Richard Carrier, Jesus, and Heracles

I was struck by a statement Richard Carrier made on his blog, and I wonder whether it is not telling of something fundamentally amiss in his approach to the matter of the historical Jesus.

Carrier mentions a talk which he will be giving, in which he will ask “what it might mean to study Jesus if there were no religious assumptions built up even in secular scholarship–if Jesus were treated the same way as Hercules, for instance.”

If what is meant is to approach all figures mentioned in ancient texts guided by the same principles of historical inquiry, then that is by definition what is meant by investigating the historical figure of Jesus. To not do so would be to disqualify one’s work as appropriately labeled “historical.”

But if Carrier means that we can begin by assuming that Jesus is like Heracles, then that seems to be the opposite of taking a historical approach. The proximity of the sources to the time in which each figure is alleged to have lived differs. The types of literature that mention them are different. Whether the earliest sources were well-poised to know whether the figure was a real historical human being differs. The meaning of claiming someone to be the anointed one descended from David may, and various other contextual considerations, simply cannot be ignored by the serious historian.

And of course, it is good to remind ourselves that it remains possible that myths and legends about Heracles were inspired by some historical figure named Alcides or Alcaeus (Heracles’ birth name, given after his grandfather, according to some sources). Unless one can demonstrate that Alcaeus was not a historical figure, then showing Jesus to be comparable to him would lead to agnosticism about Jesus’ historicity, and not mythicism.

But that is just speaking hypothetically. It is precisely the differences between the two cases that lead historians to different conclusions about their historicity. We’ll have to see what Carrier actually writes in his book. If his conclusion on this matter differs from that of every other historian, then we’ll have to ask whether that is due to Carrier’s unprecedented brilliance, or something else.

Of related interest, see also the first part of Kevin Brown’s review of Carrier’s recent book on his blog Diglotting.

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  • VinnyJH

    What Carrier’s comment brings to my mind is that no one really bothers with the hypothesis of a historical Hercules. Of course it is possible that some things an actual man said or did could have played a part in the development of the stories, but no one tries to figure out what those things might have been. The stories that have come down to us about Hercules are understood to be so thoroughly infused with myth and legend that there is little point in trying to figure out in what sense, if any, Hercules might have been a historical person. No one devotes any time to trying to develop techniques to distill historicity out of the stories.

    • James F. McGrath

      And presumably that is at least primarily because historians have good reason to conclude that there is historical information that can be recovered from early Christian sources, whereas the gap between story and any possible historical figure lying behind it in the case of Heracles is much more like what we have in the Hebrew Bible from the Patriarchal period through the early monarchy.

      • VinnyJH

        Perhaps, or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

        • James F. McGrath

          Accusing an entire field’s scholars of merely engaging in wishful thinking does not seem to me at all likely, much less more likely than the alternative.

          • VinnyJH

            I am sorry if I have given offense, but I cannot help but notice how important theology and/or apologetics are to many scholars in the field. Please forgive my suspicion that the desire to validate beliefs may come before the discovery of those good reasons..

          • James F. McGrath

            But this time you used “many” which is plausible. But the academy in general and historical study specifically are also full of people who hate such theological hijacking of history. And what you seemed to be proposing in the previous comment is that even such people are engaging in wishful thinking that the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth and Heracles are different.

          • VinnyJH

            I would point out that my previous comment was a response to your presumption about the primary reason historical Jesus studies has gone in the direction it has. It was not a suggestion that wishful thinking is the sole factor at work in everything that happens in the field.

            I think that a more useful analogies (for my purposes if not for Carrier’s) might be provided by Socrates or Gautama.

            In the case of Socrates, we have a reasonable basis to think that he was a historical person and we have accounts of his life and teachings from one of his disciples. That might make us optimistic about the possibility of determining what the historical Socrates said and did. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, the possibility that Plato may have put his own ideas in Socrates mouth is well accepted and not particularly controversial. As far as I know, no one is breaking a sweat trying to develop criteria by which it might be determined which things in Plato’s writings are genuinely Socratic.

