Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier continues his response to James McGrath’s criticism of Carrier’s On the Historicity of JesusMcGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. He begins: 

Yesterday I addressed McGrath’s confused critique of portions of On the Historicity of Jesus (in McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy). He has also published a second entry in what promises to be a series about OHJ, this one titled “Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype” . . . . This entry is even less useful than the first. Here are my thoughts on that.

Once again Neil Godfrey already tackles the failures of logic and accuracy in the very first comment that posted after the above article. Which he has reproduced, with an introduction, in better formatting on his own blog: Once More: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus.

I could leave it at that, really.

TL;DR: McGrath doesn’t understand the difference between a prior probability and a posterior probability; he uses definitions inconsistently to get fake results that he wants (instead of being rigorously consistent in order to see what actually results); and he shows no sign of having read my chapter on this (ch. 6 of OHJ) and never once rebuts anything in it, even though it extensively rebuts his whole article (because I was psychic…or rather, I had already heard all of these arguments before, so I wrote a whole damned chapter to address them…which McGrath then duly and completely ignores, and offers zero response to).

That’s pretty much it.

But now for the long of it…

McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype


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10 thoughts on “Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype”

      1. I read Carrier’s response to McGrath

        All Carrier’s application of the Rank Raglan scale shows is that the legendary portrayal of Jesus may have been modelled on one or more of the figures the RR scale itself was modelled on (e.g. Oedipus). Folklorist Alan Dundes has noted that Raglan did not categorically deny the historicity of the Heroes he looked at, rather it was their common biographies he considered as nonhistorical. Furthermore, Dundes noted that Raglan himself had admitted that his choice of 22 incidents, as opposed to any other number of incidents, was arbitrarily chosen.

        1. It wouldn’t be odd to think Jesus was partially modelled on the Greek figure of Oedipus, since in another context we know of Greek influence where Jesus is modelled on Dionysus (as in the Gospel of John’s wine miracle), and specifically the New Testament Narratives suggest strong influence from the Euripides’ Bacchae.

        2. I myself have said repeatedly that mythical overlays in a narrative (and there is nothing “mythicist” about that — most critical scholars say the gospels are theological or ahistorical overlays and the “historical Jesus” is hidden from view) do not prove Jesus did not exist. I have also said they give us no reason to believe he did exist either.

          I have never argued anything else, if my memory serves. So we agree.

          So why do most people just assume that Jesus was a historical figure? (That’s something of a leading question — it’s one I used to address quite a lot here.)

          1. I was curious about whether the story of Oedipus may have influenced the characterization of Jesus in the bible, so I looked up how Oedipus met the criteria in the Rank Raglan scale and this is what I found:

            1. The hero’s mother is a royal virgin, at least until marriage.
            Oedipus’s mother, Jocasta, is certainly royalty, as she is the queen of Thebes. She was most likely a virgin as well, as it is never implied that she wasn’t, and saving virginity for marriage is the noble thing to do. Regardless, I would say Oedipus meets this requirement.
            2. The Hero’s father is a king.
            Oedipus’s father is king Laius, as clearly stated in all three books of the trilogy, and the fact the Oedipus killed the king of Thebes, which happened to be his father.
            3. The Hero’s father is often a near relative of his mother.
            Greek royalty often married within the family to keep the bloodline ‘pure’, as stated by an article from Quatr.us (sourced). Jocasta was most likely a cousin of Laius.
            4. The hero’s conception is rather unusual.
            I would certainly say so. Oedipus was born under a prophecy, and doomed to death by his parents because of it. (Greek Mythology).
            5. The hero is reputed to be the son of a god.
            Oedipus is indeed reputed to be the son of a god by his own people, who stated that he simply had to be after defeating the Sphinx. “We have not come as suppliants to this altar because we thought of you as a God”. (Lines 34-35, Oedipus The King.)
            6. An attempt at his life is made at birth.
            Oedipus’s parent’s attempted to sentence him to death by pinning his ankles and abandoning him, in order to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
            7. The hero is saved, in spite of this.
            The shepard saves Oedipus, as the messenger admits in line 1175 of “Oedipus The King”- “I loosed you; the tendons of your feet were pierced and fettered.”
            8. The hero is fostered in a far country.
            Oedipus meets this requirement as well, since the messenger took him to Corinth, where he was raised as a prince by King Polybus and Merope.
            9. We are told nothing of his childhood.
            Neither the reader nor Oedipus himself are told anything of his childhood in the beginning of the story (although we all knew his history). It is not until the near end that his childhood is revealed.
            10. Returns to original kingdom as a man.
            Oedipus returns to Thebes as a man, in an attempt to avoid the prophecy that first expelled him in the first place.
            11. He achieves victory over a beast.
            Oedipus conquers the Sphinx by solving it’s riddle, thus gaining access to Thebes and being regarded as a hero. (ancientgreece.com)
            12. The hero marries a princess.
            Here, I used loose interpretation. Oedipus marries Jocasta, the newly-widowed Queen of Thebes. While not a princess, Jocasta is royalty nonetheless. I would say Oedipus meets this requirement, as they are very similiar, powerful titles.
            13. The hero becomes a King.
            Oedipus does indeed become the King of Thebes, as the book “Oedipus The King” begins well after he has already been declared the King.
            14. He reigns uneventfully for awhile.
            Many years of uneventful rule pass, enough time for Oedipus and Jocasta to birth four children. This uneventful rule comes crashing down when the Plague begins.
            15. The hero prescribes laws.
            Being that Oedipus is a King, and his word is law, I assumed that Oedipus issued his own decrees, or at least gave somebody a command at some point.
            16. He Loses favor with the gods and his subjects eventually .
            The plague is a clear sign that the gods had lost favor with Oedipus. One the truth is revealed, the chorus’ favor of Oedipus quickly fades, as shown by their speech at line 1490 of “Oedipus The King”: “This is a terrible sight for men to see! I never found a worse! Poor wretch, what madness came upon you! What evil spirit leaped upon your life to your ill-luck—a leap beyond man’s strength! Indeed I pity you, but I cannot look at you, though there’s much I want to ask and much to learn and much to see. I shudder at the sight of you.”
            17. He is driven from his throne and city.
            Oedipus is exiled from Thebes (of his own desire) and sentenced to a life of exile. Oedipus himself exclaims: “Drive me from here with all the speed you can to where I may not hear a human voice!”. (Line 1620, “Oedipus The King”)
            18. He eventually meets a mysterious death.
            The Oracle predicted that Oedipus’s burial place will bring good fortune to the city it is within, and a curse to the one he is not. He hears thunder, a ‘signal of his time’, and prepares for death. Only Theseus, despite others being with him, witnessed his death. We, the readers, are not even completely sure how Oedipus dies. I would interpret this situation as unusual, if anything.
            19. His death occurs atop a hill.
            Oedipus dies at the grove in Colonus, a town that rests on a hill. Going on this, I would argue that Oedipus meets the requirement of dying on hill.
            “Do not touch me, but allow me unaided to
            find the holy tomb where it is my fate to be secreted away in this land.” (Line 1545, Oedipus At Colonus)
            Oedipus’s body resides at his tomb in colonus, so he does indeed have a sepulcher.
            20. His children do not succeed him.
            Polyneices and Eteocles, Oedipus’s sons, end up killing each other in war over the throne of Thebes. Antigone and Isemene, his daughters, eventually end up killing themselves. Considering that none of his children remain alive shortly after his own death, his children do not succeed him.
            21. His body is not buried.
            Oedipus is entombed and buried at Colonus. Antigone’s words reinforce this:
            “He died on the foreign ground that he desired; he has his well-shaded bed beneath the ground for ever; and he did not leave behind unwept sorrow. ” (Line 1708, Oedipus At Colonus)
            Thus, Oedipus does not meet this requirement.
            22. He has at least one sepulcher.

