A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”

Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).[worldcat]

In chapter two of Richard Carrier’s monumental volume On the Historicity of Jesus, the independent scholar and advocate of “Jesus mythicism” explains why he permits only three claims to characterize the position he calls a “minimal theory of historicity” (see pages 31-34). Much of his book aims to put this minimal theory of historicity to the test. The three claims Carrier proposes as characterizing “minimal historicism” with respect to Jesus are (i) that Jesus was “an actual man” with “followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death” and (ii) he “was claimed by his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities,” and (iii) his “followers soon began worshipping [him] as a … god” (all page 34).

Carrier’s limitation of the “minimal theory” to these three allegedly most essential facts of the so-called “historicist” position may seem, at first, to be sufficient. Perhaps they would be sufficient, if all his book set out to do (as its title implies) were to test the question of Jesus’ bare existence.

However, in forming this trio of claims to be tested, Carrier also makes a point to reject the standard minimalist lists of facts about the Jesus of history that are typically found among Biblical scholars. I feel no need to rehash such lists here (see Carrier, pp. 32-33 and nn. 18-19 for the lists he specifically rejects) since they are a commonplace, a well-known outcome of the approach to historical Jesus studies that has characterized scholarship after E. P. Sander’s 1985 study Jesus and Judaism.

Now, ostensibly, there are two reasons why these longer lists of minimal facts about Jesus are not sufficiently minimalist for Carrier’s purposes. First, he notes, they present a number of claims that, were some of them falsified, an “historicist” account of Jesus (i.e. the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a “real” person in the past) would not necessarily be eliminated. But secondly, he states quite clearly, the elements found in such lists have already been falsified.

Note well: what I am saying is that Carrier’s particular account of so-called “minimal historicism” is more than just a logical starting point. It is an overdetermined bit of theater. It has been shaped by a prior analysis of the data that is normally used in the creation of any minimal account of who Jesus was in history. These Sanders-style lists of minimal facts about Jesus are necessarily dependent on early Christian accounts of Jesus (specifically, the Gospels). Well in advance of the publication of On the Historicity of Jesus, Carrier has already reviewed all of these alleged facts about Jesus, and he has already rejected them as insufficiently grounded in “history” (see his 2012 book Proving History).

This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start. The question of Jesus’ historicity has already been decided. By design, Carrier’s statement of the minimal form of the theory of Jesus’ historicity dooms it to failure, since it has been formulated in light of a prior assumption that is deadly to its premises: the only available sources available for investigation of the life of Jesus are so absolutely unreliable that no statements about Jesus based solely on them can be admitted at all. His conclusions also entail a prior rejection of widely shared assumptions about the best scholarly methods for reading these sources, i.e., how to extract reliable historical data from the conflicting narratives of the Gospels. Essentially, on Carrier’s account, every prior historian who has decided to rely on Christian sources for knowing about Jesus has been a dupe, a stooge or tool who has mistaken fiction for fact.

For these reasons, calling his three claim account a minimalist statement of historicist theory is actually a form of begging the question. He has already rejected the historicist position precisely by insisting that it be formulated in this way and under these limitations. He has already revealed that he does not regard as reliable any aspect of any testimony about the past found in early Christian sources — unless, that is, such testimonies can be read in a way that supports his alternate theory of Christian origins.

For these reasons, the title of Carrier’s book is really misleading. This work doesn’t merely seek to answer the question “did a human Jesus exist in the past, yes or no?” This is not actually a book on the bare question of the historicity of Jesus, or on reasons for doubting claims that he existed as a person in history. It is, instead, a treatise on “Christian Origins.” The real question being asked by Carrier is not about the “historicity” of Jesus per se, but rather about the historical origins of the Christian movement.

The purpose of setting up a “minimal historicist theory” is to contrast it with its alleged partner and converse, a “minimal mythicist theory.” Carrier hopes that we will accept this either/or alternative. If one proves less probable, then the other becomes more probable.

The statement of alternatives being proposed in Carrier’s book is as follows.

