Richard Carrier’s work is primarily aimed at a secular scholar audience. He is not directly addressing biblical literalists, although you will find that his minimal historicity hypothesis, against which he is comparing his minimal mythicism hypothesis, encompasses biblical literalism. His strategy is to compare the minimum set of criteria that would be universally accepted by people who considered Jesus Christ to be a historical figure upon which Christianity is based against the minimum set of criteria that would explain a purely mythological origin of the Jesus story. His minimum historicity claims are:
- “An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in his life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
- “This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
- “This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod).” (p. 34)
Minimal historicity, according to Carrier, requires all three of these claims to be true, because if any one of them is false, “it can fairly be said that there was no historical Jesus in any pertinent sense. At least one of them must be false for any Jesus myth theory to be true.” (p. 34) By dealing in this book specifically with this minimal theory, Carrier is attempting (I think successfully) to avoid needing to deal individually with the myriad mutually-contradictory historicity theories that span the scholarship.
Certainly, Christians believe much beyond this set of minimal historicity claims. In fact, the vast majority of secular New Testament scholars also believe much beyond this set of minimal historicity claims. But I agree with Carrier that all of them would agree on this set, and that this set is sufficient to establish at least a historical figure upon which the New Testament stories are based.
Against this minimal historicity hypothesis Carrier pits his minimal mythicism hypothesis. His claims for minimal mythicism are:
- “At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was though to be a celestial deity much like any other.
- “Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).
- “Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
- “As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
- “Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).” (p. 53)
Carrier considers that all five of these claims must be true for his minimal mythicism hypothesis to be true.
Notice the difference between these two hypotheses. The three claims of minimal historicity are strictly entailed by the notion that a historical figure existed upon which the Jesus stories are based. The same cannot be said for Carrier’s minimal mythicism hypothesis; there are, theoretically at least, many versions of mythicism that differ from this set of five claims. There is a theory that “the bulk of the New Testament is a hoax perpetrated by the Roman Senatorial elite.” There is a theory that “the original Jesus stories were a clever political metaphor against the ruling elite” (Both quotes from p. 8). So in this regard you could make a strong case that Carrier has in fact stacked the deck against himself; not only is he setting out to demonstrate that mythicism in general is a better explanation for the facts than any historicist hypothesis, he is setting out to demonstrate that a specific mythicist hypothesis is better than any historicist hypothesis.
However, Carrier then argues over the course of pages 53-55 that alternate mythicist hypotheses are so much less likely than the five claims listed above that they constitute a negligible possibility (specifically he reasons that taken together, all such alternate mythicist theories have a less than one tenth of one percent likelihood of being correct when compared to his minimal mythicist hypothesis). Since I feel that Carrier, over the course of the book, does an exceptional job of demonstrating that his minimal mythicist hypotheses is significantly more likely than any hypothesis that encompasses minimal historicity, and since I doubt that any of my readers are interested in arguing a mythicist position other than Carrier’s, I will therefore simply leave that point aside.
I should also point out that while there are indeed a number of other mythicist theories that have been published, very little of that work is scholarly. Carrier strongly asserts that nearly all such works have been “mired in or mixed up with poor, questionable or obsolete scholarship, therefore giving the impression that it isn’t worth looking at, because in such a state it doesn’t look either strong or valid” (p. 11). Carrier is extremely concerned with ensuring that his case is both extremely well grounded in up-to-date scholarship (which is heavily-referenced throughout the book) and is free of speculation that is not required to support the minimal mythicist hypothesis. I definitely applaud those motivations.
Carrier’s book therefore is primarily about comparing these two hypotheses and determining which of them fits the evidence better. As a preview, his conclusion is that even if we interpret the evidence as being as strongly in favor of minimal historicity as possible, we still find that minimal mythicism is at least 67% likely, and minimal historicity is no more than 33% likely. Interpreting the evidence more realistically he concludes that historicity is only 0.008% likely, or less than a 1 in 12,000 chance (which he compares to the 1 in 10,000 chance that you will be struck by lightning some time over the course of your life).