Richard Carrier on Jesus and the Rank-Raglan hero-type

There’s one point in my comments on Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus that’s worth expanding on—I’d initially meant to say more about it, but I was up late enough writing the post as it was.

In my previous post, I mentioned that:

Carrier, in trying to determine the prior probability that Jesus was a historical person, argues that we should determine that probability by putting Jesus in the reference class of mythic heroes, specifically of what he calls the “Rank-Raglan hero class.”

He defines the “Rank-Raglan hero class” as fitting twelve or more of the following criteria (pp. 229-230):

  1. The hero’s mother is a virgin.
  2. His father is a king or the heir of a king.
  3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual.
  4. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
  5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby.
  6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him.
  7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents.
  8. We are told nothing of his childhood.
  9. On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom.
  10. He is crowned, hailed or becomes king.
  11. He reigns uneventfully (i.e., without wars or national catastrophes).
  12. He prescribes laws.
  13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects.
  14. He is driven from the throne or city.
  15. He meets with a mysterious death.
  16. He dies atop a hill or high place.
  17. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
  18. His body turns up missing.
  19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction).
  20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon or wild beast).
  21. His parents are related to each other.
  22. He marries a queen or princess related to his predecessor.

Carrier claims that he can find exactly fifteen figures from myth and history that fit this classification, including Jesus, and except for Jesus they’re all generally acknowledged to be mythical. The top three figures who fit the most criteria, he says, are Oedipus (at 21) followed by Jesus and Moses (tied at 20). When I reached this last claim, I was honestly confused.

(1-6) clearly fit. But with (7), Mary definitely isn’t a foster parent, and Joseph isn’t really either. Virgin birth aside, stories of Jesus’ life treat Joseph as his real father, with Matthew even tracing Jesus’ lineage through Joseph. And it’s implied that Jesus was only in Egypt briefly. Unless Carrier is thinking of Galilee, which was politically separate from Judea in Jesus’ time, though it would plausibly be part of a restored Israel that the Messiah could be expected to restore. Whether (8) fits depends on what sources you’re counting—Carrier clarifies that he got the 20-count from Matthew, in which case (8) is a hit.

(9-14) seem like awkward fits. Okay, sure, Jesus was proclaimed king (10). But he returns to greater Israel as a small child, and his entry into Jerusalem seems to come well after his reaching manhood (9). (11-13) need to be interpreted pretty loosely in order to fit, since Jesus never held earthly political power (unlike Oedipus, Moses, and many other figures on Carrier’s list of Rank-Raglan heroes). And Jesus isn’t driven from Jerusalem (14), he’s arrested and executed.

Execution seems a pretty non-mysterious death (15). This one, I felt sure was one of the two Carrier wasn’t counting towards Jesus’ score. Others up to this point, I could see how you’d get if you stretched things, but not this one. So I was quite surprised to see Carrier explaining “strange things happen at his death, and the death itself is a strangely sudden expiration.” Okay, I guess it’s where you set the bar for “mysteriousness.”

(16-19) fit. (20) Carrier himself admits isn’t obvious, though it occurred to me you could count Jesus’ exorcisms as battling and defeating demons. Carrier himself counts Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness. I’d totally give Carrier (21) given later traditions of Mary and Joseph being related, though he himself doesn’t count it because he’s mainly using Matthew—and note that if we counted (21) on the basis of later traditions, for consistency we’d also have to drop (8) on the basis of other later traditions. Finally, (22) obviously doesn’t fit.

So by my count, Jesus as portrayed in Matthew fits maybe 13 of the criteria for a Rank-Raglan hero (1-6, 8, 10, and 16-20). Carrier dismisses disagreement with his scoring of Jesus on the Rank-Raglan scale “specious apologetics,” but honestly such is not my intention. The criteria are vague enough to allow for some honest disagreement, but I’m personally baffled by some of the points Carrier scored for Jesus.

Furthermore, from the point of view something like Bart Ehrman’s views of Jesus, Jesus’ scoring on the Rank-Raglan criteria makes a lot of sense. “Of course,” Ehrman and other secular scholars would say, “obviously the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are legends, and its no surprise those legends would draw on the tales of established mythological figures.” But the awkward fit of criteria 9-14 also makes sense: Jesus very likely believed himself to be the Messiah, and expected God to miraculously intervene in history to grant him a kingdom on earth. But when that failed to happen and Jesus was executed instead, Jesus’ followers had to rationalize by pushing Jesus’ earthly reign into the future, after his second coming (which itself keeps getting pushed further into the future.)