            1. Correlation is not causation, as we know. That Jesus and Oedipus fit a common type does not mean one influenced the other. What I find interesting, though, is that such points in common point to a common source, in this case a mythic imagination. It is possible that some historical persons score high on this list, too, but in those cases I suspect we will always have clear verification to testify to their historicity. It is when we find these tropes without the accompanying independent verification that we have a strong a priori grounds for assuming myth.

              1. Neil said “That Jesus and Oedipus fit a common type does not mean one influenced the other.”

                This line of reasoning could be used to disallow the suggestion of any incident of haggadic midrash/mimesis.

              2. I think the Rank Raglan argument is one place where the mythicist argument breaks down.  For instance, Robert M. Price argues:

                “Recruitment of the First Disciples (1:16-20)
                As Bowman suggests , Jesus summons James and John as well as Peter and Andrew, two pairs of brothers, as a gospel counterpart to Moses’ recruiting his own unsuspecting brother Aaron at the analogous point in the Exodus story (4:27-28). But the events, minimal as they are, come from Elijah’s recruitment of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. Likewise, the calling of Levi in Mark 2:14. All are said to have abandoned their family livelihoods on the spot to follow the prophet.”

                So, the mythicist argument seems to be if there are a significant number of parallel themes, a New Testament narrative pericope  can be said to be derived from an Old Testament or Greek literary source. 

                However, mythicists then want to argue you can’t say a lot of common themes between the New Testament and Oedipus are a result of direct literary borrowing, but rather reflect common themes in the mythic hero archetype.   Hence, regarding the common themes between Oedipus and Jesus, Neil Godfrey writes:

                “Correlation is not causation, as we know. That Jesus and Oedipus fit a common type does not mean one influenced the other.”

                So which is it?  Does a number of common themes mean there is literary borrowing, or doesn’t it?  Mythicists want (1) common themes to mean there is literary borrowing when they are making the haggadic midrash/mimesis argument, and (2) that common themes means there is not literary borrowing when they are making the Rank Raglan argument.

                Mythicism seems to be an exercise in special pleading.

              3. I don’t know what mythicist publications you have read but what you have presented here is not the arguments of any that I know of.

                A sharing of themes is never of itself an argument for literary borrowing. All shared themes can ever tell us is that authors shared common interests. They may have come from the same literary culture, or there may have been similar interests (as there always will be) in all human cultures.

                In the right margin I have posted a link to Sandmel’s article on parallelomania. Parallels, common images, themes, can often be found where we have very strong reasons to believe there has been no direct literary borrowing at all.

                Forget mythicism for a moment. The arguments we are talking about are literary borrowing and direct literary influences. Those arguments are a central interest to a group of biblical scholars who have never, as far as I know, raised the question of the historicity of Jesus. Some of them, if they have commented at all, have explicitly said their arguments do not refute the historicity of Jesus. I have agreed with them and explained why: just because you can find a literary explanation for a Jesus as portrayed in the gospels does not mean that there was no historical Jesus.

                The arguments for literary dependence that I have read among mythicists have in many cases (all cases?) been learned from biblical scholarly publications. The arguments they use are drawn from literary historical and comparative literary studies and they are not circular or question begging as you suggest.

                They are very conscious of the danger of circularity and question begging.

                So what they do is set up a number of strong criteria to test for the likelihood or otherwise of literary borrowing.

                I have never seen a mythicist argument that does not use their sources. I am not saying there aren’t some but I have not bothered with them if there are.

                Which mythicist has argued for literary borrowing on the basis of common themes alone?

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