            It just doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting or important question. What matters is how Socrates came to be understood and how that understanding influenced the development of philosophy. The Socratic Method would be no less pedagogically effective if Socrates never used it. Euthyphro’s Dilemma is just as challenging whether it was originated by Socrates, Plato, or some unknown later writer who used their names to get his own ideas read.

            By the same token, trying to determine which traditions go back to a historical Gautama doesn’t seem important to the history of Buddhism. The effectiveness of meditation and the insights into the human condition are no greater for our ability to trace them back to a particular historical person.

            Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, are terribly keen to distinguish between traditions that go back to the actual historical Jesus of Nazareth and those that were merely attributed to him by the gospel writers or someone in the oral tradition. They are not content to limit themselves to discussing how Jesus came to be understood and how that understanding affected the development of Christianity. They devote extraordinary time and effort to developing criteria which permit them to make claims about the authenticity of specific sayings and events.

            I think this is a religious question rather than a historical one. As far as the history of Western Civilization goes, it matters not at all whether Jesus said or did any of the specific the things that he was understood to have said and done. It is only from a religious perspective that authenticity is important. For theological reasons, authentic sayings are considered to be uniquely authoritative so scholars want to identify them.

          • Paul Regnier


            I think you’re conflating two seperate issues here – the question of whether Jesus existed (almost certainly yes) and the question of whether we can know with certainty what he taught (probably not).

            In the case of Socrates, historians do use principles that parallel the types of criteria that Jesus scholars. For example, one line of thought argues that in Plato’s work, Socrates is always a mouthpiece for Plato’s views at the time, and that therefore the earliest Platonic dialogues are likely to be closest to the historic Socrates, as Plato’s thought has had less time to evolve away from Socrates.

            I tend to agree that there is less interest in recovering the historical Buddha than the historical Jesus. However, I suspect that this is partly because the written sources we have about the Buddha’s are far more remote from the Buddha’s life than the sources on Jesus are from his – i.e. a gap of centuries rather than decades. As such I think we’re dealing with much less promising historical material – there’s not even consensus about which century he lived, and I suspect that most Buddhist historians would agree that nearly all the traditional story of Gautama is an extended parable of the search for enlightenment. Even so, a historical Buddha looks comfortably the most plausible explanation for Buddhist origins.

            You say that the interest is in Jesus is a religious one rather than a historical one, but actually I think the interest in *denying* the exsitence of Jesus is a religious concern. Not many non-religious historians or observers find mythicism plausible, and most of the people agitating for it are atheists of a particular type. Or to put it another way, why aren’t there Buddha myther lurking on the Buddhist blogs I occasionally read?

          • VinnyJH

            No Paul. I’m not conflating them. You are.

            I was very careful to change the analogy from Hercules to Socrates and Gautama in order to take the existence question off the table. You are the one who is trying to make it the issue.

            I suspect the reason that you don’t find any Buddha mythers on the Buddhist blogs is because they wouldn’t have any fun. Buddhists (or at least the ones I know) don’t get worked up when questions are raised about the historicity of Gautama because it’s the ideas and practices that are important, not who originated them.

          • James F. McGrath

            The trend in the most recent historical Jesus scholarship has been away from the older approach of trying to sift out a handful of exact words of Jesus and things created by the church into separate piles. Dale Allison’s recent work, as well as Anthony Le Donne’s, reflect that shift.

            The distinction between Buddhism and Christianity on the importance of determining historicity is a good one, as far as the perspectives of the religions is concerned. From the perspective of the secular study of history, there should be no difference.

          • Paul Regnier

            I suspect the reason that you don’t find any Buddha mythers on the Buddhist blogs is because they wouldn’t have any fun. Buddhists (or at least the ones I know) don’t get worked up when questions are raised about the historicity of Gautama because it’s the ideas and practices that are important, not who originated them.

            Important for what and to whom? To say that HJ scholars are *really* interested in the historical Jesus is true, but also tautologous. I don’t see that comparing HJ scholars to your average Buddhist in the pagoda really tells us all that much.

