This is the first part of the transcript from our interview with Dr Richard Carrier.
Welcome to The Freethought Prophet, Dr Carrier.
Glad to be here.
I think we owe everyone an apology to begin with. If in an hour’s time we are all talking like washing machines, that won’t be Dr Carrier’s fault. It will be the fault of the two Irish guys who have persuaded Dr Carrier that he really needs some of Mr Jameson’s Finest Podcast Juice.
So we have a lot of questions and perhaps a good place to start when we are going to discuss the Jesus Mythicist Theory, is to mention which of the many different pictures of Jesus that exist. So Reza Aslan tells the ‘Jesus as a zealot’ story, painting Jesus as a revolutionary, like a Middle Eastern Che Guevara. Then Bart Ehrman pictures a Jesus who is the leader of a Doomsday Cult. Like a Palestinian David Koresh, he tells people that the world is going to end pretty soon so they all better start doing what he says. Then there is the version of Jesus that I know from Catechism, since I was raised a Roman Catholic. So Tommy Tiernan is an Irish comic who describes Jesus as a wandering hippy who looked like one of the Bee Gees and just preached peace. As I understand it Richard, you not trying to discern one of these pictures from the other. You’re saying that none of them existed. Would that be fair?
Yes, that’s the mythicist position. What I think is more likely that not, is that when you look at the evidence, Jesus actually began as a revelatory being, just like the angel Moroni from the Mormon Church. He was originally someone you would only encounter in mystical visions or dream. This idea of writing a biography of an ordinary guy walking around performing miracles, was one that evolved later as a way to symbolically and allegorically represent the teachings of the Church. Then, within a hundred years of that, there were certain sects believing that the myths were true. There were some sects who didn’t believe that there was a historical Jesus but those sects were shut out and their documents destroyed or altered, by the surviving sect that won the propaganda war in the end.
I’m struck initially that you used the phrase, ‘is more likely than not’, because a lot of your book is based on Bayesian Reasoning. So Bayes Theorem allows you to begin with a subjective prior probability that something is true and then as you learn new information, it allows you to adjust the probabilities in a mathematically rigorous manner. An intuitive objection can be that subjective prior probabilities can corrupt the process. So let’s say if Bart Ehrman uses a prior probability that Jesus existed of 90% as there are so many Christians around and Richard Carrier uses a prior probability of 10% instead, as there are so many other religions around, this delta can corrupt the calculations. That’s not necessarily true though as the process allows various prior probabilities to converge on an consensus, if all parties are considering new information in a fair and reasonable manner. So it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the importance of considering each new piece of evidence in this manner.
That’s a good way to put it because people often cite the consensus but that doesn’t help a process in which we are challenging an ill-founded consensus. We need to re-examine the evidence and to look at new ways of evaluating old information. That’s absolutely essential but in cases like this where the data is very poor and corrupt and there is very little of it, the calculations are very sensitive to prior probabilities in a way that other applications of Bayes Theorem are not.
So for example, spam filters can start with almost any prior and the vast amount of new information will correct that. But in cases like the Jesus Mythicist Theory you really have to address the issue of subjective priors. I point this out in my book ‘Proving History’, which talks about the methodology of how historians should do this. Prior probabilities may be subjective but they can’t be arbitrary. You must defend your priors and one thing to point out is that your prior probability is technically a posterior probability. It’s the output of a previous run of the equation but it’s just that we don’t have the time to run the theorem against every single item of human knowledge. As humans we can’t take every piece of knowledge we have about ancient history and run it through the equation and so we ballpark it. We estimate that if we did that, we would arrive at a particular figure. This means that if you’re going to use a particular prior probability you have to explain why you are using that figure. What data is that based on? How did you arrive at that figure? That is something that you can talk about. You may be ignoring certain data or you may be using data that doesn’t exist. So you can have an objective discussion about what the priors should be set at.
So if we were to argue the priors based on the number of Christians today, that would be a completely invalid process. You have to look at divine founders of religions as a reference class. Or look at heroes that look like Jesus and create a reference class or a set, which is typical for that class of person. Chapter 6 of ‘On The Historicity Of Jesus’ describes a high prior probability that any given person described as a historical character actually did exist. Most people are not made up but Jesus is not just some random dude. Often I hear the claim that there is no evidence that Spartacus existed.
I thought you were going to say that often you hear the claim, “I’m Spartacus!”.
