that was specifically written to poke fun at Socrates, his teachings, and his disciples. Socrates himself was in the audience for its first performance. On the other hand, we have no extant eyewitness accounts of Jesus. We have no knowledge of any written eyewitness accounts ever having existed, much less identifiable quotations or titles and authors. This is quite striking.
Why is there such a difference? There were plenty of writers in the first century CE who were interested in Judean affairs, as we shall see below. The high rate of texts surviving from classical Athens is primarily a result of medieval selection, not volume of materials written. “And yet if Socrates had immediately become worshiped as the resurrected Son of God, and his every pronouncement the founding principles of a great Church, which went on centuries later to survive as the only institution with means and interest in preserving materials into the future, we would surely have nearly everything written about him—which would consist of many hundreds of volumes of material: dialogues, discourses, biographies and memoirs from eyewitnesses, as well as numerous organization documents such as wills and deeds and letters among his disciples (which even the illiterate could produce, through recourse to hired scribes, who were ubiquitously available specifically to serve such a market; in fact, even in the case of Jesus we can hardly assume no such scribes became disciples or followers soon enough after the mission began to put themselves precisely to such use)” (pp. 290-291).
For a theory of historicity to be reasonable, it must therefore instead resemble one of Apollonius of Tyana or Musonius Rufus or Judas the Galilean, all of which were very famous men who escaped the expected record roughly to the same extent that Jesus did. But, unlike those men, the theory cannot include the claim that the records existed but weren’t preserved out of disinterest, “since such records were exactly the sorts of things the many first-century churches would preserve, and most such records would certainly still have existed to be preserved by the time of the assembly of Origen’s library (at the very least), and many would still be around, through continual copying, even in the fourth century or beyond, when the Church had increasingly vast resources at its command—situations that never obtained for Apollonius or Musonius or Judas (or even Socrates)” (p. 291).
This leaves the historicist with only two real possibilities, neither of which is particularly attractive. They are:
- “Jesus was not at all famous but in fact so insignificant and uninfluential that he inspired almost no following whatever and was completely unnoticed by any literate person of the age (until—and except—Paul, though even he didn’t know Jesus, and showed next to no interest in his actual teachings and story [as will be discussed in the following essay on the Epistles])”; or
- “massive quantities of documents were deliberately destroyed or allowed to rot away unnoticed and unread (somehow no Christian of the second century having any access to them or showing any interest in them).” (both quotes from p. 291)
The alternative to these explanations, “that there was no historical Jesus about whom any such documents would be written, but instead only a small mystery cult targeting primarily illiterate converts and aiming to keep the bulk of its teachings secret (and thus ‘off the books’ as it were), from whom later churches diverged so greatly in aims and ideology that they had no desire to preserve more than a minuscule selection of the original documents (a mere handful of letters) from the movement’s earliest missions, then forged a great many more to suit their needs instead” (pp. 291-292) seems much more plausible.
Carrier then discusses two further options, which he considers even more desperate and implausible. First, the great disruption in the church’s transmission of authority and information in the middle of the first century is what resulting in the loss of nearly all documents that existed; such a disruption would have to be extremely pervasive and span three continents and dozens of cities. And finally, the apocalyptic nature of the early church resulted in a complete disinterest in generating a written record; but this suggests that no missionary except for Paul wrote letters to anyone. Neither of these options seem particularly likely.
Carrier spends fifteen and a half pages detailing specific works where some mention of Jesus, Christians, or Christianity should be expected, and yet it isn’t found. As I discussed in my essay on Carrier’s methodology, this is an argument from silence, which, if the expectation of nonsilence is reasonable, is not a logical fallacy. Taken together, the silence of all of these sources is quite striking, which makes Carrier’s decision to consider this evidence in his probability calculation to not favor either mythicism or historicity insanely generous to historicity. I will, below, only briefly list the first-century sources Carrier considers:
- Nicolaus of Damascus: official court historian of Herod the Great. Nicolaus died around 10 CE, so the only thing he could have attested to would be anything having to do with the birth of Jesus, about which the scholarly consensus already is that everything is fabricated.
- Justus of Tiberias: King Agrippa’s personal secretary (of Acts 25-26 fame) and commander of armies in the Jewish War of 66-70. Justus wrote a history of the war including Judean affairs leading to it. This history was Josephus’s primary source for that war. A later Christian reader, Photius, attests that Justus never mentioned Jesus or Christianity.
- Philo: A prolific Jewish author who wrote in Alexandria while Christianity was taking hold there. Philo also traveled to Judea and Rome. He makes no mention of Jesus or Christianity.
- Numerous other first-century works (literature and apocrypha) have been preserved with no mention of Jesus or Christianity. “It’s outright contradictory to suppose Jews showed such sustained, even international interest in suppressing Christianity from its very beginning (if we trust Acts at all on this point), and were its first principal targets for evangelization in Judea and all across the diaspora…, yet never saw occasion to ever once write anything about it…. we have not one surviving citation” (p. 294).
- Marcus Servilius Nonianus: a pagan writer who wrote a dedicated history of the first century up to at least the year 41 with no mention of Jesus or Christianity.
- Pamphila of Epidarurus: wrote thirty-three volumes of Historical Notes up to around 60 CE with no mention of Jesus or Christianity.
- Aufidius Bassus: wrote a history up to at least 31 CE with no mention.
- Pliny the elder: wrote a thirty-one volume continuation of Bassus’s history, “which could hardly have omitted mention of Christians… unless they were truly insignificant… And yet we can be fairly certain Pliny did not mention Christians at all” (p. 295).
- Cluvius Rufus: ex-consul and Nero’s personal herald, who wrote a detailed history of events during the reign of Nero (37 to 69 CE). “This surely would have discussed Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64, which would have required a digression on Jesus and Christianity, which in turn would likely touch on the relevant details of the appellate case of Paul before Nero in 62 (if that even happened) and what was claimed in that case, and how it degenerated into the execution of scores if not hundreds of Christians just a couple years later for the crime of burning the city of Rome, surely the single most famous event of that or any adjacent year” (p. 295). And yet no mention at all.
- Julia Agrippina: Nero’s mother, Caligula’s sister, and Claudius’s wife. Assassinated in 59, but her works covered at least up to 54, again with no mention of Jesus or Christianity.
- Petronius: Wrote, in 66 CE, a treatise against Nero’s entire reign, but without any mention of the persecution of Christians in 64, a topic that would have fit perfectly into the purposes of his text.
- Fabius Rusticus: Also wrote a history of Nero’s reign with no mention of Jesus or Christianity.
- Emperors Vespasian and Titus: Both published commentaries on their government service, including their conducting of the Jewish War.
- Seneca the Elder: Wrote a History of Rome that covered up through 40 CE.
- Seneca the Younger wrote a treatise On Superstition between 40 and 62 CE “that lambasted every known cult at Rome, even the most trivial or obscure—including the Jews—but never mentioned Christians” (p. 296). Augustine struggled to explain this omission. This Seneca was the brother of Gallio mentioned in Acts 18.12-17. Seneca also wrote a large series of letters called the Moral Epistles, of which all are still extant, and none of which mention Christianity.
