Book Write-Up: On the Historicity of Jesus, by Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier.  On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt.  Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

(UPDATE: See the comments under Vridar’s post.  There may be areas in which Carrier already addressed in his book some of the concerns that I have, or Carrier’s argument may be different from how I was conceptualizing it.  On the other side, see Steve Hays’ comments on my post at Triablogue.)

Richard Carrier is a Christ mythicist, one who does not believe that Jesus existed in history.  He has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University.  Most biblical scholars reject his view.

For Carrier, the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus came from heaven to outer space and was crucified by malevolent spirit entities, then he was resurrected and returned to the highest heaven.  Carrier maintains that such a scenario is in the Ascension of Isaiah, which Carrier dates to the first-second centuries C.E.  For Carrier, such a scenario is consistent with, and makes better sense of, details that are in the earliest New Testament writings: Paul’s writings, Deutero-Paul’s writings, Hebrews, James, and elements of Acts.  These writings do not explicitly say that Jesus was crucified by flesh-and-blood human beings, and many of them rely on personal revelation and interpretation of Scripture, not historical events, in presenting their picture of Jesus.  Relying on personal revelation can be chaotic, however, as different people can appeal to their own personal revelations from the divine.  Consequently, according to Carrier, there were Christians who historicized Jesus, placing Jesus in a historical context.  They relied on alleged testimony from and connection to historical apostles who supposedly knew Jesus, not personal revelation, to buttress their authority.  (UPDATE: Neil Godfrey disagrees with this particular characterization of Carrier’s argument in his comment here.)  For Carrier, the Gospels and Acts reflect a belief in Jesus as a historical person.

I would like to wrestle with some of Carrier’s arguments.  This post will not be comprehensive, but it will wrestle with key points that Carrier makes in his book.

A.  Carrier does ask good questions.  Why do so many first century extrabiblical sources fail to mention Jesus or Christianity, if Jesus existed in the first century?  Why does Paul so often fail to mention aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching?  Why did Epiphanius (Panarion 29.3) and rabbinic sources (Carrier cites BT Sanhedrin 107b; Sotah 47a; JT Hagigah 2.2; Sanhedrin 23c) mention a view that Jesus lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus, which was a century before the historical Jesus supposedly lived?  For Carrier, this is an indication that early Christians differed on where to put Jesus in history, which would be odd, had Jesus been historical.  Why does Origen, when he is discussing extrabiblical sources for Jesus, fail to refer to Antiquities 18:63-64, which is where Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus’ miracles and crucifixion, and the early Christian belief in his resurrection (Origen, Against Celsus 1.42, 47)?  For Carrier, that is one indication that this passage was not authentically by Josephus but was a later Christian interpolation.

B.  On why first century extra-biblical sources fail to mention Jesus, many would respond that they would not mention a backwater Galilean peasant.  Why not, though, if Jesus was as famous as the Gospels say he was (Matthew 4:24; 9:26, 31; 14:1; Mark 1:28, Luke 4:14, 37; 5:15)?

C.  Yet, the failure of so many extrabiblical sources to mention Christianity raises questions in my mind rather than convincing me of mythicism.  Even Richard Carrier appears to believe (or to grant for the sake of argument) that Christianity existed in the first century C.E., even if he does not believe there was a historical Jesus.  Yet, Carrier notes that so many extrabiblical sources fail to mention Christianity.  Augustine himself seemed to struggle with the question of why Seneca the Younger failed to mention Christianity in his first century work about sects in Rome (Augustine, City of God 6.10-11).  Why did so many first century sources fail to mention Christianity?  Was it because Christianity was obscure, or not well-established yet, or kept to itself?

D.  There are sources that Carrier mentions that, in my opinion, are open to interpretation.  Did Ascension of Isaiah, in its earliest form, really say that Jesus was crucified by malevolent spirits in outer space?  Or could it have believed that the malevolent spirits (or a malevolent spirit) killed a historical Jesus through human agents on earth, which is what is suggested in the Gospels, and in the so-called “pocket Gospel” in Ascension of Isaiah 11 (which Carrier believes was a later addition, and which is absent from some manuscripts)?  I can see how Carrier is arriving at his interpretation, but there seem to be things in the story that pull in the opposite direction (i.e., Christ is in the corruptible world).  On the story that Ignatius mentions about celestial activity during the time of Jesus, is that story implying that Jesus only existed in the heavens and never came to earth, or does that story suggest that Jesus came as a human (Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19; Carrier offers two interpretations of that part about Jesus appearing in human form)?

E.  Carrier argues that there were Christ mythicists during the time of the church fathers.  His implication may be that, had Jesus been historical, there would have been more consensus among Christians about that.  I do not see strong evidence for there being Christian Christ mythicists during the time of the church fathers.  Ignatius may have been arguing against Docetists, who believed that Christ was on earth but only appeared to be human (yet, Carrier questions whether we know this about the Docetists for sure).  Irenaeus in Against All Heresies 1.30 is talking about Gnostics, who believed that Jesus was on earth.  Both are consistent with seeing Jesus as a historical figure.  At the same time, Carrier also refers to a dispute between the non-Christian Jew Trypho and Justin Martyr about whether Jesus was made-up (Dialogue with Trypho 8-9).  Trypho there is a non-Christian questioning Christian claims about Jesus, not a Christian Christ mythicist (not that Carrier is suggesting otherwise).

