For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:
We finally arrive at the double-back-flip as Daniel Gullotta’s concluding word on his discussion of how wrong he believes it is to place Jesus in a Rank-Raglan scale.
Even if Jesus’ life merited a 20 out of 22 on the Rank-Raglan hero-type list (which it does not, as I have shown), this does not confirm his place amongst other mythological figures of antiquity. As the late folklorist Alan Dundes* pointed out, mythicists’ employment of this analysis does not have much to do with whether Jesus existed; it is merely an exercise in literary and psychoanalytic comparisons.124 The traditions of Jesus conforming to these legendary patterns does not negate his historicity any more than the legends connected with Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana denies theirs.
(Gullotta, p. 344 — * Dundes, as we saw in the previous post, argues that Jesus certainly fits 17 of Raglan’s 22 points)
And here we will address what I offered two posts ago: a discussion of the rationale or place of the archetypes in any discussion of the historicity of Jesus.
After having gone to such lengths to persuade readers that the use of the Rank-Raglan archetypes was an intellectually dishonest ploy by Carrier, that the archetypes did not fit Jesus anyway, Gullotta concludes all of that by agreeing with what Carrier said in the very first place when pointing out that they do not prove the historicity or nonhistoricity of Jesus! The problem with Gullotta’s conclusion, however, is that he in fact repeats what Carrier himself said without realizing he could have quoted Carrier to make his point (supposedly) against Carrier! Carrier writes at length about how historical persons do indeed fit elements in the Raglan list and accordingly argues a fortiori.
[I]f a real person can have the same elements associated with him, and in particular so many elements (and for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they actually occurred), then there should be many real persons on the list—as surely there are far more real persons than mythical ones.
Therefore, whether fitting more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria was always a product of chance coincidence or the product of causal influence, either way we can still conclude that it would be very unusual for any historical person to fit more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria—because if it were not unusual, then many historical persons would have done so.
(Carrier, pp. 231f)
Appeal is sometimes made to a satirical essay by Francis Lee Utley, Lincoln Wasn’t There, Or, Lord Raglan’s Hero, as evidence that Raglan’s archetypes have no value at all in assessing historicity. What is not always realized by those who point to Utley, however, is that he was writing satire and to make his case work he had to bend the rationalizations beyond breaking point as can be seen by an apologist making use of Utley’s assertions. Alan Dundes comments on Utley’s essay (p. 190):
The significance of Utley’s essay is that it underscores the distinction between the individual and his biography with respect to historicity. The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents. Accordingly, if the life of Jesus conforms in any way with the standard hero pattern, this proves nothing one way or the other with respect to the historicity of Jesus.
Carrier might add, of and by itself it allows Jesus a one in three chance of being historical.
Carrier’s point is that it is very unusual (he says it has never happened) that a historical person scores as high as many obviously mythical persons, including Jesus, on the list. (Is it kosher at this point to turn the tables and ask if the reason Gullotta was so keen to limit the number of Raglan’s points against Jesus to as few as four was to use the list to argue for Jesus’ historicity?)
And that means we can put that specific data (the Rank-Raglan-assigning data) in our background knowledge and see what it gets as an expected frequency: how often are people in that class historical vs. ahistorical? Because, given the fact that Jesus belongs to that class, the prior probability that Jesus is historical has to be the same as the prior probability that anyone we draw at random from that class is historical.
(Carrier, p. 239)
What is Carrier’s final argument, then? It may surprise Gullotta to learn that Carrier, in arguing a fortiori, was prepared to accept that chances of Jesus being historical even though a high scorer on the Raglan list was one in three.
Again, even if we started from a neutral prior of 50% and walked our way through ‘all persons claimed to be historical’ to ‘all persons who became Rank-Raglan heroes’, we’d end up again with that same probability of 1 in 3. For example, if again there were 5,000 historical persons and 1,000 mythical persons, the prior probability of being historical would be 5/6; and of not being historical, 1/6. But if there are 10 mythical men in the Rank-Raglan class and 5 historical men (the four we are granting, plus one more, who may or may not be Jesus), then the probability of being in that class given that someone was historical would be 5/5000, which is 1/1000; and the probability given that they were mythical would be 10/1000, which is 1/100. This gives us a final probability of 1/3, hence 33%. No matter how you chew on it, no matter what numbers you put in, with these ratios you always end up with the same prior probability that Jesus was an actual historical man: just 33% at best.
(Carrier, pp. 243f)
That is, Carrier is willing to concede for the sake of argument that a high number of the Raglan archetypes can be found to apply to many historical persons as well as many more mythical ones, one in three.
Given Gullotta’s insistence that Jesus fell short of even half the Raglan elements I suspect he would not be willing to argue that a third of all those we could find in the high end of the Raglan types would be historical. (One wonders if Gullotta’s criticism might have taken better turn if there was no prior animus against mythicism or presumption that any mythicist argument is by nature flawed in both motives and methods.)
So what is the point?
Is there any validity to using a twenty-two point Raglan scale or anything comparable in the first place? Should Carrier not have placed Jesus in a Rank-Raglan reference class to begin with?