As Carrier writes, “If any of these authors I’ve surveyed up to this point had mentioned [anything about Jesus, Christians, or Christianity, even if it were in works that are no longer extant], it’s hard to believe that no Christian would ever know of it, neither quoting nor citing it, not even to rebut anything it may have said that was unfavorable to them; and equally hard to believe that no pagan critic of Christianity ever noticed it either, nor made use of it, not even to answer it or attack it if it was at all favorable to Christians, or to use it against them if it wasn’t” (p. 296).
“Of course, it could be claimed,” Carrier writes later, “that there were indeed many such mentions but none were preserved. And that may even be true (in the case of Jewish and Neronian literature, it almost has to be true). It’s certainly true for countless other people, fads and events in the Roman Empire. But none of those people, fads or events had a massive Church devoted to preserving records of its resurrected God, which then became almost solely responsible for preserving all literature whatever. This is why we have a hundred times more faith literature from Christians about Christianity (even just from the first to fourth centuries) than we do from any other faith group of the period. Only Judaism comes anywhere near a (very) distant second, and that only because Christians also avidly preserved a lot of Judaica, and because apart from Christianity, Judaism is the only religious community to continuously survive from the Roman Empire to the present. Many Christian scholars such as Origen and Eusebius were particularly keen on referencing or quoting authors who attested to Jesus or Christianity, or rebutting unsavory things said about either. Mentions of Jesus in first-century pagan or Jewish literature would therefore have had the highest probability of preservation of anything written in the whole of antiquity—either outright… or in quotation, paraphrase or rebuttal. Even then, of course, not everything would be certain to survive; maybe even a lot of it would still have been lost. But it seems very unusual that absolutely nothing survived” (pp. 300-301).
We have a clue about this missing information in how the few, late (mid second-century or later) critical writings about Christians that we do know about. These few we know of because Christian authors refer to them or wrote rebuttals of them; the documents themselves were destroyed and replaced with Christian propaganda. A good example of this is the Refutation of All Heresies in ten volumes written by the Christian scholar Hippolytus in the early third century. At the end of the first volume, “he says he will next explain the secret doctrines of the several mystery religions (which would have included the Passion Narratives of the different savior gods, including miraculous births, deaths and resurrections, and their sacred meals and baptisms…, and then he would describe the teachings of the astrologers. But the second and third volumes are missing. The text skips directly to volume 4, which begins his discourse on astrology. This does not look like an accident. Some Christian or Christians decided to destroy those two volumes—for some reason fearing their contents. The resulting loss in our knowledge of the mystery religions is beyond considerable” (p. 302). Carrier lists and describes several other examples along these lines, along with how we know about them and what is known of their fate.
A particularly striking type of example is what appears to be deliberately excised portions of histories whose silence on events in Christianity would be embarrassing. The Annals of Tacitus is one of several such examples Carrier describes in detail. “The text… survives in only two manuscript traditions, one containing the first half, the other the second half, with a section in between missing—and thus its loss is explicable. But there is another gap in the text that is harder to explain: two whole years from the middle of 29 CE to the middle of 31. That the cut is so precise and covers precisely those two years is too improbable to posit as a chance coincidence. The year 30 was regarded by many early Christians as the year of Christ’s ministry and crucifixion…. Robert Drews analyzed all the gaps in the Annals and concluded that this one has no more plausible explanation than that Christians excised those two years out of embarrassment at its omission of any mention of Jesus or associated events (like the world darkness reported in the Synoptic Gospels). Tacitus digresses on Christianity in his coverage of the year 64, in such a way that guarantees he made no mention of it earlier…—although Tacitus surely must have discussed other events under Pontius Pilate. So we can be certain Christians weren’t trying to hid anything embarrassing said about Jesus. But the embarrassment of saying nothing was evidently enough to motivate their targeted destruction of the corresponding text” (p. 303).
Despite the length of my list of examples above, I have covered only a fraction of the examples Carrier discusses at length. “Any one of these examples might just be a coincidence. But all of them? That seems unlikely. Again, this doesn’t demonstrate any organized conspiracy, but there seems to have been a zeitgeist motivating many Christian scholars and scribes, independently of one another, to remove embarrassingly silent sections of secular histories, or to remove embarrassingly silent histories altogether (by simply not preserving them)” (p. 305).
“However you choose to deal with the peculiar silence of secular, pagan and Jewish literature throughout the first and most of the second century…, we at least have the few things that Christians did choose to preserve. And that starts with their own literature. Yet even there the selection is strange: among the datable, nothing at all from Christianity’s entire first sixty years except what later became canonized as the NT—and that represents what can only have been a fraction of what existed…. After that the first thing we get is a single, very long letter form Clement of Rome written to the church in Corinth…. Then, supposedly, a collection of letters from Ignatius to various churches in what is now Turkey, traditionally dated around 100…. And nothing else until after the year 120… almost a century after the religion began. It’s hard to imagine how a church can thrive across three continents for almost a hundred years and produce almost no letters or literature” (p. 306). The documents mentioned in this quote will be described in sections below.
Carrier also discusses the complete lack of relevant legal records, such as census and tax receipts, deeds, contracts, and so on. None relevant to first-century Christianity are still extant. The same is true of doctrinal letters, other than those by Paul. In short (or rather, in very long, though not nearly as long as it was in Carrier’s book), the documentary silence is deafening.
Carrier finishes his analysis of this topic as follows: “This can be explained on a theory of historicity, but only by adding ad hoc elements to it….; and any explanation you accept has consequences you must also accept. No theory of historicity that does not address this can be credible…. But as this is also true for mythicism, I will regard minimal historicity to be as capable of predicting this state of affairs as well as minimal mythicism, and therefore this silence does not affect the probability of either. But others might find that decision far too generous to historicity” (p. 308). Count me among those.
Clement of Rome, supposedly then the bishop of Rome, although the letter does not give his name or rank, wrote, around 95 CE (although possibly as early as the 60s), a massive letter of far over 10,000 words, to the church at Corinth to quell sedition. Asking matters to be returned to the state they were in before the rebellion, he wrote “an elaborate letter about humility and submission and patience and obedience” (p. 309). There were later letters and homilies that were forged in his name; here we will only address the one document considered to be authentic, known as 1 Clement.
This letter tells us nothing about the historical Jesus. “It never once places Jesus in history or ever tells any stories about him, never uses his stories as an example for anything (despite the letter being a long series of arguments by example), nor ever quotes anything Jesus says in the Gospels. Apart from his death, it never mentions any event in his life, any fact about his life, or anything narrated in the Gospels. And this despite the fact that this letter is supposed to end a major rebellion in the church (for which citing the example of Jesus would be of inestimable value) and is almost as long as both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians combined” (p. 309).
