2018-08-13

Gullotta’s Misleading Portrayal of Carrier’s Argument (Gospels Myth or Remembered History? – Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

The focus of my response will center on Carrier’s

  1. claim that a pre-Christian angel named Jesus existed,
  2. his understanding of Jesus as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline corpus,
  3. his argument that Paul understood Jesus to be crucified by demons and not by earthly forces,
  4. his claim that James, the brother of the Lord, was not a relative of Jesus but just a generic Christian within the Jerusalem community,
  5. his assertion that the Gospels represent Homeric myths,
  6. and his employment of the Rank-Raglan heroic arche-type as a means of comparison.

(Gullotta, p. 325. my formatting/numbering for quick reference)

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

For other Archives by Topic, Annotated see the right margin.

–o–

This is the most difficult of my posts so far discussing Daniel Gullotta’s treatment of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. On pages 336 to 340 of his review Gullotta conveys the clear impression that Carrier has relied primarily, even perhaps entirely, on Dennis MacDonald’s thesis that the Gospel of Mark was based on Homer’s Odyssey and last two books of the Iliad and has consequently concluded that the gospel is primarily myth rather than remembered history. Gullotta further leads readers to understand that Carrier claimed Jesus was essentially based on Homer’s character Odysseus and that criticisms of MacDonald’s entire thesis equally applied to Carrier’s treatment of the Gospel of Mark. I will demonstrate that all of this representation of Carrier’s argument is grossly misleading. One scarcely knows where to begin.

Let’s start with his heading for this section Mark, the Christian Homer? Jesus, the Jewish Odysseus? That heading sets up the expectation that we will learn that Carrier argues accordingly.

Gullotta begins, however, with a genuine Carrier assertion unrelated to the Homeric thesis of MacDonald: that the characteristics of myth are a combination of

  • (1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events);
  • (2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and
  • (3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional).

(my formatting)

Gullotta seems perturbed by the idea that such criteria should invalidate the Gospel of Mark as “remembered history” when he comments:

Because of this, Carrier deems the Gospels to be ‘allegorical myth, not remembered history’.

(Gullotta, p. 337)

I thought most critical scholars, even devout Christian ones, considered the gospels to be primarily mythical or theological tales long removed from history. The question Carrier is taking up is whether there was a historical Jesus behind them at the beginning.

But even at this early point of the discussion Gullotta leads readers to think that such criteria and understanding of myth is Carrier’s idea. He begins the criteria with

According to Carrier, ‘the gospels are primarily and pervasively mythical’ and he bases this assessment on the following criteria

and Gullotta gives readers no indication that those criteria are Carrier’s distillation of lengthy scholarly discussion and debate.

When one turns to Carrier’s discussion of myth and its relationship with the gospels one finds that Carrier has in fact drawn upon the following scholarly corpus (taken from several pages between 380 and 396, my formatting) as the basis of his understanding of myth itself and ways in which the gospels themselves are mythical narratives:

This debate is partly surveyed in Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, ‘The Genre and Nature of the Canonical Gospels’, in The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, M l : Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 309-61.

Prominent examples of diverse views on the matter (not all of them plausible) include

Charles Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977);

David Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1987), pp. 17-76;

Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992);

Lawrence Wills, The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre (New York: Routledge, 1997);

Michael E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Leiden: Brill, 2002);

Thomas Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005);

and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006).

See also (as particularly relevant to the present discussion)

Meredith Kline, ‘The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre’, Westminster Theological Journal 38 (197S), pp. 1-27;

Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 48-79;

and Evan Fales, ‘Taming the Tehom: The Sign of Jonah in Matthew’, in Empty Tomb (ed. Price and Lowder), pp. 307-48 (esp. pp. 307-19).

That the genres of ‘history’ and ‘biography’ had become fully merged with mythmaking by the time the Gospels were written is also demonstrated by

Charles Talbert, ‘Biographies of Philosophers and Rulers as Instruments of Religious Propaganda in Mediterranean Antiquity’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt II 16 (1978), pp. 1619-51.

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Radcliffe Edmonds, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 1-13.

For a more extensive treatise on Edmonds-style understanding of myth see

William Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2nd edn, 2000);

and Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979).

Thomas Falkner, The Poetics of Old Age in Greek Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy (Norman: OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995)

Dennis MacDonald, ‘Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels’, in Historical Jesus in Context (ed. Levine, Allison and Crossan). pp. 372-84 (380); see pp. 375-80.

Stephen Law, ‘Evidence, Miracles, and the Existence of Jesus’, Faith and Philosophy 28 (April 2011), pp. 129-51, available at http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/published-in-faith-and-philosophy-2011.html.

See Burton Mack, The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy (New ork: Continuum, 2001), who also argues we need a better theory of the origin of Christianity, one that takes the role of mythmaking in early Christianity seriously (and I agree). Mack also extensively discusses what the term ‘myth’ means and what its functions were, much in line with what I have argued here.

Besides the others I shall cite as I go, the best examples, which are required reading on this subject, are, in order from introductory to advanced:

(1) John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (New York: Harper One, 2012);

(2) Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst. NY: Prometheus Books, 1988);

(3) Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000)

(4) Thomas Thompson. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books. 2005); and

(5) Thomas Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The lntertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. 2004).

Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. 2006). p. 52.

All of the above were cited by Carrier in the course of the first seventeen pages (pp 380-396) of his detailed discussion of the nature of myth and whether the gospels can be considered more mythical than historical remembrance before the above quotation cited by Gullotta that I repeat here:

Because of this, Carrier deems the Gospels to be ‘allegorical myth, not remembered history’.

Marcus Borg (Borg is not a mythicist but a devout Christian scholar.)

