by Neil Godfrey
Continuing from the previous post: The Carrier-Goodacre Exchange (Part 1) on the Historicity of Jesus.
I have typed out the gist of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus as argued by Richard Carrier (RC) and Mark Goodacre (MG) on Unbelievable, a program hosted by Justin Brierley (JB) on Premier Christian Radio. My own comments are in side boxes.
JB: The main sticking point so far — for MG, the references in Paul cannot be attributed to him believing in an entirely celestial being in a heavenly realm. So many (even throw-away) references in Paul seem to reference historical people who knew Jesus. But RC is adamant that all these references can be seen through the mythicist lens as references to a purely spiritual, heavenly Jesus.
RC: Yes. Paul, for example, never says Peter met Jesus. Peter came first. That was the problem. The other apostles had prior authority to Paul.
|* This point was never developed: given the wider usages and context of this phrase it informs us that Paul’s knowledge of the death and resurrection comes from the scriptures. Revelation followed this scriptural instruction — not historical acquaintance with Jesus.
Peter was thus the first, but the first what? He was the first to receive a revelation. 1 Corinthians 15 thus says Jesus according to the scriptures* died and rose again and he was THEN seen by Peter and the others. There is no reference to them seeing him before he died. No reference to them being with him, chosen by him, etc. (The issue of Peter seeing and knowing Jesus personally never surfaces in their debates.)
MG: But Paul is talking about resurrection there, so of course he’s not talking about other things. “But what we have to do as historians is to look at what people give away in passing. And what he gives away in passing there is his knowledge of an early Christian movement focused on someone who died.” And then there are the other characters who appear elsewhere in Paul’s epistles whom Paul has personal conversations with in Jerusalem.
RC: Yes, these are the first apostles. These are the first to receive the revelations of the Jesus according to the myth theory.
There is no clear case where Paul gives the answer either way – - -
JB: If I was reading Paul without ever having read the Gospels, would I come away thinking Paul was talking of a heavenly Jesus? It strikes JB that there was enough to make one think there was something that happened in real life.
RC: But Paul doesn’t, really. His talk is really about abstract mythological concepts of dying and rising. There is no specific detail. Example,
- “being born of a woman” (not born of Mary at a particular time, for example)
- “of the seed of David” (but he doesn’t say how he knows that) **
** Woops. Paul does indeed say how he knows that — he says it is known according to the Scriptures.
MG: Dying isn’t mythological and abstract according to Paul. Paul speaks of dying as happening all the time in his own communities. He often links death and resurrection of people in his communities with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It wouldn’t make any sense for Paul to be appealing to these sufferings of Jesus in this context (that Paul shared with) if these sufferings hadn’t actually taken place on earth.
|Detailed discussions of some of the scholarship on the Ascension of Isaiah have been archived here.
RC: Gives a second example, a more concrete piece of evidence, the Ascension of Isaiah, from second century, probably originally from first century. This has been heavily redacted by Christians and it is easy to see these layers — references to Pilate, etc. In the early part of this document Isaiah is shown Jesus who is a pre-existent being who will descend to the lower heaven and assume a body, and Satan and the demons will crucify him “in the firmament, in the lower heavens”. Then he rises again and Satan and his demons see who he really is, the resurrected Christ.
So we have to explain this as either the original teaching that evolved over time or that the later Christians adopted the celestial Jesus view and took Jesus out of history.
JB: Why would Christians who started out with a heavenly Jesus known by revelation only want to later make him an historical figure?
RC: You could ask that question of all the other gods in antiquity. You start out with the celestial deity who is then put on earth in history. You want to know the possible reasons they were doing that. We KNOW they were doing it.
|*** We know Irenaeus and other “Church Fathers” knew this — and accordingly created genealogies tracing “the truth” back through genealogical lines.
One of the possible reasons is argued by Kurt Noll, last chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus”: he argues there is a polemical and basic natural selection advantage to a church that packages its deity as a historical figure and creates a tradition that it can trace back. So creating this idea that Peter knew Jesus personally and was the first in the tradition and it can be traced back to him is rhetorically useful.***
|**** Embarrassing? That’s the apologetic line but it does not stack up against boasts over the crucifixion;
****Paul persecuted the church in the canonical tradition, yes, but what was the origin of this claim? Who doubted it?
**** The idea of a Messiah being crucified, or at least put to death in the first time of his appearance, does indeed find a place within Second Temple Judaism — as Levenson and others discussed here have demonstrated. RC skirts closely to one of these ideas when he speaks of a belief in the actual (atoning) death of Isaac.
MG: One of the problems with this view is that early Christians actually had a lot of trouble explaining the crucifixion. Paul said the idea was a stumbling block to the Jews. This is something they are not spending time manufacturing, but rather spending time attempting to explain. It’s kind of embarrassing to them at first.**** So Paul at first persecuted the Christian movement,**** and presumably persecuted it for coming out with this preposterous idea that the Messiah would be crucified. So they are working with a tradition or idea that was horrifying to many others – that the Messiah in the recent past was crucified. ****
JB: It’s the idea of the criterion of embarrassment often used in HJ studies.