People claim there is no evidence that Socrates or Alexander The Great existed and when you show the evidence for them is vastly greater than that for Jesus, they keep trying to find someone else. Even Pontius Pilate, who is very poorly attested, is still way better attested than the historicity of Jesus. So Spartacus came up one time and it was suggested that the evidence for him is worse than that for Jesus and I pointed out that in fact it is better. Also, not only is the evidence better but the prior probability is different because these are different kinds of people. Spartacus was not a worshiped saviour god that was talking to people from heaven. He was a military leader who gave Rome a rare black eye and then they had to deal with him. So he falls under the category of military rebels or military opponents of a major empire. If you look at that whole reference class, most of those guys existed. If you see the Romans talking about such figures, the odds are that it was a real guy.
Jesus doesn’t fit in that reference class. He wasn’t a Spartacus. He’s a divine demigod who people are worshiping and he gives salvation to them. People are having conversations with his spirit in heaven. From the earliest documents of Christianity, that’s the Jesus that we’re talking about. It’s not the person he evolved into later but before we get any biography of Jesus, we get mystical Jesus who people are talking to in heaven. He’s saviour god Jesus, right out of the gate. He’s a Jewish version of the mystery cult concept that was the fashion of the time. When you look at that as the reference class he falls in to, most if not everyone in that reference class did not exist. Yet all of them were given myths that put them in history and had them doing deeds. So when you look at the actual context from which Jesus evolves, the background knowledge suggests that we should have a prior scepticism of his historicity. We should ask for evidence that he’s the exception. If we’re going to say that he’s different from Osiris or Romulus of Zalmoxis or Inanna or even Hercules or Moses, well then you need evidence for that. You can’t simply whitewash it with your intuition that he certainly existed.
So the evidence suggests that Jesus probably didn’t exist, just based on the prior probability of the reference class that he falls in to. You need evidence to suggest that he’s the exception to the rule and that’s where things fall down. When you start looking at the evidence and pull at each little thread, well then it falls apart rather quickly, in a way that does not happen for Socrates or Spartacus.
I know that Seamus has a bunch of questions about specific sources but just before he jumps into that, I understand what you’re saying about reference classes influencing your prior. So your prior can’t be a random number. When you look at the new information that you can feed into a Bayesian Reasoner though, we’re not finding more scrolls in Qumran every week, so what are the kinds of new information that people might consider? Is it new interpretations?
That’s a really good question. I’ll give you two examples to illustrate how we can re-look at the evidence. There isn’t anything new that’s pertinent to this debate. There’s a few new things showing up here and there but they’re usually not relevant. You know, the Gospel Of Judas was found recently.
Yes. I remember that.
It’s such a late document. Nobody would try to argue for historicity from an obviously mythical late document like that. So there is no new evidence but there is evidence that has always been there but has been looked at incorrectly. One example is the ascension of Isaiah. This was a document written by some sect of Christians, about whom we know nothing else except this piece of material, but we can show that this document was doctored later by the surviving sect, to make it into a historicist document. We have manuscripts that show the additions, which were not originally there. We have stylistic arguments too and so we can show that there was an earlier version of this text. When you look at that earlier version, this is a Jesus who is being crucified in outer space. The whole saga is not occurring on earth.
Now that’s debatable because the evidence has been so corrupted and so interfered with, so it’s not a conclusive argument that shows Jesus didn’t exist, but it’s a piece of evidence that changes the way you look at the whole body of evidence. Often you hear, if Jesus didn’t exist originally, there ought to be Christians around who were still saying that. Well here we have clues that there were actually Christians around still saying that. We just don’t get to hear what they say because their documents were destroyed or doctored. So there’s a new way of looking at the evidence that makes a Bayesian argument. That is, we would expect to see Christians denying the existence of Jesus. The fact that we don’t is improbable on Jesus Mythicism. Therefore they are making a Bayesian argument for historicity, even if they don’t realise they’re making a Bayesian argument.
What we’re saying is that actually, that argument is wrong. There actually is evidence of Christians saying that Jesus never existed. So the argument that the evidence makes mythicism improbable is incorrect. The evidence actually fits mythicism.
Another example is the way the letters of Paul are interpreted. These letters are really strong evidence for mythicism because there is no historical Jesus in there, of the ordinary type. There is just a celestial Jesus who seems to have been crucified by outer powers rather than the Romans or the Jews. There is no biography or ministry. Paul even says that the only way we know about Jesus is through revelation and scripture. There is no reference to any person actually having met him or hung out with him before he died. Even the famous Creed in 1 Corinthians 15, which mentions Jesus appearing to the apostles at the start of the religion, conspicuously omits any mention of him appearing to anyone before he died. So there’s no ministry for Jesus. Everything that you would see in a Gospel today is gone from that original version in 1 Corinthians 15.
