A Review of Proving History by Richard Carrier (Part I)

I was recently browsing the latest books on Amazon concerning historical Jesus studies and came across Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, written by the well-known blogger, Richard Carrier. I’ve read another book of his before, Why I am Not a Christian, which I consider to be by far the worst book I’ve read on the subject matter of atheism. So naturally I didn’t have my hopes up high for Proving History. fishDespite an early optimism brought on by a bold thesis in the first chapter followed by an insightful second chapter, I was eventually let down due to the author’s inelegance in his attempts to weave his way through the topic of Christian origins. It was like witnessing a fish out of water.

Why did I bother to read this book? In a nutshell, I find it strangely fascinating that there are people who believe that Jesus was not a historical figure (or who, like Carrier, seriously entertain the idea). This view seems to have gained ground in the online atheist community (e.g. I’ve come across many atheists on the anti-intellectual circlejerk known as r/atheism on Reddit who are Jesus mythicists). Though, of course, there doesn’t seem to be any scholars (in the relevant field) who argue for such a position.

[Note: I read this on the Kindle, so forgive me if any page numbers are incorrect]

This book is the first of a two-part volume. This volume introduces the problem with historical Jesus studies (as Carrier sees it) and offers up a solution… Bayes’s Theorem. The second volume (not sure when it is slated to be released) will then rigorously apply Bayes’s Theorem to historical Jesus studies.

The author begins in chapter 1 by providing his assessment of the state of historical Jesus research. He states quite unequivocally that:

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. (11)


The quest for the historical Jesus has failed spectacularly. Several times. (12)

The “criteria” that the author mentions are the criteria of authenticity (e.g. dissimilarity, embarrassment, multiple attestation, and so forth). As Carrier notes, these criteria have been railed against by many scholars as having deficiencies and limitations, with some maybe even being outright useless. However, not all of them would then agree with the conclusion that the author derives from this – that the field of historical Jesus studies has “failed spectacularly” and “been left without any valid method”. Carrier quotes a couple scholars as follows:

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.'”

That snippet from Charlesworth is from the introduction to Jesus Research: An International Perspective. Of course, while Charlesworth will readily acknowledge the diversity of views on the historical Jesus, he doesn’t see it as implying that the field of historical Jesus studies has “failed spectacularly” and has “been left without any valid method”. In the chapter this quote was taken from, Charlesworth discusses the profitability of “Jesus Research” (which seems to be his preferred term for the “third quest”) and says: “Imagination and reflections on topography, archaeological discoveries and realia help produce a more reliable depiction of Jesus…. The life and mind of Jesus from Nazareth is no longer lost in the fog of theological pronouncements.”facepalmjesus

A peculiarity I found in this opening chapter is that it seems like Carrier is equating historical Jesus studies with the methodology of the criteria of authenticity (which were employed by Käsemann in the ‘second’ or ‘new’ quest and by many in the ‘third’ quest). But not every historical Jesus study is reliant upon these criteria and other methods are being employed. In fact, Charlesworth briefly mentions a few in the chapter Carrier just quoted (e.g. Gerd Theissen and his emphasis on sociology). One that wasn’t mentioned by Charlesworth (no doubt because it hadn’t been published yet) is Dale Allison’s most recent work, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. In this volume Allison, who once embraced the criteria of authenticity, instead utilizes a contemporary cognitive study of memory and applies it to historical Jesus research. Using the Kindle search function I saw that Constructing Jesus is mentioned in one footnote by Carrier, though only in passing and not in any meaningful sense.

Carrier states his thesis again:

When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that the method is invalid and should be abandoned. (14)

This is a non sequitur. Carrier is arguing that since historians have used the same method (i.e. the criteria of authenticity), yet do not arrive at the exact same conclusion, this must mean “the method is invalid and should be abandoned”. But that conclusion does not follow. A more logical reason to explain the inconsistent depictions that emerge of the historical Jesus is the inevitable human element present in such undertakings. The scholars that are employing the criteria may hold different presuppositions which affect how they apply each criterion. Additionally, the data derived from applying the criteria can then be arranged in multitude of ways. The disparity in results is due, in part at least, to the unavoidable element of subjectivity in such an endeavor.nonsequitur

On a related note, I’m curious as to exactly what degree of accord amongst scholars is required before one can say that the method is valid? Does it have to be a sure and hard consensus? If so, can the unanimity be in regards to only a somewhat broad outline? e.g. that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who preached concerning the imminent inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Or do they have to agree on the historical Jesus down to every jot and tittle? I ponder this because apparently the unanimous consensus that there was indeed a historical Jesus isn’t enough to quell the doubts of some (e.g. Richard Carrier).

Carrier also says in this chapter that:

Historians must work together to develop a method that, when applied to the same facts, always gives the same result … The solution I propose involves understanding and applying Bayes’s Theorem (14, 16)

After reading this initial chapter I was very skeptical concerning the efficacy of the Bayesian approach the author puts forward as the panacea to historical Jesus studies. Needless to say…. [SPOILER ALERT]…. once I finished reading the book, my skepticism was unabated.

In Part II of this review I will offer up a few thoughts on the use of Bayes’s Theorem for historical Jesus studies, but since I am not a mathematician or historian by anyone’s standard, the usefulness of any comments in this regard will be severely limited and I can only leave it up to History to decide whether Carrier’s method is valid or not. I do, however, have a little bit of knowledge when it comes to early Christian studies and so in Part III of this review I will provide some comments to Carrier’s immediate forays into this area.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Richard Carrier, Jesus, and Heracles

  2. “In this volume Allison, who once embraced the criteria of authenticity, instead utilizes a contemporary cognitive study of memory and applies it to historical Jesus research.”

    I think this is a very misleading sentence. Allison only relies on current studies on memory insofar as he replaces “the criteria” with his own criterion, which is to consider as probably historical those themes that are broadly attested across the tradition (as opposed to, say, individual logia). To give an example, none of the individual stories and/or logia about Jesus exorcising demons may be authentic but no scholar worth her salt can seriously deny that Jesus was probably an exorcist of some kind. Allison’s larger point is that our instruments in the criteria are far too blunt to perform the kind of analysis done by minimalists who sketch a non-eschatological/apocalyptic Jesus.

    • I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you think is misleading about my sentence. I didn’t say Allison doesn’t depend upon any criteria in his utilization of memory; only that he doesn’t rely upon the ‘criteria of authenticity’ as they are typically employed.

      “Allison only relies on current studies on memory insofar as he replaces “the criteria” with his own criterion, which is to consider as probably historical those themes that are broadly attested across the tradition”

      Yes, that is how he utilizes a contemporary cognitive study of memory. I did not say that his utilization of it doesn’t entail the use of any criteria. Employing a methodology which relies upon memory is naturally going to involve criterion or criteria. But he is not reliant upon the ‘criteria of authenticity’. I think there is a big difference.

      • Kevin,

        I don’t mean to get too pedantic here but cognitive studies on memory could be applied in many different ways to the Jesus tradition and don’t necessarily entail a rejection of the criteria. Simply to say that Allison rejects the criteria and uses cognitive studies on memory is not to summarize his approach and so invites a misinterpretation of it.

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