Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

Why Jesus never existed: A Richard Carrier lecture review

At the repeated urging of John from The Superstitious Naked Ape, I took the time to sit down and watch Dr. Richard Carrier’s lecture for the UNCG Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics on why he believes Jesus never existed. You can watch it yourself here. Or you can just read my comments below as I go through the video.

Initially, we’re treated to an overview of mythicist theories and their various permutations. Dr. Carrier is off to a good start. I’m appreciating his approach, in particular his recognition of the rank-and-file ahistoricity tropes as birther-style conspiracy theories. Interested to know what he’s got to add to the situation.

His description of the competing models for the explanation of the New Testament—that you’re either a Christian who believes it was all true, a secular historian who believes Jesus was only a man, or a secular historian who believes Jesus was a myth—is a little disingenuous. It’s easy to set up a false dichotomy in which either everything in the New Testament is 110% factual or else Jesus wasn’t God.1 Just because all-or-nothing is the fundamentalist approach doesn’t make it right. But this isn’t really his point, so I’ll let it slide.

He’s come to a central question, though he doesn’t really come right out and say it. “What is the best explanation for the historical emergence of Christianity?” That’s definitely the right approach to take.

In answer to this question, he starts talking about the mystery religions now. This is something I’ve studied quite a bit, so it’s nothing new. Ostensibly he’s going to use the mystery religion motif as an explanation for the emergence of Christianity. If he wants to take this approach, he’ll have to argue that Christianity was originally a very Gnostic sort of cult out of which Pauline Christianity eventually emerged….not sure how successful this is going to be. The timeframe is pretty narrow, I think.2

So what is the best explanation for the historical emergence of Christianity? Carrier says it’s something called “euhemerization”. As the story goes, a Greek named Euhemerus started the practice of writing stories to place mythical deities in historical settings on Earth. Supposedly, this was based on the assumption that such deities were originally demigods, who walked the Earth as men before ascending to full godhood. Carrier tells us that such fictional, invented histories were common as the “public myth” for various gods, and argues that Christianity as we know it began as the euhemerization of the savior deity in a mythic Jewish cult.

With that in mind, Carrier launches into the dying-and-rising-god theme. It’s good that he acknowledges how quite a few of the commonly-cited “dying-and-rising-god” tropes actually postdate Christianity; this skepticism adds to his credibility. His examples are a little lacking, though. If I recall correctly, neither Romulus nor Osiris were actually purported to physically rise from the dead; Romulus’s body was assumed into heaven during a solar eclipse amid rumors he had been murdered, and Osiris’s body was sent into the world of the dead after being reconstructed (usually by Isis). Moreover, there is no evidence of any baptism ritual associated with Osiris. Carrier’s inclusion of this inaccuracy is pretty sloppy, and doesn’t bode well.

Mentioning Zalmoxis doesn’t help his case either. There is precious little about the cult of Zalmoxis that can be identified as parallel to Christianity. The central practice of this cult was killing a follower with darts so that he might take a message to the deity. According to our one source, the figure of Zalmoxis was a real individual who became rich, traveled to Thracia, and taught the Thracians a series of myths about the afterlife. He then tricked them into thinking he had visited the afterlife and returned by hiding for a few years and then coming back.3

Carrier goes on to thoroughly and ruthlessly debunk a series of common falsehoods about the Jesus myth theory. These include:

  • The twelve disciples. There is no mythical figure whose twelve followers provided the basis for Jesus’s twelve apostles. None.
  • December 25. The notion of Jesus being born on December 25 was added by the Catholics long after Christianity itself arose; any references to this date in other myths have nothing to do with the origins of Christianity.
  • Mithras. We have no evidence that Mithras was a dying-and-rising god. Major parallels between Mithraism and Christianity are fictitious.

I very much appreciated this section; I’ve heard these all too often. Maybe hearing it from Carrier will put this ridiculousness to rest.

It’s puzzling, though, that he’d be so serious about identifying these falsehoods, but careless about Romulus, Osiris, and Zalmoxis. Oh well.

Carrier asserts that although figures like Mithras weren’t necessarily dying-and-rising gods, they did follow a consistent pattern, including the following mythic elements:

  • They are all “savior gods”
  • They are all the “son” of God (or “daughter”)
  • They all undergo a “passion”
  • They all obtain victory over death, which they share with their followers
  • They all have stories about them set in human history on earth

He says, “To see Jesus as the sole exception in this trend, that he’s the only one who actually existed, already is looking like an extraordinary claim.”

There are a few things that give me pause here. First of all, the list is a bit messy. These were all Hellenistic cults, so they would be part of the Greek pantheon, which means that obviously ALL of the individuals are going to be the “sons” or “daughters” of a deity. All the members of the Greek and Roman pantheons had divine kids or divine parents. Nothing unique about that element.