            Equally, I completely agree that the allegory of the cave could be seen as meaningful or Socratic teaching might a useful technique regardless of whether they originated from Socrates, Plato, or someone else. But I think you could also say that the Good Samaritan is a great piece of storytelling, or conveys an important message about how we should treat other people, or that parables are a useful way of communicating a message regardless of whether the parable was invented by Jesus or somebody else.

            I agree that Jesus has a theological place in Christianity that isn’t matched by the place of Gautama in Buddhism, and for a variety of religious, cultural, and historical reasons, there is more interest in the West in the “real” Jesus than in the real Socrates or Buddha. For example, how many films have been made about the life of Jesus vs. the life of Socrates? The score must be Jesus 100s Socrates 1. And that’s counting Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

            I just don’t see how noting this difference makes Jesus’ non-existence remotely plausible, or means we should treat Jesus like we would treat a figure like Heracles.

          • VinnyJH


            Once again, I am not making any claim that this makes Jesus’s non-existence any more or less plausible. Why do you keep trying to pin that position on me?

            My point is this:

            Classicists seem to be quite reluctant to express any degree of certainty about what the real historical Socrates said or did despite having three different perspectives from men who knew him personally. New Testament scholars, on the other hand, routinely express high degrees of certainty about what the the real historical Jesus said and did despite having only the work of unknown authors who all shared the perspective that Jesus had become an exalted supernatural being and who based their accounts on decades of oral tradition which may or may not go back to anyone who ever had any personal contact with Jesus. And yet, I am routinely derided as a “denialist” because I decline to accord the consensus of these scholars the same weight that I accord the consensus of evolutionary biologists or historians of the Holocaust.

            Although I deem myself agnostic about the historicity of Jesus, I think it entirely possible that there exists a solid argument for deeming the existence of a historical Jesus to be objectively more likely than not. I haven’t seen it yet, but I still to hope to. I think it highly unlikely that I will be convinced by anyone who doesn’t demonstrate a reasonable degree of circumspection about what can be known about a historical Jesus.

          • VinnyJH

            I am aware that there are some theories concerning which parts of Plato’s writings actually go back to Socrates. It is not my impression that it is major subject of study.

            What I find more interesting is the fact that the idea that Socrates is just a mouthpiece for Plato’s views isn’t at all controversial. I am not aware of any historical Jesus scholar who seriously entertains the opinion that Jesus was just a mouthpiece for Mark’s views, although I cannot think of any way to eliminate that possibility.

          • James F. McGrath

            Wow, you really haven’t read much New Testament scholarship, have you?

          • VinnyJH

            So which have I missed, the scholars who maintain that Jesus was just a mouthpiece for Mark or the ones who eliminate that possibility?

          • James F. McGrath

            It seems to me that you have missed everything written since Wrede and Wellhausen. Apart from conservative scholars, the default position is that the Gospels tell us about the views of their authors in the time in which they were written, and if you want to show something to be earlier, the burden of proof is on you to show that, not the other way around.

            Have you limited yourself to conservative scholarship, or older scholarship, or both? Seriously, what have you been reading to get a sense of how Mark is understood by mainstream scholars?

          • VinnyJH

            Dr. McGrath,

            I do so wish that you would learn to read in context rather than posting the first snarky comment that pops into your head. I am well aware that the gospels reflect the views of their authors. I am also well aware that New Testament scholars understand that the gospels reflect the views of their authors. My comment responded to Paul’s comment about the way in which classicists think that “Socrates was always a mouthpiece for Plato” and it was intended to make a comparison to the way that New Testament scholars think about the gospels.

            From what I have seen, classicists seem to take as their starting point the hypothesis that the ideas that Socrates expresses in The Dialogues are in fact the ideas of Plato. This is known as “the Socratic problem.” There is no assumption that anything genuinely Socratic can be recovered from The Dialogues although, as Paul points out, various theories have been proposed and debated. At least some scholars recognize that such efforts will at best produce a theoretically possible Socrates rather than a “real” Socrates.