Still, fitting 13 criteria is enough to classify Jesus as a Rank-Raglan hero by Carrier’s definition. If Carrier were right that no other real historical figures have ever fit 12 or 13 out of the 22 criteria, that would definitely be a point in his favor. And he may be right about this, but I’m suspicious. I don’t know as much about the legends that grew up around, say, Alexander the Great as some people. But from what I know about the stories that have been told about various deified political leaders and gurus from Apollonius of Tyana to Sathya Sai Baba, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least one of them that scored a 12 or 13 on the Rank-Raglan criteria. Carrier, for his part, claims the highest-scoring political figures are Alexander the Great and Mithradates of Pontus, both at 10, and he give them points for things like being supposedly born of a virgin or the son of a god.

Okay, so things aren’t looking too bad for Carrier yet. But then he notices one significant difference between Jesus and the other entries on his list of Rank-Raglan heroes (p. 249):

Although the deities and heroes in the Rank-Raglan class were either euhemerized [placed in historical context – Hallquist] centuries after they were first worshiped as deities (like Osiris), or at the moment of their invention they were placed centuries in the past (like Jason), this was not because either was necessary for the process to work. Rather, it was because euhemerization had not become popular until centuries after these gods had become popular (in the case of preexistent deities), or because a cultural trend had already been established of placing all heroes in the same imagined Age of Heroes (around the assumed time of the Trojan War), as if nothing exciting ever happened in any other century of history (or, in the case of Romulus, because legend required that he be placed in the already-traditional century of Rome’s founding—so he would have been placed there no matter when his tale was created). We can therefore draw no conclusions about what was possible from what early Greeks and Romans chose to do.

I want to be clear that I agree with Carrier that legends can develop very rapidly. In fact, he cites my book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God on this point. Still, the difference between Jesus and other mythic heroes is noteworthy. And insisting that a thing is possible is answering the wrong question, when you’re supposed to be doing Bayesian analysis. Sure it’s possible, but what’s the probability? Also notice that Carrier doesn’t seem inclined to be as charitable to historicist explanations of things that might seem to support mythicism.

Now I want to respond to something Carrier said about me in a Facebook thread:

Also, modern history bears no reference class relevance to ancient history on this particular point. KJI is in fact basing his narrative *on* Christianity. Chris needs to google “dependent probability” to understand his mistake. But also, I count 4 possible historical persons in my a fortiori calculation, so I am already including the possibility of historical persons fitting the profile. This shows Chris doesn’t even understand what a *probability* is.

I confess, I chose the Kim Jong-Il example partly for humor value, and an ancient example probably would have been more relevant. But no relevance? Why not also say, “the Gospels were written hundreds of years after the stories of figures like Oedipus and Moses became well known. Yes, parts of myth that developed around the historical Jesus drew on stories about such figures, but that’s not relevant!” In reality, the example of Kim Jong-Il does show that originally mythological tropes can be transferred to historical people, and the same might have happened to Jesus, even if you don’t think it’s likely. This is true even if it isn’t a perfect analogy. Conversely, the analogy between Jesus and the other Rank-Raglan heroes isn’t perfect either, but that also doesn’t make the comparison irrelevant.

In short, it’s complicated. It’s often complicated. The less I take away from things like Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment and Nassim Taleb’s writings is that doing probabilistic thinking well requires the ability to doubt your own probability calculations, and integrate different pieces of evidence that point in different directions. Carrier seems to want everything to be either totally irrelevant, or else a decisive point in his favor.

And here’s where I’m not impressed with Carrier’s a forteriori calculation, where he says he’s going to try to stack the probabilities against himself, and show that they still come out saying he’s probably right. I mean, it’s a step in the right direction, but the execution is off. The “possible historical persons” references in the quote above are mainly Moses and Joseph, to which Carrier decided to add two unknown pagan figures for good measure. This seems to be done mainly as a sop to the Christian fundamentalists who claim Moses and Joseph were historical. Carrier and I both agree that all credible scholars think Moses and Joseph were myths. Carrier isn’t making a serious effort to think about where his assumptions might be wrong. He’s making random concessions and hoping that will force his opponents to agree with his probability calculations.

The most disappointing part of Carrier’s reply is the bizarre suggestion that I don’t know what a probability is. Carrier knows way more about ancient history than I do, and if I went toe-to-toe with him debating the history of Jesus, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself completely out-argued on historical grounds. But instead, I get this kind of shit? To be clear, I’m not complaining about this because it’s an “ad hominem” or because of “tone” or anything like that. Rather, it’s a depressing sign of Carrier’s apparent extreme difficulties with nuance.

Edit: J. J. Ramsey makes a very good point about the Rank-Raglan class in the comments.

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