As an interesting side note, Clement notes that Paul had recently been killed by state officials in Spain (epi to terma tēs duseōs, literally ‘the end of the western world,’ which was universally used to describe the Spanish coast). This contradicts all later legend, wherein Paul was executed by Nero in Rome. Paul himself said that he intended to go to Spain after stopping in Rome (Rom. 15.24-28; contrary to Acts Paul was going to Rome of his own volition, and was planning to stop briefly enroute to Spain). So either the later reports are fabrication, or the bishop of Rome was unaware of what had actually happened to Paul; in either case, Paul’s martyrdom at Rome is clearly a myth.
Clement says that Paul was killed due to “some sort of envy and its resulting betrayal” (p. 310), says that Peter was martyred for the same reasons, and then mentions other recent Christian martyrs in general without naming anyone in particular. Notice, however, what is missing that would have been quite natural to include in this list: any mention of James having been martyred, despite that this event was supposedly contemporaneous with the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and that James was supposedly the brother of Jesus.
The things that Clement does cite about Jesus are all things that would be true on minimal mythicism:
- He was a ‘gift’ of Jacob (e., Israel),
- he suffered a passion (like all savior gods did),
- his blood was poured out as a sacrifice, and
- he was resurrected.
Notably, the evidence he cites for various claims is Old Testament scripture. For example, Christ, according to Clement, came humbly rather than ‘in the pomp of pride or arrogance,’ for which Clement cites Isaiah 53 as evidence. The ‘sayings’ of their ‘Lord’ that Clement cites are all quotations from the Old Testament. Examples of repentance, forgiveness, resurrection are cited not from the Gospels or any tradition that they supposedly record, but, again, the Old Testament. When Clement specifically ‘quotes’ Jesus, he either quotes the Old Testament or says something that fits no known Gospel narrative. It seems, in fact, that ‘the words that Jesus spoke’ of which Clement is aware are “a quick series of declarations of reciprocity more akin to an updated book of proverbs” (p. 311). Some of these declarations (there are really only a handful of them to begin with) reasonably could be interpreted as being expanded into longer Gospel narratives, suggesting that this collection of sayings may have been available to both Clement and to the Gospel writers. Given that Clement seems to be unaware of the Gospels themselves, Carrier favors the interpretation that 1 Clement was written in the 60s instead of the scholarly consensus of the 90s.
To illustrate this point, I will look at one example in a bit of detail. Clement says, clearly assuming that his Corinthian readers will know his reference, “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, for he said, ‘Woe to that man! It would have been good for him not to be born, rather than cause one of my chosen to stumble. Better for him to have a millstone cast about is neck and be drowned in the sea than to have corrupted one of my chosen’” (1 Clem. 46.7-8). This quote Clement clearly knew as a single, unified saying, but it is present in the Gospels split into two completely unrelated ones. One was spoken about people tempting his followers to sin (Mk 9.42, echoed in Lk. 17.1-2 and expanded in Mt. 18.3-7), the other spoken about Judas at the last supper (Mk 14.18-21 and Mt. 26.23-25, abbreviated in Lk. 22.22-23). Carrier analyzes this information as follows: “Clement clearly does not know of the Judas story, and the phrase ‘Woe to that man! It would have been good for him not to be born’ was evidently never originally anything Jesus said about Judas, but a generic statement about those who lead the Lord’s ‘children’ to sin…. Which means Jesus almost certainly never said this—because it reflect the concept of a church community, of ‘believers’ in Jesus that did not exist until after he had died…. this is a good candidate for a post-mortem revelation…, or again some pre-Christian scripture that Clement is quoting but we no longer have” (p. 312).
Other than this example and one other, the words of Jesus come from scripture (meaning the Old Testament). Further, Clement doesn’t even have to explain this to his readers, meaning that the general understanding at the time was that this was how Jesus spoke to his followers… through scripture rather than through human tradition. For those of you skimming through my summary of Carrier’s evidence and reasoning rather than reading it in detail, this is a key point you should pause and ponder. If the early traditions of the church were understood in this way rather than how it is normally assumed, the implications for what can be trusted as reliable are profound.
Carrier includes numerous other examples that similarly point toward Clement being at best unaware of a historical Jesus, but I think the ones that I summarized above make the point sufficiently. The closest Clement comes to telling a story of Jesus is the following: “The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. And so Christ is from God, and the apostles from Christ. Each occurred in an orderly way from the will of God. And so having received their orders and being fully reassured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded in the word of God, with the full assurance of the holy spirit, they went out spreading the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand” (1 Clem. 42.1-4). Carrier summarizes his analysis of this passage as follows: “This account of what happened looks a lot more like the mythicist thesis, in which Jesus came to the apostles by revelation and convinced them of his death and resurrection, proving it by appeal to the scriptures and through gifts of the holy spirit. There is no mention here of Jesus being born, preaching a ministry in Galilee, teaching the gospel to thousands (as opposed to only the apostles having received it), performing miracles or signs that proved who he was, being executed by Pilate or any detail at all that would connect Jesus to a historical narrative. Instead, Jesus is sent directly from God only to the apostles. And the apostles are the only ones who could tell us about it. If we had no other sources on Christianity but 1 Clement, we would conclude that Jesus was some sort of divine emissary in heaven, a supreme archangel, who communicated to the apostles through visions and secret messages in various holy scriptures…, and who underwent some sort of ordeal of incarnation, death and resurrection like other mythical demigods. It would never occur to us that he was a human man who conducted a ministry, performed great deeds among the people, and was railroaded in a Jewish trial and eventually crucified by Pontius Pilate. The fact that this lengthy document fully agrees with the expectations of minimal mythicism, but looks very strange on any version of historicity, makes this evidence for the former and against the latter” (pp. 314-315).
In terms of assigning probabilities, Carrier argues that we should expect 1 Clement to look the way it does if minimal mythicism is correct at least twice as much as if minimal historicity is correct (which seems exceptionally generous to historicity, in my personal opinion). That’s a 1:2 probability against historicity. However, arguing a fortiori, Carrier is willing to reduce the odds to 4:5, saying that 1 Clement could look as it does 80% as likely on historicity as it does on mythicism, “even though I think that’s absurd” (p. 315).
Ignatius and Ascension of Isaiah
According to church tradition, Ignatius of Antioch was arrested by the Romans and taken to Caesar during the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE). Implausibly, the tradition holds that his Roman jailers allowed Ignatius during his travels “to meet with other illegal Christian church congregations and write and exchange letters with yet more illegal Christian churches across the region as he went, all without arresting or disbanding any of them on the way” (p. 315). These letters survive. If church tradition is correct, these letters would be the earliest datable Christian writings after 1 Clement outside of the New Testament. However, every element of this tradition has been challenged by modern scholars, including the authorship, dating, and circumstances of their composition. Additionally, there are numerous forged Ignatius letters, written by someone who also severely edited and expanded on the more original ones. In this analysis we will only concern ourselves with the supposedly authentic ones, and those only in their shorter, more authentic versions.