JB then asks MG if he thinks this [preaching an 'embarrassing' doctrine like this] to be a likely thing in a Jewish culture, though it may have happened in pagan cultures.
MG: The Gospel of Mark is trying to explain that the idea of a crucified Messiah is not barmy. He admits the disciples are thinking, “This can’t be right.”
The early Christian gospel was always “this great struggle with this great paradox”.
JB: Turns to RC and challenges him with the idea that if one was to make up a story then one would not make up this one because it’s going to be too hard to sell.
RC: Creating absurd and embarrassing and paradoxical religions was very common at the time. Example, god Attis died through castration and to be a priest one had to be castrated. This is not an argument for a real Attis who really castrated himself.
Many demigods die and rise from the dead — always called “suffering/passion” — and by believing in this the devotee could also be saved from death.
RC refers to his book Proving History in which he has an extensive section on the problems of this criterion of embarrassment.
JB: Asks MG if, quite apart from the question of Paul’s references, he thinks the idea is plausible that a god would be historicized as this mythicist scenario claims.
MG: “I find it extraordinarily difficult to grasp historically.” Reason: We know quite a lot about Judaism of this period.
Christianity does not emerge in some great vacuum. We know how lots of Jews thought, so when we see Paul and other writings about Jesus we know they’re not just randomly making it up. It coheres with how we know Jews of the time thought and how lots of them reacted to the early Christian movement.
MG: Shares some of RC’s caution about the criterion of embarrassment — he doesn’t think the early Christians were “ultimately” embarrassed about what they were preaching — that Christ died for our sins, etc. What they are concerned about is that they know other people think it sounds odd. And the reason they know it sounds weird is because they are Jews who know what their fellows think.
That’s why mythicism is so hard to get one’s head around — because we have some idea how Jews at this time thought about these things.
RC: Thinks this explanation is somewhat misleading. There were dozens of Jewish sects and we know nothing of them. We know of the rabbinical and Qumran Jews, but we can’t extrapolate and say that all Jews thought that way. This is an argument from ignorance. There was more diversity than we are aware of. We can’t launch from arguments like “We know what rabbinic Jews thought so we can know what all Jews thought at the time.”
MG: No, we don’t know what ALL of them though. We have a good idea what lots of them thought. And to understand Christian origins we have to understand the Christian sect as one of those elements within Judaism. And one of the things Paul shared with other Jews like the Pharisees and others is that they believed in the resurrection of the body — and it had to die on earth first.
Once we understand this context it is easier to see how Jesus (historical) fits into that picture.
RC: To give an example of how diverse Jewish views could be: In The Life of Adam we have Adam being buried in heaven. Or if one reads Hebrews 9 shows that even a sect believing in a literal sacrifice of Isaac would have been quite at home in Jewish religious thought.
JB: We don’t think Hebrews was written by Paul.
MG: But even in Hebrews, the argument works because Jesus has been “tempted” and the believer has gone through trials, but none as great as the experiences of Jesus. So the author compares the way the contemporary Christian lives with the way Jesus lived — as a human being on earth that went through these sorts of things — real, bodily suffering on earth.
RC: If Hebrews said that then there would be no debate.
If we read Philippians, for another example, we see a testing or temptation of a celestial being in a celestial state — and that he did not succumb and take equality with God but humiliated himself instead.
JB: But I read that passage and attribute to it the incarnation of Jesus as a physical human being.
RC: That is what’s going on — it’s just not going on on earth according to mythicist theory.
MG: But he takes on the form of a slave, and that’s the whole point about crucifixion — it was a slave’s death. So once again we come back to the historical event of the crucifixion having taken place on earth in the same way a slave has been crucified. It’s the lowest of the low, not even the lowest heaven, but down here on earth.
RC: It doesn’t say that though. That’s one way of interpreting it. But it’s so vague it can actually be interpreted the other way as well. It could fit the original redaction to the Ascension of Isaiah or it could fit the Gospel of John. That’s why I think certainty can’t be found here. We don’t have a smoking gun either way. So what we want to look at is, “What is the overall best explanation of all of the evidence?”
And there are other points that haven’t come up yet:
- One of these is that we do have in Jewish pre-Christian theology a pre-existent being named Jesus, who was the first-born son of God, who was the high priest of the celestial temple, just like Hebrews explains, and was also called the Logos, the Word of God, (an archangel). This is in Philo, a contemporary of Paul.
So read the Philippians hymn within the context of this pre-Christian Jewish theology of this other Jesus, you can see it in the same sense as the Ascension of Isaiah. So it makes sense in that context.
RC says it is his obligation to document and extensively prove these claims and this the subject of his next book.
MG: One has to be careful not to make these sorts of big leaps. RC is intelligent and well-read but tends to make these big leaps into material, and only ever uses an analogy to disprove the historicity of Jesus. This is not the way to approach history.
