Larry Hurtado versus Richard Carrier on Jesus Mythicism

There is a curious exchange going on at the moment between New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado and Jesus mythicist and historian Richard Carrier. “Jesus Mythicism”, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is the position that there was no historical Jesus. Jesus never existed! Instead, Jesus was only ever a mythical figure.

The current exchange began with Hurtado’s largely positive review (27 Nov 2017) of Tim O’Neill’s site, History for Atheists. Hurtado drew attention to O’Neill’s post on Jesus Mythicism, “The Jesus Myth: The Jesus Myth Theory, Again” (31 May 2017).

In that post, Hurtado also mentioned his own earlier discussions of Jesus Mythicism, which he wrote following Bart Ehrman’s book-length response to Jesus mythicism, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012). Hurtado’s posts at that time were as follows:

The ‘Did Jesus Exist’ Controversy and Its Precedents” (23 July 2012)

The ‘Did Jesus Exist’ Controversy–Encore” (27 July 2012)

On Competence, Scholarly Authority, and Open Discussion” (2 August 2012)

The Jesus-Discussion: Let’s Move On” (9 August 2012)

There were also some responses to Hurtado from Neil Godfrey (Vridar): “Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Historical Jesus Question” (26 July 2012), “Larry Hurtado’s Wearying (and Irresponsible?) Encore” (29 July 2012). Hurtado later posted on the same subject, in “Talking Sense about Jesus’ Historicity” (28 Jan 2014).

Since then, Carrier has published a book on mythicism with Sheffield Academic Press: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why we might have reason for doubt (2014). The book relies for its methodology on the discussion of Bayes’s Theorem in Carrier’s earlier publication, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2012). Sheffield Academic Press was a mainstream publisher of biblical studies, before its acquisition by Bloomsbury. Given the frequent mentions of Carrier’s book in published reviews and internet discussions, I imagine it sells very well.

So when Hurtado began his recent series of replies to Carrier, I was surprised to see this admission:

You don’t have to read the 700+ pages of Carrier’s book, however, to see if it’s persuasive.  To cite an ancient saying, you don’t have to drink the whole of the ocean to judge that it’s salty.

Yes, Hurtado has not in fact read Carrier’s book. And yet, Hurtado has now written an extensive series of posts in reply to Carrier:

The ‘Mythic’ Jesus’ Last Hurrah” (30 Nov 2017)

Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars” (2 Dec 2017)

“Mythical Jesus”: The Fatal Flaws” (4 Dec 2017)

Focus, Focus, Focus!” (6 Dec 2017)

Gee, Dr. Carrier, You’re Really Upset!” (7 Dec 2017)

The last of these posts was in reply to Carrier’s response to Hurtado, “The Bizarre Fugue of Larry Hurtado” (7 Dec 2017).

[Since then, Carrier replied with “The Difference Between a Historian and an Apologist” (9 December 2017), and Hurtado with “Greek Prepositions and Careful Exegesis” 11 December 2017), ““The Real Jesus”in National Geographic” (11 December 2017), and “On Accurate Representation of Texts” (11 December 2017).]

In addition, Neil Godfrey (Vridar) has posted comments on the exchange in “Reply to Larry Hurtado: ‘Why the “Mythical Jesus” Claim Has No Traction with Scholars’” (2 Dec 2017); “Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19” (3 Dec 2017); “On Larry Hurtado’s Response” (5 Dec 2017); “Focus, Focus, Focus — but Not Blinkered” (6 Dec 2017) [, and “The Hurtado-Carrier debate has become unpleasant” (11 December 2017], as has Nicholas Covington (Hume’s Apprentice), with full points for alliteration: “Hurtado’s Horrible Happening” (5 Dec 2017) [, James McGrath, “Richard Carrier as False Prophet” (10 December 2017), with a reply from Nicholas Covington, “McGrath’s Mythicist Gaffes” (12 December 2017)].

