The other day I listened to the December 15, 2012 episode of Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” radio show which featured a debate between Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre on the issue of Jesus mythicism. (You can listen by downloading it from iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/unbelievable/id267142101.) Carrier argued that the Jesus-was-a-myth theory was a live historical theory and may, in fact, be the strongest theory. Carrier focused on the earliest strata of documentation which we find in the Pauline epistles. He argued that this data is commonly read through the assumptions of the later gospels, including assumptions about Jesus’ historical life on planet earth. But when we get down to the actual content of these earliest documents we find that they do not explicitly support the fuller gospel picture of Jesus in history. To be sure, they are consistent with it, but they are also consistent with the view that Christianity originated when Paul and other early leaders began to have visions about a dying and rising god in the heavens which later morphed into that god dying and rising on earth. In support of this reconstruction of events, Carrier points to other historical examples from the ancient world where mythic characters morphed into quasi-historical personalities.
The New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre did an effective job of countering Carrier’s mythicist reading. But what really struck me about the debate as it unfolded was that it sounded like how a debate might have unfolded between John Locke and George Berkeley on the existence of the physical (i.e. extra-mental) world. As you probably know, John Locke was an old-fashioned realist in that he believed there was a physical world external to our minds. Locke argued that this world consisted of extended substance with primary qualities as well as our minds which added secondary qualities (e.g. color) to our experience of that world. Berkeley demurred. He saw no need to posit a distinction between primary qualities in a physical world and secondary qualities in the mind. Instead, he insisted that whenever you say you’ve experienced the external world, what you have in fact experienced is an idea — a color, a texture, a smell, a visual shape — and that is simply a qualification of your mind. In other words, you find that your experience of the world requires only minds and ideas. (All qualities of experience — or ideas — are “secondary” mental events.) To postulate an external physical substance to go along with minds and their ideas is simply unnecessary.
In much the same way that Berkeley says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only minds and ideas; It doesn’t require an external world” so Carrier says “When you look at all the data you find it requires only a mythical Jesus resurrected in the heavens; It doesn’t require a historical Jesus”. In my view, both idealism and mythicism are ripe for refutation, but it never struck me before how much the latter, like the former, is grounded in a paradigm-shift evaluation on the exact same set of data.