Carrier argues that the concerns about the authenticity of these letters are unlikely to matter for his analysis, and so is willing to assume a fortiori that the traditional account is correct. These letters have three characteristics that are pertinent to comparing minimal historicity to minimal mythicism:
- “their author is very definitely, and very adamantly, a historicist;
- “their author is desperate to defend that fact against certain unnamed Christians who were apparently denying elements of it; and
- “these letters contain one key passage that looks more like it originated in a gospel about a cosmic Jesus than an earthly one, which a modern historicist will have to explain” (p. 317).
Point 1 is fully expected on minimal mythicism, since historicist Gospels had existed for decades by that time. Further, nothing in the letters can be shown to be independent of the Gospels except for material that is at least equally likely on mythicism as on historicity. What is striking is that there were fellow Christians who were denying the historicity of Jesus against whom Ignatius was arguing. This observation is not strictly entailed by either minimal mythicism or minimal historicity, but is probably more likely under mythicism. Even so, these Christians Ignatius was arguing against were probably Docetists, who argued that Jesus never really became human, and instead sent an illusion, a stance that is not compatible with either minimal mythicism or historicity. There are no extant writings of the Docetists themselves, so we aren’t entirely sure what specifically they believed.
So, on either hypothesis we are considering, the Docetists were a fringe group with strange beliefs. The interesting thing, however, is how Ignatius argues against these Docetists. “Ignatius is… not rejecting Docetism because he knows of any evidence that argues against it. Apart from ‘the prophets’ his only source of information appears to be some Gospel or Gospels…. Instead, he is rejecting Docetism simply and only because it has consequences he doesn’t like…. this would have been equally true of the gospel of a cosmic Jesus, in which Jesus assumed a body of flesh in outer space and then discards it… a gospel that would also be known only by revelation, and thus more easily doubted whether it was genuine” (p. 319).
Both a revelatory Docetism (in which the events of Jesus’ celestial life were only seen in visions) and a historicist Docetism (in which the events were witnessed normally on Earth but were illusions) are plausible, and so what we know of Docetism is equally probable on both minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. What these letters demonstrate is that there were apparently no known sources of information about Jesus by the beginning of the second century CE other than the Gospels (though possibly including Gospels that are no longer extant).
Ignatius, however, clearly references a Gospel narrative that he viewed as an authoritative source, but which is not any currently known Gospel. In this story of Jesus’s birth, “a star illuminates the whole of heaven, brighter even than the sun, astonishing men the world over, and in which this star was the manifestation of Jesus himself, and not a mere sign of his birth or birthplace. In fact, this star is not said to accompany his birth. To the contrary, Ignatius appears to be saying this is how Jesus manifested to the world: not as a Galilean preacher but as a bright light in heaven. And at that moment all the powers of darkness were defeated and a new kingdom begon, feats traditionally accomplished by the death and resurrection, and not the birth of Jesus…. This ‘Gospel’ that Ignatius is describing has the very birth and death of Jesus being hidden from the world and revealed only in the bright light demonstrating his triumph…, and that was the event that granted men eternal life…. Also in this mysterious Gospel not only the virginity of Mary but even the identity of Jesus was also kept from both public and demonic knowledge until after his death—a fact that doesn’t even fit the narrative of Mark, much less the other Gospels we know” (p. 321).
Within the mythicist hypothesis, the ‘Prince of This World’ (Satan) “killed Jesus not knowing who he was (1 Cor. 2.8), because everything about him was kept hidden (1 Cor. 2.7), and only revealed spiritually, by revelation to his elect (1 Cor. 2.10)” (p. 321). In the strange Gospel that Ignatius cites, this story has become mythologized into a celestial event witnessed by the entire world. While this claim is obviously fabricated, it does illustrate “how easy it then was to believe completely fabricated claims of wildly public facts” (p. 321).
The parallels between this unknown Gospel story cited by Ignatius and an early, largely unknown Christian text titled the Ascension of Isaiah, is remarkable, so I will here digress briefly to discuss this text. Like the book of Daniel, the Ascension of Isaiah is a forgery that supposedly recounts the ancient prophet Isaiah’s mystical ascent into the heavens during which he learned in advance many secrets of the Christian gospel. While we do not have the original version of this text, we have later edits. The existing manuscripts date from the fifth to the twelfth centuries; however the evidence for and within the text place its original composition sometime in the first or second century, placing it contemporaneous with the earliest canonical Gospels.
Because the text is so poorly known, and has been so heavily edited since its original composition, Carrier quotes it extensively over four pages. While I hate to devote so much space to such a long extended quote, it is extremely enlightening, so I will likewise quote it below. Carrier removed significant redundancies and obvious later additions. The bold-faced components are Carrier’s emphases to facilitate his later discussion.
The Vision that Isaiah ben Amoz Saw
In the twentieth year of the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, Isaiah the son of Amoz came to Hezekiah…. And there while Isaiah was speaking by the Holy Spirit in the hearing of all… he saw a vision. And the angel who was sent to make him behold that vision came neither from the firmament, nor from the angels of glory of this world, but from the seventh heaven…. And the vision which the holy Isaiah saw was not from this world but from the world which is hidden from the flesh. And after Isaiah had seen this vision, he narrated it to Hezekiah, and to Josab his son and to the other prophets who had come,… saying:
I saw a sublime angel… and he took hold of me… and we ascended to the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael [i.e., Satan] and his hosts, and a great struggle was taking place there, and the angels of Satan were envious of one another. And as it is above, so is it also on the earth, for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is also on the earth…. And after this the angel brought me up above the firmament, into the first heaven… [and so on repetitively all the way to the sixth heaven, seeing ever more glorious beings at each level]… and all the angels [in the sixth heaven] cried out to the primal Father, and his Beloved the Christ, and the Holy Spirit, all with one voice….
And the angel who conducted me saw what I was thinking and said, ‘If you rejoice already in this light of the sixth heaven, how much more will you rejoice when in the seventh heaven you see that light where God and his Beloved are… who in your world will be called ‘Son’. Not yet is he revealed, who shall enter this corrupted world, nor the garments, thrones, and crowns which are laid up for the righteous, those who believe in that Lord who shall one day descend in your form.’
And he conveyed me into the air of the seventh heaven… And the angel said unto me, ‘He who gave permission for you to be here is your Lord, God, the Lord Christ, who will be called ‘Jesus’ on earth, but his name you cannot hear until you have ascended out of your body…. And this Beloved will descend in the form in which you will soon see him descend—that is to say, in the last days, the Lord, who will be called Christ, will descend into the world…. And after he has descended and become like you in appearance, they will think that he is flesh and a man. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will lay hands on him and crucify him on a tree, without knowing who he is. So his descent, as you will see, is hidden from the heavens so that it remains unperceived who he is. And when he has made spoil of the angel of death, he will arise on the third day and will remain in that world five hundred and forty-five days [i.e., one and a half years]. And then many of the righteous will ascend with him.’…
And then the angel said to me, ‘Here are prepared heavenly garments that many from that world receive, if they believe in the words of that one who, as I have told you, shall be named, and if they observe those words and trust them, and believe in his cross’….
