This is the second part of the transcript from our interview with Dr Richard Carrier.
Yes, as you say even in contemporary times there is Opus Dei and a number of other groups within he Catholic Church that have additional secret teachings beyond the Catechism. That brings us onto another question about motivated reasoning of devoted Christians. So if you look at debates with people like William Lane Craig, they are not really having the same conversation as you might have with say Bart Ehrman. They are not really debating from a scholarly perspective. Do you have any thoughts about this aspect of the field in general? Do you see a clear bright line between biblical scholarship and theology or does the domain often become polluted by motivated reasoning of devoted Christians?
They blur together because of course the apologists want to look like scholars, so they go through the motions to get the scholarly knowledge and they use the footnotes and when the doctrine is not on the line they can do really good scholarship. Because they went to the trouble of learning the skills and they present their arguments to look like respectable scholarship, but it’s really just bullshit a lot of the time. So when they apply their skills and their degrees and their knowledge, to things that their doctrines and their beliefs don’t ride on, they can often produce some good stuff. You can see what’s going on there and it’s often pretty good scholarship. But when there’s something they need to prove that they need to be true, when it’s not a question of what is true but what they need to be true, then you see the motivated reasoning and he fallacies come out. Then you see them try to make the round peg fit the square hole. They try to get the scholarship to fit what they want to be the case. They’ll do that through all the variety of tactics you’ve seen in debates and apologetic writings. The way they omit evidence, they way the use fallacies to get conclusions from the evidence.
But that also exists among the secular scholars too. Even though they’re not trying to defend the Christian doctrine, they have other pressures on them. They have pet theories that they want to defend. So you have the Zealot Hypothesis and you have someone like Aslan, and he’s not the first by the way, he’s just the most recent populariser of this theory. There are others who have tried to argue the Zealot Hypothesis. They become very enamoured with it and say that this has to be the truth. So they engage in motivated reasoning and they use a lot of the same fallacies, they make a lot of the same mistakes and they cherry pick evidence and so on. They are convinced that their theory has to be correct. That’s just an academic fault. That’s not a religious fault.
We’ll find that even in the sciences. We’ll find scientists who have this pet theory that they won’t let go. In the sciences though, there’s decisive ways to kill those, usually. Right now we have the debate between Quantum Loop Gravity Theory and Super String Theory. They are at each other’s throats and they are each certain that their version of things is right. Motivated reasoning happens there too but they at least acknowledge that there is no experiment they can do to decisively answer this question. In history, that’s almost always the case. There is never a decisive experiment you can do. You can describe one hypothetically. We could theoretically find this one document that we’ve long wanted to see and will answer all the questions but the odds are that we’re never going to find that document. It has been destroyed. It is long gone. So we have the conceptual idea that in reality we’re never going to get that. This allows pet theories to take on a life of their own.
The Q Theory is a good example of that. Michael Goulder wrote an article called “Is Q A Juggernaut?”. He’s saying that people are so enamoured with this theory, they just won’t let it go. He’s even explaining that it’s based on motivated reasoning. They just can’t let it go and it’s not because they need it for Christian reasons or doctrinal reasons. It’s entirely secular reasons. They’re just so in love with this concept. Their pet theories are based on it and they just can’t let go of all that stuff. So even secular scholars face this problem of motivated reasoning and we have to look out for it.
I think, from memory, the example that Dr Price gave us was from John. It was the passage when The Woman Was Taken In Adultery. So Jesus is drawing pictures in the sand and I think there’s evidence that this was an insertion added during a later period.
I remember talking to a Catholic priest afterwards and I was explaining that I was disappointed, as I always thought that was one of the more nuanced passages. It is quite a good story because it doesn’t say that Jesus is drawing people’s sins but you can infer that from the text. He explained to me that the Church accepts that this is a later addition but that it really happened historically and the later author was inspired by the Holy Spirit to capture the event in the text. With apologies, I’m sure there was more sophistry and obfuscation around the language, rather than just inspiration by the Holy Spirit, but that was essentially the argument.