I think we can begin to get a handle on that question if we reflect on one of the more mundane or Raglan’s elements as addressed by Dundes:
Raglan’s pattern provides a new vantage point for those who seek to understand the life of Jesus as it is reported in the gospels. For example, Bible scholars have bemoaned the lack of information about the youth and growing up of Jesus. Luke and John tell us almost nothing of the period between birth and adulthood. The point is that this is precisely the case with nearly all heroes of tradition. That is why Raglan included his trait 9 “We are told nothing of his childhood” (1956:174).
(Dundes, p. 191, my bolding)
Here an “argument from silence” finds significant explanatory power. The silence is to be expected in the creation of a mythical hero. (The only exception is that sometimes the hero displays some unusual quality through a childhood incident — another archetypal feature in some lists — as we read of the boy Jesus astonishing priests in the temple.)
It is true that Carrier did not have to begin by placing Jesus in such a mythical reference class. Carrier himself acknowledges that possibility. And it is not necessary to begin an argument for a mythical Jesus by setting him in such a category.
But what will have to be addressed at some point in the broader argument when all the evidence is being laid out on the table is the fact that, as Gullotta acknowledges,
- In the Paul’s letters Jesus fits 4 or 5 of Raglan’s elements;
- In the Gospel of Mark he fits at least 7 or 8 of them;
- In the Gospel of Matthew he fits at least 8 or 9;
- In the Gospel of Luke even more [though Gullotta stops short at Matthew, however]
and by the time we get to Justin Martyr and learn that Mary was descended from David along with various other details, we find that Jesus does indeed meet many more than half of the Raglan elements.
The question facing the historian is why so many mythical motifs are found in the life of Jesus according to his growing number of followers.
The historian is faced with a question. Are these mythical features imputed into the figure of Jesus in later generations of believers or do they originate from genuinely historical events? Or do they for some reason simply come out of the minds of followers and attach themselves to the historical memory of Jesus?
The answer to that question will not necessarily be that Jesus was a mythical figure from the beginning. Remember Cyrus, for example. Even Alexander the Great scores seven points. (Carrier argues with more mathematical precision and suggests that no historical person has scored more than half of Raglan’s twenty-two motifs.) What it means is that the probability that any figure who matches a large number of mythical points is more likely to be mythical than historical. We must always allow for exceptions, of course, and Carrier is willing to allow for every one in three being an exceptional historical person who just happens to have accrued more than eleven Raglan points.
Carrier begins with a prior probability of Jesus being mythical by placing him in the Rank-Raglan myth classification. That is, he begins with a prior probability that Jesus was historical at 33%.
He could have approached it differently and kept the RR classification tucked away at element 48 of background knowledge to be considered in the course of any examination of the evidence for Jesus. If he had done that then he would merely have delayed the moment of truth when that evidence would have been addressed and fed into the pool of all the other evidence for and against Jesus’ historicity.
It won’t really matter what you start with to determine prior probability, however, because whatever you don’t use for that will become a part of e (the evidence) anyway, which you will then have to deal with later, and when you do you will get the same mathematical result regardless.
(Carrier, p. 239)
The end result would have been no different if the evaluation is the same no matter at what point of the argument one addresses it: that at best only one in three persons who score high on the Rank-Raglan hero type list are historical.
Doesn’t this presuppose that Jesus began as a Rank-Raglan hero? No. Even if his story was rebuilt so that he would only belong to that class later (for example, if Matthew was the first ever to do that), it makes no difference. Regardless of how anyone came to be a Rank-Raglan hero, it still almost never happened to a historical person (in fact, so far as we can actually tell, it never happened to a historical person, ever). Many of the heroes in that class may well have also begun very differently and only been molded into the Rank-Raglan hero type later. Thus, being conformed to it later has no bearing on the probability of this happening. The probability of this happening to a historical person, based on all the evidence of past precedent that we have, is still practically zero. Even at our most generous it can be no better than 6%. Unless we reject the data we have and suppose that there were more historical persons in that class than the evidence suggests. But even when we do that, it goes beyond reason to estimate the number of such persons at any more than 1/3 of those in the class (and even that is beyond reason in my opinion). Which entails a maximum 33% prior probability that any member of that class was historical.
(Carrier, p. 244)
Or in other words, if all we had for Jesus is the mythic-hero list and nothing else then we could not decide whether Jesus was historical or not. At best we could only surmise that he had a one in three likelihood of having existed. What must tip the scale for or against that surmise is consideration of all the other evidence.
What if we began instead with Jesus being in the reference class of brothers of apostles?
If we began with the argument that Paul met Jesus’ brother, James, then we would need to be careful to think like a historical researcher (see other posts on Finley, Tucker, et al) and translate that into an argument that we have a manuscript from a certain date which stated that Paul met James, “the brother of the Lord”, and assess that evidence against other data, including the point that stories of Jesus over time came to resemble a typical mythical hero. If the other evidence is strong enough then the one in three probability of a historical person ringing a high bell on Raglan’s scale won’t decide the matter against historicity. But at least the historical researcher will have established a sound and honest argument.
Not finished yet…..
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Dundes, Alan. 1990. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus.” In In Quest of the Hero. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero / [by Otto Rank]. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama: Part 2 / [by Lord Raglan]. The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus / [by Alan Dundes] ; with an Introduction by Robert A. Segal. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University 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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