McGrath on Richard Carrier’s OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy

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by Neil Godfrey

From Richard Carrier’s blog post, McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy:

In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting, I’ve set aside time to publicly summarize my take on James McGrath’s critique of (parts of) the book for Bible & Interpretation: “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.”

Critics have already adequately shown the problems with McGrath in understanding facts and logic, so I don’t need to reproduce their work. I fully concur with the responses of Covington and Godfrey (any quibbles I have I’ll mention here).

As Godfrey correctly shows, McGrath not only botches logic and facts, he misreports what my book says, such that “uninformed readers are falsely led to think McGrath has simply identified errors in Carrier’s work.” When in fact he did not identify any. And Covington rightly concludes that when you compare what McGrath says with what my book says, “he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.” They both show that McGrath gets my arguments wrong, makes obvious logical mistakes, and incorrectly reports what experts have said in key matters. This does not make historicity look well defended. It makes it look like it needs rhetorical warblegarble to survive.

The most detailed response to McGrath’s paper is that of Neil Godfrey [who discusses issues of method and fact]. But for a good brief response to start with, see Nicholas Covington, which is ideal for anyone who wants a TL;DR on the matter. . . . . 

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10 thoughts on “McGrath on Richard Carrier’s OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy”

  1. I like lots of Doherty. But I see the heavenly spiritual Jesus as mostly a later Church addition, around 100AD. Including Marcion and ascention Isaiah

    For the earlier roots for “Jesus,” I am looking at say Gaddie’s dying and resurrecting jewish sons of God, in 2 Mac 6-7, 100 Bc.

  2. I am not sure where some people get the idea that the principle of likeness between heaven and earth involves the concept that every event on earth has a counterpart in heaven, or vice-versa. McGrath is one who seizes on that idea, and G. A. Wells was another who offered it in dispute of me. I have never advocated such a thing, and I see no evidence for it in the record. Yes, certain specific things in heaven have their counterpart on earth, such as the heavenly and earthly tabernacle, or the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem, but the idea hardly extends to every conceivable event. No ancient writer believed that because Caesar crossed the Rubicon on earth, a heavenly Caesar also did so in heaven.

    Ascension of Isaiah 7 (often quoted) simply states “As above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth.” Nations war on earth, so too do the demon hosts in the firmament. There are trees on earth, so also are there trees in heaven, and a host of other natural things (see 2 Enoch, for example). Crucifixion takes place on earth, so also can it take place in heaven. But that does not mean that every specific crucifixion on earth is mirrored by a specific crucifixion in heaven. McGrath’s argument in this regard is fanciful.

    Also, for McGrath to use the phrase “die in outer space” mirrors the prejudice he feels toward the concept, and the lack of understanding he has for it in ancient thought. “Outer space” in such a context implies a pejorative dismissal, almost relegated to “beyond reality”. The layers of heaven in Platonic thought were anything but beyond reality, but an integral part of it. And for McGrath or anyone else to claim that the concept of the firmament does not necessarily exclude earth, has not read the literature carefully. To think that something like the Ascension could imply that its “firmament” could include earth, with earth itself actually being the intended locale and yet never make specific reference to that locale, is pipe-dreaming. (The interpolation in chapter 11 served to remedy that omission, but even there the ‘earthly’ references mirror previous heavenly references and were created out of them, not out of historical tradition. The interpolation following the birth scene is a literary construction inspired by the heavenly precursor in the earlier stage of the document.)

    I would also say that the recent studies on the Ascension of Isaiah mentioned on Vridar offer analyses which often are not backed up by carefully considered evidence in the document, as for example by showing ignorance of the point made in the final part of the previous paragraph above.

    Earl Doherty

    1. Hi Earl,

      Great to see you back. I think I’ve pointed out to McGrath and his readers before on his blog the nonsense he reads into the “as above so below” argument. As I think you yourself pointed out the principle is best explained in the Book of Hebrews: heavenly temple and priesthood matched by earthly counterparts. No-one interprets that as meaning each earthly sacrifice or priest had its/his counterpart in heaven. In fact Hebrews makes it clear that is not how it works.