Yes. That’s exactly the argument for the long ending of Mark. The Pentecostals here in the USA, the people who pick up snakes because the long ending of Mark has Jesus say that you can pick up serpents and they won’t kill you. This is supposed to prove your faith so they actually do this and of course they often die but they need this as part of their religion, as part of their sect. This is extremely well proven. It is one of the best examples of an interpolation, of a passage that was not in the original but was added later. I have an extensive chapter documenting all of the evidence. For people who are wondering what the evidence is that it is an insertion, it’s in “Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ”. You’ll see a complete scholarly breakdown of all the evidence, internal and external.
One of the things that I do cite in that chapter in “Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ” is this Pentecostal journal article. It’s a Pentecostal Theology journal and I can’t remember the exact name of the journal but it’s a peer-reviewed journal of scholarship by Pentecostals. They wrote this article in there about the long ending of Mark. It’s a really good article because they are so committed to being honest scholars that they don’t engage in the obfuscation and apologetics. It’s a really honest presentation of the evidence, a really scholarly presentation of the evidence. It’s a really useful article and in the end they had to admit that it was added later. It wasn’t written by Mark. They tack on these last few paragraphs though when they say that the forger was inspired by god and therefore it’s still an inerrant and true word of god and therefore we can rely on it. So … y’know!
There’s no way around that.
Well, if you’re just going to assert it, no. Maybe we should talk about the Bayesian breakdown, considering the prior probability of divinely inspired forgers?
It’s similar to the argument that I’ve seen made for the historicity of the Gospels, based on the fact that they refer to real people and places, like Pilate or Herod, who we know were real. The corollary of that is that if in 1,000 years time someone picks up a Spiderman comic that shows Spiderman swinging around the buildings of New York … well, New York is real. Ipso facto, Spiderman must be real.
That’s no joke. Craig Evans, who I debated recently, is probably the most high profile scholar in Bible Studies who I have had a debate on the historicity of Jesus with. I wrote a blog about this and you can look up the debate between Craig Evans and Richard Carrier. That was one of his main arguments. The main argument he had was what he called the verisimilitude of the gospels. They mention things that really exist, therefore they must be historically accurate. This is the wildest non sequitur. It’s astonishing to hear any self respecting scholar make an argument like that.
There’s lots of fiction in the ancient world that has historically accurate documents in it. Troy actually existed and there probably was a Trojan Horse. It did involve a league of Greek cities against what is now Turkey, but that doesn’t mean that any of the characters in Homer existed. It doesn’t mean Hercules existed or any of those characters. Most people recognise that’s a ridiculous argument. There really was a Trojan Horse and there really was a Troy … therefore Hercules existed? Well, no-one would say that, usually. Well, it’s possible, but they wouldn’t say definitely. It’s the best argument we have therefore it’s ridiculous for you to deny the historicity of Hercules? No.
That’s the kind of argument we’re dealing with and this is the kind of argument on which the consensus is based, which is why we really can’t cite the consensus any more on the historicity of Jesus because when they make arguments like this, we know that the consensus is not well-founded. That’s the thing that I have a really hard time getting people to understand. There was one Christian who asked, aren’t you really bothered about all the sitting professors in this field accepting historicity? I said that I’m not any more. I was originally, because originally I was a historicist. I used to say the same things, like, all these guys say that historicity existed, therefore it is unlikely that it didn’t. Until I looked at the evidence and then I thought it is obvious that the consensus is ill-founded. They are not basing it on reason or evidence, the way I thought they were. So no, I’m not bothered by what the consensus is because I think that the consensus is rubbish.
