Quest for the Historical Jesus

One historian’s quest for the historical Jesus uses Bayes’s theorem to establish reliable historical criteria and uncover the proper proportion between belief and evidence.

| July 2012

  • Proving History
    “Proving History” by Richard C. Carrier uses Bayes’s theorem to study Christian origins and all the major historical criteria employed in the latest quest for the historical Jesus.
  • Jesus Studies
    The concept of Jesus we’re supposed to believe existed is actually getting more confused and uncertain the more scholars study it, rather than the other way around.

  • Proving History
  • Jesus Studies

Almost all experts agree that the Jesus of the Bible is a composite of myth, legend, and some historical evidence. So what can we know about the real Jesus? Proving History (Prometheus Books, 2012) by historian Richard C. Carrier proposes Bayes’s theorem as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria in this in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “The Problem.” 

The Problem

Apart from fundamentalist Christians, all experts agree the Jesus of the Bible is buried in myth and legend. But attempts to ascertain the “real” historical Jesus have ended in confusion and failure. The latest attempt to cobble together a method for teasing out the truth involved devel­oping a set of criteria. But it has since been demonstrated that all those cri­teria, as well as the whole method of their employment, are fatally flawed. Every expert who has seriously examined the issue has already come to this conclusion. In the words of Gerd Theissen, “There are no reliable cri­teria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition.” Stanley Porter agrees. Dale Allison likewise concludes, “these criteria have not led to any uniformity of result, or any more uniformity than would have been the case had we never heard of them,” hence “the criteria themselves are seriously defective” and “cannot do what is claimed for them.” Even Porter’s attempt to develop new criteria has been shot down by unveiling all the same problems. And Porter had to agree. The growing consensus now is that this entire quest for criteria has failed. The entire field of Jesus studies has thus been left without any valid method.

What went wrong? The method of criteria suffers at least three fatal flaws. The first two are failures of individual criteria. Either a given crite­rion is invalidly applied (e.g., the evidence actually fails to fulfill the crite­rion, contrary to a scholar’s assertion or misapprehension), or the criterion itself is invalid (e.g., the criterion depends upon a rule of inference that is inherently fallacious, contrary to a scholar’s intuition), or both. To work, a criterion must be correctly applied and its logical validity established. But meeting the latter requirement always produces such restrictions on meeting the former requirement as to make any criterion largely useless in practice, especially in the study of Jesus, where the evidence is very scarce and problematic. The third fatal flaw lies in the entire methodology. All criteria-based methods suffer this same defect, which I call the ‘Threshold Problem’: At what point does meeting any number of criteria warrant the conclusion that some detail is probably historical? Is meeting one enough? Or two? Or three? Do all the criteria carry the same weight? Does every instance of meeting the same criterion carry the same weight? And what do we do when there is evidence both for and against the same conclusion? In other words, even if meeting the criteria validly increases the likelihood of some detail being true, when does that likelihood increase to the point of being effectively certain, or at least probable? No discussions of these his­toricity criteria have made any headway in answering this question. This book will.

The Consequences of Failure 

The quest for the historical Jesus has failed spectacularly. Several times. Historians now even count the number of times. With the latest quest (numbered “the third”) and its introduction of criteria, the concept of Jesus we’re supposed to believe existed is actually getting more confused and uncertain the more scholars study it, rather than the other way around. Progress is supposed to increase knowledge and consensus and sharpen the picture of what happened (or what we don’t know), not the reverse. Instead, Jesus scholars continue multiplying contradictory pictures of Jesus, rather than narrowing them down and increasing their clarity—or at least reaching a consensus on the scale and scope of our uncertainty or ignorance. More importantly, the many contradictory versions of Jesus now confidently touted by different Jesus scholars are all so very plausible—yet not all can be true. In fact, as only one can be (and that at most), almost all must be false. So the establishment of this kind of “strong plausibility” has been decisively proved not to be a reliable indicator of the truth. Yet Jesus scholars keep treating it as if it were. This has left us with a confused mass of disparate opinions, vast libraries of theories and interpretations essentially impossible to keep up with, and no real efforts at improving or criticizing the worst and gathering the best into any sort of coherent, consensus view of what actually happened at the dawn of Christianity, or even during its first two hundred years.