And I saw someone standing by, whose glory surpassed that of all… and all the angels drew near and worshipped him and gave praise…. Then the angel who conducted me said to me, ‘Worship this one’, and I did. And the angel said unto me, ‘This is the Lord of All Glory whom you have seen’….
And I heard the words of the Most High, the Father of my Lord, as he spoke to my Lord Christ who shall be called Jesus, ‘Go and descend through all the heavens, descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in the realm of the dead, but to Hell you shall not go. And you shall become like the form of all who are in the five heavens. And with carefulness you shall resemble the form of the angels of the firmament and the angels also who are in the realm of the dead. And none of the angels of this world shall know that you, along with me, are the Lord of the seven heavens and of their angels. And they will not know that you are mine until with the voice of Heaven I have summoned their angels and their lights, and my mighty voice is made to resound to the sixth heaven, that you may judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world, and the world which is ruled by them. For they have denied me and said, “We are alone, and there is none beside us”. And afterward you will ascend from the angels of death to your place, and this time you will not be transformed in each heaven, but in glory you will ascend and sit on My right hand. And the princes and powers of this world will worship you.’…
Then I saw that my Lord went forth from the seventh heaven to the sixth heaven [the angel then tells Isaiah to watch how Jesus transforms as he descends]… And when the angels who are in the sixth heaven saw him they praised and extolled him, for he had not yet been transformed into the form of the angels there…. But then I saw how he descended into the fifth heaven, and there took the appearance of the angels there, and they did not praise him, for his appearance was like theirs…. [and likewise the fourth heaven; and the third heaven, where he now must also give a password to the doorkeepers to enter through the gate of that heaven; and likewise the second heaven; and then the first]… And then he descended into the firmament where the prince of this world dwells, and he gave the password… and his form was like theirs, and they did not praise him there, but struggled with one another in envy, for there the power of evil rules, and the envying of trivial things. And I beheld, when he descended to the angels of the air and he was like one of them. Then he gave no password, for they were plundering and doing violence to one another.
After this, I beheld, and the angel who talked with me and conducted me said unto me, ‘Understand, Isaiah, son of Amoz, because for this purpose I have been sent from God’….
And then I saw him and he was in the firmament but he had not changed to their form, and all the angels fo the firmament and Satan saw him, and they worshipped him. And great sorrow was occasioned there, while they said, ‘How did our Lord descend in our midst, and we perceived not the glory which was upon him?’… [And this Lord continues ascending thus through the first five heavens, and then the sixth] And I saw how he ascended into the seventh heaven, and all the righteous and all the angels praised Him. And then I saw how he sat down on the right hand of God…. Both the end of this world and all of this vision will be consummated in the last generations.
And then Isaiah made him swear that he would not tell this to the people of Israel, nor permit any man to write down these words. ‘As far as you understand from the king what is said in the prophets, so far shall you read and that’s all’.
Carrier leaves aside the question of how, if Isaiah refused to let this story be written down, it came to be written down.
Some things to note about this story:
- “nothing is ever said about Jesus ever visiting earth or being killed by Jews or Romans—or conducting a ministry for that matter”
- “The ‘they’ who will think he is a man and not know who he is and kill him are only ever said to be Satan and his angels.”
- “God clearly intends Jesus to do nothing more than go to the firmament, and for no other reason than to be killed by Satan and his sky demons, and then rise from the dead and conduct affairs there for over a year…, and then ascend to heaven.”
- “The ‘tree’ on which he is crucified is… implied to be one of the ‘copies’ of trees that we’re told are in the firmament.”
- “it’s only said ‘none of the angels of this world shall know’ who he is, not ‘none of the Jews’ or ‘none of the authorities in Israel’” (Compare this to 1 Cor. 2.6-10)
- “the text… does not identify any further stage of descending from the firmament to earth” (This is true even in the redactions that were added to the text which Carrier has omitted.)
- God says specifically that ‘they’ will not know Jesus until “’with the voice of Heaven I have summoned their angels and their lights, and my might voice is made to resound to the sixth heaven’”. Whoever ‘they’ are, ‘they’ have subordinate angels and lights. And ‘they’ are told by God, after killing Jesus, who Jesus was. “This cannot mean the Jews and Romans. It can only mean Satan and his angelic princes.”
- Only in the final chapter is this all changed, completely at odds, both in terms of story and style, indicating that this portion was added by a later editor.
- Two key phrases, ‘they will think that he is flesh and a man,’ and he shall ‘descend in your form’ are both missing from the Latin versions. (All Carrier quotes in this list from pp. 41-42)
Carrier analyzes the text, from various sources, and its historical context extensively, but I will omit most of that. The main conclusion is, “what is undeniable is that this text provides all the elements of a plausible theory: the narrative goes out of its way to explain that the firmament contains copies of everything on earth…; it indisputably places Satan and his demons, the only ‘princes and authorities and rulers and powers’ of which it speaks, in outer space (yet still ‘in this world’, distinctly below the first heaven, and thus in the recognized realm of flesh and corruption…); and for two whole chapters I belabors exclusively and at length the role and actions of these (and only these) ‘powers’ in the crucifixion of Jesus on an unidentified ‘tree’. If we didn’t have Chapter 11 [the last chapter mentioned above]… we would conclude nothing else but that this Jesus Christ was being described as a preexistent divine being descending below the moon to be killed by sky demons in outer space. Because it then says nothing else” (p. 45).
The story told in the Ascension of Isaiah is nearly identical, including the characteristic repetitions that Carrier left out, to a story that originated over a thousand years before Christianity, the Descent of Inanna. “We know the Jews were long familiar with this sacred story of Inanna’s descent” (p. 46), mentioned in Jeremiah 7.18 and 44.15-26, and Ezek. 8.14. So while we may not know the route by which this story was co-opted into the Ascension of Isaiah, the derivation is clear. Consider the following shared elements: humiliation, trial and crucifixion, resurrection in three days. Add in that Inanna’s resurrection involved a sacred ritual involving the divine ‘food of life’ and the divine ‘water of life,’ and the Eucharist is close to predicted. “If all those elements are removed from Christianity, it’s hard to think what could possibly remain that makes Jesus’ historicity at all likely. If the Jesus of the Gospels wasn’t humiliated, tried and crucified, if he didn’t originate the Eucharist…, then the depth of mythmaking that very rapidly surrounded him is truly extreme—and if it can be that extreme, why would we balk at the idea that the rest is myth too?” (p. 47)
Viewed in the light of the Ascension of Isaiah, Paul’s texts sound strikingly familiar. “God’s plan of Christ’s death-defeating sacrifice was a ‘secret’ kept ‘hidden’ (1 Cor. 2.7) and only recently known by ‘revelation’ (1 Cor. 2.10), such that ‘none of the rules of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’ (1 Cor. 2.8). This looks like a direct paraphrase of an early version of the Ascension of Isaiah…. It even has an angel predict his resurrection on the third day…, and the Latin/Slavonic contains a verse… that Paul actually cites as scripture, in the very same place (1 Cor. 2.9)” (pp. 47-48).