  • They are all the “son” of God (or “daughter”)

It’s also unclear exactly how consistently the “victory over death” is “shared” with the followers of a given cult. It didn’t seem to be the case for Romulus, nor for Osiris (the latter didn’t even really have victory over death at all, considering that he stayed more-or-less dead, but we’ll let that slide). Anyhow, the “sharing” aspect is out.

  • They all obtain victory over death, which they share with their followers

The last point is problematic as well. Granted, we don’t have much of the writings about Mithras and others (if, even, such writings ever existed), but these myths are not set within defined human history. There are no dates, no specifics; rarely does anything tie them to an actual historical setting and period that can be identified or examined. We have little evidence they were cast alonside known figures in real history. Simply saying “they were once human” isn’t enough.

  • They all have stories about them set in human history on earth

So now we have a much shorter list; one that seems woefully nonspecific:

  • They are all “savior gods”
  • They all undergo a “passion” involving life and death and a victory
  • They all have stories about them

This literary archetype is so vague that it’s hard to imagine how anyone would use it as the basis for a historical myth-generation model. Heck, any ancient head of state who survived an assassination attempt would probably fit into this theme. It’s certainly not enough to form the basis of a syncretic-myth theory for the genesis of Christianity.

Speaking of which, Carrier then moves on to discussing Jewish history in the context of syncretism.

Now, it’s quite easy to create a theory of syncretism. Too easy, in fact. Anything that the two religions have in common? Obviously borrowed. Anything that the two religions don’t have in common? Syncretized, or borrowed from a different tradition. Anything that’s only a very vague similarity? Adapted.

The problem is, everything is evidence for a syncretic theory. Everything can be made to fit. Which means it can’t be tested…it’s a just-so story. Is it true? Maybe. But we have no way of knowing, and that’s problematic. If Carrier wants to be convincing, his theory needs to be falsifiable. To be fair, his actual writings have more elements of falsifiability, but I’m just not seeing that in this presentation. Perhaps the fact that he’s addressing a highly sympathetic audience made him forgo academic rigor, at least for a little while.

In dealing with Jewish history, Carrier comes to some of the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Carrier calls Philo a historian…and while that’s technically true, the work Carrier cites is one of Philo’s philosophical treatises. This will be important later. Moving on (this is from one of his slides):

Philo of Alexandria Tells Us…

  • There was a pre-Christian Jewish belief in a celestial being actually named “Jesus” who was…
  • The firstborn son of God…
  • The celestial “image of God”
  • God’s agent of creation…

Pretty amazing, right? That stuff sounds like it’s straight out of John, Romans, and the letters to the Corinthians.

But remember how I said this was from one of Philo’s philosophical works? Yeah…about that. Philo wasn’t relating the history of Judaism here; he was advancing his own views. Philo used prophecies from the Old Testament to develop his own theories about the Messiah…unsurprisingly, the same prophecies which the gospel writers claimed for Jesus.4 Moreover, Philo’s “Jesus” was the actual son of a Jewish high priest named Joshua (it was a pretty common name). Yep, nothing to see here.

Carrier asserts that Christianity was originally a belief about a Jesus who died and was buried and was resurrected in outer space; a celestial sacrifice. He claims precedence for this in private-myth Osiris mysteries as well as some esoteric Jewish cults. That’s well and good, but it doesn’t really say anything about Christianity itself, no matter how many tangentially related myths followed this theme.

In defense of the claim that this was the original origin of Christianity, he launches into a long and storied discussion of The Ascension of Isaiah, a forged myth created sometime around the turn of the second century. It involves travel through the seven levels of heaven syncretized from the Inanna myth and some kind of death-and-resurrection Jesus myth, possibly syncretized from a rumored Osiris mystery and the actual early Christian account. He goes into a lot of detail about the Inanna mythos as well.

Trouble is, this postdates Christianity. So I have no idea why he thinks it’s significant. There’s nothing in the Inanna myth or the Osiris myth which bears striking resemblance to the actual Christian gospel narrative; the only vague similarity is that Inanna’s body was hung on a meathook because the god of the underworld was jealous of her sexuality. Interesting, yes, but not particularly startling or crucifixiony.

Carrier advances the argument that Paul’s letters reflect a esoteric gospel revealed by visions rather than a gospel passed down to him by eyewitnesses of physical events. He goes to great lengths in explaining this, quoting repeatedly from the Pauline epistles. For example, Galatians 1:11-12.

“The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Now, this isn’t terribly problematic for Christians (particularly the more fundamentalist variety, but we won’t get into that), because of the belief in inspiration….that Paul was guided by and through the Holy Spirit in preaching the gospel. Naturally, this isn’t something Carrier addresses, because he’s mostly concerned about the secular historicity view (though, to be fair, he does try to address both potentialities in his other works).

