Mythicism: Two Theories

OHJ

“Jesus never really existed as a historical person. He originated as a mythical character in tales symbolically narrating the salvific acts of a divine being who never walked the earth. Later this myth was mistaken for history, or deliberately repackaged that way, and then embellished over time… The odds Jesus existed are less than 1 in 12,000 [.008%]. Which to a historian is for all practical purposes a probability of zero. Even when I entertain the most generous estimates possible, I find I cannot by any stretch of the imagination believe the probability Jesus existed is better than 1 in 3 [32%].” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, pp xi, 600)

Mexist

“As a prophet of the Arabs who taught a vaguely defined monotheism, Muhammad may have existed. But beyond that, his life story is lost in the mists of legend, like those of Robin Hood and Macbeth. As the prophet of Islam, who received (or even claimed to receive) the Qur’an, Muhammad almost certainly did not exist… Muhammad the messenger of Allah came into existence only after the Arab Empire was firmly entrenched and casting about for a political theology to anchor and unify it. Muhammad and the Qur’an cemented the power of the Umayyad Caliphate and then that of the Abbasid Caliphate. That is the most persuasive explanation for why they were created at all.” (Robert Spencer, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, pp 214-215)

I used to dismiss mythicists as agenda-driven cranks, and frankly many of them still are. The two authors under review are different, however, and seem to have been leery about mythicism before becoming advocates for it. In his decades-long study of the Qur’an and hadiths, Robert Spencer was aware of how unreliable the sources are; yet he concluded that Muhammad probably existed (Did Muhammad Exist?, pp 6-7). Richard Carrier associated Christ-myth theorists with crackpots until finally examining the issue (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp 1-3). A mythicist camp isn’t exactly something you have a burning desire to join if you care about your credibility.

Both Spencer and Carrier are credible advocates, and I should address certain objections that have been, and might still be, raised against them before examining what they have to say about Muhammad and Jesus, respectively.

1. Neither Spencer nor Carrier have degrees in Qur’an or Biblical Studies. Spencer has an MA in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Carrier holds a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University. But the claims of Spencer and Carrier stand or fall like any claims: on their merits, not on the kind of degrees that back them up. Amateurs can be right and experts can be wrong (Secret Mark a case in point, exposed as a hoax by two non-specialists independently of each other); being tied to a guild can bring its own baggage. Credentials obviously matter in plenty of ways (if you want a teaching position at a respectable institution you’d better have the right kind), but in general, “pulling rank” on someone by appealing to a superior degree is no argument at all. It’s a sign of insecurity, in some cases even incompetence.

2. Spencer and Carrier are controversial figures. Spencer is a political conservative who runs the Jihad Watch blog, and is viewed by some as an Islamophobe. Claiming that Islam is inherently militant — that jihadists aren’t perverting the Qur’an but rather understanding it too well — doesn’t invite a warm reception these days. But Spencer gets way more flak than he deserves. I’ve explained how political correctness impedes our understanding of religions, and Spencer is to be commended in this regard. Carrier is an atheist crusader for “sense and goodness without God”, urging that the religion of Christianity is a delusion. But he displays enough competence in the field of early Christianity. Yes, he blunders from time to time, but he also gets plenty right where it counts.

3. Spencer and Carrier can be off-putting. They generally avoid ad hominem attacks (unlike some of their critics, BTW), though not always. Ridiculing one’s sexuality or looks (Spencer: “the metrosexual Reza Aslan has no good arguments”) is poor form, as is calling the mental state of other scholars into question (Carrier: “I suspect Maurice Casey is insane”). It’s no surprise that people find Spencer and Carrier to be unrewarding conversation partners.

These elements are irrelevant and ignored in what follows. Did Muhammad Exist? and On the Historicity of Jesus are not only well researched and fairly argued, they show that mythicist positions are defensible in the right hands. I haven’t been moved to either conclusion, but I’ve been moved to greater doubt, and to revise some of my historicist judgments.

Muhammad

I’ll start with Spencer’s book, since it’s the more straightforward. Simply put, we don’t have any early sources, let alone multiple or independent ones, to build a case for Muhammad’s existence. There’s no mention of Muhammad or the Qur’an by the Arabs who were supposed to have been inspired by them in the first six decades. That’s sixty years of complete silence — a long time. In the eighth and ninth centuries we get stories of Muhammad in sudden immense detail, but in the early expansion following the 630s, the prophet and holy book are completely unheard of. They’re absent from surviving Arab communications, absent from the writings of those they conquered, absent period. These Arabs are said to have come and laid waste, but they are not called Muslims, just Hagarenes, Ishmaelites, and Saracens.

On coins from this period, we do find the word “Muhammad” inscribed, but the inscription comes under kingly figures bearing a cross, which is obviously a symbol of Christianity (Did Muhammad Exist?, pp 43-4). “Muhammad” can mean “the chosen/praised one,” and so the coins could be conveying the idea that the ruler is praised or chosen in God’s name (p 45). Alternatively, they could be referring to Jesus — at a time when the religion of the Arab conquerors was still a vague monotheism — or a proto-Muhammad figure unlike the latter-day messenger of Allah. Even the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock (completed in 691 AD and often thought to be the first elaborations on traditional Islamic theology) could be referring to Jesus, explaining how he, “Muhammad”, is a mere messenger and not divine as orthodox Christianity held (pp 56-7).

The reconstruction is simple: The earliest Arab rulers were Hagarenes, monotheists whose chief heroes were Abraham and Ishmael, and they were Christian-friendly enough that they minted coins with crosses on them. It was in 691+ that Islam as we know it began to emerge in defiance of this Hagarene faith and Christianity, amongst the Umayyads (who ruled from 661-750). The Dome of the Rock’s inscription referring to the “praised one” could no longer refer to Jesus, but a new militant prophet. The Umayyads were supplanted by the Abbasids in 750, who regarded their predecessors as irreligious, and who began massively rewriting the past with the Qur’an and hadiths, and filling in historical gaps, demonizing the Umayyads, who in turn created their own hadiths blaming the Abbasids.

Given the 60-year deafening silence and lack of early sources, the only defense for Muhammad’s existence can come by using the criterion of embarrassment in the late sources. Spencer finds this problematic, and I will return to the issue at the end. Richard Carrier finds the criterion equally useless in assessing the figure of Jesus, and in this they both agree with an increasing number of experts.

Jesus

In the case of Jesus, we don’t have a 60-year stretch of silence. Nor even 40 years (when the gospels start appearing). The letters of Paul give us a 20-year window, and so the question hinges on what Paul tells us. Carrier argues that Paul and other apostles worshiped a purely mythical figure into which the gospels later pumped historical life.