F.  Carrier offers his own interpretation of passages that have been cited to argue that Paul believed in a historical Jesus.  Some of what Carrier said was plausible, or, at least, I cannot say that the interpretations are impossible (i.e., the Jews and Greeks of I Corinthians 1 are offended by the cross because it is based on personal revelation and not anything substantive).  Some of what Carrier said took me aback.  For example, Carrier interprets Romans 10:14 (“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” KJV) to mean that Paul did not think that Christ historically came to the Jewish people, for the Jewish people had not heard of Christ.  That, of course, would differ from what the Gospels present.  Is that what Paul is saying, though?  Romans 10 does not deny that Christ came to the Jewish people, even if it may be implying that there were still Jewish people who needed to hear about Christ.  I also wonder about certain passages, doubting that they fit with Carrier’s scenario.  Galatians 4:4 says that Christ was born of a woman and made under the law.  Carrier says that Christ could have been born of a celestial woman, but can a celestial being be under the law of Moses?  Wouldn’t only a Jew be under the law?  (On Christ being from the seed of David in Romans 1, Carrier says that David’s seed could have been fashioned into a celestial being.  On Christ being a second Adam in Romans 5, Carrier may interpret that in light of the ancient Jewish belief in a heavenly man, which Philo talks about.  On James being the Lord’s brother in Galatians 1, Carrier says that means James was a Christian, and Paul is calling him the Lord’s brother to differentiate James from the apostles.)

G.  Carrier says that there are parallels between Christ and mystery cults, and also between Christ and Romulus (for which Carrier cites Plutarch, Romulus 27-28).  One can perhaps quibble on details: there is debate about how or whether Romulus even died, and thus it may be hasty to say that he was resurrected.  At the same time, there are parallels: Romulus does ascend to heaven, appear to people thereafter, and talk about a kingdom.  On the mystery cults, there may be similarities between mystery cults and Christianity (i.e., a suffering god, a meal, perhaps some esotericism), but there is at least one difference: Christians in the New Testament do not keep the Gospel a secret but spread it throughout the world.  Also, since even Carrier believes that the early Christians were Jews, I wonder if Jews were in mystery cults.  That would be relevant to the question of whether mystery religions influenced Christianity.  Of course, Judaism was influenced by Hellenism, so I am not overly sympathetic with Christian apologists who imply that Judaism was in a pure container sealed off from paganism, or that pagan views would not enter Judaism.  But Bruce Metzger argued that one reason Christianity was not influenced by mystery religions was that mystery religions were not really a phenomenon in Palestine.  (UPDATE: Godfrey says that Carrier already discussed Jews in mystery cults in the book.  See also Bee’s comment about Hellenistic influence on and Greek presence in Palestine.)

H.  Is Jesus’ name too good to be true?  What do I mean by this?  The name “Jesus” relates to salvation, and, lo and behold, Jesus in Christianity is a savior!  I can somewhat understand Carrier’s argument that this makes Jesus look made-up: do things work out that neatly in real life?  It’s not impossible, I guess, but likely?

I.  On a related note, there is the high priest Joshua in the Book of Zechariah.  Joshua is a priest, maybe even a king.  He is associated with the removal of sin in one day.  Satan afflicts him.  Carrier says that Joshua in the Book of Zechariah was a celestial priest, and that Philo associated Joshua with the divine logos.  Carrier may believe that these things set the stage for Christianity (or at least relate to Christianity), for the name Joshua is the same as the name Jesus, and things are being said about Joshua that were later said about Jesus.  Carrier may be hasty in saying that the high priest Joshua was a celestial priest, or that Philo believed in a divine logos named “Jesus.”  Still, is it a coincidence that things were said about Joshua in the Book of Zechariah that were later claimed about another Joshua, namely, Jesus?

J.  A final item.  Some Christian apologists argue that Christianity was true because Christians would not make up a doctrine about a crucified savior, since crucifixion was stigmatized in the ancient world.  As Carrier notes, however, people were offended by the castration of Attis (Augustine, City of God 6.10-11), but that does not mean that Attis was actually castrated.  People can believe offensive doctrines; that does not mean the doctrines are true.  Some Christian apologists make a big deal about Matthew 28:17’s acknowledgment that some people saw the risen Jesus and still doubted, heralding the apparent honesty of the Gospel writer, and thus his authenticity.  But, as Carrier says, Plutarch said that people had doubts about Romulus’ ascension.  And yet, in the latter case, what was Plutarch’s agenda?  Plutarch often sifts through different sources and makes judgments.  The Gospel writers, however, are faith documents, and perhaps they were more dogmatic than Plutarch was; consequently, their admission of doubt may have a different significance than what is in Plutarch’s book on Romulus.

Carrier covers other topics: Tacitus, Pliny, Papias.  But I will stop here.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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2 Responses to Book Write-Up: On the Historicity of Jesus, by Richard Carrier

  1. Pingback: Vridar » Another review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

  2. HoosierPoli says:

    A small point on B for you to think about, which Carrier also makes but I find is underemphasized: If the popularity and wisdom of Jesus’ sayings and teachings, life and ministry are the source of the Christian religion, why are they unknown to Paul, the author of Hebrews, and close contemporaries like Josephus (who seems to know of quite a few marginal Judean messiahs but not Jesus)? If you posit that Jesus was famous and charismatic, you can’t explain the silence of Paul, Hebrews, and Josephus, but if you posit that Jesus was a nobody, you can’t explain Christianity at all.

    A historicity theory that could resolve this dilemma would go a long way towards winning the debate.

    Liked by 1 person

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