I am just finishing reading Richard Carrier’s two part magnus opus, Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus. In the first book Dr. Carrier addresses the flawed tools used by most biblical scholars when analyzing scriptural texts. And since he is trying to make an air tight case, he is very (very) thorough. For instance, often biblical schools would use a principle that if scripture states something that is negative about Christianity, then we can be assured that that statement is more likely to be true, arguing that redactors (editors) would not dare change or remove the truth. This is about as sensible as those who claim that the more unbelievable a statement is, the more likely they would believe in it (otherwise the writers would be open to ridicule for spouting nonsense).
Dr. Carrier points out the flaws in almost all of these “tools” used to analyze scripture and then points out that there is a way to make decisions about scripture that is both more reliable and more quantitative and that is the use of Bayes’s Theorem. This mathematical construct can be used to determine probabilities of even historical statements being true. All of Proving History is a setup, basically proving his tool for analyzing the New Testament in On the Historicity of Jesus.
Please recognize that this is an historical study, approached with the tools of an historian. The goal is to determine the probability that Jesus was a real person, that is an historical person. An historian approaches things differently than theologians do, which is partly why the situation we have is so confused. Theologians, for example, choose to believe in miracles. Historians do not believe in miracles, for the simple reason than no miracle has ever stood up to rational scrutiny (and this test has been failed many, many times). Much of biblical scholarship was done by people who accepted the traditional interpretation of scripture and then were trying to prove it valid. Working from a conclusion backwards to the evidence is hardly a valid scholarly approach, but it was the dominant trend in scriptural analaysis and biblical archeology until recently.
So, here is the approach Dr. Carrier takes in analyzing the entire NT: he sets up two very minimal hypotheses, one in which Jesus was a real person, but only the most spare claims are made (no miracles, no resurrection, etc.). The counter thesis is that Jesus was a “celestial being,” an archangel, in essence, and not a real person. These were considered the barest bases for the religion that was to come. Then two probabilities are estimated (yes, estimated) for each and every piece of evidence as to whether that evidence supports either hypothesis. To make the argument ironclad, Dr. Carrier creates a high and low estimate for each. His estimates are very (very) generous for the traditional interpretation of Christian scripture. I would not have been so generous, but this is even accounted for by the math being done out in the open and readers encouraged to make their own estimates and doing the math themselves.
Then we slog through the evidence: the extra-biblical evidence, including Christian and non-Christian sources, archeological evidence, etc., the biblical evidence. Particularly interesting was the investigation of Paul’s contribution. It is now common knowledge that scripture and other evidence shows that Christianity had two main branches at it’s inception (Gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity) and that Paul’s contribution was fundamental to the gentile branch that grew into the Catholic Church and all the rest while the Jewish branch dwindled away under pressure of being branded heretical by the Roman Church. So, Paul, in essence created Christianity. His letters contribute 20,000+ words to NT scriptures. There are indications that he made other writings that were lost, but being lost means they can’t be analyzed. The part, though, that can be analyzed is huge. In that part (paul’s letters or epistles), do you know how many times the word “disciple” is used? The exact number is zero. The number of times that Paul quotes Jesus or uses his ministry as an example of something. Again, zero. Paul refers to “apostles” of the Lord which can be translated as a bearing of a message, a messenger. He claims repeatedly that he got this message from no man, that he got it scripture (he quotes the OT ad nauseum) and refers to his personal revelations (visions, whatever). If it were up to Paul, we would have no knowledge whatsoever of a historical Jesus nor would we know of any disciples or familay members of Jesus or that he was a preacher and had a mission and…. All of Paul’s letters (the true ones, not the forgeries) talk only about church matters responding to letters he received from members of certain churches but in none of the letters apparently were any questions asked along the lines of “what was Jesus like?” or “did he have a family?” or “where was he born?” It is beyond comprehension that there would be no questions about the central figure’s personal life, but there you have it.
How could Paul ignore what is in the Gospels, you ask. Simple, he died before they were written. Paul dies before the War of 66-70CE. The Gospels were written after the war, in some cases well after. A deep analysis of the Gospels shows that they bear numerous (very numerous) marks of being literary works and almost none of being historical works. There is so little reliable history in the Gospels that they can only be labeled 100% fiction. So, why were they written? Why are there four of them? Well, there were a lot more than four written but only four made it into the final cut (made in the fourth Century CE). Interestingly each of the Gospels are not competing interpretations of the same events. One writer doesn’t mention in the way of discrediting the others and saying “I am right, they are wrong.” Each was written for the same goal: supplying a reality-based back story to the Jesus cult, just as the Pentateuch was written in the 500s BCE as a back story for a Judean king. That four different versions were accepted into the final bible was a political decision, each of the congregations that used those gospels was too big to exclude so their gospel had to be included.
So, how much history can the gospels provide? Very (very) little as it turns out as there is no corroboration, no identification of their writers (the originals had no authors, they were “added” later), no identification of sources and no other documentary evidence confirming anything done or said. This, though, does not necessarily undermine there was a real person named Jesus.
Dr. Carrier leaves no stone unturned. Approximately 40% of the text of OTHOJ is in the form of scholarly notes (most of which I skipped over). And the final verdict? The hypothesis that Jesus was a real, flesh and blood person (not that he was the son of god or anything else) came out to be somewhere between 33% and 0%. And the 33% figure is based upon ridiculously generous probabilities assigned to evidence for the “historical hypothesis,” so one could argue that a fair estimate is much closer to 0% than to 33%. The zero figure is also rounded off, the actual probability came out to be 1/12,000 but since the odds of being struck by lightning are 1/10,000 it was considered fair to round it to essentially zero.
The hypothesis that Jesus was a mythical creature came out somewhere between 67% and 100% (the remain probability out of 100%) as the hypotheses were assumed to be mutually exclusive and that no competing hypotheses were available.
Now, this is not conclusive, per se, but it does something wonderful. It establishes a sound scholarly basis for any counter arguments. If you want to argue that the results should be different, you need to establish that the individual probabilities are wrong (and since they were very (very generous in favor of an historical Jesus, that is going to be very difficult) or you need to provide additional evidence and since people have been looking strenuously for centuries, that is also going to be difficult. (Dr. Carrier even went to the trouble of showing what a single piece of new evidence, strong pro-historical Jesus evidence, would do to the calculations and since the amount of evidence is so large, it would have to be really significant to have much of an effect.)
My conclusion? Well, it is simple: The New Testament “Good News” is the Fox News of the First Century, you know “Fox News, Where the Truth Lies.” The NT is not historical. This doesn’t mean that people can’t have Christianity as a religion, they have already believed much stranger things. That Jesus’ story is most likely allegorical is not that much larger to swallow. But inerrant biblical literalness? Put a fork in it. It is cooked.