So this is another example where, when you actually look at the evidence, it flips the probabilities around the other way. So evidence has been ignored and dismissed by improper reasoning. We’re saying you have to look at it with proper reasoning. Another example of this is when I was debating it on London radio with Mark Goodacre, who is a fantastic scholar and very open-minded and very expert. He argued that Paul said he learned the Gospel from those who were with Christ before him. I said that Paul explicitly denies that. Not only does he not claim that, he swears he never learned it from those who were with Christ before him.
So we went to commercial and I asked him to look for the verse. He looked for the verse and couldn’t find it. He was astonished. For his whole life, he had assumed that this verse had existed because the field of Jesus Studies keeps telling you that this is in there. But it was a telephone game where someone just hypothesised that this what Paul meant but in fact he said the opposite of that. So the data does not line up with what the the consensus is just basing judgements on. The consensus is basing judgements on what data they think we have but when you like at it, that data doesn’t exist.
There are many examples of that. It’s worse in Christian apologetics where they keep citing data that definitely doesn’t exist. But even secular scholars keep citing data that doesn’t exist, or take purely speculative data and treat it as if it is hard data. For example, the Q hypothesis is one instance of that. We have to step back and stop doing that. We have to look at the actual data that we have. Not hypothetical data. Not speculative data. Not data that you were told exists but data that you can actually go and confirm exists. When you actually look at the data and then do your Bayesian analysis on that, you’re going to get a different result. So that’s looking at new information, in a way. That’s looking at the information as it actually is rather than information you were told. You’re basically readjusting your evidence set and then rerunning the calculation. That’s what we’re saying needs to be done in the field and hasn’t been done in the field yet.
Since you’ve mentioned Q, why do you not subscribe to the theory of Q, whereas Dr Robert Price (the other well know mythicist) does?
I’m convinced by Mark Goodacre, who is the lead scholar in the movement to argue that Q is a fabrication. For people who don’t know what that is, firstly there is what is called the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Mathew and Luke … John is an outlier). They all copy material from Mark. We know Matthew and Luke used Mark and they copied it verbatim. They altered some things but they used so much of it verbatim that we know they used Mark as a source.
Now in addition to that, there’s overlaps between Matthew and Luke. That’s identical material in Matthew and Luke, sometimes with some slight variations, but often a lot of it is verbatim … but it’s not in Mark. So that question is, where did that stuff come from. It looks like they’re using another document that we don’t have. That document is hypothesised to exist and it’s called Q, which is from the German word ‘quelle’, meaning ‘source’.
That’s one way to explain it. Another way to explain it is that Luke is using Matthew. Matthew is Q essentially. So Luke is using both Mark and Matthew and changing some of it up, rejecting some of it and just writing his own version of the Gospel. With that you just have the two sources, you have Mark and Matthew. You have no Q. This actually explains, in my opinion, way more data than the Q hypothesis.
This is another example that really parallels the mythicism case, where the arguments you often hear, that say the consensus agrees something about Q, are frequently based on a false assumption. So you’ll hear that ‘Q is just a sayings document’, it didn’t have any narrative. That’s false. There are overlaps between Luke and Matthew that include narrative material. Not just that, there is narrative material about characters other than Jesus. We have John The Baptist materials shared between them, which doesn’t come from Mark. There are narrative events in which a narrative sequence is preserved between Matthew and Luke, which is not in Mark. So it’s clear that if there was a Q it was not a sayings Gospel. It was a full on Gospel. We even have overlaps with the crucifixion narrative. Often you hear that Q did not have a crucifixion narrative. That’s false. Whatever source Luke and Matthew were sharing, which wasn’t Mark, had a crucifixion narrative. It probably had a Nativity narrative and it probably had a Resurrection narrative too. You can show, not verbatim overlaps, but you can show quite a number of conceptual overlaps. It seems highly unlikely that they just happened to come up with the same ideas.
So it looks very much like this missing Gospel that they were using is a whole Gospel with a Nativity and a Resurrection and the whole deal. When you add that all up you, we have one of those, it’s called Matthew. What usually happens is that the Q defenders will say let’s assume that’s true, that Luke copied from Matthew, the way he used it is weird and so we don’t think that’s likely and there must have been another document. That’s a really weak argument. It’s based on assumptions about how ancient writers worked and those assumptions are not made based on being a classicist or being an expert on the literature. If you go and look at ancient literature, what they’re saying is improbable really isn’t. There are examples of the kinds of ways that people did doctor and alter their source materials. So the arguments trying to defend the Q hypothesis are also very weak and ill-formed, but there is this strong institutional inertia to defend it.
