At his Internet Infidels website and in a number of talks including a debate with Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus, Richard Carrier presents an argument for “Why I Don’t Believe the Resurrection Story.” I have decided to put together a response to the reasons that Carrier offers for not believing in the resurrection of Jesus. This will be a series of three or four blog posts, and when complete I will make it available in the article section.
At his website, his presentation is divided into five sections: Main Argument / Rubicon Analogy, General Case for Insufficiency, Probability of Survival vs Miracle, General Case for Spiritual Resurrection, and Rebutting Lesser Arguments. Actually the section that drew my interest the most was Carrier’s arguments for a “spiritual resurrection.” His position is that the earliest biblical account of the resurrection of Jesus has nothing to say about Jesus actually coming back to life in any bodily sense. Instead, says Carrier, the first disciples of Jesus had either a vision or a dream of Jesus in heaven, and came to believe that in spite of his death, Jesus had spiritually survived in an immaterial form in heaven. I’ll say more about that later.
Out of convenience, I’ll divide my coverage of the arguments into five sections as Carrier did. For what it is worth, I commend to readers the debate that Carrier had with Michael Licona (see the link provided above) for a succinct, clear verbal presentation of Carrier’s position.
The Rubicon Analogy
Carrier has put a surprising amount of energy into the analogy between the resurrection of Jesus and Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon. It has been said by some Christian apologists that on the basis of the historical evidence, there is as much evidence for the empty tomb of Jesus as there is that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Seizing on this claim, Carrier devotes much space to showing that the evidence for the Rubicon crossing by Caesar is better than that for the resurrection of Jesus. I will say that this strikes me as more than a little misguided. Even if an apologist had claimed that the evidence for the resurrection was “almost as good” as that of the Rubicon crossing, they would still be saying something important. But carrier is explicit: He’s not interested (at this point) in whether or not the evidence for the resurrection is good, or even if it’s of similar quality to the evidence for the Rubicon crossing. He’s chosen the lower hurdle of showing that the evidence for the Rubicon crossing is better (even if only a little) than the evidence for the resurrection. Who am I to judge? That’s the goal he picked.
Even with this fairly modest goal, however, Carrier makes claims that appear to step beyond what the historical evidence permits a responsible historian to do, or else he simply underestimates the way in which the resurrection of Jesus fulfils the criteria he lays down. In comparing the resurrection of Jesus with Caesar’s Rubicon crossing, Carrier sets out what he sees as the five kinds of evidence that we can have in the study of history, from strongest to weakest. He says that while the Rubicon crossing has the strongest types of evidence in its favour, the resurrection has only the weakest. His presentation of this argument is perhaps clearest in his debate with Michael Licona, so that is the version of the argument I will use.
The five types of evidence that Carrier lists are:
1 Physical-historical necessity
2 Direct Physical Evidence
3 Unbiased Corroboration
4 Credible Critical Accounts (by known scholars)
5 [purported] Eyewitness Account
Carrier’s claim is that while Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon enjoys all five types of evidence and is therefore well supported on historical grounds, the resurrection of Jesus enjoys only the last kind, the weakest kind.
It should be clear that we have many reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five proofs of an event’s historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and in the one proof that it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence–a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses.
I’ll address each of these five types of evidence in turn and evaluate Carrier’s comparison of the Rubicon crossing with the resurrection – and in particular the empty tomb – of Jesus (I stress “the empty tomb” because this is the historical claim that Carrier himself stressed in his debate with Licona).
1 Physical-historical Necessity
According to Carrier, part of the evidence that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon is that his doing so is a physical necessity for other things that we know. This is the most compelling type of evidence. The Rubicon crossing simply must have taken place, because, says Carrier, the history of Rome could not have proceeded as it could had Caesar not moved an army into Italy. Unless Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, he could not have captured Rome or conscripted men in Italy to fight Pompey’s soldiers in Greece.
By contrast, Carrier claims in his debate with Licona, the empty tomb of Jesus is not at all necessary to explain the origin of the Christian faith. He argues that this is because belief in Jesus resurrection started out in response to dreams and/or visions of a spiritual survival, not a physical rising from the dead, and as such an empty tomb simply wasn’t necessary to bolster the belief in the resurrection of Jesus and hence the growth of early Christianity.
There are two claims here: First, that Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon was absolutely necessary in order for the history of Rome to have proceeded as it did, and second, that the empty tomb of Christ was not necessary at all in order to explain the early Christian belief in the resurrection and hence the rise of the Christian movement in history. I will treat the second claim later because it concerns an argument that needs to be dealt with in its own right, namely the argument that the earliest Christian belief in the resurrection was only a belief in an invisible spiritual resurrection into heaven. However, it is crucial to note here how important a role this argument plays. This argument is given as the reason why the empty tomb of Jesus was not necessary to explain the early Christian belief in the resurrection and the rise of Christianity.