It’s difficult to get people to admit that and accept it, that the consensus is so poorly designed and so poorly built, that they need to completely rethink their methodology. They need to completely re-examine the evidence with a new methodology that works. Whether it’s mine or some other, I don’t care as long as it’s logically valid. Until they do that we can’t rely on the consensus for claims that are very difficult to let go. The historicity of Jesus is one and even for secular scholars it’s difficult for them to let that go, because their careers are built on historicity. Also, there is a lot of evidence for efforts to punish anyone who goes against this. So for example, if you’re in Jesus Studies, even if you’re a secular scholar, your Department at the university might be heavily dependent on Christian funding. There might be Christian donors who are providing funding and grants for going to conferences and for putting on conferences, for supplying the library with books and so on. You don’t want to piss them off, so even secular scholars are under pressure not to go too wildly against Christian doctrine. They might be willing to go against fundamentalist doctrine because they have liberal Christians supporting them but they don’t want to lose the support of even the liberal Christians. So something as extreme as this, I think even secular scholars are under pressure not to do it.
I’ve had private discussions with actual professors in the field, who are historicity agnostics actually, they will admit to me, but they say they can’t go public about it because of the repercussions against their career. Not just repercussions agains their career but even just the headache of it. For example if you were to say, like Hector Avalos did (may the secular gods of the world bless him) he admitted that he is a historicity agnostic on the public record. But he’s in a safe position. He has long been an atheist. He has long been an iconoclast. He wrote a book that said that everyone should fire him and that his career should be eliminated from the university. It’s called the end of Biblical Studies, the thesis of which is that Biblical Studies should no longer be a thing. So he’s arguing for the elimination of his own position. So obviously he would not be afraid to admit that he’s a historicity agnostic. But a lot of scholars are faced with this detail, so that even if they come out and say that it might be possible that Jesus didn’t exist, now they’re going to be pressured to actually defend that. They are going to be constantly hounded. They are going to constantly have to make arguments for it. Now that means they are going to have to do research to make sure that they know for sure what they’re talking about. This is a lot of work. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of emotional labour. They might have other things that they want to apply all of their emotional labour and stress to, their own pet projects.
This has been explicitly said to me by people. Some will say, I don’t want to deal with this debate because I have these other projects I want to work on and that would drain too much from those. So these are the kinds of things that we’re faced with right now. Ultimately, what we’re going to see is that Thomas Paine’s argument will come true. He said that time makes more converts than reason. So we’ll see a new generation of scholars coming up. Like we have Raphael Lataster who is going to be getting his PhD soon. We have this new generation of scholars that is not going to be beholden to the old generation. When they come up we’re going to see more and more acceptance of this theory but it’s going to take time. It’s probably going to take a decade or two more at least.
Well, apart from anything else, the argument from consensus is often called the Gadarenes Swine Fallacy. You’d think a Christian would know that one.
Wait. Wait. Explain that to me. I don’t know that one.
So you know the story of the Gadarenes Swine, when Jesus casts out the demon, Legion, and all the pigs run off the cliff into the Sea of Galilee?
So the fallacy is that if you see a bunch of people all running in the same direction, a consensus of scholars in Biblical Studies, perhaps. You might think that if the consensus is going in a particular direction, that might indicate that their view is true. But maybe they are all like the Gadarenes Swine about to run off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee. So you’d think that a Christian might know that one.
So, what do you think was the motivation of the people who actually started the story of Jesus?
Do you mean the stories that put him on earth or do you mean the people who wrote the first stories about the celestial Jesus?
Maybe you could pair both answers together?
The original one, and I give some of the evidence for this in “On The Historicity of Jesus”, there already was a Jesus-like figure. The first born son of god. A celestial figure who was god’s right-hand person, who was actually an arch-angel. He was not a historical person, other than the same sense in which Satan was a historical person. For the people who believe in Satan, he was a historical person. He just existed in heaven, or in the heavens in some form. At least he did in antiquity. He has been relocated since the Middle Ages, which changed the whole furniture of the universe. He used to live in the lower heavens and that’s where he governed in his sky-castle, from above looking down. And there was a historical event, involving Satan as one of the angels in the higher heavens and he was cast out and locked out so he could only reside in and control the bottom-most level, which was the firmament, which was just below the first heaven.