In other words, there was never a man named Jesus who acquired followers in his life, and who was executed, or believed/claimed to be executed, which in turn led to his status as a divine Christ (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp 33-34). That’s how Carrier defines the minimal historicist position.

Instead, Jesus was originally thought to be a celestial deity, who communicated with his subjects through dreams and visions. Like other celestial deities, he was at first claimed to have gone through an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in the supernatural realm. Also like other celestial deities, he was later placed on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, friends, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings (p 53). That’s how Carrier defines the minimal mythicist position. (The Ascension of Isaiah paints a picture like this: a preexistent divine Jesus descending below the moon to be killed by sky demons in outer space.)

As a result, there’s a constant dialectic running through Carrier’s work, as he examines evidence to see whether it lends credence to the minimal historicist position or the minimal mythicist position. He assesses gospels and epistles alike, but the real weight hinges on Paul:

“When we approach the Epistles of Paul we must look at each passage with the assumption that mythicism is true and then estimate how likely it would be that the passage would look like that. And then look at that same passage with the assumption that historicity is true and do the same. The latter probability may even be high. But is it as high as the probability on mythicism? (Or higher?) That’s the only question that logically matters?” (p 514)

This brings us to Carriers methodology. By use of Bayes’ Theorem, Carrier estimates the odds Jesus existed less than 1 in 12,000 (.008%). That’s what he genuinely believes the odds are. Playing devil’s advocate — that is, being as generous as possible to the historicist camp — he estimates a 1 in 3 (32%) likelihood. This is all based on his own series of judgments made throughout the course of his book, and as he noted in his prior volume, Proving History, the formula is only as good as what you put into it. Needless to say, the reliability of his .008% – 32% spectrum depends on how one accepts his judgments.

For the most part he doesn’t become victim of his aggressive claims. So for instance, in his assessment of the gospels, he finds nothing at all which can verify Jesus’ existence, but also nothing which proves mythicism. “As evidence, the gospels simply make no difference to the equation.” (p 509) That might be objectionable, but he’s not stacking the deck in his favor as I expected.

He grounds the Christian movement in the phenomenon of cargo cults (pp 159-163) against the backdrop of Roman occupation (pp 153-159), which itself I take to be accurate. If the Jewish people couldn’t retake control of their temple by armed revolt, some sectarians could conceive a replacement of it altogether, which Carrier sees as effected by Christ’s atoning death:

“The centrality of the temple was a continual problem for the Jews. A physical location requiring political control entailed military domination. So long as the Romans had the latter, the Jews would never have the former. The Zealots took the logical option of attempting to remove the Romans and restore Jewish control. The Christians took the only other available option: removing the temple from their entire soteriological scheme. Christians could then just await God’s wrath to come from heaven, while in the meantime, God’s promise could be delivered unto the kingdom they had spiritually created, first in an anticipatory way, and then in the most final way (the apocalypse).” (pp 158-159)

Carrier notes that many cargo cults worship saviors or follow messiahs that never existed, which is true, though the opposite is also true. Historicists like Dale Allison have also framed Christian origins as a cargo cult response to the socio-political realities of ancient Palestine (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 78-94).

But back to Paul, who gets the key penultimate chapter. It’s well presented, and many of Carrier’s arguments give you pause if you forget you know anything about the New Testament outside Paul’s authentic letters; but he’s not always convincing.

For instance, he rightly dismisses the historicist evasion that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ earthly life because he didn’t care about it (pp 517-518). That doesn’t necessarily count as a strike against the historicist position, however. Paul did care about the historical Jesus, but that figure was no help to him, sometimes against him, and so he had to avoid mentioning him. Carrier says that “letters about persons almost always contain historical references to them” (p 523) — but not if those references are a problem. Not if that historical person was wrong about the issue at hand. The reason what Jesus said and did in life isn’t relevant in Gal 1-2 (as Carrier objects, p 526) is that Jesus never spoke against circumcision, as Peter and James would have obviously known and already thrown in his face. Paul needed an anti-circumcision gospel (on the basis of a continually delayed parousia), which only the (convenient) heavenly Christ could provide. All of this explains why Paul shuns the term “disciple”, which Carrier makes much of (p 524). There is nothing improbable about an apostle who never knew Jesus, and was at loggerheads with those who did, and who wanted to avoid any reference to his earthly business.

With regards to the eucharist, Carrier finds that Paul’s use of the Lord’s Supper is “too easily explained on minimal mythicism and too unusual and sparsely detailed on minimal historicity, producing at best a 50/50 fit either way. It thus argues for neither historicity nor mythicism.” (pp 562-563) That conclusion is fair enough, but more needs saying about the way Paul understood Jesus’ death.

When you weigh all of Paul’s Jesus-death metaphors, the scales tip in favor of minimal historicity. Carrier says (pp 143-145) that early Christians saw Jesus’ death has having replaced the sacrifices of both Passover and the Day of Atonement (passover is implied by the eucharist account, and Yom Kippur by Rom 3:24-26), which I take as correct, but they also saw him as a martyr. Some of the texts Carrier cites (like I Cor 15:3) evoke martyrdom more than passover/atonement. The catalog of texts include I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10. “Christ dying for our sins” parrots the “X dying for Y” standard (see Jeffrey Gibson’s “Paul’s Dying Formula”), signalling real flesh-and-blood mortals who died so that others could follow their example. Jews believed that copying a martyr gained victory over a tyrant (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4), and pagans thought copying a philosopher gained victory over fortune (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4); likewise, Paul thought copying Christ gained victory over sin and death (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10).

If martyrdom isn’t the most important death metaphor for Paul, it is the one he most frequently invokes. Jesus is martyr (I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10), paschal lamb (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), mercy seat of faith (Rom 3:25), sin-bearer/scapegoat (Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3), and redeemer (I Cor 6:20, 7:23) all in one, and those metaphors are conceptually at odds with one another. It’s easy to understand a cargo cult leader who martyred himself and then later became deified on the cultic level, based on the weight of these death metaphors. That’s what happened elsewhere (on which see David Seeley’s The Noble Death): The Maccabeans were exemplary, but their blood also served as “an atoning sacrifice” (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea’s model suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35).

Carrier covers the noble death theme on pp 209-211, and gives it good treatment (especially noting how the concept wasn’t embarrassing: “the more awful and shameful the manner death, the more heroic and powerful it was”), but he doesn’t register the full implications. It’s at least as likely (and I think slightly more so, again based on the distribution of death metaphors in the Pauline corpus) that Jesus’ historical martyrdom took on a heavenly atoning function, than that the starting point was a celestial atoning Christ.