Notice: He essentially concedes, then, that if early Christianity did think of the resurrection of the dead as a physical occurrence, then the empty tomb was necessary to explain the rise of Christian belief. If this card falls, the house falls with it. He gets out of the bind by denying that early Christianity saw the resurrection of the dead as a physical event. I’ll return to this later in the series.
So for now, let’s look at Carrier’s claim that the Rubicon was physically necessary in order for history to proceed as it did. It’s true, of course, that Caesar could not have taken the later actions that he did in Italy if he had not physically moved an army there. But “Caesar sent an army into Italy” is clearly not the same as “Julius Caesar personally crossed the river Rubicon.” So Carrier is in fact moving the goalposts in saying that moving an army into Italy is necessary in order for history to have proceeded as it did. Perhaps it is, but did Caesar need to personally cross the Rubicon in order for this to happen? Quite clearly not. Here is a map showing the (probable) course of the Rubicon at the time that Caesar crossed it:
The Rubicon marked the northern boudary of Italy proper. You’ll see that it has its head inland in the region of the Apennine Mountains. It’s fairly clear that although crossing the Rubicon was a convenient way to travel to Rome, it was by no means the only way. Remember, we’re evaluating Carrier’s claim that “an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.” This is a very strong and specific claim. If Caesar’s personal crossing of the river Rubicon wasn’t “necessary to explain all subsequent history” then Carrier’s claim is false. And fail it does. An invasion from sea via any of the ports in Italy was a possible way to invade. So too was a land invasion from any point West of the head of the Rubicon. For that matter, Caesar’s Army could have crossed the Rubicon while Caesar himself travelled South as well, but West of the Rubicon. Now, I don’t think that any of these things actually happened, but that is clearly not the point. The point is that Carrier maintains that it was absolutely necessary for Julius Caesar to have crossed the Rubicon in order for his armies to have invaded Italy, and this is not the case. I maintain that this is a case of exaggerating the evidence in order to make the evidence for the resurrection less impressive by comparison.
How then does Carrier’s claim regarding the most compelling type of evidence – physical or historical necessity – stack up? Not very well. For while it is true that Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon is an economical way (arguably the most economical way) to explain the way that subsequent history unfolded, it is certainly not the only event that could have allowed history to have unfolded that way, since there are other ways that Caesar could have gotten into Italy. What’s more, Carrier’s argument that the empty tomb of Jesus is not necessary in order to explain the rise of Christianity stands or falls on his argument that early Christianity did not think of the resurrection of the dead as a physical event, but that it instead thought of resurrection as a non-physical event that left a dead body behind. This, I maintain, is the weakest link in his entire case, but I will come to that later.
2 Direct Physical Evidence
[w]e have a number of inscriptions and coins produced soon after the Republican Civil War related to the Rubicon crossing, including mentions of battles and conscriptions and judgments, which provide evidence for Caesar’s march. On the other hand, we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
The first thing to note about some of the types of evidence listed here is that they might involve the same type of goalpost shifting that we saw earlier: They relate, not to the actual crossing of the Rubicon, but rather to the events that took place after Caesar had entered Italy, which is not at issue. If they actually specify that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Carrier does not say so. Remember, the claim being tested is not that the empty tomb or the resurrection is as well attested as Caesar being in Italy. The claim is that the empty tomb and the resurrection is as well attested as Caesar’s personal crossing of the river Rubicon. Therefore inscriptions and coins that make “mentions of battles and conscriptions and judgments” are simply not relevant here if this is all they mention.
With this in mind, it is vital that Carrier give us a comparison of time frames if he is going to claim that inscriptions (again, inscriptions that are not specifically about the crossing of the Rubicon) came into existence. He is leaving it up to his audience to either take his word on the matter or do their own investigation, which is to say that he is not doing the work required of him if he is to make his case.
However, when elsewhere responding to James Holding’s comments on the Rubicon crossing, Carrier shows his hand, and it is there that we realise why he might have been reluctant to do so elsewhere:
Consider what we have for Caesar. In 47 B.C. coins were struck by the government of Antioch (which Caesar had just liberated from Pompey) declaring it to be “year two of the era of Caesar.” Cicero’s letters confirm that Caesar’s conquest of the Roman Empire began in 49 B.C., two years before this coin was struck. This is corroborating physical evidence. Comparably, if we had coins struck in Damascus in 33 A.D. declaring “year two of the era of Jesus Christ,” that would be physical evidence corroborating the resurrection of Jesus.
We have other coins struck by Caesar himself during the war to pay his soldiers, then coins struck celebrating Caesar’s victory over Rome (and then coins struck by Brutus celebrating his assassination of Caesar). In a similar fashion, inscriptions document Caesar’s victory over Rome, his capture of Italy, and his founding of colonies for veterans of the war there. We could certainly have had similar inscriptions by or about Jesus erected during his life, or shortly thereafter, documenting his miracles in life or appearances after death, or the subsequent commitments of the Church, and so on. But we don’t.
