Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
In summary, Covington’s Part 3 is a useful read. It adds to better understanding of the reasons Jesus’s historicity is reasonably doubtable. And it provides examples for future scholars to build on my work.
I have one dispute to air, though, that is relatively minor in the grand scheme, yet elucidating it can be very helpful to many readers pondering the issues in this debate, most particularly the question, ‘Why not just straightaway conclude Jesus was mythical on the strength of the “mythyness” of the Gospels themselves?’ I’ve seen many laypeople advance that argument. “The Gospels are so obviously bogus, obviously there was no Jesus!” It’s not a valid argument. As I explain in OHJ, the premise is correct; but the conclusion does not follow. Covington isn’t so sure. He wants to make a more sophisticated attempt at that argument.
Should the Gospels Count More Against Historicity?
Covington starts with a good point. Although he gets wrong what I argue in the book, he is not too far off. Covington agrees the Gospels are too thoroughly mytho-symbolic to count as historical evidence. From this he concludes:
Naturally, if it is the case that the gospels are wholly symbolic, this would seem to lend tremendous support to the Christ myth theory. However, Carrier only argues that the gospels don’t count against his thesis. The reason for that? Well, he generated a prior probability for the Christ myth theory based upon information given in the gospels (which shows that Jesus fits the mythic hero archetype) and I suppose he thinks it’d be circular to then use the gospels to generate a posterior probability. I understand that position; however, if one uses the pieces of the gospel that conform to the mythic hero archetype to generate a prior it is still possible to use the rest of the gospel narratives to generate a posterior probability.
This isn’t quite right. He is referring to what I say in OHJ, p. 395, which is actually this (and I’m even truncating here):
We already know, as a general rule, that completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons and seemingly straightforward historical accounts can be written about non-historical persons. So which it is … will have to depend on what the remaining evidence indicates … There is one important exception to this point: the Rank–Raglan data, which was used to construct our prior probability … because it can be correlated with enough examples to derive an actual probability that such data would accumulate for a real man. But we have already employed that evidence in our calculation … Thus, the mythic character of the Gospels overall will affect our estimate of historicity. But only as much as it already has.
First, note how I am not arguing that I already used up all the Gospel data in generating the prior. I am arguing that I only used up a subset of that data. Which leaves plenty of data in the Gospels that can legitimately affect the consequents, just as Covington says (so, I actually said exactly what Covington says). The reason I find the remaining data indeterminate is not that I already used it, but that it’s just as likely to be there even if Jesus existed. In particular, “completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons.” Thus, even if we granted that the Gospels are completely 100% fictional, that can still just as easily be true if Jesus existed, and very little was remembered or transmitted about him (or what was, was simply unusable to suit the evangelists’ purposes).
Second, note what I say about this in OHJ, p. 507:
A more ardent skeptic could disagree. Here I am arguing a fortiori, and as such granting historicity its best shot. But some will still ask why the Gospels appear out of nowhere forty to eighty years after the fact, as fully structured literary myths, rather than there first being more mundane reports, memoirs and accounts, closer to the events concerned, only later evolving into increasingly grandiose myths.
I go on to answer that question, by pointing out this is really a question about the extra-biblical evidence, which I treat separately from the Gospels (in ch. 8 rather than ch. 10). In short, I do not exclude the Gospel data from determining consequent probabilities. I simply find their contents equally likely on historicity and myth even if they are completely fictional.
Covington’s point could be tweaked to make a different argument, that the Gospels’ extreme fictionality should trigger Law’s Principle of Contamination (OHJ, p. 394), such that the historicity of Jesus becomes less likely simply because the stories he’s placed in are so unhistorical (and often absurd). The argument here would be that it is more likely such mytho-symbolic treatises would be written about a non-existent man than an existing one–in other words, that the suspicion raised by the absurd claims should contaminate the mundane claims as well. But I don’t know how one would prove that. It seems to me that, so far as we know, this outcome is equally likely either way.
I do argue in OHJ that “it’s much easier to make up things about a person who never existed than about one who actually did” (p. 237; a point I expand on on p. 250), but the effect of that quite undeniable fact is too small for minimal historicity to significantly affect our math. This is therefore the same problem confronting the extra-biblical evidence (as I note in OHJ, p. 356): certainly, if we posit Jesus was famous, the Gospels become notably less probable on historicity (just as the extra-biblical silence does); but if we posit he was a virtual nobody, and that even his own followers were disinterested in preserving much detail about him (as defenders of historicity are actually forced to argue in order to explain the Epistles: OHJ, pp. 514-28; see especially the point I make in pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82), then it’s no longer significantly harder to make up stories about him decades later.
This is reinforced by the fact that several stories in the Gospels can be “pruned” of embellishments and implausibilities until they are mundane enough that one can say their core is as likely to come from historical memory as from literary license. Although one can get no further than that. One cannot argue that they “probably do” come from historical memory, just from the mere possibility that they could (that’s the possibiliter fallacy: Proving History, Axiom 5, pp. 26-29). But one also can’t prove they “probably don’t,” either (from that datum alone).