Finally, a word about Gal 1:19, which in Carrier’s view is “the only real evidence” historicists have from Paul’s letters. He argues that James “the brother of the Lord” is fictive kinship language rather than biological, as Paul wants to distinguish Christians generally from apostles specifically (p 590), which means of course that he’s not referring to James the pillar. It’s not a convincing argument. Paul would have little reason to bring up a lesser non-apostolic James in the context Gal 1-2, as such a figure would be beneath mentioning. Paul is referring to the apostle James who in fact is the biological brother of Jesus, and who has to be acknowledged, because he’s a thorn in Paul’s side being a rival authority in the Antioch incident as it now bears on the Galatian situation.

This was a point made by Zeba Crook in his recent debate with Carrier, to which Carrier later responded online:

“Crook claimed Paul ‘wished’ James wasn’t the brother of Jesus (because that made James a greater authority than Paul). There is no indication of that anywhere in the Epistles, at all (this is the same error I caught Mark Goodacre in). That is a Christian faith doctrine, that Crook has sublimated from having been taught ‘mainstream assumptions’ in his field inherited by its progenitors, who were not analyzing the evidence objectively in the first place.”

Carrier is being a bit obtuse here. No one, least of all Crook and Goodacre, is leaning on Christian faith doctrine; this is a scholarly construct based on objective assessments of Paul’s relationship to James and the other pillars. Even if you know nothing of Acts 15, it’s not hard to see the power struggles implied in Gal 1-2. (As an aside, I even suggest that James used his authority treacherously.) This is a feeble swipe on Carrier’s part and one of his least persuasive arguments.

But even though Carrier thinks the kinship language of Gal 1:19 (and I Cor 9:5) is twice as likely on the mythicist assumption, he allows that it also might be twice as likely on the historicist assumption (p 592). So again, fair ball.

Embarrassing Criteria

The criterion of embarrassment has undergone something of a reassessment in the past decade. Other criteria (like dissimilarity) have been long acknowledged to be flawed in premise, leaving embarrassment as the trump card. If you have no early sources to work with (in the case of Muhammad), or if your early sources are stingy and oblique (in the case of Jesus), then the way to salvage late narratives is with the luring promise of scandal: that which mocks your beliefs, or undermines your credibility, or somehow makes you look bad, can’t have been invented by you, because you don’t cut your throat. You don’t embarrass yourself unless you are forced to acknowledge, perhaps even defend, something that really happened. Thus Muhammad falling under the power of black magic; thus Jesus baptized by the inferior John, implying he had sins that needed washing away.

The principle is fair, the application problematic. Mainstream scholars like Dale Allison and Mark Goodacre would both agree with Spencer and Carrier that (1) what appears to be embarrassing to us often wasn’t (Spencer, Did Muhammad Exist?, pp 111-117; Carrier, Proving History, pp 129-134); (2) even material that was embarrassing may not have been so at an earlier stage, when it could have been invented (Carrier, pp 126-128); (3) by virtue of the fact that it’s there at all, how embarrassing could the material really have been? the ancient authors had creative license to omit whatever bothered them (Carrier, pp 134-137).

The first two points are valid, the third is somewhat lame. The gospel/hadith writers had creative license, but they didn’t write in a vacuum, and could be kept in check by entrenched traditions. Beliefs remain cherished despite nervousness owing to other evolving beliefs, and there are cases where the apologetic process is obvious. Even Spencer concedes the Satanic verses were embarrassing (that Muhammad received revelations from the devil), and a genuine case from the gospels would be Jesus’ mistaken prophecy about the apocalypse.

The problem involves point (2). Embarrassment at a late stage doesn’t imply the same for an earlier one. Jesus’ promise that some disciples standing next to him wouldn’t die before the apocalypse could have been created in a first-generation church that was getting impatient for his return (as its members were starting to die off). Mk 9:1 would have then served as an “assurance” text (somewhat like I Thess 4:13-18 or I Cor 15:51-53), the message being, “Don’t worry, Jesus is coming again and some of you will still be alive when it happens.” Only at the point when all first followers died off would the saying become embarrassing.

For detailed examples of where the criterion succeeds and fails in the hadiths and gospels, I refer the reader to my post, The Embarrassing Existence of Muhammad and Jesus, but the upshot is that I agree it has very limited value. There aren’t many examples where embarrassment is obvious; in cases where it is, it implies the material probably originated earlier, but where on the 40-60 year spectrum is hard to estimate. On whole, I take it that scholars like Allison and Goodacre, and now Spencer and Carrier, have struck a significant blow against the criterion’s utility. In the few cases where it applies, it could have some impact on Carrier’s Bayesian probabilities pertaining to the gospel narratives; not much, granted, but some.

Verdict

Did Muhammad Exist? and On the Historicity of Jesus represent levelheaded arguments for mythicism. Their authors may have controversial personas, but that shouldn’t be confused with whacky theorizing.

It isn’t far-fetched to suppose that Muhammad never existed from a 60-year stretch of silence. If not for a couple of sticking points, I could be moved to Spencer’s conclusion.

Nor is it a crackpot theory that Jesus began as an apostolic fantasy until historicized 40 years later. Especially if you deny the existence of Q, as I dislike admitting that I do, and allow that the meager amount of early evidence — Paul’s eight letters, possibly Hebrews — evince high Christology and do little to hint at an historical Jesus. I believe Paul does this more than Carrier grants, but not so as to leave me supremely confident.

Scholars haven’t taken mythicism seriously enough to respond to it appropriately, and frankly you can’t blame them. But I think it’s time to recognize mythicism as a viable alternative. Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has some good points, but on whole it’s a rather superficial rebuttal to mythicism; Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? is dire. (The scholarship of Ehrman and Casey are usually impressive.) Critiques of Spencer’s case against Muhammad have been worse.

I enjoy seeing Bayes’ Theorem in action; it’s a wonderful integration of math and the social sciences. The ’90s showed that any Jesus theory can fit the evidence, and Carrier’s Bayesian strategy starts by asking how likely mythicism is to start with; then asking how probable all the evidence is on its minimal version; then also how probable it is on historicism’s minimal version. Some of Carrier’s judgments are objectionable, but not greasy; I never felt he was abusing our trust. He grounds early Christianity in the proper framework of cargo cults. He dismisses testimony that was never strong to begin with, like Josephus. He pegs the likelihood Jesus existed at a putrid .008%, but also concedes as high as 32% to his opponents. I’m not sure what my spectrum would end up looking like (it would be higher), but it would be an interesting project to work on at some point.

For anyone who teaches courses on the historical Jesus, I stand by my previous list of recommendations, though I have added Carrier’s work to it (I’d already included Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus, which is a hop away from mythicism). If I were an instructor, I might use Allison’s trilogy and Carrier’s duology, to provide students with the best of what historicism and mythicism have to offer.