Either it is

(A) more probable that early Christianity originated in a movement of people who had been followers of an earthly man named Jesus whom they subsequently came to worship as a god

or it is

(B) more probable that early Christianity originated in a movement of people who believed in and worshiped a mythical celestial being named Jesus—a divine being who was believed to have descended, suffered, ‘died,’ and been raised again entirely within a supernatural, heavenly realm— which mythical being Jesus was later portrayed by the movement as a real human being who lived on earth; while of course he must also subsequently have continued to be worshiped as a divine being, though now through a newly applied layer of mythicized historicized myth.

The fact is that through the past several centuries of historical inquiry, from H. S. Reimarus down to E. P. Sanders, position (A) has usually been seen as the most probable. Now, it is true that for a long time, a small minority of scholars have argued that we lack sufficient evidence to know if the man Jesus really existed in the past. However, such scholars have not maintained the position (B) found in Carrier’s proposed alternative. These scholars have instead limited themselves to a more truly minimalist mythicist claim: that the early Christians invented the story of the man Jesus; the stories of the gospels are thus themselves the myths. The first main representative of this school of mythicism includes most infamously Bruno Bauer (whose works on Jesus span 1840–1877).

In point of fact position (B), as Carrier articulates it, was never proposed as such until it found expression in the 1999 book of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle.

Carrier’s book is thus somewhat misleadingly presented. It is not a treatise on the historicity of Jesus so much as it is an attempt to defend Doherty’s thesis. But it doesn’t seek to defend that thesis merely on the merits. Instead, Carrier attempts to defend it by packaging it as if it were, tout simple, the logical alternative to minimal historicism (construed in a way that it must necessarily fail).

If this book were a mere treatise on the question of historicity, it would begin by examining carefully the arguments against historicity that have really been advanced (in the history of scholarship). It would also examine and demonstrate the inadequacy of objections to those arguments. It might advance new arguments against historicity and anticipate and answer in advance possible objections to those arguments. And it could accomplish its stated objective while leaving aside the question of an alternate explanation of Christian origins entirely. But if it wanted to be more satisfying, alternately, it could advance another theory — Doherty’s view or some other view of Christian origins — treating such a theory as a separate question. But this is certainly not what the book does.

Instead, Carrier wants the reader to believe that the defeat of minimal historicism entails the success of what he tendentiously describes as “the Minimal Jesus Myth Theory” (see his pages 52–53, where he lists five allegedly “minimal” aspects of the “mythicist” position). But defeating minimal historicism does not entail any part of his minimal mythicism. The entire book is predicated on a form of begging the question.

So, should we just ignore this rather tedious, overly self-referential, pseudo-logical, pseudo-mathematical book? Should we criticize it in detail? Should we complain about the dismissive and cavalier attitude which Carrier takes up towards over two centuries of prior historical scholarship on Christian origins? Should we take up a separate examination of Doherty’s Christ-Myth theory, putting it to the test in detail? Or should we all quit our jobs and spend our twilight years getting drunk, because we see clearly now that the present age has brought about such a morass of footnoted mythologizing by “scholars”? The jury is still out, however, I do suspect there are yet other alternatives that I haven’t considered.

  10 comments for “A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”

  1. April 22, 2015 at 9:17 am

    This was a great read.

  2. April 28, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    Thank you for this article. Perhaps this is nitpicking, or perhaps I have misunderstood you, but:

    “In point of fact position (B), as Carrier articulates it, was never proposed as such until it found expression in the 1999 book of Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle.”

    Do you not consider that Arthur Drews and P.-L. Couchoud, among others, held similar views? Or is it that they held similar views but just not similar enough? Or perhaps such writers are today just considered obscure, and they have perhaps not been considered? Genuine question.

    (I do appreciate, as you point out, that the viewpoints of other academics, including Bruno Bauer, are not represented by Carrier’s articulation of so-called “minimal mythicism.” Indeed I also agree with the general point that Carrier’s narrow delimitation, down to two ‘minimal’ hypotheses, may have reduced the relevance or validity of his analysis considerably, particularly for anyone who does not view one or the other or both as the best, or even truly minimal, statement of ‘historicity’ or ‘mythicism’. This does seem to be applicable both to his ‘minimal historicity’ and his ‘minimal mythicism,’ and in very simple terms it can be called a fallacy of the excluded middle. As you say, ‘defeating minimal historicism does not entail any part of his minimal mythicism.’)

