Richard Carrier on Historical Methods and Jesus Studies

In lieu of my forthcoming page with links containing relevant studies on the figure of Jesus, I thought I should post up some very important PDF’s from Richard Carrier.

The first link is a paper Richard gave at the Jesus Project conference and is an introduction to Bayes Theorem and how it relates to the study of the figure of Jesus.

He addresses these criteria:

Example List of Popular Historicity Criteria
Incomplete List (names often differ, criteria often overlap – here are 17; there are two or three dozen):

  1. Dissimilarity – dissimilar to independent Jewish or Christian precedent
  2. Embarrassment – if it was embarrassing, it must be true
  3. Coherence – coheres with other confirmed data
  4. Multiple Attestation – attested in more than one independent source
  5. Contextual Plausibility – plausible in a Jewish or Greco-Roman cultural context
  6. Historical Plausibility – coheres with a plausible historical reconstruction
  7. Natural Probability – coheres with natural science (etc.)
  8. Explanatory Credibility – historicity better explains later traditions
  9. Oral Preservability – capable of surviving oral transmission
  10. Fabricatory Trend – isn’t part of known trends in fabrication or embellishment
  11. Least Distinctiveness – the simpler version is the more historical
  12. Vividness of Narration – the more vivid, the more historical
  13. Crucifixion – explains why Jesus was crucified
  14. Greek Context – if whole context suggests parties speaking Greek
  15. Aramaic Context – if whole context suggests parties speaking Aramaic
  16. Textual Variance – the more invariable a tradition, the more historical
  17. Discourse Features – if J’s speeches cohere in style but differ fr. surrounding text

In his chapter in the collection Sources of the Jesus Tradition, Richard shows how these criteria cannot hold up to logical scrutiny.  In this PDF, however, he only addresses a few to show the value of Bayes Theorem as a tool by which historians can determine whether their arguments are as strong as they think they are.

His second paper is on the twelve axioms of historical method.  He writes:

Though the following axioms pertain specifically to the theories and work discussed in my book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, they apply generally to all historical inquiry. These twelve axioms represent the epistemological foundation of rational-empirical history.

To which he clarifies:

For the epistemology underlying these axioms and the concepts and assumptions within them, see my book Sense and Goodness without God (esp. pp. 21-62 and pp. 211-52) and my essay “Epistemological End Game” (29 November 2006) at I further discuss the epistemology of history in my essay “Experimental History” (28 June 2007) at

Richard also reminds us of the value of using formal logic in historical studies:

Proper historical argument consists of seeking this growth of consensus, and entails everything this requires (diplomatically, rhetorically, and procedurally—hence the purpose of peer review, and my recommended twelve rules below). This process cannot be bypassed, as specialists in a field are the most qualified to assess an argument in that field, so if they cannot be persuaded, no one should be (unless their resistance can be proven, not merely assumed, to have other motives than truth-seeking). Conversely, if they are persuaded, everyone else has a very compelling reason to agree (unless, again, their acceptance can be proven, not merely assumed, to have other motives than truth-seeking). This is the social function and purpose of having such experts and specialists in the first place.

These papers are highly recommended and will get some level of prominence on the forthcoming page.  I would like to note that Richard’s position on the historical figure of Jesus is one of agnosticism and, as far as I am concerned, the most appropriate.  However, that does not mean that a historical Jesus scholar can’t use Bayes Theorem and develop an argument which is sound for the historicity of the figure of Jesus, that is to say, it is possible that, using Bayes, Jesus’ historicity can be established.  As of this time, however, it has not been done.


6 Responses

  1. What is the difference between agnosticism about Jesus and agnosticism about Romulus, if there is any?

  2. Normally, I might be inclined to say ‘none’ but, the truth is, there are many scholars who feel there are significantly more reasons to accept the historicity of the figure of Jesus than of Romulus. I find those reasons to be, generally, unconvincing, but they are out there and must be dealt with before any determination can be made. This is why agnosticism is most appropriate, but we’re not yet sure if it is the same sort of agnosticism that should be given until further research can be done.

  3. What further data is there to analyze?

  4. When I say ‘further data’ I mean only the ways we interpret existing evidence. To clarify, there are no set means to examine the evidence; we create methods and try to follow them as free from bias as we can, but many existing methods used to interpret the evidence don’t hold up to the scrutiny provided by formal logic (which, as it were, is Richard’s point). So we need to develop a new means to evaluate the evidence using formal logic which encompasses other new studies, whether they be related to genre studies or linguistics, to exegesis or archaeology, which in turn would fall under the umbrella of ‘further data’.

  5. Thanks for the articles by Carrier, in particular the 12 axioms. I wish more people took this to heart, the conversations would be more intelligent. The hard work of convincing scholars with logical arguments may not be as sexy as the “bombshell book that will destroy the tyranny of the ivory tower and their fake consensus!”, but if you hope to convince more than fellow fragile minds, it is the only way to go.

  6. […] Posted on July 18, 2011 by Tom Verenna This is precise my point and one I have said over and over.  This is why the criterion of embarrassment fails to meet even a cursory examination.  I thank […]

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