There is this need for Q. Even for people who don’t need it like Robert Price, are enamoured with it because they can use it to explain other theories. It usually gets very complicated where you have this five stage theory of Q, where Q was evolving over five different stages as new material was added. You can use this to fit other theories but I think we need to let those go and realise that the data really doesn’t support Q and it really doesn’t support those other theories. So as attractive as those other theories may be, we need to let them go and move on. We need to accept the fact that Luke is not only a redaction of Matthew but Luke is arguing against Matthew. Luke is actually making decisions about how he has changed Matthew that are deliberate. For example, Luke rewrites the Nativity to refute Matthew or to replace Matthew. He doesn’t like Matthew’s Nativity. When you do that you can actually explain a lot more of the material. You can explain why Luke’s Nativity differs from Matthew’s Nativity, whereas the Q hypothesis doesn’t let you do that. So I think we can do more if we can just get rid of the Q hypothesis and admit that Luke is working with Matthew.
In your book ‘On The Historicity Of Jesus’, you point out that the Gospels were written in more of a literal narrative, much like Homer and other such works of that time. Could you explain that for us?
Yeah, I go into it in detail in Chapter 10 of ‘On The Historicity Of Jesus’. So we have examples. We have ancient biographies of non-existent people. So Plutarch wrote what looks like a straightforward biography of Romulus, but Romulus is a mythical person. So the way he has written it he makes it look like a history, but his source material is all mythical. It still preserves a lot of the symbolic and allegorical functions of these myths and what they represented. Some of it has been distorted and lost because of his rewriting. He is rewriting it to make it look like a historical narrative. He’s treating mythical material as historical.
We have other examples of this happening even to historical persons. For example, the biographies of Euripides and certain other philosophers have been shown by classicists to be fabrications. They took things that these philosophers and playwrights wrote in their plays and books and then converted them into biographical details. So even Euripides and Thales almost certainly existed, but their biographies are largely fictional, based on this method of taking a saying and creating a biographical story about it, in order to illustrate something about the character of the person.
This was a procedure taught in schools of the time. The Gospel authors were taught this. In order to learn the Greek they used at the time, they were taught these methods of allegorical writing. They were taught these methods of fabrication. So when you see them take something like a saying of Jesus and then provide a whole biographical story that illustrates the meaning of that saying, they are doing what they were taught to do. That’s the way you would communicate an idea. You would tell a story about Jesus and this communicates the ideas you want to communicate. But it doesn’t have a historical source. They are not basing it on memory or tradition. They are making it up. They are making it up for a purpose. They are making it up for reasons that are explained only to insiders. This is where we get Mark 4, which is this bizarre passage that people often find very perplexing when they read it. It says Jesus always tells these parables and the apostles take him aside and say they don’t understand the parables. Jesus says he is telling the parables to the public so the public won’t understand because if they understand they will convert and be saved. That’s weird. Doesn’t Jesus want people to convert and be saved? Why is he trying to dupe the public? This is a clue. This is a cipher, a key text to understanding whole idea of the Christian Gospel in general (not just Mark’s Gospel). They don’t want outsiders to use this knowledge to be saved. They want you to be inducted and become an insider so they can teach you the values and teach you the right mindset so you can become a good Christian rather than just a saved Christian.
So what they do is they provide these outward stories like the parables or the Gospels, which are meant to trick you into thinking that they are literally true, so that you miss the point of them. When you join, now they’ve got you. Now they can explain things to you. Now they can police you. They can make sure you’re following their values. Now they can explain to you in private (and they swear you to secrecy, as happens in every other mystery cult) this is what these stories really mean. You’re not supposed to take them literally. The people who take them literally, we just laugh at them. They’re ridiculous, but when you understand it, that makes you a true insider. That makes you better than them and this creates more bonding and more morale in the movement, because we’re insiders and we know the truth and those crazy yokels, they think these things are literal and they don’t know what they’re talking about. So you get this social cohesion effect. We know all of the mystery cults were run this way.
Some other religions have been run this way too like Mormonism and even Catholicism have been run this way. They have these secret insider documents that they would keep from the public. There are many other examples of secret societies throughout history where they’ve tried to create this bonding environment, with secret teachings that were concealed from the public beneath other overt teachings that they would explain to the public, but weren’t the real teachings. We know this model happens a lot in the West. It’s a Western cultural phenomenon but it goes all the way back to before Christian times. It appears even Judaism may have had it. We have some Rabbinical knowledge that fits this category and looks very similar to Christian knowledge. Josephus even admits that too.