This is still in outer space. Still up in the sky, tens of thousands of miles away, but him and the demos and the legion of fallen angels who were cast out with him, they all live up there and govern things up there. They don’t interfere with earthly affairs. That’s why everything sucks down here.
Jesus had to go kill himself because they had to use this really powerful blood magic, to overcome and finally thwart the powers of Satan and his dark angels. Now, none of this makes sense today but it made perfect sense back then in the context of Jewish demonology and angelology and their cosmic theory. A lot of this is explicit in Paul and in the Book of Hebrews as well. It’s a really good example of where they really believed that this powerful blood magic was necessary to break the power of Satan. The god of Hebrews is not powerful enough to just will that to happen, so he is not omnipotent in the modern sense. That’s a modern theological invention. The god back then couldn’t just do anything. He could do a lot of things but for certain things he had to use tools like all other ape ancestors had to do and in this case, they had to use the blood magic,
So the point being, is that originally there were Jews who believed in this angelology that had this Jesus figure. And if you look at the context for this, every other national culture, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Turks, the Greeks, the Romans, they were all developing these mystery saviour cults that allowed this mystery saviour deity who underwent some sort of ordeal of suffering. Often times a death and resurrection, not always but it was always some sort of suffering, a passion, literally the same word in Greek. They underwent some sort of struggle and suffering, through which they gained victory over death that they could share with their followers. So then you would get initiated into these cults and become part of a fictive brotherhood and you would call each other brother and sister. Then you would have salvation and a special place in the afterlife and everything would be cool.
So this was a huge fashion. It was a fad, like wild fire spreading everywhere. The Jews were the last ones on board with this. It wasn’t like someone made a conscious decision to invent one of those. Now they might have, they might have pulled a Joseph Smith and full-on invented it. But they might have subconsciously just thought that this is a really powerful and potent idea and thought, does our god think something similar? So then they pored through the scriptures looking for something, to suggest if this is something that god has been trying to say to us. And they discover something like that in the scriptures, with more motivated reasoning. They are looking for a mystery cult system in the scriptures. If you are motivated to find that and you believe that god is communicating to you secretly through scriptures. I’ve proven in “On The Historicity Of Jesus” that the Jews thought this. They thought there were hidden secret messages in scriptures and they were poring through them trying to find them. So if you’re doing this and you’re thinking that there must be a mystery religion for the Jews, god must have told us this, if you go through the scriptures you can easily build one.
You can build one out of Isaiah 53, 52 and there are Psalms you can use, there is the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Enoch. There are these scriptures that you can read as, yeah, he has been telling us all along, that there is this solution to the problem. We have a better saviour god, the real saviour god. He actually did undergo some sort of suffering that has finally allowed us to gain salvation.
The ultimate motivation for this was the problem of the Temple Cult and I talk about this in “On The Historicity Of Jesus” for those who want the full politics of the situation. There were a lot of Jews who were disaffected by the Temple Cult. They thought that it had become corrupt and that it was controlled by the Romans. They thought it was money-grabbing and that the priests who were running it were all immoral. Yet, the Temple Cult was essential to Jewish salvation. For you to get salvation in the afterlife, you needed the Temple Cult sacrifices for a year. Every year, you had to have the Yom Kippur sacrifice. You had to have the individual sacrifices, which became costly, to keep yourself out of sin. So someone said, what if we just got rid of the Temple? What if god had said to us, we don’t need the Temple any more? We have this one, super-mojo sacrifice that is so powerful that it negates the need for any more of these annual sacrifices. This is the argument of Hebrews 9. This is explicit in early Christian doctrine.
So that’s what they said. They said, yeah, you’ll take the first born son of god and he’ll put on a body of flesh. His blood then will be the most powerful blood magic you could ever have. It outweighs the blood magic of any other animal or spiritual being or any other person. So it’s obvious that this is the logic of the earliest Christians. So that’s how they came up with this idea. They said, we can get rid of the Temple Cult and have a direct conduit to god. That was the claim that they went around evangelising. They said you don’t need the Temple any more, you can just go direct to god through Jesus. So they invented this scheme. They may have subconsciously invented it by finding it spelled out in the scriptures, by looking for it. By looking for a way to tea-leaf it, to get a sacrificial saviour.