With this, Carrier confirms that he has indeed shifted the goalposts. The comparison was never between the empty tomb of Jesus and the presence and victory of Caesar in Rome. The comparison was between the empty tomb of Jesus and Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. Carrier’s evidence is simply missing the mark.
What is more, when we compare the evidence for the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus with the evidence for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon (which Carrier does not), it would be a mistake to assume that the type of evidence would be exactly the same. We can readily understand why there might be coins to commemorate the victory of a new emperor of Rome, but why on earth would there be a coin struck by the government to commemorate the resurrection of the leader of a relatively unknown religious sect? It is a fairly hollow victory to say that no such thing existed, because if the resurrection of Jesus took place, we would not expect any such thing to exist. The relevant question to ask is what type of evidence we should expect if Jesus did rise from the dead, and then to ask whether or not that evidence exists. In the context in which Christianity is believed to have arisen, we would expect that there be written accounts by people who did in fact believe that the resurrection had taken place and who were in a position to know that it had taken place, and we would expect an increase in the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, again, by people who were in a position to know, and who showed signs that their belief was genuine, coupled with an argument that this belief is best explained if in fact Jesus bodily rose from the dead (an argument I will come to later when assessing Carrier’s argument about a spiritual resurrection). From those who did not in fact believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we would expect evidence of the growth of the Christian movement, either with a stance of indifference or of animosity towards that movement. And do we have all of the above? I’ll cover this when we look at types 3, 4 and 5.
The third thing to say is that these are all cases of writings that mention events, written after the fact. They are not “direct physical evidence” like footprints, fingerprints, DNA evidence etc. Carrier is overstating the case again. That being said, the kinds of evidence that Carrier lists are nonetheless relevant types of evidence. They are simply evidence for a different set of facts, and not for the Rubicon crossing.
Since I am pointing out that the evidence Carrier lists is not direct evidence for the Rubicon crossing itself, it is worth saying: The similarity between the Rubicon crossing and the resurrection is here: There is no direct physical evidence in either case, nor can we realistically hope for any. What we do have in each case is circumstantial evidence, and the question in each case is whether or not the purported event or state of affairs (Caesar’s personal crossing of the Rubicon and the empty tomb and resurrection of Jesus on the other) are the best explanation of that circumstantial evidence that we do have. This is the best that a historian can hope for.
3 Unbiased Corroboration
One of the major points of confusion in this line of argument is over just what “bias” is. What would be required, for example, for us to have an unbiased writer in the first century who believed that Jesus had risen from the dead? For as soon as anybody puts pen to paper and declares that Jesus rose from the dead, the writing is treated as supporting the Christian cause and therefore as being biased.
However, it is when assessing the bias present in the corroborating accounts, not of the resurrection, but of Caesar’s Rubicon crossing that Carrier exhibits the most significant error. He writes:
[w]e have many of Caesar’s enemies, including Cicero, a contemporary of the event, reporting the crossing of the Rubicon, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until over a hundred years after the event, which is fifty years after the Christians’ own claims had been widely spread around.
Carrier treats it as significant that some of those said that Caesar crossed the Rubicon were his enemies. The innuendo is that an enemy of Caesar would be less likely to believe that he had crossed the Rubicon, and so in admitting that he did so, they were overcoming a significant bias, serving as a hostile witness whose testimony is more persuasive than that of a friend of Caesar.
This however is a fundamental error. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus, it is true, means accepting certain favourable claims about Jesus that count as the acceptance of parts of Christian theology. By contrast, accepting that Caesar crossed the Rubicon is not at all to accept anything favourable about him if one is an enemy of Caesar. There is nothing about the Rubicon crossing that would make one of Caesar’s enemies predisposed to not believe it. In fact a number of Caesar’s enemies might have been his enemies precisely because he crossed the Rubicon. Moreover we can easily imagine people stirring up those who resented Caesar’s invasion by appealing to the Rubicon crossing, thus giving them a predisposition to tell people that it took place. For an enemy of Caesar to believe that the Rubicon crossing took place, therefore, is not a case of a hostile witness, and has no particular significance one way or the other compared to a friend of Caesar believing in the Rubicon crossing. The issue of bias does not even arise here, and is a red herring. We could split hairs about whether not Cicero was genuinely a personal “enemy” of Julius Caesar or a mere political opponent who may have otherwise been favourably disposed towards him, but there is no need to pursue that. His being an enemy simply does not matter.