UPDATE: Richard Carrier replies.

37 thoughts on “Mythicism: Two Theories

  1. “”The ’90s showed that any Jesus theory can fit the evidence””

    Yes, that’s fundamentally the issue: it’s a clash of competing interpretive frameworks. One has powerful social and political support. The other is right.

    Excellent review.

    Michael

  2. Gosh! I never thought I was going to disagree wholeheartedly with Loren on almost any matter but but now it has happened at last. It’s all about Robert Spencer’s book on Muhammad. I read it more than a year ago and I have been mulling about it ever since then. The book left me a bitter aftertaste and it still does. It is those kind of books where the author is out to prove a thing at almost any price and by whatever methods. Spencer’s distaste for Islam and its founder is wellknown and here I got the clear impression that Spencer behaves much the way Jesus mythers do; falsify a religion in the most effective way by “showing” that the founder never existed. Personally I think Spencer hasn’t even come close to doing that. And definitely not in “Did Muhammad exist?”. It is a book full of sloppy thinking and sloppy scholarship. I don´t want to make any second guesses about why my normally clearheaded friend Loren has swallowed Spencer’s assertion that we have a “60-year stretch of silence” before Mohammad shows up in our earliest sources. Despite Spencer’s efforts to cast doubt on early sources like the Syriac gospel fragment (dated to the 630ies) I think his nitpicking is unpersuasive. Equally unpersuasive is Spencer’s way of mostly relaying on fringe theories and fringe scholars like John Wansbrough and Christoph Luxenburg (Princeton islam scholar Patricia Crone with a slightly hidden disdain calls him an amateur). And I hardly think it is a coincidence that Spencer leaves the recently found Sanaa fragments of the Quran from Yemen (dated to the end of the 7th century) out of the discussion. These fragments show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death. Which make it very difficult to believe that the Quran was a later invention by the Ummayads and the Abbasids. It is also hardly a coincidence that Spencer almost totally leaves out a discussion about the internal “evidence” of the Quran itself. I suppose one reason is that Spencer doesn’t know classical arabic himself. How is he to get into things like the peculiar style of the suras? A thing that on its own make most islam scholars who know arabic pretty certain that most of the suras go back to Muhammad himself and not to some later inventive muslims in Abbasid times. I don´t know one iota of arabic myself but even reading the Quran in a translation makes me wonder why later muslims living in Ummayad and Abbasid times would make up the chronologically and thematically disjointed suras that are part of the Quaran. The hodgepodge of the Quran makes a lot more sense if the traditions about it being the utterances of Mohammad being true. Just as it makes a lot more sense if the verses were later collected at the time of Uthman (were the traditional story fits pretty well with the timing of the Saana fragments).
    What makes me weary about Robert Spencer is that I am 100 % sure that he would never use the same sloppy methods to dissect the traditions about Jesus. I am sure that he would deem even the Gospel of John about 99 % historically reliable.
    Personally I have come to the conclusion that Mohammad is unique in being a founder of a religious movement from Antiquity where we have we have the majority of his teachings as coming to us as almost out of his mouth. We really get into his mind in a way we can never do with Jesus or Buddha.

    • I ordinarily wouldn’t reply to such a piece, but Loren wrote and alerted me to what Antonio Jerez had written, and I thought it might be an interesting exercise.

      “The book left me a bitter aftertaste and it still does. It is those kind of books where the author is out to prove a thing at almost any price and by whatever methods.”

      In reality, when I started researching the book, I thought I would find that Muhammad certainly existed but that some of the material in the hadith about him that was generally considered to be authentic was actually inauthentic. The more I researched, however, the less I found — that is, the less I found that supported the canonical picture of Muhammad.

      “Spencer’s distaste for Islam and its founder is wellknown and here I got the clear impression that Spencer behaves much the way Jesus mythers do; falsify a religion in the most effective way by ‘showing’ that the founder never existed.”

      I am not in the least interested in falsifying Islam. My interest in Islam is focused on Sharia threats to human rights and the jihad threat to free societies. People who believe in Islam but leave infidels alone are fine by me and I have no interest in disturbing their myth. My interest in the question of Muhammad’s existence is historical.

      “Despite Spencer’s efforts to cast doubt on early sources like the Syriac gospel fragment (dated to the 630ies) I think his nitpicking is unpersuasive.”

      Why? Antonio Jerez does not explain why. In any case, I discuss the fragment and note that it provides us no details that authenticate the voluminous hadith literature about Muhammad. I stand by that.

      “Equally unpersuasive is Spencer’s way of mostly relaying on fringe theories and fringe scholars like John Wansbrough and Christoph Luxenburg (Princeton islam scholar Patricia Crone with a slightly hidden disdain calls him an amateur).”

      Jerez doesn’t mention my strong reliance on the presumably “professional” Crone; nor does he note that Crone was a protege of Wansbrough. Anyway, calling someone “fringe” is not a refutation of his work; it is just a pejorative term meaning that the views espoused by this person are currently unpopular and not in favor. The real question is whether or not what they say is true. Galileo was “fringe” in his day.

      “And I hardly think it is a coincidence that Spencer leaves the recently found Sanaa fragments of the Quran from Yemen (dated to the end of the 7th century) out of the discussion. These fragments show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death. Which make it very difficult to believe that the Quran was a later invention by the Ummayads and the Abbasids.”

      In reality, I state in the book that the Qur’an and Islam started to take shape during the end of the 7th century, so these fragments do not refute my thesis in the slightest. However, these fragments do not in themselves “show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death.” Luxenberg and Lueling argue in different ways that the Qur’an was constructed from already existing material. The fragments could be fragments of that earlier material, and not of the Qur’an at all.

      “It is also hardly a coincidence that Spencer almost totally leaves out a discussion about the internal ‘evidence’ of the Quran itself. I suppose one reason is that Spencer doesn’t know classical arabic himself. How is he to get into things like the peculiar style of the suras?”

      This is an odd quibble, since in the book I do actually discuss the Qur’an’s style, nonce words, words of unknown meaning, obvious textual interpolations, and more. These discussions are in chapter six. Did Jerez throw the book down in disgust before finishing it?

      “A thing that on its own make most islam scholars who know arabic pretty certain that most of the suras go back to Muhammad himself and not to some later inventive muslims in Abbasid times.”

      I don’t argue that the Qur’an is a product of Abbasid times, but of the Umayyads.