But this doesn’t work, because he omits the following portion of the passage:

“The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born….was pleased to reveal his Son to me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.”

To what end is Paul’s mention of his former life as a persecutor of the church? The point here is not the means of transmission of the gospel to Paul, but the acceptance of the gospel by Paul. He goes to lengths to confirm that his acceptance came before any substantive interaction with the leaders of the church, despite his past.

Carrier argues that Paul never discusses Jesus’s life or appearances prior to his death. Scripture and revelation are the only sources Paul cites specifically, and Paul “never clearly places Jesus on Earth or connects him to human history”. He does a fairly good job of making these points, so I’ll give him credit for that.5 However, based on this, he asserts that the Jesus known and referred to and spoken to by Paul is “always in outer space”. It’s a bit of a non sequitur to say “Paul doesn’t specifically mention Jesus’s location on Earth, so he must be discussing adventures in outer space.” Sure….or he was focusing on the theological themes he’s famous for. Because that’s pretty much what he always did.

In building his case that Paul believed in a celestial, mythical Jesus (or, at least, that he didn’t confirm the historicity of Jesus), Carrier attempts to refute a handful of Pauline passages which refer to the earthly family of Jesus, beginning with 1 Cor. 9:5 and Gal. 1:19. Both of these, he tells us, refer to the “brothers” of Jesus. But, he points out, Paul’s theology calls all baptized Christians the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus. So obviously we can’t know whether Paul is talking about biological brothers or adopted brothers, right?

I was more or less shocked. Carrier has already earned my respect even though I think he’s a little sloppy here and there….but here he is approaching patent disingenuity. These passages don’t for a moment talk about the “spiritual” or “adopted” brothers of Jesus. The fact that he suggests this evinces a disrespect for his audience that’s really disappointing.

Why? Well, let’s look at the passages.

“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 1:19)

“Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5)

Both of these are talking about specific people, contrasted with a group of other Christians. The Galatians verse even names this person: James, the half-brother of Jesus according to the synoptic gospels (and according to Josephus, but that’s another matter). Apparently, Carrier would have us believe that Paul saw James as a “spiritual brother” of Jesus….but not the other apostles. Apparently there was a group of “brothers of the Lord” who were spiritually adopted in a different way than the apostles themselves….and this group coincidentally happens to contain James, who just happens to be one of the half-brothers of Jesus in the gospels. Really?

I could at least appreciate an argument that these references could possibly be interpolations. But he’s dreaming if he thinks the “spiritual brother” line is going to convince anyone who actually reads the verses. Carrier calls this “the weakest pillar you could rest historicity on,” but in reality it is by far the most serious flaw in his paradigm.

Moreover, this whole paradigm falls somewhat flat when you step back and look at what’s being asserted. In order for Carrier’s theory to work, the early Jesus-on-Earth Christians would have had to sift through the letters of Paul, destroying or carefully redacting all copies of any letters explicitly restricting Jesus’s existence to outer space. Is this a possibility? Perhaps….except for the fact that the early Christians we know of were fiercely antagonistic toward anything they viewed as heresy. Even Paul’s own letters attest to the sharp disagreements produced by the circumcision party; the writings of Origen and Tertullian and other early church fathers underscore this antagonistic theme. Every example of disagreement is accompanied by sharp rebuke. For the early Jesus-on-Earth Christians to have adopted Paul’s writings if he was in clear opposition to them….it’s completely unprecedented and vanishingly improbable.

Carrier moves on to Hebrews, another book which he alleges reflects an ahistorical, mythic-celestial view of Jesus. This is important to him because Hebrews was written with the assumption that the Jewish temple still existed, meaning that it predates the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Any verified attestation of the historicity of Jesus at such an early point would be a serious challenge to the mythicist theory.

As with Paul, he asserts that Hebrews speaks of a celestial Jesus, not a physical Jesus on Earth. Any references to the physicality of Jesus are said to be relics of the “types and shadows” doctrine, an esoteric Jewish teaching that all objects on Earth have more perfect copies in the celestial realms. It’s quite convenient, because it means that almost any references to the physical world are rendered inconclusive. They could mean the celestial realm, or they could mean the terrestrial. In support of the view that this is what’s going on in Hebrews, Carrier points to passages like Hebrews 9:11, which speaks of a “greater and more perfect tabernacle.”

But the most immediate defeaters to this interpretation are the very examples Carrier cites. In the case of Hebrews 9:11, there’s a very clear distinction made surrounding this copies-of-earthly-things doctrine:

“When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tabernacle (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood.”