Returning to Ignatius, we have evidence that this missing Gospel was used by three historians, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Justin. Further, Irenaeus specifically reports “that even orthodox Christians were reading Psalm 24 as referring to Christ’s hidden descent, unknown to the ‘powers’ in the ‘firmament’, and then his glorious ascent, after his resurrection, through the various ‘gates’ of heaven (odd details also found in the Ascension of Isaiah), which was seen and witnessed by all the creatures of the lower heavens” (p. 322).
Summarizing, Carrier says, “There are certainly other ways one could try to explain this strange Ignatian gospel narrative. But it must be admitted that it is at least somewhat more likely that we would see this here if the gospel he was using did indeed begin as a tale of a cosmic Jesus (just like the earlier redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah), and was converted into an earthly Jesus later on, if awkwardly. Because on any other explanation, its content makes no sense. That this strange cosmic gospel would be invented afterward (and Ignatius still regarded it as authoritative) is, by comparison, somewhat less likely. Thus this one passage affords some support for the mythicist thesis, which makes its content a bit more likely than minimal historicity does” (pp. 322-323). Combining the evidence surveyed here (and detailed much more explicitly in the book), Carrier assigns a 1:2 probability as the most reasonable assessment of this evidence under mythicism compared to historicity (meaning that “there could hardly be more than a 50% chance both these clues would exist if Jesus did” (p. 323)), but is willing to allow a 4:5 (or 80% chance) arguing a fortiori.
Papias of Hierapolis’s one known book, Explanations of the Stories of the Lord (in five volumes) is usually dated between 130 and 150 CE. We do not have that book; all we have are several brief quotations from and descriptions of it, primarily from Irenaeus and Eusebius. In these, Papias himself says that he lived when none of the original apostles still lived, but he claims to have been a contemporary of some men who knew them, “a claim that was not necessarily true; from the quotations we have, we can tell Papias was a very gullible fellow, so much so that even Eusebius called him ‘a man of very little intelligence’” (p. 324). Papias also specifically says that he considered hearsay to be more reliable than books. He is, thus, the least reliable type of source we could hope for. And yet, other that the author of Acts, he “is the earliest ‘historian’ of early Christianity we have, writing a hundred years after the religion began” (p. 324).
The content of his writings contain clearly fabulous legends and sayings, suggesting that he believed whatever he happened to hear and wrote it all down. “This is illustrative of the state of Christian knowledge about Jesus by mid-second century” (p. 325).
Carrier concludes that Papias tells us nothing of any real use. Just to pick a couple of examples:
- Papias says that Mark was Peter’s secretary, and his faithful recording of Peter’s teachings became the Gospel according to Mark. Yet Peter was a Torah-observant Christian, and Mark’s Gospel advocates against that in favor of Paul’s teachings.
- Papias says that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek, which cannot be correct since Matthew copies extensively from Mark’s Greek, often verbatim.
Reliable information about first-century Christianity “had evidently become completely lost by this time” (p. 326). It is also curious that this extensive and early collection of lore about the Gospels and the apostles was not preserved by medieval Christians. While we will never know what this document contained, it is clear that nothing we do know can support historicity, beyond that by the second century, many Christians were assuming that Jesus was a historical figure. Such a conclusion is equally expected on both minimal historicity and minimal mythicism, and so the evidence from Papias has no value in distinguishing these two hypotheses.
Around 180 CE, a Christian scholar named Hegesippus wrote his Memoirs, a five-volume discussion of various legends concerning the early churches and apostles, including the first succession list of bishops. Therefore, this work is the third-closest thing to a history of early Christianity that existed up to that point (the first being the book of Acts, to be discussed later, and the second being the Explanations of Papias, which we dismissed as useless above). We do not have the Memoirs either; again, we only have occasional references to and quotations from it.
This work is extremely late, and comes from a timeframe where there was “rampant fabrication and hearsay,” so it is difficult to assign any reliability to it. Nonetheless,
- it is the last known attempt to collect historical data about 1st-century Christianity from the 2nd century,
- it addresses the fate of “James the brother of Jesus”, and
- it is representative of any fragments of Christian ‘historical’ literature from the 2nd-century.
The most extensive quote we have from the Memoirs, which Carrier cites in its full 7-paragraph entirety, is a story of James. It contains significant “historical and narrative implausibilities” (p. 329), including:
- James alone was allowed in the Jewish temple’s inner sanctum.
- The Jewish authorities had James, a Christian evangelist, stand at the pinnacle of the temple to dissuade the crowds from adopting his teachings.
- James survived a fall from the pinnacle of the temple.
- James was executed in a way that was specifically illegal.
- James was buried within the city walls beside the temple itself.
These details betray “the complete ignorance of the narrative’s author of even the most basic facts of Jerusalem law and culture. In short, nothing in this story can possibly be true” (p. 329).
But the most interesting part of this story is “that nowhere in the story itself is this James ever said to be the brother of Jesus. Hegesippus describes him as such when introducing the narrative, but the assumption that this story, about a certain James the Just, is a story about James the brother of Jesus, appears to be an assumption introduced by Hegesippus. It is not supported by anything in the story. Indeed, this James is described as if he were a priest (doing service in the temple and even entering the Holy of Holies), not a carpenter or fisherman from distant Galilee” (p. 329). Jesus is, within the narrative, called ‘the crucified’, but that matches the expectations of minimal mythicism as well as it does minimal historicism. There are no mentions of witnesses or reports of Jesus having done anything on earth. James speaks, within the story, only of a celestial Jesus who would descend to the earth in the future. The structure of the story even seems to assume that “no one thought Jesus was the Christ until James (not Jesus, nor anyone else) began preaching that he was. And this led to people looking for Jesus and following him—obviously that cannot mean following the living Jesus…, but the celestial Jesus declared by Jesus declared by James” (p. 329). The tale contains significant justification of James’s qualifications as a reliable witness, notably being “superlatively pious and just” (p. 330), but conspicuously contains no claims of a family connection and his eyewitness status.
All of this could be explained away as happenstance omission under the minimal historicity hypothesis, but it is exactly what we would expect to see under the minimal mythicism hypothesis. That means that the probability of expecting the evidence to be what it is under minimal historicity must be at least slightly less than it is under minimal mythicism. Arguing as favorably toward minimal mythicism as possible, Carrier assigns a 90% chance, or 9:10 odds, of this evidence under historicity compared to mythicism. Arguing more realistically, he assigns an 80% chance, or 4:5 odds, for the evidence under minimal historicity compared to minimal mythicism. Even that, in my opinion, seems exceptionally generous toward historicity.
