I lean towards being a “historicist,” which is to say that I think it’s more likely than not there was a living, breathing human being… but only a human being, likely named “Yeshua”… that the Jesus legend in the Bible is based on, as opposed to the mythicist who thinks the entire thing was made up out of whole cloth. I won’t claim certainty or even near certainty on this, because the evidence for historicism is highly inferential; I usually say it’s 60-40 or 75-25 depending on my mood that day.
So I was eager to watch this video when I first heard about it; it could have changed my mind. Unfortunately, it didn’t even really discuss the matter. But I found it valuable for other reasons. Let me explain…
There really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two positions (at least not between a secular historicist and a mythicist; obviously there are people out there who think the bible is a reliable historical transcript with no errors in it, but they are coming at it from a theistic perspective). From here forward I am talking about atheist and agnostic historicists, who think the “historical Jesus” was just another hominid.
Neither the historicist nor the mythicist believes that Jesus was the son of god (who doesn’t exist according to either person), performed all those miracles, or anything like that; the sole difference is that the mythicist thinks everything in the gospels was made up, while the historicist thinks that the gospels are legends, exaggerations and tall tales piled on top of a real guy who had a small cult following, a guy who might not recognize himself were he (somehow) alive today to read what was written about him. (And conversely, an actual Christian wouldn’t recognize his Jesus–or recognize only small pieces of him–in the picture the historicists paint today of what he was most likely actually like. Indeed he would probably claim this isn’t Jesus at all since he’s not divine, etc., etc. and that the historicist is in fact claiming he never existed. And in the sense that what is meaningful to the Christian about Jesus is absent from the historical Jesus, the Christian would actually be correct. For once.)
So in a large sense there’s no really big, earthshaking disagreement here; it’s really a matter of academic interest. Convince me tomorrow that Jesus never existed even in plain hominid mode and my view of the world would change only slightly, my mental picture of history ca. the first century CE would adjust a bit but I wouldn’t somehow become “even more atheist” or anything like that. The religious aspects of the Jesus story are already bullshit, and that’s true whether or not the historicist is right.
Given that I am not hugely confident of the historicist position being the right one I will watch or read with interest material linked on the internet that claims to blow it out of the water. So far though, I’ve not seen anything. Just for instance, I have a nice long video, somewhere, that spends most of its time arguing against the sorts of things a theist would believe about the story. News flash: spending your time telling a bunch of atheists that Jesus wasn’t real because the miracle stories in the gospels can’t be true is a waste of everyone’s time. We know that already. The atheist/agnostic historicist makes no claim that the miracles historically happened.
But I figure maybe someone else will do a better job. So when a lot of atheists I know online seemed really impressed with this video, I decided to check it out.
Unfortunately, this video, I believe is woefully mistitled. It doesn’t dismantle historicism at all; it doesn’t even really address the actual historicist argument. But it is very interesting for other reasons.
To me the historicist case rests entirely on the gospels, which appear to be the captured-in-text version of oral traditions going back a few decades further. I know they were written down decades after the fact and almost certainly not by the apostles they are named after. I know that there are no contemporary non-Christian accounts either, I know that Josephus (the one that looks most “promising”) wasn’t contemporary and that what he supposedly says about Jesus is a forgery anyway.
And I know that Paul’s writings are utterly useless for establishing the historical Jesus, even though they are the earliest Christian writings we have (they predate the Gospels by a couple of decades at least). I know that Paul’s encounters with Jesus were all through visions, apparitions, etc., i.e., stuff we will assume is non-real (though I don’t think Paul was lying, just mistaken, so I won’t say “bullshit” here). I knew that before I watched this video. Showing these facts doesn’t do anything against the historicist argument because the historicist–or at least the one I follow the most closely, Bart Ehrman–stipulates all of this from the get-go.
I found it irksome, therefore, that Carrier spent almost his entire time here talking about Paul, and then claimed this is why not to be a historicist. The real historicist argument doesn’t rest on Paul at all and thus Carrier seems to be directing his attack in a totally irrelevant direction. The overwhelming majority of this video does not in any way debunk historicism because it doesn’t address real historicism. Certainly for the last 5-10 minutes of the talk he talks about having written a book debunking the gospel part of the historicist case. But he doesn’t go into it in the talk, which means his talk amounts to a big long bait and switch ad for his book. I watch the whole thing for the promised debunking of the historicist arguments that I find 60-75 percent persuasive, and all I come out of it with is “oh, actually that stuff is over here in this book.”
But as I said before, I found this video interesting for other reasons. I think it does offer a plausible explanation for Paul. That is something not really addressed by the historicist argument (it’s simply a different issue, not one that would contradict it). How did Paul come up with his version of Jesus? He never met the guy in the flesh. Carrier quite carefully lays out the historical backdrop of a bunch of legends told about who the messiah would be if and when he arrived. (Yes, the messiah prophecies did exist before Jesus showed up–they aren’t a backfill invention. But it turns out Jesus himself did a piss poor job of fulfilling them; ask–with an earnestly curious manner, not a challenging one–a very knowledgeable Jew about why Jesus wasn’t accepted as the messiah some day and you will get an information overload. Don’t act hostile or challenging because they get that shit from Christians all the time. You might even make it clear you are yourself an atheist trying to do a fact check.) There was also the fabric of pagan myths that all claimed that any religious figure worth his salt would be born of a virgin, have twelve followers, etc., etc.–this is all stuff the historicist maintains was backfilled onto the real Jesus in the decades following his death, because no one would take the claims seriously otherwise. [Check out Apollonius of Tyana sometime–a figure who, if I recall correctly, is actually better attested historically than Jesus.]
The best bit was at approximately 23 minutes in (as I watched the video it became apparent that the video and audio were way out of sync and this might not be the case for everyone, so I won’t try to be exact about the timing–if you want to chase this I’d start watching at 22:30 and give it up to a minute if necessary to get to the point) where Carrier discuses Philo in turn discussing centuries-old predictions that someone, specifically named Jesus, was going to show up.
So now it’s easy to imagine Saul of Tarsus, aware of all these stories of what the real messiah would be like, spending a good deal of his time fighting this cult that asininely insists this guy was the awaited messiah. And then he has an epileptic fit and/or some other sort of religious experience, and decides that what he experienced is real, and that Jesus, in spite of having been crucified, was in fact the messiah after all. He has to do a lot of theological gymnastics to justify this somehow, he has to merge all these older legends into what he’s heard, and Christianity in a form we would recognize today is born.
The video is worth watching for that. If you are interested in the question of how it was that Christianity came to be the way it is, you’ll find it interesting. I just wish whoever uploaded it to youtube had titled it differently.
I guess I will just have to wait some more on that video that discusses and debunks the actual arguments for the historical Jesus that arise from the gospels.