Whereas being a friend or enemy of Caesar has no important bearing on believing in the Rubicon crossing or not believing in the Rubicon crossing (something overlooked by Carrier), by contrast, being persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead has everything to do with whether or not a source is going to be regarded as biased in favour of Jesus. While it is easy to imagine a miffed Italian thinking “That so-called emperor Caesar, whom I despise, crossed the Rubicon and invaded my country,” or “That Julius whom I would gladly murder and replace invaded Rome by force,” it is much more difficult to imagine a first century Palestinian saying “that false pretender, the mere man Jesus of Nazareth, was actually raised from the dead in a great act of God.” The mere acceptance that Jesus rose from the dead is itself a major step towards the Christian movement (if not an embracing of it), so the complaint that we have no written testimony in favour of the resurrection from a person who did not accept that it had happened (i.e. a non-Christian or an enemy) is not significant, and is in fact precisely what we should expect. In a similar way, the fact that enemies of Caesar accepted that he crossed the Rubicon is not significant. Of course, their testimony is not irrelevant and counts the same as the testimony of Caesar’s friends, but the fact that they were his enemies does not make them any less biased.
The other issue presented in saying that there is corroboration of Caesar’s Rubicon crossing is that of timing, but I’ll come to that in the next section.
4 Credible Critical Accounts (by known scholars)
Here is where I think the reader will see the element of bias creeping into the very criteria themselves. The fact is, questions can be raised over practically every word Carrier uses here: Credible? Critical? Known? Scholars? What makes them credible? What does critical imply? Does being known really make one believable? Other than being a writer of history, what makes the author a scholar?
Setting these concerns aside for the sake of seeing the specifics of the argument, here’s what Carrier says:
[W]e have the story of the “Rubicon Crossing” in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have a measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they often quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn’t enough, all of them cite or quote sources written by witnesses, hostile and friendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions.
Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single established historian mentioning the event until the 3rd and 4th centuries, and then only by Christian historians. And of those few others who do mention it within a century of the event, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit that we can test for their skill and accuracy, are completely unknown, and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.
I have already addressed the issue of hostile witnesses for the Rubicon crossing and explained why sources hostile to Caesar are of no more value than sources friendly to Caesar.
The point here seems fairly clear: We have accounts from ancient historians writing on the Rubicon crossing around the time when it happened, but the people who wrote the New Testament are really just nobodies, they certainly weren’t critical, we can’t check the quality of their work in other contexts, and they do not count as credible historians. The fact that New Testament authors have a bias towards persuasion and conversion can be ignored from the outset. Obviously if they have become persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead then they believe that Christianity is true, and anyone who came to believe that would want others to believe it as well. The self confessed goal to convince the reader that the events described really took place certainly doesn’t undermine a historian (indeed it would seem bizarre if a historian did not want the reader to believe that the events they describe really took place).
Let’s look then at the impressive sounding claims about the historical accounts that we have of the Rubicon crossing. Carrier mentions Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch. For the sake of contrast, let’s first note that Carrier regards it as important that a significant amount of time elapsed before certain accounts of the resurrection of Jesus were written, and prior to then the people who had written about the event were not “skilled” historians. Now observe that the Rubicon crossing occurred in 49BC.
Suetonius, Carrier’s first historian, was not even born until AD71, well over a century after the fact, and his work The Twelve Caesars was completed no earlier than AD119, nearly 170 years after the fact. If this had been an account of the resurrection of Jesus, it could easily be claimed that this distance of time and the circulation of the Christian myth of the resurrection had wormed its way into the record.
Appian, Carrier’s second historian, was born even later in AD95, nearly 150 years after the fact. Appian is something of an obscure figure. In fact it is not an overstatement to say that anything written by Appian is almost as anonymous as anything that appears in Mark’s Gospel. As the Wikipedia article on Appian explains:
Little is known of the life of Appian of Alexandria. He wrote an autobiography that has been nearly completely lost. Information about Appian is distilled from his own writings and a letter by Cornelius Fronto, a famous litterateur living in Rome in the mid-2nd century. However, it is certain that Appian was born around c. 95 in the capital of Roman Egypt, Alexandria. Since it is known that his parents were Roman citizens capable of paying for their son’s education it can be determined that Appian belonged to the wealthy upper class.
It is believed that Appian moved to Rome in 120 where he became a barrister. From his introduction to one of his most important surviving works entitled Roman History, he boasts “that he pleaded cases in Rome before the emperors.” The emperors he claims to have addressed must have been either Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius and definitely Antoninus Pius, for he was still in Egypt by the end of the reign of Trajan (c. 53 – c. 117) meaning he must have moved to Rome at a later date. From the primary source of Fronto’s letter (mentioned previously) it is revealed that a request on behalf of Appian to give him the rank of procurator, can be dated during coregency, i.e., between 147 and 161. Applying for that office acknowledges that Appian belonged to the equestrian class, or “knight” class of Roman citizens. It is known that Appian won this office, but it is unclear whether it was a real job or an honorific title. The only other certain fact about this historian is that he published a Roman History that appeared sometime before 162 C.E. It is certain because it is one of the few primary sources historians have to work with on the period.