Hegesippus has at least one other tale about the family of Jesus that might, at first blush, appear to bear on the issue of historicity vs. mythicism: a story that the grandchildren of Jude (whom ‘some said’ had been the brother of Jesus) being taken to the court of Domitian because of a fear of the second coming. The story contains numerous implausibilities, and also appears to be originally about messianic Jews rather than Christians. Regardless, however, Hegesippus, as reported by Eusebius, only told these stories in order to prove that there had been no heresy before Trajan because the family of Jesus had ensured the gospel had not been corrupted. Since we know this is fantasy (the Epistles of Paul describes many early schisms), the stories have to be invention, and don’t bear one way or the other on claims of historicity vs. mythicism.
There are two passages in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, published after 93 CE, that, in our current versions of the text, mention Jesus Christ as a historical person. Both of these are “almost certainly interpolations made by Christian scribes” (p. 332). Because these two passages are among the most commonly-cited extrabiblical sources supporting a historical Jesus, I will spend some time discussing each.
The first passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Our currently extant version reads: “And there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if we really must call him a man, for he was a doer of incredible deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth gladly, and he won over many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when, on the accusation of the leading men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease to. For he appeared to them on the third day, alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and countless other marvels about him. And even until now the tribe of the Christians, so named from this man, has not failed” (Josephus, Ant. 18.63-64).
This passage is stylistically quite out-of-place compared to the rest of Josephus’s writings. As Carrier analyzes it, “this would be an absurd paragraph from… a devout Jew and sophisticated author who otherwise writes far more elegant prose…. This passage is self-evidently a fawning and gullible Christian fabrication, in fact demonstrably derived from the Emmaus narrative in the Gospel of Luke, inserted into the text at a point where it does not even make any narrative sense” (p. 332).
Historians have often tried to rescue this passage by removing what Josephus surely never said, but then claiming that what remains he must have said. The problem with this approach is that Josephus is exceptionally conscientious elsewhere about explaining terms explicitly to his intended Gentile audience. The fact that he does not explain “what a ‘Christ’ is and what it meant for Jesus to have been one” (p. 334) is highly out of character. Similarly, this passage contains no explanation who the ‘leading men’ were, what accusations were made, why Pilate acceded to their demands, whether Jesus was found guilty, what the import of Jesus appearing on the third day was, and on and on. All of these unaddressed questions, so unlike Josephus, make it exceptionally improbable that he wrote anything contained in this passage.
If, contrary to the argument above, the Testimonium Flavianum were in the original text, it would be unbelievable that other authors wouldn’t have cited it. Origen, specifically, used other passages from Josephus as the key evidence concerning John the Baptist and James in order to attest to the affairs of Jesus. If the Testimonium Flavianum were in that some work, it would have supported Origen’s points even better, and yet Origen does not reference it.
Finally, the paragraph following the Testimonium Flavianum begins, “about the same time also another terrible thing threw the Jews into disorder” (Josephus, Ant. 18.65), which makes no sense following the Testimonium Flavianum, but which follows perfectly logically from the passage that immediately precedes it. In short, there can be no other reasonable conclusion but that this passage was inserted later by Christian scribes.
The second passage in Josephus that is cited supporting the historicity of Jesus reads, “The brother of Jesus (who was called the Christ), the name for whom was James, and some others,” (Josephus, Ant. 20.200) was tried and stoned to death. However, “who was called the Christ” is an accidental interpolation by later scribes that entered the manuscripts of Josephus in the late third century based on a mistaken note. Origen doesn’t quote this passage (even where scholars claim he does; this is a confusion with a story written by Hegesippus). Carrier provides six arguments supporting this conclusion, which for length reasons I will leave out for the time being.
Thus we are left with no convincing evidence from Josephus that can support historicity.
Pliny and Tacitus
Pliny the Younger and Tacitus were friends who frequently corresponded, exchanging information for writing their histories. “Pliny tells us that he had no idea what Christians were or believed until he interrogated some of them and discovered it was some sort of base superstition involving the worship of a certain ‘Christ’ who was something like a God (quasi deo), but he gives no further details about him (not even the name ‘Jesus’), and says nothing pertinent to establishing historicity” (pp. 342-343). The most favorable assumption would be that these Christians repeated material from the Gospels to Pliny, which would make the information not independent. Further, “Pliny’s procedure involved no independent fact-checking, and from his behavior and attitude, we can conclude his effort would have been typical, and thus Tacitus is unlikely to have done any better” (p. 343).
Pliny was governor of Bithynia (northern Turkey) for a year before learning there were any Christians there. Before that, he was consul (the highest office short of emperor in the Roman Empire), and before that he was a lawyer, praetor (chief of police/attorney general), and a top legal advisor for Trajan in Rome. In spite of this, he states that he never attended a trial of Christians and knew nothing about them. “This confirms that his father, Pliny the Elder, never discussed Christians in his account of the Neronian fire—despite having been an eyewitness to those events and devoting an entire volume to that year” (p. 343).
The current version of Tacitus reads: “Nero found culprits and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those hated for their abominations, whom the people called Chrestians [sic]. Christ, the author of this name, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius, and the most mischievous superstition, checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the source of this evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous or shameful flow in from every part of the world and become popular” (Tacitus, Annals). This is the first-ever reference to a historical Jesus outside the New Testament, and is dated to around 116 CE, close to our cut-off date for usable information.
The problem with this, however, is that the key line, “Christ, the author of this name, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius,” is probably an interpolation. Carrier argues that the original version, instead of scapegoating Christians, probably scapegoated the followers of the Jewish instigator Chrestus first suppressed under Claudius, as was reported by Suetonius. Before the mid-fourth century, no one else reports the persecution described in the following passage, even when other stories were reported in the second-century of Nero persecuting Christians.
However, even if we ignore this argument and assume contrary to probability that the Tacitus line was in the original, we find that it still does not provide evidence in favor of historicity. How, for example, did Tacitus come to have the reported information? There is no distinctive information we would expect to find if the source were government records, and such records would have been unlikely to survive anyway the two times the libraries had burned, once under Nero and once under Titus. Work from earlier historians that would have contained such information has survived without this information. It is far more likely that, as with other information, Tacitus simply asked Pliny for information to include in his histories. This would account for why the information Tacitus reports matches what was already in the Gospels by that time, and provides no further detail.
Thus, either the information provided by Tacitus wasn’t in the original, and thus must be discounted, or it wasn’t independent of the Gospels, and thus also must be discounted. And Pliny reports nothing that is independent information.
There are two passages from Suetonius that are often connected to Christianity. In the first, he references Jewish rioters, not Christians. According to this passage about the emperor Claudius, “since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” (Suetonius, Claudius 25.4). Since it would have been nearly impossible to expel all Jews from Rome (of which there were tens of thousands at the time), we should doubt whether Suetonius had his story straight. In fact, according to Cassius Dio, “As for the Jews, who had again increased so greatly that by reason of their multitude it would have been hard without raising a tumult to bar them from the city, Claudius did not drive them out, but ordered them, while continuing their traditional mode of life, not to hold meetings” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 60.6.6). Neither Suetonius nor Dio connect this expulsion, if it happened, to Christians. Suetonius used the phrase impulsore Chresto, which translates as ‘because of the impulsor Chrestus, where impulsor is the person who instigated something, not the reason it was instigated. Since Jesus wasn’t alive in Rome at the time, he cannot be the one being referenced. The lack of any discussion of this event in Acts or in Paul’s letter to the Romans further supports the notion that the Suetonius passage was not referring to a historical event that involved Christians.