Hurtado makes many good points in reply to Jesus mythicism. But it is never responsible to comment in respect of a book which one has not even read. I can understand simply ignoring Jesus mythicism as an unfeasible position, and not deigning to comment on it. But to engage a specific author, and a specific book, without having read it, is indefensible practice. It can only lead to the response of ‘aha – I told you so!’ among Jesus mythicists. The error in judgment can be rectified though – by making a more informed reply after reading the book.

Lastly, Daniel Gullotta has just published an extensive critique of Richard Carrier’s book, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15, no. 2 (2017): 310 – 346. Here is the abstract:

The Jesus Myth theory is the view that the person known as Jesus of Nazareth had no historical existence. Throughout the centuries this view has had a few but notable adherents such as Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews, G.A. Wells, and Robert M. Price. Recently, Richard Carrier’s work On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014) has attempted to reexamine the question in a rigorous academic fashion. According to Carrier, within the earliest days of Christianity, Jesus was not understood as a historic-human figure, but rather as a celestial-angelic being, akin to Gabriel in Islam or to Moroni in Mormonism, and only came to be understood as a historical person later. While Carrier’s hypothesis is problematic and unpersuasive, there are several key points related to his work that this article specifically challenges and critiques.

[And there is a post in response to Gullotta’s article by Neil Godfrey (“Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus“; 13 December 2017), who promises many more posts in response. And a response from Richard Carrier (“On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review“; 16 December 2017).]

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17 thoughts on “Larry Hurtado versus Richard Carrier on Jesus Mythicism

  1. “Hurtado has not in fact read Carrier’s book … it is never responsible to comment in respect of a book which one has not even read.”.

    Please clarify: Did Hurtado not read the book at all, or not read the book in total?

    If Hurtado did not read Carrier’s book in total then Hurtado may still have made sound comments on the merit (or lack of) of Carrier’s book on the basis of selected parts.

    If selected parts show evidence that Carrier is not capable of dealing with primary evidence in preferably the original languages, or failing that, in translation, then why should Hurtado or anybody else waste time in reading the rest of Carrier’s book in the hope that in those other parts of the book Carrier suddenly and amazingly developed skills that just as suddenly and amazingly disappeared in the parts Hurtado read?

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    • It is perfectly fine to read a part of a book, and then realise it is not worth your time. But that was not the case here. If you are going to write about the book, then the minimal responsible requirement requires actually reading the book. This is all fairly obvious, and should not require stating.

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      • Deane,

        1. no clarification, still don’t know if Hurtado read none or just a part of Carriers book.

        2. I’m a former librarian, so as a hypothetical, if you were a busy librarian being paid to make decisions on how to spend the libraries money on books, wading your way through several thousand pages per week of books and catalogues, how far into the 700 or so pages of Carrier’s book would you have made it before you were reasonably confidant that you would recommend to others to accept or reject the book for purchase? Would your views be only just beginning to form as you were reading the last page, or 10 or so pages earlier, or a 100 or so pages earlier, or after just reading a selection such as the first and last chapters and 1 random chapter in between?

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      • Matthew – Larry doesn’t keep me up to date with his daily reading. If you want to know what precise portion of Carrier’s book he had read before his recent series of posts, please feel free to ask him. He admitted he had not read the book before replying, so I took him at his word.

        Further, as Larry’s only direct discussion of the content of Carrier’s book related to matter covered in an online discussion about 5 years ago, I suspect he read either a very minor section or none at all. But again, you would have to ask him, not me for a precise specification (and certainly not engage in dubious analogies).