Of course, nobody would doubt that Appian lived, died and wrote the works attributed to him (certainly Carrier would not doubt this). But there is a lesson here about allowing evidence to come to us from obscure sources! The point here is just that a source that Carrier cites as clearly more authoritative on Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon than the New Testament writers on the life of Jesus was actually written more than 210 years after the event took place.
Cassius Dio, Carrier’s third historian, was later still. He was born possibly as late as AD164, and died some time after AD229. He records a number of events that modern historians regard as mythical, such as the founding of Rome by twin brothers Romulus and Remus in 753 BC, to say nothing of his inclusion of the legend of the hero Aeneas (son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite) from Troy in 1200BC, as penned in Virgil’s Aeneid, as actual history. Given that his History of Rome includes events up to AD229, it must have been complete at that time or later. At very least, his account of the Rubicon crossing was written 250 years after the fact, perhaps more.
At this point, Carrier’s complaint that no real historian wrote on the life of Jesus (or specifically his resurrection) until many years after the fact begin to ring more than a little hollow. Also sounding less persuasive is any suggestion that the historians who wrote about it would meet the standards of impeccability that Carrier seems to attribute to them. One assumes that a sceptic like Carrier does not believe the myths about the founding of Rome or the children of the gods, for example. Again, the point here is not that we should doubt that the Rubicon crossing took place. The point is only that Carrier is exaggerating, even inventing, the differences that supposedly exist between the quality of the historical accounts that we have concerning the Rubicon crossing and those that we have concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Plutarch is the last historian mentioned by Carrier, although he should probably have been listed first, given his earlier date, being born in AD46. His Parallel Lives, which is his work that mentions Julius Caesar, was written some time in the very late first century, considerably more than a century after the Rubicon crossing. Although it is the earliest account of the event by any historian, it is also a work that has been subject to widespread criticism precisely because it lacks the kind of reliability that Carrier attributes to it. I quote freely from an essay on Plutarch (not my own) as follows:
[O]ne of [Plutarch’s] major works, Parallel Lives, provides the readers with biographies of Greek and Roman historical figures and is largely based on information obtained from various historical documents, oral tradition, and knowledgeable contemporaries of the author. Plutarch’s choice of material may lead the readers to believe that the goal of Parallel Lives was to give an accurate historical account of the lives of the famous statesmen and that the work can be safely used as a historical source. A careful analysis of the text, however, reveals that in his biographies such as those of Lycurgus and Solon, Plutarch focuses on character traits of the historical figures and provides the readers with numerous stories containing moral lessons. This suggests that his true purpose was not to provide an unbiased historical account of the lives of the past leaders but to analyze the character of important Greek and Roman historical figures and through real-life examples of their decisions that either lead to success or to failure educate the leaders of his own time in ethical behavior. Consequently, before using a particular piece of information in Parallel Lives as a historical source, the readers should examine the context of its presentation and assess the objectiveness of Plutarch. For example, Plutarch could have invented events to support the character development of the historical figures, interpreted an actual fact in a biased way that fit a particular trait he wanted to discuss, or presented only those events that fit the personality he selected for his statesman.
Plutarch demonstrates his focus on the character of the historical figures through open use of unreliable historical information for the sake of character development. For example, at the beginning of Lycurgus’s biography, the author acknowledges that “there is nothing indisputable to be said about Lycurgus the legislator” and yet, he proceeds to examine his life, unsure about when the man lived, who his parents were, how he died, and even if he were just one man and not two. He writes about Lycurgus because he could be credited with creation of “an actual and unrivalled system of government” that relies on “virtue and internal unanimity,” a system from which Plutarch’s contemporaries could learn proper ethical behavior. Later in the biography the author is “reluctant to attribute to Lycurgus a disgusting institution like the krypteia” even though the ancient sources suggest that he was responsible for its establishment. Plutarch bases “this judgment of his character on his equitability and fairness in other respects.” Thus, in order to present the character of Lycurgus in a consistent way to his readers, Plutarch picks out historical evidence that fits with Lycurgus’s “high-mindedness and justice” and rejects other sources. Similarly, in his biography of Solon, Plutarch includes an unreliable account of Solon’s encounter with Croesus. He explains his decision by claiming that “when a story is so famous and well attested and, more importantly, so much in keeping with Solon’s character and worthy of his self-assurance” that a chronological inconsistency is not a good enough reason to reject it as fiction. Thus, in the biographies of Lycurgus and Solon, Plutarch is more concerned with character development of his historical figures than the historical accuracy of the information he presents.