      But McGrath has indicated that he is not interested in reading or registering any comments from me so this point is for the onlookers only. I really had expected McGrath to make more effort at getting his review of Carrier’s book right for the Bible and Interp site but he demonstrates the same failure to have seriously read or understood Carrier’s point as he did with your book. The only way I can understand this is to think he begins reading with an emotional hostility and skims, looking for keywords to seize upon. Surely he really cannot bring himself to read any mythicist argument seriously at all.

      As for the “outer-space” image, that actually comes from Richard Carrier himself. I can understand why Richard used the term: Richard has elsewhere explained he strives to use expressions and terminology meaningful for today’s readers. Of course this can and does backfire among “traditionalists”. I recall how Maurice Casey and others have “faulted” you for writing for a broadly popular audience instead of for the narrower “scholarly” one.

      1. Hmmm…perhaps Richard uses the term for the sake of those completely unfamiliar with the principle of a layered heavens. I’d have to see its context to judge how it comes across. I guess it just kind of has a problematic feel to me, a shorthand which has its drawbacks to someone in the know. I’d have much preferred something like “in a heavenly world” or “in a lower sphere of the heavens.” That would force the reader to realize that the heavens were viewed very differently than we view them today. “Outer space” to us implies no outer boundary, whereas for the ancients the heavens above the earth were very much delineated and enclosed by God’s realm.

        I haven’t actually read On the Historicity of Jesus. I only recently acquired a copy of Proving History and am working my way through it, trying to absorb the whole Bayes’ Theorem approach, something about which I am definitely not in the know.


        1. If I recall Richard Carrier’s argument correctly, he uses “outer space” for the same reason you suggested using “in a heavenly world” – because the ancients thought that place was part of reality, not outside it. Nowadays we don’t think of “Heaven” as a physical location accessible via linear motion in three dimensions; we think of it as an alternate dimension, a conceptual space, or something abstract. I think Carrier’s point is that in the “layered heavens” idea people thought of those places as physical locations – that if you went up indefinitely, you’d end up going through the Heavens, and the lower Heavens in particular were specifically just below the Moon. In other words, they were thought to be literally the locations we now think of as “outer space”.

          1. Carrier writes (p. 45 of OTHOJ): “. . . it indisputably places Satan and his demons, the only ‘princes and authorities and rulers and powers’ of which it speaks, in outer space (yet still ‘in this world’, distinctly below the first heaven, and thus in the recognized realm of flesh and corruption . . . )”

          2. I would also point out that on p. 63 of OTHOJ, Carrier defines what he means by outer space, which includes the entire zone between the Earth and the orbit of the moon, which the ancients generally believed not to be a vacuum, and full of beings “in the air.”

            1. The problem there is that if no stratification is allowed to be applicable in at least some cases between the surface of the earth and the air below the moon, this opens a convenient door to the anti-mythicist to claim that placing things on the earth is perfectly valid, whereas the text and context very often makes an evident stratification.

              A good example (and it’s not the only one) is Ascension 7, which not only says that the first step in the journey upward is “And we went up into the firmament” which hardly makes sense if the firmament is supposed to include the surface of the earth where they are standing to begin with. Also, Isaiah’s angel makes a clear comparison between two things, the firmament and the earth: “As above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth.” Clearly, the two are considered distinct areas.

              The writings of Plutarch and Julian the Apostate also imply a stratification in the area below the moon.

              Of course, there are variants in thought and literary practice in anything of this nature, since it is difficult to expect a variety of thinkers to present consistent sense of something that bears no relation to reality.


    2. Earl, you say “has not read the literature carefully” as if that’s a bad thing. On McGrath’s side of the fence it’s practically a merit badge.

  3. “…the idea that the principle of likeness between heaven and earth involves the concept that every event on earth has a counterpart in heaven, or vice-versa.”
    “Any thought that occurs in the Mind of God about anything in Creation is perhaps more real than that thing in Creation itself.” -George Lincoln Roswell [citation needed]

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