This passage goes to extreme lengths to specify the use of the copies-of-earthly-things doctrine in a singularly Pauline6 parenthetical. In fact, all instances of this celestial usage are similarly specified. For Carrier to make the claim that this is the rule even when it’s not specified, he’d need to explain why. Moreover….and this goes back to something I said earlier….he’d need to explain his standard of falsifiability. If one of these references was talking about real events on Earth, how would he know? What clues are used to determine it one way or another? Or is he just assuming anything that would hint at the historicity of Jesus must be a celestial reference?

In general, these are all “could be either way so we throw it out” claims. But he does make one positive claim that he says is proof of a celestial-only Jesus: that the author of Hebrews says Jesus’s sacrifice could not have been effectual had he been a high priest on the Earth. Unfortunately, he neglects to cite a chapter and verse on this, so I have no idea what he’s referring to. But it doesn’t sound particularly conclusive; obviously Jesus’s function as a high priest (according to Hebrews) took place spiritually rather than physically in the Temple at Jerusalem. No surprise there.

In my futile attempts to hunt for what he is citing7, I came across the following passages, all of which challenge the mythicist interpretation of Hebrews:

“[This gospel] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (2:3-4)

This doesn’t work as a mythicist passage. Mythicism depends on all the “declarations of the Lord” originating through visions, but fitting that to this passage is a real stretch. Carrier would have to interpret this attestation to be a third-party recounting of the visions that are being cited as evidence in the preceding clause. It’s really far-fetched.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” (2:14-17)

Sharing in flesh and blood, being made like his brothers in every respect….sure, Carrier can assert that this is all allegorical and celestial, but this passage literally could not assert historicity any more clearly. Considering that the passages which are celestial are clearly noted, Carrier has a heavy burden of proof on this one.

“Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9:27-28)

Carrier would likely suggest that this “first appearance” is revelatory rather than physical. But this passage won’t accomodate that interpretation. The “first appearance” is Christ being offered, not the supposed visions of Paul and the apostles and others. Carrier’s mythicist theory depends on Hebrews being a story of a celestial Jesus whose offering-up took place in outer space, apart from any revelation or appearance.

“The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So also Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (13:11-14)

Here we have an explicit reference, not only to the crucifixion, but to its physical location on Earth. It can’t be a “celestial gate” in outer space, because there’s been no former reference to this “gate”. This passage would only make sense if the reader already knew Jesus had been crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem. I’d really be interested to see his assessment of this verse.

Carrier proceeds to 1 Clement, an extracanonical letter from an early Christian leader familiar with Paul. As with Paul’s epistles and the book of Hebrews, Carrier asserts that this letter fails to mention an earthly Jesus and neglects to mention any gospel narratives. This is the same kind of argument as before; Carrier only touches on this briefly so I’m not going to spend time on it.

Finally, Carrier tackles the gospels themselves, something that could probably be expanded into a whole lecture in its own right. Indeed, he states the gospels are “wholly fictitious” and then points his audience to a prior lecture, one which would no doubt require its own lengthy response.

He says that every story in the gospels “has discernible allegorical or propagandistic intent.” Now, this by itself is entirely unsurprising; obviously a set of theologically-minded authors are going to choose and frame accounts in whatever way they feel best communicates their message. We would expect nothing different.

Yet Carrier argues that this can be taken as evidence of something different entirely: that these gospels are really euhemerizations and not actual accounts. It’s a bold assertion, and it’s easy to see how it could be an appealing explanation. Hand waving the gospels as public-myth allegories is quite simple, especially in the light of Carrier’s assurance that this was a tremendously common practice.

But was it? I decided to look it up. As it turns out, Carrier’s “euhemerization” is a myth.

Sure, there was a Greek guy named Euhemerus who wrote about the historicization of mythical deities. But, surprise twist: he was an atheist. He didn’t advance the historicity of celestial deities by writing about their adventures as demigods; he discredited them by claiming that they were really nothing more than ordinary men.

Euhemerizing wasn’t done by the leaders of mystery cults as a way of creating a public myth. That’s what Carrier implies, but it’s pure fiction. Euhemerization was done by the opponents of a given faith as a way of attacking the deity in question. In fact, the most frequent users of this tactic were early Christians, who argued that various pagan deities had really just been ordinary humans who were later deified by their followers. Euhemerization wasn’t a religious tactic to create fictional histories about gods; it was a claim that the gods had never been gods at all. It’s the exact opposite of what Carrier says it is.

An early North African convert to Christianity named Cyprian gave the following example of this:

That those are no gods whom the common people worship, is known from this: they were formerly kings, who on account of their royal memory subsequently began to be adored by their people even in death. Thence temples were founded to them; thence images were sculptured to retain the countenances of the deceased by the likeness; and men sacrificed victims, and celebrated festal days, by way of giving them honour. Thence to posterity those rites became sacred, which at first had been adopted as a consolation.

Euhemerus himself specifically targeted Ba’al, Belus, and Zeus, asserting that all three deities were mortal kings who died and were buried and whose cults of personality later gave rise to the religions they were found in.

