Summing Up: On McGrath’s Review of Carrier (Short Version)

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by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityA summary of the main points I attempted to bring out in my previous two posts has been posted as comment #24 on Bible and interpretation in response to McGrath’s review there. (McGrath has additionally discussed his review on his blog.)

For convenience here is the shorter version of my previous two posts that appears on Bible and Interpretation. (I am well aware it scarcely reads with much fluency. Something had to be sacrificed to time and other pressures.)

McGrath stresses that Carrier’s thesis depends on the strength of the details but by focussing on an introductory discussion of the Asc. Isa. he does not address any of arguments in support of the basic myth hypothesis. Carrier makes it clear that his discussion of the Asc. Isa. is part of his definition of the mythicism he will be arguing and that his arguments will be given in future chapters.

When McGrath suggests there is a problem with Carrier’s approach given that many details are compatible with a historicist or mythicist scenario, he is failing to register the very point Carrier is making: his book intends to explore the probabilities of those respective contradictory reconstructions.

The review elaborates this point by noting that we could “devote a whole article just to” the question of whether possible pre-Christian expectations of a dying messiah might have inspired a historical figure as opposed to fabricators of a mythical one — and get nowhere in such a debate. Again, McGrath has failed to grasp that this is the very question Carrier himself raises and that he explains he will explore by comparing the probabilities of each scenario.

Also suggested in the review is that Carrier is using the Asc. Isa. in order to “interpret” NT works. On the contrary, Carrier uses the Asc. Isa. as support for interpretations of texts based on other grounds. Far from using the Asc. Isa. to “interpret” Paul Carrier concludes his discussion of the Asc. Isa. with the following:

So is Paul here referring to the demonic execution of Jesus in outer space? That would certainly explain why he would say this cannot have been seen by anyone, but is known only by revelation (1 Cor. 2.9-10, cf. Rom. 16.25-26). That his makes particular sense–in fact more sense than what’s usually assumed–is what I shall argue in Chapter 11. Here my aim is not to argue that this theory is true, but to explain what this theory is. p.48

In his discussion of the Asc. Isa. all McGrath has done is show that one can speculate alternative possibilities about what the original text looked like and remind readers of traditional interpretations that Carrier is challenging. Again, this is overlooking the reason Carrier has explained

(1) that he is discussing the Asc. Isa. in a chapter on definitions of mythicism and

(2) that he will argue the mythicist case in future chapters.

McGrath’s reference to Hall is also confused. He cites Hall in support of the Asc. Isa. belonging securely after the NT writings had been completed but in fact in that same article Hall repeatedly stresses that he is speaking of the completed or composite form of the Asc. Isa. and not its earliest section. It is that earliest section, the Vision of Isaiah, that Hall in the same article dates to the same period as the post-Pauline NT writings were being composed.

McGrath raises the possibility that references in the Asc. Isa. to Jesus being “like a man” could have been omitted by an anti-docetic scribe but fails to acknowledge that Carrier actually anticipated that very objection in a footnote in these same pages. He points out that such a proposition is entirely speculation, not an argument.

The most obvious error in the review, however, is the assertion that Carrier fails to address the “as above, so also on earth” principle as it should apply to the Asc. Isa.. If the reviewer had turned to the later chapter where Carrier’s argument is found he would have seen that Carrier does indeed address this point: the sacrifice in heaven are matched by the sacrificial system on earth below — as supported by even NT texts such as Hebrews.

There is irony in McGrath quoting from the Second Treatise of the Great Seth the Apocalypse of Peter at length to “interpret” the Asc. Isa. given that he later censures Carrier for supposedly using later materials to interpret earlier ones.

Another complaint against Carrier is surely unjustified. McGrath suggests Carrier has overstepped the mark by suggesting those who disagree with him think in black and white terms: either the similarities between an ancient Babylonian myth and the Asc. Isa. are “coincidence” or something more realistic. McGrath posits Talbert’s explanation as a rebuttal to Carrier’s “coincidence”. But surely there is no contradiction between Carrier’s “coincidence” and Talbert’s explanation that “many common motifs and a wide array of traditions” can account for such similarities. That’s the stuff that makes literary similarities likely as opposed to mere “coincidences”.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Summing Up: On McGrath’s Review of Carrier (Short Version)”

    1. McGrath is calling me a troll now and his supporters are upset with me for making him look incompetent or dishonest. (One person even said I was motivated by envy of his status as a scholar.) No one thinks to hold him to account or to address the issue of professionalism. It’s shoot the messenger time over there.

        1. Do you mean the comments of McGrath or his supporters? Some are in the thread “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space” and others in “Mythicism and The Teacher of Righteousness”.

  1. But surely there is no contradiction between Carrier’s “coincidence” and Talbert’s explanation that “many common motifs and a wide array of traditions” can account for such similarities. That’s the stuff that makes literary similarities likely as opposed to mere “coincidences”.

    Amusingly, this seems to be yet another case of dr. McGrath only being able to think in black and white.

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