    Thanks again, and thanks for any reply. Cheers.

    • April 29, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Peter. Being somewhat new to the “mythicist” tradition, I am actually unfamiliar with Drews and Couchoud, so I’m going to have to look those guys up now; I appreciate the tip. Your genuine question is therefore both apt and helpful.

      Reading the reply by Neil Godfrey over at Vridar, I feel misunderstood, but I guess I deserve whatever heat I take for letting myself call Carrier’s book “pseudo-” anything. Maybe it’s time to eat crow for straying into ad-hominem? Although those weren’t meant as criticisms of a person, but of a style and a method.

      I really do think that Carrier stacks the deck against “minimal historicism,” leaving it with no fighting chance (no matter what arguments he would bring forward) simply because he has already decided that the only sources which could be used to substantiate the basic claims of minimal historicism have already been deemed too unreliable to substantiate a fuller minimal account. This is turning the tools of historical criticism against the historicism which such criticism presumes. It might even be right to reject the gospels as evidence of any particular claim about Jesus, including the claim of existence. But if so, then start with the more honest premise that arguments for Jesus’ historicity have failed, and announce to the world that you intend to explore an alternate account of Christian origins; don’t make it seem like your book actually treats the question of historicity, when that question has already been decided! There’s a false “excluded middle” as you suggest, between a rejected minimal historicism and Carrier’s account of “minimal mythicism.”

  3. Kris Rhodes
    April 28, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Let’s call Carrier’s minimal historicism “C”. Let’s call Sanders-style versions which include info about JtB etc, “S”.

    The following conditional holds: If S is true, then C is true.

    From that it follows that if C is false, then S is false.

    From that, it’s reasonable to think that if C is implausible, then S is implausible.

    Everything said in this blog article aside, that logical relationship between C and S remains. No matter what Carrier’s motivations or reasons are for choosing to deal with C instead of dealing with S directly, it remains the case that IF Carrier can show C to be implausible, then S becomes implausible as well.

    For that reason, I am having difficulty understanding what important point you are making. I don’t know what it is, to put it a little bluntly, that makes this a “great read.” (Hi Daniel!) To me, as explained above, the article seems to miss the point. There is no need to deal with S directly for any reason, since a negative conclusion about C has all the important implications we could be interested in for S.

    Can you help me out here?

    • April 29, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      Kris, I can only say so much. First, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I left a comment on the Vridar post about this (http://vridar.org/2015/04/28/problems-with-accepting-carriers-argument/) hoping to clarify my position. But it probably won’t answer your concerns.

      The logic of your if S, then C, therefore if not C, then not S seems air tight to me.

      It would be a fine position to take if Carrier were really about testing what you call “C” here (Carrier’s minimal historicism). But Carrier’s book isn’t a test of C. C is rejected in the formulation of C, because the only possible basis of C is evidence that Carrier dismisses as completely unreliable in all respects in his prior book and here and there in the first two chapters.

      But my real point isn’t that “hey this isn’t fair” or “hey the game is rigged” (though I think both of those are probably correct claims) but rather that the opposition of what you call C with what I will, here in this comment, call M (Carrier’s minimal mythicism), creates a false impression of two alternatives which satisfy all the possible explanations of the data we possess.

      Does this statement seem logical: “if not C then M”
      or this: “if not M then C”

      The structure of his argument doubly begs the question; it begs the question of the historicity of Jesus by establishing the unreliability of all possible evidence for that historicity prior to establishing its unreliability, and it begs the question of the peculiar mythicist position by arguing incorrectly that it is the only other viable alternative.