Where does that leave us? Well, Carrier’s claims depend on the Gospels being intended as fiction, based on his assertion that celestial deities and demigods were regularly given fictional backstories set in actual history. But if this didn’t actually happen, his entire argument falls apart. All along, he’s been insisting that it wasn’t at all uncommon for celestial deities to be given origin myths couched as history. But he’s wrong.

It’s not common. The myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus found in Plutarch is not set in actual history alongside real historical figures. Euhemerus didn’t do it. The gospels aren’t typical of mythic historicizations because mythic historicizations didn’t exist; the gospels are textually, thematically, and structurally typical of the biographies and historical sketches of the time. So Carrier’s attempt to handwave them just falls flat. Unless he can come up with numerous examples of this mythic historicization he keeps insisting existed, he’s just engaging in abject speculation. Neither Hellenistic syncretism nor euhemerization are valid explanations for the existence of the gospels.

In dogged support of the idea that Mark was a “public myth” intended for the general populace8, Carrier takes pains to cite the following statement from Mark 4:

“And when he was alone … he said to them, ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God. But unto them that are without, all these things are said in parables, so that seeing they may see, but not perceive, and hearing they may hear, but not understand, lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.'” (11-12)

Of course, Carrier fails to mention that second half of this verse is a quotation from Isaiah, not words coming directly from Jesus. But that’s beside the point. The point is that he omits a key phrase. Here’s the actual first part of this passage:

“And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.'” (11)

This passage directly follows a series of parables told by Jesus. This passage is explaining those parables—the ones the disciples asked about—not some clue, a hint at secret knowledge about how the entire Gospel of Mark is really a giant allegory. Now, Carrier can argue that this is a big mysterious Inception-style parable-within-a-parable, but that’s pure vacuous speculation….hardly the foundation for anything rigorous.

Carrier makes the same arguments from silence about the book of Acts as he does various other books, but only glosses over the subject; he doesn’t even cover all the points on his slide. There are several books he recommends, though I’m not familiar witht any of them. I’d be interested to see him do a more complete treatment of Acts, though I have my doubts it would be much of an improvement over what we’ve seen so far.

At the close of his lecture, he launches into his Roswell analogy. As we all know, William Brazel found some sticks and rubber and paper debris in Arizona in 1947. At the time, there was a report of the “capture” of a “flying saucer”. Thirty years later, the story exploded into a full-blown UFO crash with bodies, autopsies, and multiple recovered spacecraft.

Carrier argues that if so much myth could arise in only 30 years during the 20th century, the possibility of the Jesus myth arising in the first century is even greater.

As might be expected, I don’t think this is a good analogy. The growth and development of conspiracy theories is well-understood; they are perpetuated by a particular fusion of confirmation bias and skepticism. Conspiracy theorists have a way of interpreting all evidence as support of their belief, which strengthens it over time. The fact that we live in an age of instant communication strengthens the pathways which generate conspiracy theories. As Randall Munroe of xkcd points out:

Conspiracy theories represent a known glitch in human reasoning. The theores are of course occasionally true, but their truth is completely uncorrelated with the believer’s certainty. For some reason, sometimes when people think they’ve uncovered a lie, they raise confirmation bias to an art form. They cut context away from facts and arguments and assemble them into reassuring litanies. And over and over I’ve argued helplessly with smart people consumed by theories they were sure were irrefutable, theories that in the end proved complete fictions.

Conspiracy theories don’t arise spontaneously. We know exactly how Roswell went from being a pile of sticks and cloth to a full-blown alien invasion cover-up. It’s no mystery. In comparison, the gospel accounts are completely different. They are textually and structurally consistent with the histories and biographical sketches of the time; there are no known mechanisms by which they could reasonably be expected to arise other than a historical of Jesus.

Unless Dr. Carrier can come up with an explanation for how the New Testament arose that’s more than pure speculation and invention, then his Jesus-mythicism remains as much of a conspiracy theory as the Roswell UFO.


Footnotes:

1. Carrier lists three possible academic approaches to the New Testament and the historicity of Jesus:

  • Christian Historicity: Jesus was a real, divine “superman” and everything in the gospels is true.
  • Secular Historicity: Jesus was a real human being, but the gospel accounts aren’t accurate.
  • Jesus-Myth: Jesus never existed, and Christianity was syncretized out of myth and subtext from a variety of Jewish and Hellenistic sources.

