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).]