I won’t recount the whole history of historical Jesus research here, as that has been done to death already. Indeed, accounts of the many “quests” for the historical Jesus and their failure are legion, each with their own extensive bibliography. Just to pick one out of a hat, Mark Strauss sum­marizes, in despair, the many Jesuses different scholars have “discov­ered” in the evidence recently. Jesus the Jewish Cynic Sage. Jesus the Rabbinical Holy Man (or Devoted Pharisee, or Heretical Essene, or any of a dozen other contradictory things). Jesus the Political Revolutionary or Zealot Activist. Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet. And Jesus the Messianic Pretender (or even, as some still argue, Actual Messiah). And that’s not even a complete list. We also have Jesus the Folk Wizard (championed most famously by Morton Smith in Jesus the Magician, and most recently by Robert Conner in Magic in the New Testament). Jesus the Mystic and “Child of Sophia” (championed by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and John Shelby Spong). Jesus the Nonviolent Social Reformer (championed by Bruce Malina and others). Or even Jesus the Actual Davidic Heir and Founder of a Royal Dynasty (most effectively argued in The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor, who also sees Jesus as a kind of ancient David Koresh, someone who delusionally, and suicidally, believed he was sent by God and charismatically gathered followers; not surprising, as Tabor is also a Koresh expert, having been an FBI consultant during the siege at Waco, and subsequently authoring Why Waco?). There are even recent versions of Jesus that place him in a different historical place and time, arguing the Gospels were mistaken on when and where Jesus actually lived and taught. Or that conclude astonishing things like that he arranged his own execution to effect a ritual sacrifice to magically cleanse the land. We even get confused attempts to make Jesus everything at once (or half of everything at once, since most theories are too contradictory to reconcile), for instance insisting we should understand him to have been “a prophet in the tradition of Israel’s prophetic figures . . . a teacher and rabbi, or sub­versive pedagogue of the oppressed . . . a traditional healer and exorcist, a shamanistic figure . . . [and] a reputational leader who brokers the justice of Yahweh’s covenant and coming reign,” whatever that means.

This still isn’t even a complete list. As Helmut Koester concluded after his own survey, “The vast variety of interpretations of the histor­ical Jesus that the current quest has proposed is bewildering.” James Charlesworth concurs, concluding that “what had been perceived to be a developing consensus in the 1980s has collapsed into a chaos of opin­ions.” The fact that almost no one agrees with anyone else should compel all Jesus scholars to deeply question whether their certainty in their own theory is really even warranted, since everyone else is just as certain, and yet they should all be fully competent to arrive at a sound conclusion from the evidence. Obviously something is fundamentally wrong with the methods of the entire community. Which means you cannot claim to be a part of that community and not accept that there must be something fun­damentally wrong with your own methods. Indeed, some critics argue the methods now employed in the field succeed no better than divination by Tarot Card reading—because scholars see whatever they want to see and become totally convinced their interpretation is right, when instead they should see this very fact as a powerful reason to doubt the validity of their methods in the first place.

Robert Conner
8/11/2012 8:26:29 PM

Richard Carrier's observations about the profusion of confusion in Jesus Studies are well taken and undoubtedly, in the main, correct. However, to regard Jesus as both a worker of magic (or "miracle" if so preferred) and an apocalyptic prophet is not contradictory. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus are as well documented as any feature of his career except the performance of miracles and there is fairly extensive evidence that apocalyptic prophets were traditionally expected to perform wondrous works. Magic in the New Testament provides adequate evidence for this claim (pages 62-77; 127-149). The basic conclusion reached by Morton Smith, a conclusion I obviously support since I dedicated Magic in the New Testament to Smith's memory, is that Jesus was a fairly unexceptional Palestinian Jewish exorcist/healer and apocalyptic preacher in a culture in which exorcism and healing are never clearly differentiated, a point I went to some length to prove (170-182). There is no particular reason to believe that the Romans or their Jewish and Herodian allies would have clearly differentiated apocalyptic prophecy from inciting to violent revolution (86-96). The oldest strata of New Testament documents (such as 1 Thessalonians) written prior to the gospels, reveals an intensely apocalyptic and charismatic (or "magical") focus in primitive Christianity and it is universally conceded that the Romans viewed early Christianity as subversive. Admittedly none of this conclusively proves anything about Jesus, but to point out that a number of interpretations of Jesus' career are improbable at best and in a few cases patently ridiculous does not mean that there is no evidence for what Jesus did and said or a means to interpret it by placing it in a historical and performative context for which nearly contemporary written records are relatively abundant.

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