      • Kris Rhodes
        April 29, 2015 at 3:05 pm

        //But Carrier’s book isn’t a test of C. C is rejected in the formulation of C, because the only possible basis of C is evidence that Carrier dismisses as completely unreliable in all respects in his prior book and here and there in the first two chapters.//

        This argument seems far too strong. You seem to be saying that since we know he already didn’t believe C prior to even writing the book, we can safely ignore the arguments he does give against C in this book and in Proving History. But of course, _most_ books are written by authors who, once they’ve started writing, already know what conclusion they’re going to draw. This is, for one thing, not a criticism of any author, and for another thing, not relevant to evaluating the arguments they offer in the book.

        It’s not true either that since Carrier dismisses the evidence for C within the first two chapters, the rest of the book is effectively failing to argue against C (or to “test C” as you put it) as well. One can refute a position in multiple ways. If Carrier believes he has refuted C already within the first two chapters, this by no means precludes him from continuing to test C throughout the rest of the book. And he manifestly does–each section of the book discusses the issue of whether this or that piece of evidence is more plausible on C or on M. Of course I know you know he does this, but you seem to be saying it’s useless to even examine those further arguments given the earlier dismissal of the evidence for C. But the logic of it (simplified a great deal of course) is this: “I can dismiss C on this basis. But even if you don’t buy that, I can further argue against C on these other bases.”

        Ain’t nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing about it that makes the later, further arguments against C any less valuable or worth responding to.

        As to whether C and M are exclusive and exhaustive, I am actually still not sure what you’re envisioning here. Suppose C were false. What other states of affairs could obtain in that case? I would not say that C and M are logical contradictories, and that there is logical room for other possibilities. But I’m having a hard time coming up with anything even _close_ to being as plausible as either C or M. If I’m right to think nothing else comes close than these two, then for all dialectical purposes, it _is_ true that if not-C then not-M and vice versa.

  4. Kapitano
    April 29, 2015 at 7:47 am

    “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start. The question of Jesus’ historicity has already been decided.”

    …says the man who has already decided that the absolute minimum a historian should say about Jesus includes events which *presuppose* his existence. That’s like saying Jack the Ripper must have existed because we know it was him who committed the murders.

    • April 29, 2015 at 2:25 pm

      Kapitano, thanks for your comment and for taking the time to read this. To me your comment is illuminating. “Jack the Ripper” is a figure of history who has been something of a mystery, and whose historical actuality remains unknown and subject to debate. In the case of the ripper the question was of identity: who was the ripper? It was not a question of historicity: was there a ripper? There was some human being who murdered some people in London in 1888. We just don’t know who it was for sure. The murders are the evidence that a man existed. Unless… it was aliens? or a mythical celestial being?

  5. April 30, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Dear Matthew,

    I wrote something on your blog last night which you have not posted. I am glad you have not posted and I want to apologise for what I posted. I was (unusually for me) aggressive and unfair in what I said. I wrote my comment in a) a bad mood and b) without properly reading your article. I stand by some of things I said. I disagree with your critique of Carrier and think it significantly misrepresents the argument he made in his book. However, I also can see that my comments did not really address the guts or the nuance of what you were saying. Mostly, I regret the tone of my comment which was arrogant and did not contribute, in any way, to a healthy dialog/debate. This is not usually my style…

    What motivated me was that I am just really tired of people misrepresenting mythisicists and making straw men arguments against them. I would like to quote Peter Kirby who made a comment over at Vridar in a discussion with you. I could not say it better myself…

    ’I wish for a lot of things… but, mostly, in this context, that Carrier and Doherty are just considered part of the conversation, which has been taking place (off and on) for a while now (better part of 150 years), and that someone would finally write a truly great book in favor of the hypothesis of the historicity of Jesus (which I still think is yet to be written). I wish that there were more critical interaction and development of theory both within and among those skeptical of the historicity of Jesus, and between them and the wider world of people looking into Christian origins.”


    P.S I do think Carrier, in his book, really nailed the gospels as well as he could have. I think much work is being done showing the allegorical-fictional nature of Mark – particularly re the connections between Paul and Mark as well as Mark’s use of the OT and other texts to construct his narrative. Once you understand Mark in these terms you can see that there really is, not only little room for history ‘remembered’, but that it is no longer needed to explain why he wrote his gospel…


what do you think?

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