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  2. I think Hurtado has in fact written that he has read the relevant part of Carrier’s books. See:

    “I have read those pages of his book (200-205) where he discusses the relevant passage in Philo (De Confusione Linguarum, 62-63; Philo citing and allegorizing a passage in the OT book, Zechariah 6:11-12). This example will adequately serve to illustrate why Carrier’s work hasn’t had any impact in scholarly circles. He gets himself into a muddle.”
    https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/gee-dr-carrier-youre-really-upset/

    I have to agree that Hurtado completely refuted Carrier’s thesis. He offhand made it clear that it is Joshua, not Jesus who is mentioned in the Zechariah text. How Carrier is fumbling these two names is beyond me. Anyhow, he goes on to show that the “rising branch” from the east, or “anatole” is in fact a separate person from Joshua in the text that Philo was discussing. Hurtado also says that he is never called an archangel, which is what Carrier went off about in his most recent post given that the rest of his thesis was in shambles at this point. GakuseiDon was one step ahead of him, though, when he asked Hurtado this on the blog:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Dr Hurtado. You write that for Philo, the Logos is ‘not really an “archangel.”’ However, Philo does indeed call the Logos an “archangel”. Philo writes:

    “And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the ****eldest of his angels****, as the great ****archangel***** of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.”

    Can you explain what you mean by Philo not really calling the Logos an archangel?

    This is how Hurtado replied, again, effectively demolishing the claim:

    Don: Yes, in another of his writings (NB: contra Carrier, not in the De Confusione passage), Philo can refer to the Logos by the labels you cite. Indeed, he can even refer to the Logos as “a second god” (deuteros theos), but then quickly qualifies this with “so to speak.” The Logos is an “archangel” (remembering that for ancient Greek speakers the word “angelos” = messenger, or spokesman), for the Logos is the expression of the ineffable biblical deity toward the world/creation. One has to study carefully the multitude of Philo’s references to the Logos to put it all together, for he was a complex writer. But the Logos isn’t really a separate ontological being, like we imagine an “angel/archangel”. And, contra Carrier, nowhere does Philo refer to an archangel named “Jesus”.

    So, Hurtado has read the relevant section of the book and in fact refuted Carrier’s thesis. Carrier did not read Hurtado’s response to GakuseiDon, however, so he didn’t get the message before going on another rant. I was actually astounded when Carrier, in his recent whacky post, made himself as the “real historian” and Hurtado as the “apologist”. Simply comparing their CV’s shows that the real picture is quite the opposite.

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    • I also have to thank you for mentioning Gullotta’s upcoming article on Carrier’s book. Ever since he published his book, an actual peer-reviewed defense of mythicism in 2014 (just 3 years ago), there’s been a steady stream of academic criticisms of his book. First this book review in the journal (2015): https://relegere.org/relegere/article/view/702/791

      Then, there was Aviezer Tucker’s (Harvard) critique (2016):
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hith.10791/full

      Of course, since someone of such a high level of renown as Tucker had published something on Carrier, Carrier immediately snatched the opportunity to twist the paper into an “impressive endorsement” of his book. Now, we have an upcoming paper the third year running in 2017 from another scholar. It’s very nice to hear of this, since I only recently have come to conclude that the peer-reviewed literature should, at the very least, give a hearing to Carrier and then entirely refuting it as would be expected of such a cringey thesis. Gullotta doesn’t even have his PhD yet, and yet his CV has already blasted past Carrier’s entire lifetime of academic publishing. That, in and of itself, should scream magnitudes about just how fringe this mythicist movement is.

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    • Take a look at the following:

      Now, the following is an example of the former kind: “And God planted a paradise in Eden, toward the East,” not of terrestrial but of celestial plants, which the planter caused to spring up from the incorporeal light which exists around him, in such a way as to be for ever inextinguishable. I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.
      -Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues 61-63

      This seems hard to square with Hurtado’s view that Philo’s logos is not a separate ontological being (celestial plants? Surely this author believed in a heaven that was filled with all kinds of real objects!).*

      Secondly, when Philo says that the “man whose name is the East” is actually referring to the logos (“who differs in no respect from the divine image”) this is significant. The heavens and Earth were thought to be mirror images of one another (read Hebrews, see what I mean) such that there was a heavenly double of everything on Earth and vice versa. Given that context, if there is an earthly Joshua who builds the temple of the Lord and serves as high priest then there must also a heavenly Joshua who builds the temple of the Lord (“I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up!”) who will serve as high priest of this heavenly temple (Lo and behold: Hebrews 8:1-2).