            In New Testament studies, on the other hand, while scholars do acknowledge that each gospel author had his own agenda, there does seem to me to be an assumption that Mark isn’t just putting his own ideas into Jesus’s mouth. There seems to me to be an assumption that Mark was relying upon an oral tradition that preserved at least some genuine memories of the things that the “real” Jesus said and did, even if it is only the “gist” of those things.

            It is this assumption that strikes me as wishful thinking. We know nothing certain about the author of Mark, the community for which he wrote, or the sources upon which he drew. It is theoretically possible that he had access to genuine memories preserved in oral tradition. It is also possible that he relied upon traditions and sources that developed primarily in communities which had no access to anyone with personal knowledge of the historical Jesus. It is possible that his sources relied entirely upon reinterpretations of the Old Testament and stories about other apocalyptic preachers and teachers in order to reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus. It is also possible that the author of Mark simply used the character of Jesus as a vehicle to present his own ideas and the revelations that he thought he had received.

            As far as I can see, no classicist would attempt to venture an opinion about what Socrates really said or did without forthrightly addressing the possibility that Plato is responsible for every idea that comes out of Socrates’s mouth in The Dialogues. From what I can tell, this may even be the default position. I have not observed anything similar among New Testament scholars, although I will freely admit that my reading has not been as thorough as I wish it could be.

          • James F. McGrath

            Again, I do not see how you can have failed to observe this in New Testament scholarship unless you have limited your reading to things that either are produced under the auspices of a conservative church rather than the mainstream secular academy, or were something other than scholarly publications.

          • VinnyJH

            Dr. McGrath,

            What I observe is blog posts that you write in which you insist that “scholarly consensus” can establish “things that Jesus almost certainly said.” I don’t think that many, if any, classicists would claim that any of their techniques could establish things that Socrates almost certainly said or that there would be any scholarly consensus on which things those were.

          • James F. McGrath

            Can you give me an example of where I have said that? I think there are things that we can be fairly certain that Jesus spoke about, but that is not the same as claiming that we know the exact words (which may or may not be what you meant). There are a small handful of words or expressions where their having originated with Jesus in something like the form in which we have them is very likely. I suspect that there may be a small handful of such instances in the case of Socrates too, but that is not my field and I will be happy to be corrected on this if I am wrong.

          • VinnyJH

            Two weeks ago in a post titled “Is Historical Jesus Research Futile?” you wrote “The fact that one can configure things that Jesus almost certainly said in different arrangements and thus different overall portraits does not mean that there are not things that he almost certainly said.”

            My guess is that most classicists would readily acknowledge the possibility that trying to recover the actual teachings of Socrates might be a futile endeavor, even if they thought they had a viable hypothesis for doing so.

          • James F. McGrath

            My sense is that most Classicists would conclude that there are certain details which are much more likely to stem from Socrates, things which particular disciples of his are unlikely to have invented and attributed to him.

            I certainly would not suggest that this is a point of divergence between historians investigating these different figures, without looking into the matter to see what historians have actually concluded.

          • VinnyJH

            I haven’t looked at more than a handful of articles yet, although I have been careful to look for articles by scholars who look like they have the right qualifications. I haven’t seen any mention of anyone trying to use an “unlikely to be invented” criteria.

            My sense is that classicists would conclude that there are some ideas that are more likely than others to stem from a historical Socrates, but few, if any, ideas which could be said to be more likely than not to stem from a historical Socrates.

          • arcseconds

            What is uncontroversial is that the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is a character that serves Plato’s purposes. It’s not accepted by all that the character Socrates is always a mouthpiece for Plato’s own views.

            I don’t think any contemporary reader of Plato’s dialogues would have thought that the purpose (or even a purpose) of the dialogues is to give them an accurate portrayal of the historical Socrates.

            While I don’t think the contemporary readers of the Gospels would have treated them as we would a factual biography either, I expect they were read in order to learn about Jesus, which makes them quite different kind of work from the Socratic dialogues (Plato wasn’t the only person to write such things).