      “I don´t know one iota of arabic myself but even reading the Quran in a translation makes me wonder why later muslims living in Ummayad and Abbasid times would make up the chronologically and thematically disjointed suras that are part of the Quaran. The hodgepodge of the Quran makes a lot more sense if the traditions about it being the utterances of Mohammad being true. Just as it makes a lot more sense if the verses were later collected at the time of Uthman (were the traditional story fits pretty well with the timing of the Saana fragments).”

      This argument cuts both ways. If the standard story of how the Qur’an was put together is true, why couldn’t those who collected it together in Uthman’s day put it in some coherent order? Why couldn’t Muhammad have done so before that? To claim that a committee (as per the stories in early Islamic sources about the Qur’an’s collection) in the 650’s couldn’t have organized the Qur’an more coherently but a committee in the 690’s would necessarily have done so is, well, ridiculous.

      “What makes me weary about Robert Spencer is that I am 100 % sure that he would never use the same sloppy methods to dissect the traditions about Jesus. I am sure that he would deem even the Gospel of John about 99 % historically reliable.”

      I haven’t studied the Gospel of John on that basis, so I couldn’t say. In any case, I’m not for “sloppy methods” being used anywhere, but as I state in “Did Muhammad Exist?,” I am all for historical criticism of the Bible. I merely suggest it should also be allowed to be done on the Qur’an.

      “Personally I have come to the conclusion that Mohammad is unique in being a founder of a religious movement from Antiquity where we have we have the majority of his teachings as coming to us as almost out of his mouth. We really get into his mind in a way we can never do with Jesus or Buddha.”

      Funny how these teachings come almost out of his mouth and then Muslims clammed up about them and never mentioned that either he or these teachings existed for six decades, and for much of what came out of his mouth, even substantially longer.

      • That was quite a surprise. Thanks to Loren I got a response from Mr Spencer himself. That’s is certainly appreciated:

        Robert wrote:
        “I am not in the least interested in falsifying Islam. My interest in Islam is focused on Sharia threats to human rights and the jihad threat to free societies. People who believe in Islam but leave infidels alone are fine by me and I have no interest in disturbing their myth. My interest in the question of Muhammad’s existence is historical.”

        Well, I will have to trust you on that one. At least until I see a book by Robert Spencer on the historical Jesus and see if he is prepared to use the same methods he applied on Muhammad to Jesus.

        Antonio wrote
        “Equally unpersuasive is Spencer’s way of mostly relaying on fringe theories and fringe scholars like John Wansbrough and Christoph Luxenburg (Princeton islam scholar Patricia Crone with a slightly hidden disdain calls him an amateur).”

        Robert Spencer replied
        “Jerez doesn’t mention my strong reliance on the presumably “professional” Crone; nor does he note that Crone was a protege of Wansbrough. Anyway, calling someone “fringe” is not a refutation of his work; it is just a pejorative term meaning that the views espoused by this person are currently unpopular and not in favor. The real question is whether or not what they say is true. Galileo was “fringe” in his day.”

        True. I didn’t mention your reliance on Patricia Crone. Neither that she was a pupil of John Wansbrough (I knew that). Once in a time Patricia Crone could have been called a “fringe” scholar. Today she probably belongs to the mainstream. The problem is that you rely exclusively on her early works like “Hagarism”. Works that Patricia Crone herself has long since repudiated. Today I think she would say that those theories were mostly due to the influence of her iconoclastic teacher Wansbrough. Thankfully Crone has come to her senses and become a much better scholar. I certainly don’t think the reason for Crone nowadays thinking that the evidence for Mohammad’s existence is “irrefutable” is because Princeton has been pressured by the prospect of losing donations from the Saudis. That is at least the reason one of your fans on Jihad Watch gave me.
        And I don´t think it is true Crone has “not offered no new findings or evidence” to explain why she doesn´t stand for what she wrote in “Hagarism” any more. She has published many new articles since then and agree that many of the mainstream arguments for the existence of Muhammad still stand up very well. A good summary of her current position can be found in a recent article for the general public – “What do we know about Muhammad?”.

        Antonio wrote:
        “And I hardly think it is a coincidence that Spencer leaves the recently found Sanaa fragments of the Quran from Yemen (dated to the end of the 7th century) out of the discussion. These fragments show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death. Which make it very difficult to believe that the Quran was a later invention by the Umayyads and the Abbasids.”

        Robert Spencer replied:
        “In reality, I state in the book that the Qur’an and Islam started to take shape during the end of the 7th century, so these fragments do not refute my thesis in the slightest.”

        If I have understood you right you state that the Quran started taking shape during the reign of the Caliph Abd –Al-Malik (685-705). Which logically means that If we have found page after page of a book that looks very much like our modern Quran (The Sanaa fragments) that can be dated by the radiocarbon method to between 645-670 then it becomes very hard indeed to to argue that Abd Al-Malik who started reigning later made up the Quran. I don´t think you have to be a mainstream islam scholar to agree about that.

        Robert Spencer wrote:
        “However, these fragments do not in themselves “show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death.” Luxenberg and Lueling argue in different ways that the Qur’an was constructed from already existing material. The fragments could be fragments of that earlier material, and not of the Qur’an at all.”
        I don´t think it will come as a surprise that I don’t give much for Luxenberg’s arguments. Neither do most secular or non-secular islam scholars. Patricia Crone speaks for most scholars when she calls him an amateur. By Luxenburg’s (and Spencers) logic one could as well argue that the Ryland Papyrus P52 fragment from the Gospel of John (dated to between 117-138 AD) is not actually a later copy of the original Gospel of John even though the words very much resemble the Gospel of John. It could after all be a copy of an unknown source that the original author of the Gospel of John used for his gospel.

        Antonio Jerez wrote:
        “It is also hardly a coincidence that Spencer almost totally leaves out a discussion about the internal ‘evidence’ of the Quran itself. I suppose one reason is that Spencer doesn’t know classical arabic himself. How is he to get into things like the peculiar style of the suras?”

        Robert Spencer wrote:
        “This is an odd quibble, since in the book I do actually discuss the Qur’an’s style, nonce words, words of unknown meaning, obvious textual interpolations, and more. These discussions are in chapter six. Did Jerez throw the book down in disgust before finishing it?”

