Thursday, January 31, 2013

How certain are you that a historical Jesus never existed? [INTERVIEW]

I posed the above question to America's ancient historian Dr Richard Carrier BA (History), MA (Ancient history), MPhil (Ancient history), PhD (Ancient history) and author of several books* and articles.  Dr Carrier answered the first question, How certain are you that a historical Jesus never existed? as follows:

RC: My next book (done, and slated for publication later this year) concludes the odds are between 1 in 12,000 and 1 in 3. The latter comes only from using the most ridiculous pro-historicity estimates reasonably imaginable; the former comes from using estimates I actually think are closer to correct. So I think it's almost certain Jesus didn't exist. But I'm willing to allow my margin of error is great enough that there could be as much as a 1 in 3 chance he did exist after all (but that he would probably be nothing like what modern reconstructions of him imagine).

SHOOT:  I am of the opinion, that in similar fashion to the Christians burning the library of Alexandria (to destroy conflicting history), historical texts such as those of Tacitus were tampered with in order to 'make history' correspond with the bible.

RC: Christians probably didn't burn the library of Alexandria. They burned its annex (the Serapeum), but not to get the books inside, but rather the pagans hiding inside it during a riot. The books were just collateral damage. The main library remained for centuries. The only story of its destruction that exists is that the Muslims burned it because they didn't see any use for it. That story has been disputed as inter-sectarian polemic within later Muslim communities, but if it's false, then we have no account at all of when or how it was destroyed. I am inclined to think the Muslim story is true. But alas, we have only the stories to go by, no corroborating evidence (except that the timeline is right...refs. to the library persist almost right up to the Muslim conquest).

As to doctoring evidence, yes, we know they did that, but the evidence also indicates there was no organized conspiracy to do it (as if there were it would have been more consistent and thorough). It was just a general zeitgeist that influenced a few of the gatekeepers of textual transmission to "edit" it in ways they individually wanted

SHOOT: I realise this sounds far-fetched, but I am of the opinion that scholars of the bible and of the historicity of Jesus aren't going to be interested in Jesus not having existed - as that would put large amounts of lecturers out of a job, and certainly cause schisms in Christianity.

RC:  There is some truth to that. Of course, they accuse mythicists of the same thing (of wanting to make money and to cause schisms in Christianity). And in truth secular-institution jobs wouldn't necessarily be lost, because they could just teach the new theory of ahistoricity. It's only religious institutions that would definitely fire someone who did that. Although that does count a lot of positions. And even the secular institutions can be pressured to do the same (as happened when Thomas Thompson started arguing for the ahistoricity of the patriarchs...which is now the mainstream view, but at the time every institution that associated with him came to be punished by other institutions, so the religious schools were actually able to control policy at secular schools through indirect political channels...they just didn't win in the long run).

SHOOT:  Some of the points I have pondered:
> - if one compares the information on Herod the Great, who lived just before Jesus' birth, it is noteworthy just how much we know about Herod.  His personality, his likes and dislikes, the year of his birth and death, names of his wives etc.
> - we do not know the exact year of Jesus' birth, or even the month.
> - the 'historicity' surrounding his birth is actually highly questionable (the census and the slaughter of the innocents) which seems to confirm this idea that an attempt is made to somehow conjure the timing of a mythical figure to actual history, when none in fact exists.  You start with one inconsistency, and then you need more (due to a census, the non roman citizens have to go to their place of birth etc)
> - then also the name 'Jesus'.  What was the name used at the time, for Jesus?  This seems to me a crucial bit of slap on the forehead information - what was Jesus' real name and surname?

RC: All true, but not enough. Plenty of minor religious cult leaders got even less press and documentation. So as long as we accept that Jesus was nowhere near as famous as the Gospels portray and didn't do hardly any of the things they claim, then the issues you bring up above are not unexpected if he existed and therefore do not argue against his existence. At least not very strongly. But there are other arguments and evidence to bring in.

I address all of this in detail in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. I'll blog it when it becomes available. So keep your eye out for that.

Richard C. Carrier, Ph.D.
* Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism and
Not the impossible faith, Why Christianity didn't need a miracle to succeed

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