But that’s a gross oversimplification, a false trichotomy. There are at least six different approaches to the New Testament:

  • Fundabaptist Inspiration: The 1611 KJV (or variants thereof) constitute word-for-word plenary-inspired history, with no inaccuracies or unstated metaphors whatsoever, and you’re going to hell if you don’t believe it.
  • Evangelical Inerrancy: The New Testament is supernaturally guaranteed to be historically accurate in its original autographs and intent.
  • Critical Christian Historicity: Any given passage in the New Testament should be treated with the same historical criticism as any other text of antiquity. The essential elements of Jesus’s life, including his crucifixion and resurrection, seem certainly accurate, but there is no presumption of general inerrancy in the text.
  • Secular Historicity: Any given passage in the New Testament should be treated with the same historical criticism as any other text of antiquity. Though many details of Jesus’s life and existence could very well be accurate, the supernatural elements are wholly fallacious.
  • Academic Jesus-Myth: The New Testament is a fabrication cobbled together from a series of Hellenistic and Jewish myths. Jesus likely did not exist.
  • Fundie-Atheist Conspiratorial Jesus-Myth: Christianity is exactly the same story as the worship of Mithras, Isis, Osiris, Inanna, Ishtar, Oestre, and forty-three other mystery cults. Every element of Christianity, down to the virgin birth and the twelve disciples, can be found in all of these cults, because they’re all 100% the same, and you’re a stupid closed-minded brainwashed religious idiot if you don’t believe it.

Incidentally, the third and fourth views are really the same paradigm, but with different conclusions (due to differing interpretations of the evidence or different presuppositions). These are all separate views; we need to be careful not to cram them into fewer boxes. Typically, atheists assume that all Christians believe Fundabaptist Inspiration; typically, Christians assume that all atheists believe Fundie-Atheist Conspiratorial Jesus-Myth.

2. Syncretism takes time. Orthodox Christianity (or what would become orthodox Christianity) was already well-defined in writings from the second century. While it’s certainly possible for a new religion to gain a tremendous following in only a few decades, the massive amount of active and successive revision and divergence and redaction required by a Jesus-myth hypothesis is going to be hard to fit into this short period. It’s an extraordinary claim, so it’s going to require extraordinary evidence.

3. This page has more about Zalmoxis, specifically with respect to Carrier’s treatment of this cult.

4. If there are overwhelming similarities between the Christian Jesus and Philo’s “son of God”, we have three possible explanations. First, both derive from a common source (Jewish prophecies). Second, the Christian Jesus derives from Philo’s “son of God”. Neither of these options preclude a historical Jesus, since they are primarily religious beliefs rather than material ones. Third, Philo’s “son of God” derives from the Jewish prophecies while the Christian Jesus fulfills said prophecies. So overwhelming similarities here don’t really advance any particular interpretive motif.

5. In going through the Pauline Epistles, Carrier addresses several points where it could be argued that Paul is referencing a physical, terrestrial Jesus. Like I said above, he does a fairly good job with this, pointing to clues in the text that could at best be interpreted either way. Of course, this doesn’t matter for reasons I point out. He pauses to point out parallels with the Ascension of Isaiah….but again, given that the Ascension of Isaiah postdates the Pauline Epistles, it’s not exactly surprising. Paul most certainly looked at many things from a spiritual perspective, drawing many parallels, but that in itself doesn’t mean he denied a historical Jesus. Carrier states that some clear references to the historical, terrestrial death of Jesus are interpolations or forgeries; I’d have to look at his specific sources on that before I could draw my own conclusions. He also explains away several references to Jesus being “born of a woman” or “the seed of David” as being potentially allegorical; I’d agree that this can go either way.

6. Carrier tells us that Hebrews wasn’t written by Paul, as is often assumed; I’m inclined to agree with him. It does, however, have some very Pauline structures and themes. I’d guess that Hebrews was compiled from notes left by Paul in conjunction with work by Luke or another early Christian. However, that’s just conjecture; it’s not something I’ve studied at length.

7. The first possibility I found was 7:26-28. But this explicitly references the sinlessness of Jesus; it has nothing to do with being physical or nonphysical. So I don’t think it’s what Carrier was referring to. The other, more likely possibility, is 8:4, where it is said that if Jesus were present on Earth, his function as a priest would be of no effect. But this says nothing about where Jesus came from or lived, only the realm in which he functions as a high priest. Jesus’s function as a high priest after his death and resurrection was an integral part of early Christianity, as evidenced in the gospels.

8. One positive example of the “public myth” approach comes from Plutarch’s explanations of the Osiris/Isis/Horus myth. Plutarch explains that the myth itself is to be taken allegorically. But we’d already know this, given that the story in no way resembles a historical or biographical sketch, since it’s not set in actual history at all.

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24 responses to “Why Jesus never existed: A Richard Carrier lecture review

  1. LEjames 2013/05/07 at 03:22

    “Carrier’s inclusion of this inaccuracy is pretty sloppy…”

    As a young scholarly type, Carrier’s whole approach is a bit histrionic and hyperactive. While I watched the video with great interest (about a month ago), these issues affect his credibility a little.