      * Bruce Malina is one who understands well that the ancients believed in a sky “like other realms of created reality, populated by creatures.” https://books.google.com/books?id=4QxuCAAAQBAJ&pg=PT83&dq=Bruce+Malina+Revelation+sees+a+cosmic+Jesus+wielding+power&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiq1K7O4YLYAhVO62MKHYx8COoQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

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      • “This seems hard to square with Hurtado’s view that Philo’s logos is not a separate ontological being (celestial plants? Surely this author believed in a heaven that was filled with all kinds of real objects!).”

        I don’t see a problem at all, quite frankly. Perhaps you should send this to Hurtado yourself. And no matter what, the anatole is not the same person as Joshua.

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    • Hi Scientific Christian. “Joshua” (Greek spelling of Hebrew name) is the same as “Jesus” (English spelling of Latin name). So Dr Carrier isn’t mixing the names there.

      Dr Hurtado and Dr Carrier are speaking at cross purposes. Hurtado believes that, for Philo, the Logos ” isn’t really a separate ontological being, like we imagine an “angel/archangel”. Whereas Carrier states that Philo calls the Logos an “archangel”, based on the definition Carrier uses in his book. They are both kind of right. But, as Carrier has said, it really matters what Philo is thinking. And there I think Hurtado reflects Philo’s thinking better than Carrier does.

      HOWEVER: I don’t think the Logos not being in the class of “angels/archangels” negates Carrier’s point. Carrier believes that there was a belief in a celestial being named “Jesus”. Even granted that the celestial being was not a separate ontological being, Carrier’s point carries the day if both his observations (celestial being, named Jesus) are true.

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      • I don’t think any serious scholar thinks Carrier’s observations are correct (for exactly the reasons Hurtado made), but thanks for clarifying. I’d like to ask another question though. Is Hebrew Joshua the same as Greek Jesus (Iesous)?

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      • Well, Hurtado’s problem with Carrier’s use of Philo is that Carrier says that Philo talks about an archangel Jesus. But Philo doesn’t talk of an archangel Jesus. Philo (while interpreting Zechariah 6:12 allegorically) talks about “Anatole”, or the Branch, as an instatiation of the divine/heavenly Logos, whom elsewhere Philo also calls the archangel. Carrier tries to read Philo’s thought and interprets Philo’s reference to Anatole/Logos as if applied to Joshua/Jesus. But that’s the problem: that Philo never identifies Joshua/Jesus in that passage as Anatole/Logos. Carrier identifies Joshua/Jesus as the recipient of the name/title Anatole/Branch through an etymological game of words. But that’s Carrier’s misreading of the Zechariah text (Carrier’s translation of the original Hebrew is not the best), and not Philo’s reading.

        You see, believe that there was a divine or heavenly Logos in 2nd Temple Jewish thought is not controversial. That Jesus is identified with the Logos by some early Christians is not controversial (although, Paul doesn’t do so). That a flesh and blood man could be identified as an instatiation of the Logos is not controversial. What is controversial is the claim that such data could be better explain by positing a heavenly mythological Jesus Christ. Ditto for all the references in Paul’s letters to acts done by Jesus, references to words and teachings from and about Jesus, and references to “brother(s) of the Lord”.

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  3. It is interesting to compare my suggestion that Philo and Christianity are different manifestations of a common tradition (not necessarily that Christianity directly took anything ideologically from Philo) with what Hurtado himself blogged today:

    “I identify ancient Jewish traditions of what I call “divine agency”, distinguishing three types: (1) personified divine attributes, such as Wisdom and Philo’s Logos; (2) “exalted patriarchs”–Enoch, Moses, and others; and (3) “principal angels” including Michael and others. I contend that these all are variant forms of what we can call “chief agent” tradition, in which God is pictured as having a particular figure acting as God’s plenipotentiary or vizier. I further propose that the early christological statements appear to portray Jesus as God’s unique agent, and so likely drew upon these traditions.”

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