        You are probably right. Either I threw away the book in disgust before finishing it or I have totally forgotten the content of chapter 6-9. On rereading I see that you actually have a discussion about that. But most of the points you make about syriac loanwords, interpolations and the haphazard quality of many parts of the Quran do seem to be more directed against muslims who believe that the Quran is the perfect word of God written in perfect Arabic. I am no believing muslim so I don´t have any problem with that. I agree that there are syriac loanwords, interpolations and a haphazard quality to the Quran. Which is what one could expect given that Mohammad lived and travelled around in the Arabian peninsula where he must have met and talked to quite a lot of Christians. He seems to have been one of those men whose brain soak up quite a lot of things during their lifetime – only for those things to unconsciously pop up in all kind of combinations when he got into his mood of revelations.
        The real problems start when you rely on Luxenburg’s ideas that the Quran was not originally written in Arabic but a translation of Syriac or other non-arabic works. I definitely don´t know classical Arabic but I think I trust mainstream scholars like Jan Hjärpe a lot more than Luxenburg when they tell me that a very special style runs through all of the suras – a style that seem to go back to ONE man who had Arabic as his language. The wordplays and rhymes that run through the suras are almost impossible to explain if they were not originally in Arabic.

        Antonio wrote:
        “I don´t know one iota of arabic myself but even reading the Quran in a translation makes me wonder why later muslims living in Umayyad and Abbasid times would make up the chronologically and thematically disjointed suras that are part of the Quaran. The hodgepodge of the Quran makes a lot more sense if the traditions about it being the utterances of Mohammad being true. Just as it makes a lot more sense if the verses were later collected at the time of Uthman (were the traditional story fits pretty well with the timing of the Saana fragments).”

        Robert Spencer wrote:
        “This argument cuts both ways. If the standard story of how the Qur’an was put together is true, why couldn’t those who collected it together in Uthman’s day put it in some coherent order? Why couldn’t Muhammad have done so before that? To claim that a committee (as per the stories in early Islamic sources about the Qur’an’s collection) in the 650′s couldn’t have organized the Qur’an more coherently but a committee in the 690′s would necessarily have done so is, well, ridiculous.”

        I don´t think the order of the suras is the greatest obstacle to your thesis. The big problem is the content of the suras. Why would the Caliph Abd Al-Malik make up sometimes unintelligible suras that have very little relevance for the multiethnic empire building that he and the Umayyads were doing? If Abd Al-Malik really made up suras to “unify and strengthen his empire” then why didn´t he order his scribes to make up some sayings from the prophet/Allah that could be a weapon against the partisans of Ali and his descendants who claimed that the Ummayads were false usurpers? And isn’t it a bit strange that the Shias never made up a Quran of their own if they had had the slightest inkling that the Quran was a creation of their enemies the Ummayads. I think the answer why this never happened is pretty obvious; the Shias had traditions that clearly anchored the Quran with Muhammad and his family. No matter how much you hated the Umayyads or the Abbasids it was forbidden to tamper with the Quran. If you wanted to get at the Umayyads or the Abbasids you had to do it through the Hadiths.

        Robert wrote:
        “Macbeth “smells like reality,” too. Hamlet is an awfully realistic guy. Neither are real.”

        I don´t think we have any detailed genealogies for Hamlet or Macbeth. Neither for Robin Hood or Ivanhoe. And if the genealogies of Mohammed were in invented I find it strange that none of the major Islamic sects have questioned their veracity. And why all the Umayyad scare and fuzz about Hassan and Hussain if the Umayyads had not been as sure as the Shias that they were grandchildren of a very real Prophet?

        The best critique I have read so far of Robert Spencer’s book is by a guy named Yassin on Amazon. Don´t know if Robert has posted a rebuttal of it somewhere. If so I would be interested in reading it.

      • A little clarification
        Robert Spencer wrote:
        “However, these fragments do not in themselves “show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death.” Luxenberg and Lueling argue in different ways that the Qur’an was constructed from already existing material. The fragments could be fragments of that earlier material, and not of the Qur’an at all.”

        Antonio
        I don´t think it will come as a surprise that I don’t give much for Luxenberg’s arguments. Neither do most secular or non-secular islam scholars. Patricia Crone speaks for most scholars when she calls him an amateur. By Luxenburg’s (and Spencers) logic one could as well argue that the Ryland Papyrus P52 fragment from the Gospel of John (dated to between 117-138 AD) is not actually a later copy of the original Gospel of John even though the words very much resemble the Gospel of John. It could after all be a copy of an unknown source that the original author of the Gospel of John used for his gospel.

    • For me it’s the other way round. Disagreeing with Loren on almost every point regarding Secret Mark, I never thought I was going to agree so wholeheartedly with him on the issue of methods and so on when it comes to the historicity of Jesus, on Carrier’s approach and Ehrman’s and Casey’s previous attempts. A fair and balanced summary AFAICT.

  3. Another reason why I think it is much more easy to make sense of Mohammed as a real historical person than Jesus. There may be tens of thousands of Hadiths (traditions) about Mohammed, most of them probably false, but many of them and much of the information in the Siras (the biographies about Muhammad) smell like reality. Information about the kind of food he liked, a whole chain of information about his family, ancestórs, companions and enemies down to the smallest details etc etc.

      • Macbeth smells like reality because, umm, he was a real King of Scots. He reigned from 1042-1057. He overthrew and murdered King Duncan and was deposed by Duncan’s son Malcolm, who was backed by Edward the Confessor.

        Of course, his actual reign bore no comparison to Shakespeare’s play on the subject. But it wasn’t intended to, being instead about power politics and the coming of the Stewart dynasty to rule England. Such traits are common in Shakespeare. Richard III also little resembled his dramatic counterpart. Or for that matter, Hotspur or Glendower in Henry IV. They were loosely based on historic events but placed in a different order or exaggerated to improve the drama a la Philippa Gregory or recent films on the subject of the Ninth Legion.

        So you didn’t pick the best example. Moreover, it doesn’t say an awful lot for your care and/or thoroughness that you didn’t check before posting – even off-the-cuff in a blog discussion.

  4. Antonio,

    We were bound to disagree on something sooner or later! Needless to say, I don’t think Spencer’s book is so dire. You’re right that he’s well-known for his distaste of Islam, but having listened carefully to his lectures, I’m confident that he’s way over-maligned on this point. Part of the problem is that he’s a crusader, and crusaders always seem biased — because they’re always fighting. He does have a fan-base (frequent commenters) at Jihad Watch, many of whom are no doubt Islamaphobes.

    But you’re probably right that Spencer wouldn’t be as critical with Jesus and the NT. In fact I called attention to this at the bottom of my post on the figure of Abraham, noting his correct view of the Qur’an’s supremacist Abraham, while he soft-peddles the supremacism of Abraham in the Jewish and Christian understandings.

    Nice to see you breathing fire again. Hope things are well in Sweden.