    Thank you for dissecting and posting it.

  2. john zande 2013/05/07 at 07:30

    A fair assessment of this one lecture. As I suggested, there are many more which might well fill in some of the holes.
    I think however you’re entirely missing the point of older god-man myths. The point (in my opinion) is the plotline, not the mechanics of the stories: man defeats death. You’re refusing to acknowledge that the Jesus story is really nothing new. It was well-travelled mythology… a common and recurring theme in fable as old as Gilgamesh (who is listed in the Sumerian King List). I understand why you won’t admit it because it obviates any uniqueness to the jesus myth which you’re determined to believe in. It is not, however, unique at all. Characters have been defeating death since the first Paleolithic burials with grave goods.

    • john zande 2013/05/07 at 07:31

      BTW… did you see my post on “evidence”…. ?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 07:44

        Just did!

        Though I appreciated its intent and inference….certainly no one ought to be expected to disprove anything….I take exception to its implication. Christianity is entirely evidence-based, at least for me.

        That’s no guarantee that our evidential standards align, though….

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 07:46

        Christianity is entirely evidence-based…. Wow, quite the statement! Bravo. What “evidence” are you actually referring to, though…

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 08:15

        Well, the evidence itself is not terribly controversial. Any body of objective observation which, in aggregate, can best be explained by the truth of Christianity can properly be considered evidence for the truth of Christianity. History, human psychology, and ancient text from all religions can be included in that body of evidence.

        The controversial question is what interpretive paradigm we should be using.

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 08:41

        Any body of objective observation which, in aggregate, can best be explained by the truth of Christianity can properly be considered evidence for the truth of Christianity.

        By that reckoning EVERY religion/cult/sect on the planet must be true.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 09:39

        “By that reckoning EVERY religion/cult/sect on the planet must be true.”

        And that’s the challenge.

        There seems to be a commonly held belief that any evidential paradigm which would permit reasoned belief in Christianity would simultaneously necessitate belief in a myriad of other contradictory religions. I don’t agree with that.

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 09:43

        Doesn’t it bother you having to work so damn hard to believe this story?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 09:46

        Not any more than it bothered me to have to work hard to understand quantum mechanics.

        Let’s go back to that last note I made, if we can. Is that a good expression of what you believe? Do you think it’s impossible to have a consistent evidential paradigm that will accept Christianity without also accepting most other religions (leaving special pleading aside, of course)?

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 10:42

        “consistent evidential paradigm”…. you see, that’s working very hard to make excuses.

        Anyway, you’re off on the completely wrong tangent with me. I don’t care about Christianity. I couldn’t care less if Jesus actually lived or not. If he did he was just a crisis cultist no different to Simon of Peraea. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and that means I don’t believe in the gods. Your god, or the next fool’s god.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 11:18

        That was a question for you, not a statement by me.

        Right, you don’t believe in the supernatural. That’s your faith, and that’s okay. I prefer reason, personally….

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 11:29

        It’s my “faith” huh?

        Funny, and here i was thinking that the definition of faith was “Belief WITHOUT evidence.” ;)

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 11:34

        Nope. The definition of faith (by which I assume we mean the pejorative variety) is “Belief that could not be overturned by evidence.”

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 11:38

        Four dictionaries:

        belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

        Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

        firm belief in something for which there is no proof

        belief that is not based on proof

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 11:53

        Well, we can throw out definitions 1, 3, and 4 because we both know “proof” is not a valid epistemic concept.

        But to propose what remains—that faith is belief without evidence—is equally useless. Though some may assert faith as an excuse when their evidence is questioned, no one believes anything completely without evidence or warrant. A definition which applies to no one is rather vacuous.

        The test of whether someone has blind faith in a particular belief lies not in whether they claim evidence for their belief but in whether they are willing to question their belief.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 09:32

      If there are better ones, then why recommend this one? Gee, now I feel bad for going to all this trouble. =P

      Sure, there’s nothing unique about the archetype of man defeating death. Why would there be? People have been afraid of death since they first realized what it was; of course people are going to write stories about overcoming it.

      But, as I pointed out in my post, “man defeats death” is the vaguest of archetypes. It’s fine to speculate that the Christian metanarrative derives from this primeval archetype, but it’s not academic unless there’s evidence to back it up.

      • john zande 2013/05/07 at 09:37

        There is…. it’s called the Epic of Gilgamesh.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/07 at 09:40

        I didn’t mean evidence of the primeval archetype. Obviously we have evidence of the primeval archetype. I meant evidence that the Christianity metanarrative really does necessarily derive from that archetype, like the speculation says.

  3. Jim 2013/05/08 at 03:43

    Whiskey, you’re reading my blog. I’m honored. I’m really not a bad guy, just misunderstood. Let’s start over: “Hi, Whiskey! My name’s Jim.” Don’t be a stranger.