The historian has to try to get inside the way Paul and the Gospel writers are talking about these things, and ask if this makes best sense as people who are talking about the human being living in recent history. In each case it makes so much more sense this way.
|***** Classic Ehrman-style question-begging? Nope — MG has since pointed out he was joking. (Stop being so serious, Neil!)|
And in some of the earlier writing they actually knew people who knew him, they knew his family, they had met these people, ate with them, argued with them. When Paul spoke to James in Jerusalem, James would have been horrified if Paul thought his brother he had grown up with and eaten fish with never existed. *****
|**** Well that’s a leading question!
JB: The Gospel of Mark is generally seen as falling in the genre of historical biography. Does it seem reasonable at all to think that this would not be telling us about the historical deeds of Jesus?**** Or is there another genre of literature a heavenly messiah should fall into and does our Gospel genre look like that at all?
MG: There is later literature (noncanonical gospels and revelation-type discourses) that is much more suited in genre to talking about a purely celestial being. The gospels do have important analogies with the bios of Greek and Roman persons. But the Gospels are still gospels, trying to sell a message. But the message they are trying to sell is that Jesus is a real flesh and blood character. They are thoroughly persuaded that Jesus is a real character in history.
RC: They want their readers to be persuaded of this.
MG: Yes absolutely.
RC: Another analogy that would bring more agreement: Compare the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels of Mark and John. (And you can see the same development in the other gospels too.) It is clear John is trying to muster all the evidence he can think of to prove that Jesus actually rose in the flesh. John shows his wounds, discovery of empty tomb, and burial cloths, etc. — He’s embellishing the story specifically to sell a particular view of what happened at the resurrection. MG would surely agree this is all fiction.
If you can do that for the resurrection, you can do that for Jesus in general.
Luke and John — in these we can especially see this process at work.
Mark and Matthew are slightly more debatable. In Mark, Jesus’ first parable is to hide the meaning from the public but to explain only to the insiders. And this is a clue as to what the whole Gospel of Mark is about. This is the subject of John Crossan’s latest book, The Power of Parable. — That is, that the Gospels are not just parables from Jesus but are parables about Jesus. This is what the Gospels are about. You can see this Jesus is being used to sell a particular doctrine, and that once that is done, it becomes more useful to sell a real historical Jesus.
JB: The question JB faces is whether the Synoptic Gospels are fiction from the start, entirely made up, to put this heavenly Jesus in this historical earthly plane. JB finds this hard to accept.
RC: That is the subject of his next book. This is a question that requires a lot of background and explanation, and a rigorous presentation of the logic. MG referred to leaps of logic. RC wants to find a way to identify any such leaps, and this will be the goal of the new book — to easily identify flaws in the argument if they are there.
|** – Oh my! Once again — no-one argues it was “just made up from the start” as if there were some definable starting point.
JB: Asks MG if it seems utterly implausible that it was all made up from the start. **
MG: In any writing we have layers upon layers of interpretation. There is no such thing as an unvarnished truth or uninterpreted memory, for example. The job of the historian is to take all of these traditions “as seriously as he or she can” and penetrate them (these “refracted memories”) and work out what it is we can say with confidence. *
|* This is the new post-modernist case being made by Anthony Le Donne, Dale Allison and others, and that I recently addressed in several posts.
This is the extrapolation of hypothetical data from material that is assumed to be derived from memories of the historical Jesus. It is, as far as I am aware, a form of “historiography” unique to HJ studies. James McGrath has boasted that it makes HJ scholars pioneers in the wider field of historiography.
Among the rocks it crashes against are the literary studies of those scholars who demonstrate that the texts are not sourced from memories at all, but from other texts.
We create many problems for ourselves if we take the historical Jesus out of the picture. We have to make “so many strange leaps if we assume that there is no Jesus in the picture.” More than anything else, we don’t just have Jesus in this picture. We have many other characters that are in the story, too, and that only hyper-scepticism would cause us to doubt.
In ancient history, people only survive in the record insofar as they are remembered by the people they make an impact upon. So of course we won’t find physical remains as we do of Pilate. But the evidence we do find is exactly what we would expect to find — that is, Jesus surviving in the memories of those who were closest to him. And of course those memories are influenced by all kinds of things — legendary things, creative things, that come their way. But that is exactly the kind of historical evidence we would expect to find — to find it in the memories that become the traditions of that early communities.
And this stuff goes pretty early. Paul is “pretty early” — he is mixing with these characters in the 30s. Even with the gospels were are talking of events only a couple of generations before they were written — so we are “pretty close to the events”.
It become torturous after awhile if one pursues the mythicist argument. There are simply too many problems if we take the HJ out of the picture. The argument becomes terribly explained. “Sometimes” in history we have to go with the simplest hypothesis, and the simplest one in this case is the one that explains all the evidence best, and that is that there was a historical figure called Jesus.
One must be careful to not to let a healthy scepticism become hyper-scepticism.
RC: Using the mere absence of evidence to argue for the non-existence of Jesus is hyper-scepticism.
There are ways to build plausible historicist theories. (e.g. that Jesus was an obscure person and the gospels greatly exaggerate his fame.) Though there are problems with that case, too.
It is not that mythicism creates problems, it is the case that mythicism attempts to solve some of the problems that the historicist case creates.