That is a misleading statement. Gullotta is giving the impression that Carrier’s argument is somehow “his own” and therefore to some extent idiosyncratic, the barking of an outside dissident. But here are the words Gullotta quoted in their original context:

Several scholars have confirmed that by the standards of myth I just spelled out, the Gospels are primarily and pervasively mythical. In the words of Marcus Borg, we have to admit ‘(1) that much of the language of the Gos­pels is metaphorical; (2) that what matters is the more-than-literal mean­ing and (3) that the more-than-literal meaning does not depend upon the historical factuality of the language’. That makes the Gospels allegorical myth, not remembered history.

Carrier, p. 396

Gullotta gives readers no hint that Carrier draws upon extensive critical scholarship as the foundation of his argument. In fact Gullotta will soon give the clear impression that Carrier is dependent almost entirely upon Dennis MacDonald and his Homer-and-Mark thesis.

Carrier’s position is not that of a lone wolf, an outside trouble-maker, a hostile dissident,  but is part of the mainstream scholarly discussion. Nor, as we will see, is Carrier’s discussion of the Homeric thesis even an uncritical clone of MacDonald’s views.

Carrier demonstrates in seventeen pages of detailed and richly cited argument up to the point of Gullotta’s fish-quote that his (Carrier’s) conclusion that the gospels are essentially mythical narratives rather than “remembered history” is well within a significant sector of mainstream critical scholarship. Many of his citations argue for it; some address both sides of debate.

And we have only just begun to address Gullotta’s treatment of the fifth item he has chosen to criticize in his review. We have not even yet come to the point of Carrier’s discussion of MacDonald’s Homeric thesis. This is going to be a long and painful haul!


Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.


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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

8 Comments

  • 2018-08-13 10:12:28 UTC - 10:12 | Permalink

    Well, I agree that treating the Gospels as Homericc myth is problematic. I think explaining the origins of the gospels has been the weakest point of mythicist positions heretofore. This is where I believe my new book makes a meaningful contribution. I think my work shows pretty conclusively that the Gospel of Mark is a political allegory written in reaction to the sacking of Jerusalem and that it is based on the story of Elijah and Elisha from Kings, with many literary allusions to other scriptures from the Septuagint.

    I’ve never been comfortable with “pagan” or “Homeric” explanations of the Gospels, and I really hope my work on this will be a significant advancement for the field.

    • nightshadetwine
      2018-08-13 20:32:38 UTC - 20:32 | Permalink

      You said:
      “I’ve never been comfortable with “pagan” or “Homeric” explanations of the Gospels, and I really hope my work on this will be a significant advancement for the field.”

      Why? Christianity formed in a Greco-Roman culture and the gospels and Paul’s letters are written in Greek. We already know there were Hellenized Jews before the 1st century CE. It’s not logical to think that there wouldn’t be any Greco-Roman influence on the gospels.

      • 2018-08-13 21:01:59 UTC - 21:01 | Permalink

        I don’t want to derail the discussion of Gullotta’s critique. I think Neil’s points regarding Gullotta’s criticisms are very valid. In this case I end up being on the same side as Gullotta, but for different reasons. I think Carrier’s assessment makes reasonable points in a reasonable way, they just happen not to be the best explanation for the content of the Gospels.

        I’ve done my own analysis of the Gospels and reached different conclusions that I am confident in because they are easily demonstrated by undeniable hard evidence, not vague patterns or themes. When I read MacDonald’s book I found to totally unconvincing, but of course I’m not saying that Carrier takes MacDonald’s position, which its clear that he himself doesn’t fully agree with MacDonald’s assessment, but Gullotta it appears does try to paint him with that brush. But personally, I find no merit in the MacDonald thesis at all.

        Anyway, I don’t want to get into discussing my assessment of the Gospels here because this is about Carrier and Gullotta, not my work. I’m just saying, this does happen to be a weak point in Carrier’s book.

  • 2018-08-13 16:26:15 UTC - 16:26 | Permalink

    Please provide title and pub. date of your book, Thank You.

    • 2018-08-13 16:34:59 UTC - 16:34 | Permalink
      • 2018-08-13 17:51:47 UTC - 17:51 | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s it. It’s only been out about a week and I’m working on getting it reviewed now.

        Anyway, my main point is that I think Gullotta’s criticism are largely off-base and unfair, as Neil is saying, but in this particular case, while Gullotta’s criticism may still be unfair, there is nevertheless a valid point (in the other cases he mostly doesn’t even have valid points).

        I think the case Carrier presents in most of his book is pretty good and I largely agree with it, but on this point. I’ve never been persuaded by the Homeric myth argument, or indeed by most of the “hero pattern” claims made by people like Mack, Dundes, etc. I’ve always viewed those type so claims as pretty weak and subjective.

        So while I would defend most of Carrier’s points in his book, this is one I wouldn’t.

        • 2018-08-14 00:05:03 UTC - 00:05 | Permalink

          To clarify my prior comment. I agree with the general argument of Carrier that the Gospels are “mythical, not remembered history”, but for reasons that were not cited by Carrier. Or I would say, for reasons that go beyond those cited by Carrier. I don’t think that the case Carrier presented in wrong, just that it’s not convincing in and of itself (and as Neil said, the case Carrier presented is really a polished summary of the scholarly literature, so any criticism Gullotta has can’t be directly fully at Carrier anyway.)

          To summarize: Carrier did a fine job presenting the case. I agree with Gullotta’s ultimate point that the case is unconvincing. I don’t agree with Gullotta’s specific criticism.

          The issue is just that the case needs more support. My book, I believe, provides that support, and I think my material really just adds to Carrier’s case, it isn’t in conflict with it.

        • Alif
          2018-08-14 06:37:29 UTC - 06:37 | Permalink

          U’r difrunt t the RG Price – the wun whu debatid Ehrman etc

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