  4. rautakyy 2013/06/14 at 03:12

    Thank you physicsandwhiskey, for guiding me to this post. :) Obviously you have worked hard for this. I have not seen the lecture this post mainly addresses, so I really can not make any comments about that, but about the historicity of Jesus I could say something.

    I think we mainly agree about the historicity of Jesus in the respect that we both think that such a man existed. :) I only think it is with high propability that such a man existed and that the mythical elements in the story build around him are not true. ;)

    There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding here about what constitutes a story to be a myth. A myth is often something completely fictional, but as in fictional writing also myths often take credibility by being set in a real landscape, time and even tell the tale of a real person. However, even if the place and the person were real, the story could very well be a myth.

    In the case of Jesus the story seems very much to be a myth. Now, first of all, the writers of the Gospels were not historians, but the stories have been written as some sorts of memories, or reminiscions, but also to embellish the religious foundation for the newly born cult and at least one of them is an obvious fabrication.

    We really do not know wether Jesus was a real person. The problem is, that even if we could establish, that no such person ever existed and that would falsify Christianity, but if we could establish that such a person as Jesus did existed, that does nothing to make Christianity any more true.

    I happen to think, that the most likeliest explanation to the birth of this new religion was brought forth by real events and a real person. The supernatural stuff is just about superstitious people misinterpreting natural – though possibly exeptional – events and combining them with their own cultural heritage, or as in many cases, just made up fiction. There simply is not enough evidence to warrant a belief in such an exeptional claims as that the supernatural stuff really happened. I really honestly do not see the difference between these supernatural claims and those of just about any other religion.

    Even actual historians from roughly the same time frame who subscribe to historical integrity tell us tales of miraculous and supernatural events, but alas they are the representatives of the power culture of that day and the miracles they tell of are caused by their gods, not by Jesus or his dad. Conviniently enough, as with the most important miracle in the Jesus story – the resurrection – all the miracles told by the sound historians of the day, are hearsay stories. This does not mean, that a writer could not invent a story that he supposedly wittnessed, but it seems that the most important stories allways happen when the writers happen to be elswhere.

    A lot of demigods alledgedly walked the earth during the antiquity and especially in the Eastern parts of the Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia. Some of them were more or less fictious, some were real flesh and blood people, like Alexander the Great. There is no doubt that Christianity as a new religion originated from Jewish culture, but as it was also rapidly spreading among the “gentile” population of the Roman empire, it took a lot of influences from the diverge surrounding cultures. Romans were rather tolerant about religious issues (as empires go) and trade and trafic also moved a lot of ideas around. It is typical that religions make direct loans of ideas from each other especially during the first generations when they are still forming, but they also make indirect absorbtion of ideas all the time, that is just the cultural heritage making interpretations of stuff according to the cultural heritage of the new converts. A lot of that stuff is bound to get into a “canon” of any new religion and it is often indistinguishable from what the original ideals of the originator of the religion perhaps intended or just insinuated.

    Is it proper for a Christian man to wear long hair? Paul certainly thought it was unnatural, but all the pictures about Jesus depict a long haired fella. The pics are all from a considerably later date than the letters by Paul, but they could depict a Jewish “monk” of the Nazarean sect who did let their hair and beard grow. Is that not evidence that this Jesus character lived? Not really, because the long hair could be a Byzantine fashion statement. However, they also tell us how little the Bible is read by the Christians. Was Paul divinely inspired when he cited the hair “hygieny” for men, Is this passage referencing the preferences of hair length of a god, or was Paul simply asserting his own cultural preferances? How do we know when he is talking with the mouth of the god and when is he uttering his own nonsense? It seems Christians are not very good at judging how to interprete the holy book, since they have disagreements of what god wills on just about any issue. Do they not?

    Christianity is an exeptional religion, but so is just about any other religion. There are even exeptional sects of Christianity and for example Islam also.

    The fact that any particular religion is exeptional in it’s narrative, or even ideology does not give anything to it’s truth value. Scientology is completely different from any previous myth I know of, but it does not make it any more reliable just like the fact that Mormonism relying strongly on Christianity gives it no credibility points. Buddhism obviously derives from Hinduism, but it has a world altering ideology much more radical, than for example that of Christianity, but this does not make it any more true than Christianity. We have good reason to assume Siddharta Gautama was an actual person, but we have no way of verifying wether if or not he did reach “nirvana”. Do we? We could take it on faith though… ;)

    As for the dictionary quotes by john zande, no we can not discard the first three definitions of the word faith, since “proof” is a word that has a practical meaning (as in not absolute proof, but proof beyond reasonable doubt) and clearly the dictionaries were referring to that practical meaning. If the word proof had no practical meaning the entire concept could be disregarded.

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