So that’s how it really started. Then you have people either getting themselves up into an ecstasy and having visions confirming what they had just thought of, or they were pretending to have visions because that was the way to convince people that god was really talking to you, in order to verify this. So one way or another, they started this movement. It was based on this revelatory knowledge that you discovered hidden in scripture and got confirmed through revelations and was confirmed to the public through the miracles that the apostles could perform. They said, we couldn’t do these miracles if god wasn’t endorsing what we are saying, therefore what we are saying is true, and that’s how the religion got started.
Now, decades go on and you look at what all of the other mystery cults did. They created historical biographies about their saviour gods that allegorised the message of the sect. So the Osiris Cult had theirs and the Mithras Cult had theirs and there was probably a Romulus Cult that had theirs. It was similar with Zalmoxis and Inanna and all of these other gods. So, someone decided that we need one of these stories too and you have the Gospel of Mark that looks like it could be the first one. It’s the first time that someone put pen to paper and created a veneer of this generic hero-sage, which eliminates all of the cosmic beliefs. Now, we know that the Gospel of Mark was written by someone who was a follower of Paul. They followed the Pauline doctrine that you no longer needed to be kosher. The original Christians were still keeping kosher. They rejected the Temple Cult but they kept all of the other stuff and circumcision and things. Paul got rid of that and it is clear that the author of Mark supports that.
The author of Mark knows about the cosmic Jesus. He knows about the pre-existent son of god theory. He knows that Jesus is a pre-existent being who became incarnated, because this is all in Paul. Yet Mark erases all of that from his gospel. He creates just a mundane Jesus who walks out of the desert from nowhere, no nativity even. He hides the true meaning of everything behind these stories. He gives us the clue in Mark 4 where he says he’s telling the public these stories to fool them into not getting the truth, but the initiates, the people who get baptised and become initiated, we’re going to tell them the true meaning of things. They’ll learn why all this weird stuff is going on and what this gospel is means. So I think that when Mark wrote, he was not intending to defend a historical Jesus. He was doing what all of the other mystery cults had done. He was creating a myth that he could use to create a divide between insiders and outsiders. An exoteric myth which is the literal reading of the text and then the esoteric myth, which is the one that we tell to insiders. You get this from Mark, who never tries to defend what he is saying as historically true. Even Matthew doesn’t. Matthew at least has the one signal, where he says that something happened to fulfil scripture. That’s the closest that Matthew ever gets to pretending that what he’s writing is history. The first time we ever get someone saying they are writing history is Luke.
Luke says he is writing history and then dresses his gospel up with all kinds of historical facts and lots of pseudo versions of things, that makes it look like a historical document. He makes it look like a history. And yet he fails at certain things because it is not a history, but he makes it look like it.
Then you get John, where John is saying that this shit really happened. These guys were there and saw it and if you don’t believe you’re damned. So by the time you get to John you’re getting a full-on defence of the historicity of Jesus. But this idea of the historical Jesus as the actual point of the gospels actually evolved over time. You see that in the gospels themselves. It’s not right out of the gate, on the first gospel. So I think you are seeing the evolution of this one sect (or sects when they eventually teamed up) who saw the utility the historical Jesus. They thought this two-tiered system of the mystical Jesus and the historical Jesus being fake and they thought, we can make better market material, we can sell a better fake, if we just sell it as a historical Jesus. There will still be secret teachings but they won’t create this shocking problem of initiates discovering that there is not actually a Jesus who walked around Galilee, that might have resulted in some departures. So they retooled it and this sect actually became more successful and it was the one that won out and decided which documents to preserve. The record has then been so doctored and altered and selected in favour of historicity because that’s the sect that became dominant.
That’s my hypothesis as to what actually happened. We have enough clues to support at least a general outline that that’s what happened.