In more general terms, as is noted at Wikipedia, “Plutarch is criticized for his lack of judicious discrimination in use of authorities and the consequent errors and inaccuracies, but he gives an abundance of citations and incidentally a large number of valuable bits of information which fill up numerous gaps in historical knowledge obtained elsewhere. He is praised for the liveliness and warmth of his portrayals and his moral earnestness and enthusiasm, and the Lives have attracted a large circle of readers throughout the ages.” Again, my point is not that what he says about the Rubicon crossing is false, only that as a writer in general Plutarch does not have the pristine, dispassionate approach that Carrier implies.
In light of the evidence, William Lane Craig’s summary is fair:
Historians of the Roman Empire often refer to ‘Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon’ as an undipusted fact of historic significance, even though it is attested only by four ancient writers, two to three generations after the event, all dependent on one eyewitness account, and preserved in significantly different forms corresponding to the various authors’ idealogies, including one which attributes Caesar’s decision to enlarge his frontiers to supernatural guidance.
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 211.
Carrier’s argument takes a disappointing turn when we note that he – after listing the above four historians – told the audience of his debate that they are “known scholars of the time.” This is disappointing because, while many in the audience will not have known when Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, And Cassius Dio lived and wrote, there is no way that Carrier himself could have been ignorant of the fact that they were not even alive during the time of Julius Caesar and certainly could not have been known scholars of the time. Put simply: Richard Carrier, knowing full well that Cassius Dio did not write about the Rubicon crossing until at least two and a half centuries after it took place, calls him a historian of the time of that event – without disclosing when he actually lived and wrote. Similar things can be said about Carrier’s treatment of his other three sources, albeit with shorter time-frames. This is a total lapse in scholarly standards, a simple case of garden variety lying.
Setting issues of honesty aside, in Carrier’s presentation, without mentioning any details about when the histories were written or the fact that they contain numerous elements that he would regard as spurious or mythological, he leaves the impression that classical historians are respectable, dispassionate, well “established” (whatever that means) and reliable, while New Testament authors are unscholarly, biased and unreliable and that is that. While it is understandable that this is an attitude taken by vocal opponents of Christianity at various internet forums, who themselves have no particular knowledge or expertise in the work of classical historians, that this sort of dogmatism should come from Carrier, whose academic background is in history (albeit the history of science) is inexcusable. He would do well to listen to fellow historians to remedy this outlook, historians such as the late A. N. Sherwin White. White was an eminent Graeco-Roman historian at the University of Oxford, and president of the Society for Promotion of Roman Studies. He ends his excellent lecture series on Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament with a discussion to enlighten non-historians on the comparison between “The Historicity of the Gospels and Graeco-Roman Historiography.” Reading it, one learns that Richard Carrier is exactly wrong in his assessment of how New Testament historical records compare with other historical records of the time. It would be helpful for some readers to reproduce the entire section here, but this is not practical, so I will summarise with some excerpts.
Sherwin-White starts by explaining to those not acquainted with Graeco-Roman history that what counts as a good historiographical basis for our knowledge of this sort of history is much slimmer than some may naively suppose.
Though for two short periods of our history we are lucky enough to have two major contemporary historians of remarkably objective character in Thucydides and Polybius, we are generally dealing with derivative sources of marked bias and prejudice composed at least one or two generations after the events which they describe, but much more often, as with the Lives of Plutarch or the central decades of Livy, from two to five centuries later. Though connecting links are provided backwards in time by series of lost intermediate sources, we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source. Yet not for that do we despair of reconstructing the story of the tyranny of Pisistratus or of the tribunates of the Gracchi.
Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, The Sarum Lectures 1960-1961 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963), 186.
He goes on:
[I]t is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain – so far as an amateur can understand the matter – that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious when one compares the case for the best-known contemporary of Christ, who like Christ is a well-documented figure – Tiberius Caesar. The story of his reign is known from four sources, the Annals of Tacitus and the biography of Suetonius, written some eighty or ninety years later, the brief contemporary record of Velleius Paterculus, and the third-century history of Cassius Dio. These disagree amongst themselves in the wildest possible fashion, both in major matters of political action or motive and in specific details of minor events. Everyone would admit that Tacitus is the best of all the sources, and yet no serious modern historian would accept at face value the majority of the statements of Tacitus about the motives of Tiberius. But this does not prevent the belief that the material of Tacitus can be used to write a history of Tiberius. The divergences between the synoptic gospels, or between. them and the Fourth Gospel, are no worse than the contradictions in the Tiberius material.
Another example. The internal synoptic divergences, such as arise in the narratives of the trial of Christ, are very similar to those that Roman historians meet in the study of the tribunate of Gaius Gracchus. We have two or even three contradictory versions, for instance, of the content of the most important of the legislative proposals – a central point in the story – and there are three divergent versions of the way in which the riot began in which Gaius lost his life. The four accounts of the trial of Christ are not more troublesome. The two cases are rather similar in terms of analysis. The three versions of the death of Gaius aim at attributing the blame for the great riot to different persons or groups. So, too, the mildly divergent versions of the scene before Pilate and the Sanhedrin may aim, as has often been suggested, at transferring the blame for the condemnation of Christ, in varying degrees, from the Romans to the Jews.
Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law, 187-188.
Given the way that the Gospel accounts compare so favourably with the work of the very authors to whom Carrier appeals who mention the Rubicon crossing, it should have – and would have, had he been adequately acquainted with the evidence discussed by Sherwin-White and prepared to be fair in his analysis – been at once obvious to Carrier that the historiographical evidence simply does not show what he claims. Carrier claims that differences between Gospel narrations of what happened after the resurrection show evidence of mythological development, yet differences of even greater significance in ancient history do not suggest the same in the case of Gaius Gracchus or Tiberius Caesar. This is all the more striking when we consider how soon after the events the Gospels were written, as Sherwin-White noted:
What to an ancient historian is most surprising in the basic assumptions of form-criticism of the extremer sort, is the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths – if one may use that term to sum up the matter. We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear. The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case. Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost.
Herodotus particularly comes to mind. In his history, written in mid-fifth century B.C., we have a fund of comparable material in the tales of the period of the Persian Wars and. the preceding generation. These are retold by Herodotus from forty to seventy years later, after they had been remodelled by at least one generation of oral transmission. The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means so far-fetched as it might seem. Both regard their material with enthusiasm rather than detached criticism. Both are the first to produce a written narrative of great events which they regard as a mighty saga, national or ecclesiastical and esoterical as the case may be. For both their story is the vehicle of a moral or a religious idea which shapes the narrative. For Herodotus the classical concept of ‘koros-hubris-até’ is no less basically influential than the notion of, for example, oblation in the pattern of the Gospels, affecting both the parts and the whole of the narrative. Yet the material of Herodotus presents no intractable difficulty to a critical historian. The material has not been transformed out of all recognition under the influence of moral and patriotic fervour, in a period of time as long, if not longer, than can be allowed for the gestation of the form-myths of the synoptic gospels.
Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of mythmaking, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition. A revealing example is provided by the story of the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus at the hands of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who became the pattern of all tyrannicides. The true story was that they assassinated Hipparchus in 514 B.C., but the tyranny lasted another four years before the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Popular opinion created a myth to the effect that Harmodius and Aristogeiton destroyed the tyranny and freed Athens. This was current in the mid-fifth century. Yet Herodotus, writing at that time, and generally taking the popular view of the establishment of the democracy, gives the true version and not the myth about the death of Hipparchus. A generation later the more critical Thucydides was able to uncover a detailed account of exactly what happened on the fatal day in 514 B.C. It would have been natural and easy for Herodotus to give the mythical version. He does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure than Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy.
All this suggests that, however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail even with a writer like Herodotus, who was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty. The Thucydidean version is a salutary warning that even a century after a major event it is possible in a relatively small or closed community for a determined inquirer to establish a remarkably detailed account of a major event, by inquiry within the inner circle of the descendants of those concerned with the event itself. Not that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides. But it can be maintained that those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolical and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material. It can also be suggested that it would be no harder for the Disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ within their closed community, than it was for Herodotus and Thucydides to establish the story of the great events of 520-480 B.C. For this purpose it matters little whether you accept the attribution of the Gospels to eyewitnesses or not.
Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law, 189-191.
5 [purported] Eyewitness Account
Lastly Carrier arrives at what he deems the most unreliable type of historical evidence that exists, namely eyewitness accounts. He claims that when it comes to eyewitnesses for the Rubicon crossing, we have Caesar’s own word, for he was, after all, the author of a history of the Roman Civil War. However, speaking of the quality of the eyewitness evidence for the empty tomb, he then says:
In contrast, we have nothing written by Jesus, nor any record of the empty tomb by eyewitnesses like Peter. And we do not know for certain the name or the identity of any author of any of the accounts of the empty tomb that we do have, much less the name of their immediate sources.
Quite a contrast, you might think!
An initial comment should be made on Carrier’s claim that we have “Caesar’s own word” on the Rubicon crossing. The fact is that we do not have Caesar’s own word, as Carrier begrudgingly concedes. James Holding noted that in Caesar’s own account of the civil war, he does not even specifically mention the Rubicon river. So we simply do not have “Caesar’s own word.” In reply, Carrier appears to get frustrated:
Perhaps Holding is just being picky. What Caesar does say, in his own words, is that he was “at Ravenna” where he assembled and spoke to his troops when Rome declared war upon him (1.4-6). He straightaway adds: “Once the will of his soldiers was known, he marched with this legion to Ariminum,” modern Rimini, where several defectors with messages from Rome were waiting to receive him (1.8.1). Ravenna lies on the Italian coast twenty miles north of the Rubicon. Ariminum lies on the Italian coast ten miles south of the Rubicon. The towns were directly connected by a major Roman road that crossed the Rubicon, the Via Flaminia. You do the math.