  5. Loren,
    I was dumb enough to question the quality of Spencer’s book on Jihad Watch some months ago. The trolls in his fan club immediately jumped on me and doubted my sanity. The problem with Spencer and his trolls is that they have rarely or never met normal muslims in their own countries. The difference is that I have. I have been to Saudia-Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Malaysia and many other muslim countries and talked to hundreds of muslims. I am no big friend of Islam, but I do know from personal experience that most muslims don´t go around dreaming about Jihad against us westerners allmost all the time. Which is the impression you get when you read Spencer’s site. I also live in a swedish suburb where I am surrounded by thousands of muslims from Somalia, Irak, Syria and many other countries. I am not always happy about that. I usually call my neighbourhood the Parrott Farm. Too many people repeating fairy tales that they have heard in the mosques without showing any sign of critical thinking. The curse of the muslim world is that most people are still living in the age of religious fairy tales. Question the fairy tales and you either get thrown into jail or get your head shopped off,

    • “The problem with Spencer and his trolls is that they have rarely or never met normal muslims in their own countries.”

      I don’t have “trolls,” and Antonio Jerez doesn’t have the slightest idea whom I have met.

  6. Well, I’m not surprised you were smacked around at Jihad Watch! Easy to get in a brawl over there. But when you say that you are “no big friend of Islam, but do know from personal experience that most muslims don´t go around dreaming about Jihad against us westerners allmost all the time”, Spencer has repeatedly agreed with this very statement. Listen to his lectures, they’re all over the place. He agrees that most (millions) of Muslims are peaceful human beings who want to co-exist amicably in the world just like anyone else. What he does emphasize is that there is a significant faction, the jihadists, who remain so viable and threatening because the Qur’an and all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence enshrine militant supremacism. It’s no accident that for every one Timothy McVeigh there are thousands of jihadists; one reason is because the jihad has not been officially repudiated, even if ignored by the peaceful millions.

  7. Well, if that is all Spencer is saying then we are in agreement. I’ve had my fights in public with islam scholars here in Sweden like Jan Hjärpe whom I think are much too apologetic about Islam. They make it sound like any religion is as prone to be used for peaceful or violent purposes as any other. I’ve said to them that it is simply not true. It is hardly a coincidence that we don’t see that many buddhist jihadists. Violence is built into the DNA of Islam right from the beginning. It goes back to the prophet and in that Spencer are in agreement (although I don´t see how Spencer is going to blame it on Muhammad any longer since he knowadays doubts that the prophet has existed….)

    • “Violence is built into the DNA of Islam right from the beginning. It goes back to the prophet and in that Spencer are in agreement (although I don´t see how Spencer is going to blame it on Muhammad any longer since he knowadays doubts that the prophet has existed….)”

      I’m rather amazed at the persistence of this talking point. Is it so hard to see this? Muslims believe that Muhammad existed. Muslims believe that Muhammad said and did certain things, and those things are normative for Islamic law. Thus it is extremely important for Infidels to know what Muslims believe Muhammad said and did, as this will illuminate jihadist behavior and future plans. However, this belief in Muhammad doesn’t mean that Muhammad was an actual historical figure. If a Christian turns the other cheek, it is because he believes in Jesus. But that belief doesn’t mean that Jesus actually said those words — whether or not he did is a separate question.

  8. A small correction to my last statement:
    “Violence is built into the DNA of Islam right from the beginning. It goes back to the prophet and in that Spencer and me are in agreement (although I don´t see how Spencer is going to blame it on Muhammad any longer since he nowadays doubts that the prophet has existed….) “

  9. ‘ Even Spencer concedes the Satanic verses were embarrassing (that Muhammad received revelations from the devil),’

    Does this mean it is historically likely that Muhammad received revelations from the devil?

    Why would Muslims have said Muhammad received revelations from the devil if no Satan had appeared to give revelations to Muhammad?

    • “Why would Muslims have said Muhammad received revelations from the devil if no Satan had appeared to give revelations to Muhammad?”

      In order to explain why the sacred text and core teachings of their developing religion was changing.

      • Robert, my friend, this just does not sound convincing. There are all sorts of ‘embarassing’ stories in the Sirat, e.g. starting with the reaction of Muhammad’s discipleship to his “overnight journey” to Jerusalem. Unlike the Jesus’ movement which was counter-culture at the and invented stories of Jesus’ appearance of a demon-possessed to assert their own “election” (note e.g. Paul’s insistence that his being out of his mind is proof of his apostleship. The verb in 2 Cor 5:13, existēmi, is the same as what was reported of Jesus to his family in 3:21), the mental profile of Muhammad would hardly have been invented. The 111th sura (al-Lahab), eg. does not come from by a religious composer. It has ‘insanity’ written all over it (rhyming the name of his uncle ‘Father of Flame’ with the flaming fire of hell). IMHO, the fitnas of succession immediately after Muhammad passing definitely point to a founder figure whose authority was absolute.

      • Jiri, your mentioning of sura 111 is a perfect example of the kind of style found in the quran that makes it very difficult to believe that it is a product made by scribes. It is easy to see that the Torah and Gospels are products made by intellectuals well versed in the scribal traditions of Israel ( and to a certain extent hellenistic litterature). The Quran is very different from that. It has all the hallmarks of it being an oral product where the revelations were stretched out over a long time. There is no “grand plan” behind the contents or structure of the suras. No stitching together of earlier traditions into a larger story the way we find in the gospels or the book of genesis. If the Umayyads really wanted to invent a holy book for the Arabs that was meant to compete with the Torah and the gospels I am sure they could have found scribes that could have made a better job than the disjointed revelations in the Quran.

    • This wasn’t intended as a comprehensive review of either book, and in Carrier’s case I wanted to focus on Paul who is key. I don’t buy the James verse being an interpolation.

      • If it was Paul that wrote “the brother of the Lord,” I think the reason he did so was that James was a common name and he wanted the Galatians to know which James it was that he met. However, that could also provide a perfect motivation for any scribe who was copying the text who thought that the reader might be confused about which James was meant. It seems to me to be just the type of thing that one scribe might right in the margin and a subsequent scribe might add to the text.

        On interpolations generally, I think we can be fairly sure that some changes were introduced into Paul’s letters in the first century or more of copying that will never be identified. I think that it is also reasonable to suppose that most intentional changes were in the direction of orthodoxy or what came to be accepted as orthodoxy, rather than in the other direction. I find Paul’s hints at a historical Jesus too ambiguous to carry much weight, particularly when I consider that they are the product of a process that would have tended to strengthen them.

      • The “Brother of the Lord” in Gal 1:19 is most likely an interpolation. The whole passage of Paul’s first visit feels unreal given that Paul apparently forgot the titles of Cephas and James on his second visit. If he had known them as the go-to-people in the church, why would he be looking for some unknown figures “who were of repute” the second time around ?
        The bigger problem with the near absolute title “Lord” as Paul used it in reference to Jesus Christ (and as it was later adopted by the church), is that it would have been at loggerheads with the idea of kinship to a pious worshipper of the Second Temple.