Suetonius’s second passage that is often cited is, frankly, insufficient to support historicity. It states that during the reign of Nero, “punishments were inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Suetonius, Nero 16.2). Regardless of whether the original included this passage, and if it did whether it referred to Christians or Chrestians, points that are debated in modern scholarship, the passage at best supports the notion that there were Christians, which is equally likely under minimal historicity and minimal mythicism.
For Thallus, we only have a passage in the third book of his lost Histories as referenced by Julius Africanus. But the work by Julius Africanus is also lost; we only have the passage quoted by a medieval chronologer George Syncellus. The most reasonable interpretation of what we do have suggests that Thallus, for the year 32 CE, said no more than that “the sun was eclipsed; Bithynia was struck by an earthquake; and in the city of Nicaea many buildings fell” (p. 347), without mentioning Judea or Jesus. This much is quoted in surviving fragments of Eusebius. Therefore, the connection to Jesus was probably an assumption of Julius Africanus rather than Thallus.
Lack of Gainsaying Witnesses
The sections to this point complete Carrier’s survey of all relevant extrabiblical evidence. Long as this summary of mine is, if you have persevered through it you will have found that this evidence is not only dismal, but even argues against historicity. The final objection Carrier addresses, one that I have heard from evangelical Christians although perhaps it is also raised by secular scholars, is that “surely someone would have gainsaid the invention of a historical Jesus” (p. 349). Who would that be, however? It is much more difficult to make an argument from silence if we don’t know who should have recorded the information, which makes this situation different from that discussed above in the section on documentary silence.
Consider the following points:
- Christianity was a mystery religion, and thus used myths to conceal secret doctrines from outsiders.
- We have a several-decades-long gap in the early history of the cult. We know that there were many sectarian schisms, but nothing about the different communities was preserved.
- By comparison to other mythical people who were historicized, such as Moses, King Arthur, and Ned Ludd, we see no significant precedent for an expectation that such historicization would be gainsaid.
Interestingly, however, we do actually have at least hints of some gainsaying that runs the other direction. That is, there is evidence that some Christians argued against the historicization of a mythical Jesus Christ. For example, Justin Martyr in the mid-second century wrote a fictional Dialogue with Trypho, wherein he created a Jewish opponent who said, “But the Christ, if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere, is unknown, and doesn’t even yet know himself, and has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him, and make him appear to all. But you, on the basis of groundless hearsay, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake you are now irresponsibly doomed” (Justin Martyr, Dialoge with Trypho 8.4). What was Justin’s reply to this accusation? Assertion without any sort of evidence provided that they believe based on the Spirit of God. This is very similar to the response given to Christians of some opposing sect in 2 Peter 1-2. Similar hints can be found in 1 Tim. 1.3-4; 4.6-7; 2 Tim. 4.3-4; 1 Jn 1.1-3; 4.1-3; 2 Jn 7-11; and others).
2 Peter in particular is attacking some Christian heresy we know nothing else about and have no documents from. “Instead, we get a forged ‘eyewitness testimony’ cleverly disguised to refute the claim that the gospel was a myth—refuting it, that is, with a fabricated historical report. This letter is therefore a decisive proof-of-concept for the entire transition from the original Christian mysteries to a historicizing sect fabricating its own historical testimonies to ‘prove’ its claims” (p. 351).
Why would such a transition occur? Scholar Kurt Noll has traced the false claims of the historicity of figures in early Islam, where he showed that this transition is common in the presence of “intense sectarian competition over control of resources and ideology” (p. 352). In such a competitive environment, a “Jesus known in the flesh would be a more effective tool for marketing a dogma than a revelatory cosmic Jesus would be…. it is more rhetorically effective to claim Jesus was a historical person and that your doctrine can be traced back to him through a line of living witnesses and tradents than to admit that everything known about Jesus came by revelation, which entails further revelations by upstarts and challengers could carry the same value and thus could undermine the power of any growing church elite or the cohesion of any social mission” (pp. 352-353). Within the New Testament, there is ample evidence of sectarian division, and between Paul and Peter we see warring over the relative value of revelation vs. historical tradition.
Regardless, the claim concerning gainsaying is already refuted. “[I]nordinately public events are fabricated in the Gospels (such as a darkness covering the whole world for three hours; a wandering star that troubled the entire population of Jerusalem; a mass of resurrected saints invading the city; the triumphal entry of Jesus; a city-wide earthquake shattering the very rocks; a very public, necessarily violent, large-scale vandalizing and clearing of the temple square; multiple miraculous feedings of thousands of people; mass murder of two thousand pigs, and a whole town of babies and toddlers), which are obviously false, yet we have no extant document from anyone gainsaying any of it (‘Hey, I was there, and I didn’t see that!’). Therefore, evidently, we cannot expect there to be any” (pp. 353-354).
Carrier continues for quite some time with further evidence and reasoning, but it all basically follows the same pattern as my previous paragraph: we have no extant gainsaying of clearly false stories, and thus we have evidence that something being false does not necessarily produce gainsaying that will be preserved. Carrier concludes that “’inventing an actual man’s extraordinary fame without being gainsaid’” and “’inventing [a nonhistorical] extraordinarily famous man without being gainsaid’” are both equally probable. Therefore, he concludes that this particular argument distinguishes in no way between our two hypotheses.
For Papias, Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Thallus, the conclusion is clear that they provide no evidence in favor of historicity. However, they also clearly do not provide evidence in favor of mythicism, so they are a wash. Similarly, the lack of gainsaying witnesses and the documentary silence we will assume are equally likely on minimal historicity and on minimal mythicism, “although sterner skeptics might think that far too generous to minimal historicity” (p. 356). This leaves us with only four classes of evidence that we will consider affecting our evaluation of the competing theories. The (a) twin traditions argument, (b) 1 Clement, and (c) Ignatius and Ascension of Isaiah each we assigned a 4:5 probability favoring minimal mythicism when arguing as positively for historicity as possible (a fortiori), and a 1:2 probability favoring minimal mythicism when arguing as reasonably as possible. Hegesippus we assigned a 9:10 probability favoring minimal mythicism when arguing a fortiori, and a 4:5 probability favoring minimal mythicism when arguing as reasonably as possible. Combining these probabilities as per Bayes’s Theorem (but not yet taking into account the “prior probability” of Jesus’s reference class), we find that a fortiori all of this evidence is only 46% as likely if minimal historicity is true as it is if minimal mythicism is true, and arguing as reasonably as possible the evidence is only 10% as likely on minimal historicity. In short, the evidence we have considered is perfectly expected under minimal mythicism, but is quite surprising under minimal historicity.