Using Up the Gospel “Mythyness” to Generate the Prior Probability
This leads to another key point: why I allow a lopsided result for the Rank-Raglan class, but assume everything else is 50/50. I assume everything is 50/50 for which I have no data demonstrating it to be otherwise. I have data for the Rank-Raglan class demonstrating it to be otherwise. But, Covington could ask, isn’t that true for a few other things as well, and not just the fact that Jesus is a Rank-Raglan hero? Maybe. But…
I noted in Element 48 (in OHJ, p. 230; and also, less obviously, in my development of Elements 31, 46 and 47) that there are many other attributes the Gospel Jesus shares in common with mythical persons more frequently than historical persons besides the Rank-Raglan criteria (a fact often overlooked by people who despise the Rank-Raglan criteria and think my prior probability hinges all on that…it doesn’t). When we include them all (all those criteria, e.g. the classes Jesus falls into in Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48), Jesus falls even more certainly in a reference class over-loaded with mythical persons and under-occupied by historical persons. We just don’t have the sample size for those classes that we have for the Rank-Raglan class, so assessing priors from them, even though that certainly (even a fortiori) would always favor ahistoricity for any randomly selected member (and therefore Jesus), would still be more subjective, and thus harder to explain why it has this effect on the prior (not impossible, just harder).
More importantly, being more certainly in a myth-heavy class is not the same thing as being in a class that is more myth-heavy. For example, the ratio of mythical-to-historical persons in the super-class of all persons conjoining Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48 may be entirely the same as the ratio in the Rank-Raglan class. But what we gain by noticing that Jesus actually belongs to that super-class is that his being in it is even less likely to be an accident than his being in the Rank-Raglan class. Thus, those other Elements (as well as the additional criteria I mention on p. 230) create high confidence that the result derived from the Rank-Raglan class alone is applicable and correct. Covington might want to argue that “surely” members of that superclass are less commonly historical than even members of the Rank-Raglan class alone are. But there isn’t really any data to establish that…and what there is, looks pretty much just like the Rank-Raglan data.
In summary, adding more mythic markers to Jesus than are included in the Rank-Raglan class, even though Jesus does indeed possess those markers, does not make Jesus any more likely to be mythical. At least not significantly (as in, enough to show up relevantly in our math). Once you are that mythical, adding even more mythic markers makes little further statistical difference. At least, I cannot see how to prove otherwise in any convincing fashion.
So we could pull a lot more data from the Gospels into generating our prior probability estimate…and it would not significantly change the prior. Which means, leaving that data in the evidence-pool instead will not generate any significant difference in the consequent probabilities, either. (Because mathematically, those two statements mean the same thing: every prior is the output of previously calculated consequents; so no change in a prior, means no difference in the consequents.)
Adding to My Treatment of the Gospels
Covington makes a really good point about the use of the Gospel genealogies in the historicity debate, well worth reading. There were tons of things I had to leave out of my treatment in the book, since to save space I only needed to prove a generalization with enough examples. But one can extend that project all the way through every single piece of every single Gospel. And I think a lot of benefit could be had by doing that, and collecting it all in one place. Covington provides an example, by noting scholarship showing the mytho-symbolic nature of the genealogies (there is much more, particularly in print, than even he mentions), destroying any prospect one may have had of using them to argue for historicity. Covington is also astute enough to note that this topples even such uses that admit the genealogies are fake.
He then expands this point into a really sharp generalization, about what he amusingly calls the Gee-Whiz Argument:
I find that when people first hear of the gospels being symbolic, they balk, point to some story in the gospels, and say, “Gee Whiz, This Doesn’t Look symbolic to me!” Anyone who gives the “Gee-Whiz defense” should learn a huge lesson from the example of Matthew’s genealogy. The fact that it does not look symbolic to you does not mean that it intends to convey historical truth.
Bingo. I give plenty of examples myself in OHJ ch. 10, so many that I’m sure you’ll find several stories covered there that you may have “Gee Whizzed” at, which are exposed as mytho-symbolic. This should train you to update your priors. Because this happens so often (a seemingly mundane story turns out to be obviously mytho-symbolic) that every other time you “Gee Whiz” a story in the Gospels, you should be deeply worried that you are missing the author’s point. Which is indeed my own point (OHJ, pp. 508-09).
Covington even goes on to explain the effect of this on your priors. In his hypothetical (which you should read) we are left with a 90% chance any remaining stories with unknown symbolic meanings have actual symbolic meanings after all and our not knowing them is simply a product of lost data. I make this point myself regarding the number symbolism in the Gospel of John (OHJ, pp. 498 and 505-06); and I make a similar point about family names in Mark (OHJ, pp. 445-56). I also discuss the method of iteration Covington is implying (OHJ, p. 509; see PH, index, “iteration”).
My commentary on part 4 will go live in a few days. See my commentary on part 2, if you want to walk back in the series. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here).
Covington has also responded to another’s (rather off-topic) question about part 3 (part 3a, with more discussion of the point in part 9), on whether my claim of a Philonic Jesus theology holds water (he confirms it does). I have nothing further to add to that, except that there is even more evidence cited in OHJ on this point than Covington already astutely summarizes (e.g. that the Philonic Logos is the celestial High Priest is explicitly stated by Philo in several places, and not just an inference from his saying it is the same figure in Zechariah 6). And my book already addresses all the objections commenters raised on his blog (OHJ, Element 40).
For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.