Here Carrier concedes that we do not have Caesar’s own word on the Rubicon crossing, but we do have Caesar’s own word on some events that are most economically explained if we “do the math” and accept that the Rubicon crossing occurred, which is a more modest claim. This fact is only aggravated by Carrier’s quip (in his article on why he doesn’t buy the resurrection story) that “it is common in Christian apologetics, throughout history, to make absurdly exaggerated claims, and this is no exception.” Physician heal thyself!
What then of the eyewitness testimony to the empty tomb? Unfortunately Carrier offers precious little comment at all, appearing to expect that the audience should fully grant without any question the conclusions that he draws. The most recent version of his article “Why I Don’t Believe the Resurrection Story” at his website was updated in 2006. Unfortunately this means that when writing it, Carrier didn’t have the benefit of having read Richard Bauckham’s magnificent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, published in 2006. Of course, on the face of it there’s no specific reason to think that Carrier was, in 2006, making a practice of keeping up to date with New Testament scholarship anyway, but had he been able to, and had he allowed Bauckham’s research to inform his conclusions on the basis of the evidence they draw on, he would have been aware of several things that pose problems for his analysis of the facts. Given that Carrier’s comments take up just a few lines and make no actual appeal to scholarly evidence, it hardly seems fair that anyone should have to invest a lot of time composing a rebuttal. However, if one were to summarise the facts with as much brevity as Carrier summarised his beliefs, it would go something like this:
It is true that Jesus, like Socrates or Gautama Buddha, did not bequeath writings to us. However, the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus including the empty tomb bear all the internal hallmarks of Eyewitness testimony, together with indicators as to who the eyewitnesses were likely to have been for the episodes being recorded. That this is so is confirmed by multiple phenomena in the Gospel, including even the differences that exist between the accounts in different Gospels.
Now of course, unpacking these claims and giving examples of the evidence for them would take time. So too would giving evidence for the claims that Carrier made about the anonymity of the sources involved, but no evidence was provided.
Once Carrier has admitted that really we do not have Caesar’s own word on the matter, and what we must do is “do the math” to infer that Caesar crossed the Rubicon (setting aside the fact that you could not ask for a more biased source than Caesar himself, who would gladly boast of his own exploits), we end up with a situation like that of the resurrection of Jesus: a number of facts in need of explanation, which we must “do the math” to arrive at a conclusion about what actually took place.
The way that Carrier does the math comes in two parts: First, appealing to the same argument used by David Hume, he argues that we should be biased against belief that a miracle has taken place. Second, he launches into his crucial argument that the early Christians did not believe in a bodily resurrection, and that is why the empty tomb is not needed to explain their belief (I take this to be his most significant line of argument). I will cover these two lines of argument in two further blog posts.
For now, however, it should be fairly clear how I assess Carrier’s arguments about the historicity of Caesar’s Rubicon crossing with the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
Firstly, it was a bizarre goal to show that Caesar’s Rubicon crossing is better attested by history, because even if successful, it shows very little indeed. After all, even if the resurrection of Jesus is almost as well attested as the Rubicon crossing, this is as good an attestation as many events in ancient history have.
Secondly, it is fairly clear that Carrier vastly overstates the level and specificity of historical (and historiographical) evidence that we have for Caesar’s Rubicon crossing. He often merely depends on his own certainty that the event took place, drawing on sources as “good enough” when in fact they do not mention the event at all. Caesar never claims to have crossed the river in his own writings. Roman history could indeed have progressed as it did without an event as specific as the Rubicon crossing (since there is more than one way to Rome), and contrary to Carrier’s inaccurate and, unfortunately, dishonest comments and claims, we do not have contemporary accounts of the event written by historians of any repute – or indeed any contemporary historians at all!
Thirdly, it is obvious that Carrier both employs a double standard and understates the evidence when it comes to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. His suppositions about the quality of ancient historians in general as opposed to biblical historians are positively naïve. We know that ancient historians are notorious for incorporating dubious and even mythological material into their accounts, as well as for disagreeing with each other at key junctures, something Carrier seems to overlook completely. His hasty summary assessment of the Gospels as consisting of totally anonymous material, not credibly seen as eyewitness testimony and not citing any sources shows no sign of being the product of any research at all.
In investigating the quality of Carrier’s rebuttal of the comparison between the Rubicon crossing and the empty tomb, which is of very poor quality, we have actually seen reasons to endorse the comparison rather than reject it.
In my next blog post in this series I will address Carrier’s two lines of argument: General Case for Insufficiency and Probability of Survival vs Miracle.
- Work in progress
- Does Richard Carrier Exist?
- The times they are a changin’
- “Can These Bones Live”? is up at Afterlife
- Women as First Witnesses to the Empty Tomb
- 616, that other number of the beast