          • VinnyJH

            I think it possible that both Mark and Plato tried to communicate an image of their characters that they believed would be valuable to their readers and one that in some sense they believed to be true. However, objective history or biography did not then exist in the sense that we think of it so I think it is very hard to determine the extent to which they would have been constrained by the details of the lives of the actual people upon whom their characters were based.

          • arcseconds

            Well, Plato uses his character Socrates to exemplify a philosopher, and I’m sure he considers that image very valuable to his readers!

            However, that’s quite a different thing to trying to communicate truths about the historical Socrates. The idea that Plato intends to (or does) communicate such truths is more plausible with some dialogues than others, which is the basis (or at least, one of the main bases) of the traditional “early, middle, late” division. (This tradition is a modern tradition, of course, ancient writers didn’t concern themselves which such things.)

            I would say it’s very plausible that Apology is supposed to communicate something of the historical Socrates to us as it’s main aim. It’s a eulogy of sorts, and a defense of his conduct leading up to and during his trial. This should probably be considered no more historical than a Hollywood movie about a known event to a well-known historical figure.

            However, even the other ‘early’ dialogues seem to me to be very much a vehicle for Plato’s ideas.

            Remember that Socratic dialogues were a genre, and several people wrote them. ‘The other extant example, Xenophon, also seems very much to be communicating his own ideas, not trying primarily to tell us something about Socrates. Oeconomicus is about household management. It seems more plausible to suppose this is Xenophon’s concern rather than Socrates’s (who is normally portrayed as being at best nonchalant about worldly possessions), and the dialogue itself doesn’t support the idea that Socrates knows anything about this topic, as the knowledge actually comes from his dialogue partner.

            That’s not to say that we can’t try to use these sources to determine things about the historical Socrates. We just have to keep in mind that acting as any kind of historical record (even by the standards of the time) was not an aim.

            For example, it seems extremely likely that Socrates did indeed engage in thoroughgoing questioning of his fellows, given that there was a whole genre written initially by people who knew him personally devoted to displaying him doing exactly this.

            Here it is worth asking the question, which is more likely: that Socrates did actually do this, and this inspired people who knew him to write literary works employing this trait, or that he never did anything of the sort, but people who knew him decided nevertheless to write as though he had.

    • Tim O’Neill

      “What Carrier’s comment brings to my mind is that no one really bothers with the hypothesis of a historical Hercules.”

      Probably because we don’t have a letter where the writer mentions in passing meeting Hercules’ brother 20 years earlier, a mention of Hercules’ death by a reliable historian writing within a century of the event and a mention of the death of his brother (the same one mentioned in the letter) by a historian who had been in the same city at the time.

      Far better analogies with Jesus are various other First Century preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants like Theudas, Athronges, the Egyptian and the Samaritan Prophet, who get one or two passing mentions decades after their deaths and whose existence is not questioned for a moment.

      But Carrier would have to drop his wall-eyed bias and look at things objectively like a real historian to see this. Pigs will fly before that happens.

  • Herro

    “But if Carrier means that we can begin by assuming that Jesus is like Heracles, ….”

    Of course he isn’t saying that!

    I you might be trying to read too much into this comment. I think Carrier is just offering a religious figure from antiquity that is studied by scholars that don’t have “religous assumptions built up even in secular scholarship”

  • Nick Gotts

    Is there any evidence that Jesus had any significant influence on history that was not mediated through the NT? (I’m aware that there were other gospels that got excluded from the canon, but I don’t know either whether they are thought likely to have preserved anything not found in the canon, nor how far these other gospels influenced events.) Muhammed, to use a different example, certainly influenced history other than via the Quran if the current historical consensus is correct, because he unified most of Arabia during his lifetime, and that formed the basis for the subsequent Arab/Muslim empire building. If there is no such evidence for Jesus, then which of his reported words and actions actually occurred does look to be of rather limited historical importance.

    • James F. McGrath

      Well, since Muhammad was a military leader, it isn’t surprising that he left more of a trace, is it? Jesus seems to have been a figure more like Hillel or John the Baptist or the Teacher of Righteousness.