  10. Let me lay out some evidence, then, for Gal 1:19 being an interpolation.

    Irenaeus’ Latin copy of Galatians had Gal 2:1 thus: “Then after fourteen years I went up [again] to Jerusalem” – missing the word again. (See Adversus Haereses book 3, 13 – https://archive.org/stream/sanctiirenaeiep00harvgoog#page/n84/mode/2up ) This suggests that the word “again” was an interpolation, which in turn suggests that the first visit to Jerusalem discussed at canonical Gal 1:18-19 is likewise an interpolation. For why add the word “again” if not to partner a newly added prior visit?

    Secondly, the apparent interpolation of the first visit to Jerusalem introduces a contradictory narrative as set against Gal 1:22-3: “And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”” But how can Paul be unknown in person to the churches of Judea if he has already taken the trouble to visit two pillars of the Jerusalem Church? Jerusalem was the centre of the Church in Judea. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/First_century_palestine.gif

    Thirdly, why would the author include the sentence, “(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” if he were not introducing something controversial or novel? There does not seem to be anything controversial or novel about reporting a visit to Jerusalem, unless such a visit is only newly being reported at a point in time when it has become polemically useful. I would suggest that making Paul visit Jerusalem early is a strike by the Proto-Catholic Church against Marcionites who asserted Paul’s independence and held the “second” visit to be the first one. A Catholic may have wanted to tie Paul much earlier to the Jerusalem Pillars. Perhaps he limited Paul’s acquaintance at the time to Cephas and James in a bid to avoid the contradiction above.

    As I see it, both interpolation and non-biological interpretation are feasible avenues for undermining the idea that Jesus had a real brother James.

  11. I agree that there is nothing improbable about Paul wanting to avoid any reference to Jesus’ earthly business, but I am somewhat skeptical that he could have gotten away with it. Peter and James certainly would have cited the fact that Jesus was a circumcised Jew and surely would have remembered something he said that they could claim supported their position, e.g. Matthew 5:17-20. I suspect that being sure they were right, the temptation to simply invent a saying of Jesus would be very great.

    Not only would Peter and James be so tempted, but anyone who had any disagreement with Paul might be tempted to invent a saying of Jesus to bolster their position. As we know that there were people who invented teachings and attributed them to Paul, I think we can be sure that there were people who would have invented teachings and attributed them to Jesus. So even though Paul might have wanted to avoid any reference to Jesus’ earthly business, the authenticity of stories about that business as well as the meaning of the things that Jesus said and did would have been key issues in almost any dispute that arose in his communities. Wouldn’t Paul have had to grapple with that at some point?

    I think Paul’s letters make more sense on the hypothesis that his opponents were also relying only on the revelations of the risen Christ without access to the teachings of the earthly Jesus. I don’t think that proves that there was no earthly Jesus, but it might mean that his earthly ministry was largely a later invention.

  12. Arguments like this make me wonder what would have happened if the Taiping movement had succeeded in conquering China and surviving as a politico-religious ideology for a few centuries. No doubt there would be scholars who would argue vociferously that Hong Xiuquan, the “Younger Brother of Jesus” was an invention of Yang Xiuqing, created to provide a unifying ideology to weld together a disparate movement that otherwise had only opposition to the Qing dynasty as its common core. And they’d be able to make a strong case, at least as strong as Spencer has in his book!

  13. Richard Carrier’s understanding of the Ascension of Isaiah requires the short version of chapter 11 found in the Latin and Slavonic to be original. This is doubtful. The Latin version known to the Cathars is clearly related to the Slavonic/Latin text form but appears to have had the long version of chapter 11 (with details about Christ’s life on earth.)

  14. A little clarification
    Robert Spencer wrote:
    “However, these fragments do not in themselves “show conclusively that something very close to the modern Quranic version already existed 40-70 years after Mohammad’s death.” Luxenberg and Lueling argue in different ways that the Qur’an was constructed from already existing material. The fragments could be fragments of that earlier material, and not of the Qur’an at all.”

    Antonio
    I don´t think it will come as a surprise that I don’t give much for Luxenberg’s arguments. Neither do most secular or non-secular islam scholars. Patricia Crone speaks for most scholars when she calls him an amateur. By Luxenburg’s (and Spencers) logic one could as well argue that the Ryland Papyrus P52 fragment from the Gospel of John (dated to between 117-138 AD) is not actually a later copy of the original Gospel of John even though the words very much resemble the Gospel of John. It could after all be a copy of an unknown source that the original author of the Gospel of John used for his gospel.

    • But that’s true. We really don’t have a reason to state P52 is a copy of John with much confidence. Maybe it is. Maybe not. Could be either.

      It is frustrating to realize how uncertain we should be about these things, and it’s common for NT historians to, at this point, resort to saying things like “well, we have to go with what we have,” (I’m looking at James McGrath…) but this ignores the fact that not only do we have to go with what we have, we have to be careful about how certain “what we have” licenses us to be.

      The answer, usually, in this field, is “not very.”

      If mainstream scholars would just at least admit that we shouldn’t have any _confidence_ that Jesus existed, that would be a step forward!

  15. I take a different approach to myth and history in the Gospel in my book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark (University Press of America: 2013). Jesus is a symbol of salvation and the story of Jesus recapitulates the history of salvation. I discuss mythicism along with other theories in the appendix. Perhaps some readers would like to read and review it.

  16. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts

  17. Alas, I still don’t have a copy of Carrier’s latest. A problem I had with Proving History was that, while he does a good job of making Bayes’ accessible, he still has qualified critics who say it simply isn’t applicable (and supporters who say it is). Since the less accessible version is far too complicated for my humanities brain, I’m left little recourse other than to sit on my hands (I also strongly disagree with one of Carrier’s key premises–that history is fundamentally scientific, and find his primary source for that claim appallingly bad–but that’s another issue).

    It’s been interesting to watch (and participate on occasion) the evolution of mythicism in recent years as it has gained more traction. I sincerely hope Carrier opens the door to *real* dialogue, but frustratingly some things seem to change more slowly than I might like, so I suspect that if it does it will be a long time in coming. Which increasingly seems like prolonging the inevitable to me. That mythicisim will be recognized as a *real* model that requires *real* interaction seems inescapable to me now, and I certainly didn’t always think that was the case.

    Thanks for the review! Looking forward to reading it for myself.

  18. There’s also the “semi-mythicist” case on Jesus. Maybe the Talmud was right and he was a Pharisee crucified by Alexander Jannai, with a century’s worth of “accretions” before Paul, etc.

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