Richard Carrier on Crucified Messiahs

Richard Carrier on Crucified Messiahs October 6, 2011

As someone who has appreciated things that he has written in the past, I have kept hoping that Richard Carrier might eventually come around, see the folly of getting bogged down in that realm of nonsense known as mythicism, and return to the rigor and attention to detail expected in mainstream historical critical scholarship.

If his recent blog post is anything to judge by, that is not to be.

He uses Rabbinic sources uncritically, ignoring the wealth of scholarship on Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which he attributes unquestioningly to its traditional purported author, Jonathan ben Uzziel. But if all that one needs to do in order to settle a matter is quote a text based on its traditional authorship, then one can simply quote the Gospels back at him, to say nothing of the Testimonium Flavianum!

It is incredibly ironic that Carrier wrote the following, foreseeing this possible line of objection:

Perhaps a hard nosed doubter would then say that this text has been tampered with and that this isn’t how it originally read in Jonathan’s autograph. That would be a pretty desperate claim, there being no evidence of it, and its conjecture serves only to avoid a conclusion that we have already seen other evidence proves obvious.

If Carrier keeps to this line of reasoning, accepting the authenticity and antiquity of texts unless there is clear manuscript evidence of tampering, then that will close down lines of argument that are popular with certain mythicist bloggers and commentators.

But let us get to the heart of the matter. Carrier emphasizes that the Book of Daniel features a messiah who dies. Consultation of any mainstream critical commentary would have drawn to his attention that the Book of Daniel contains pseudoprophecy in its second half, and that the predictions of an anointed one being cut off is considered a reference to the high priest Onias III being deposed and later assassinated.

The most important thing to note is that Daniel provides evidence of a text that refers to a priestly anointed one being killed, based on actual events in which an anointed one was killed. How is that going to serve to bolster the case for mythicism?

Carrier then goes on to ask whether various figures mentioned by Josephus could have been trying to get themselves killed, expecting that their deaths could have atoned for Israel’s sins. He suggests that Jesus and Christianity do not seem nearly as unique against the background of such figures.

This is indeed true if Jesus was just another figure seeking to die in the way Carrier suggests. It is equally clearly not true if, unlike these other movements, no historical Jesus existed.

I wonder whether Carrier’s “case” here will seem better or worse to readers than the one offered recently by Neil Godfrey, in which a lengthy discussion by Dale Allison is summarized, only to be dismissed on the basis of the fact that Godfrey is already persuaded that an ambiguous phrase in 1 Corinthians 2:8 refers to celestial beings. But as actual scholarly commentators have discussed often, a probable background for Paul’s language can be found in Baruch 3, where the topic is the same one he is talking about in 1 Corinthians 2 and many other parts of the letter: Wisdom. Baruch reads:

But who has found out where she lives, who has entered her treasure house? Where now are the leaders of the nations and those who ruled even the beasts of earth, those who sported with the birds of heaven, those who accumulated silver and gold on which all people rely, and whose possessions had no end, those who worked so carefully in silver -but of whose works no trace is to be found? They have vanished, gone down to Sheol. Others have risen to their places, more recent generations have seen the day and peopled the earth in their turn, but the way of knowledge they have not found…

See also Gordon Fee’s treatment of the linguistic evidence, indicating that the term translated “rulers” in the possibly pseudo-Pauline Colossians and Ephesians, where celestial entities are arguably in view, is different from the term used for “rulers” here, and is never applied to celestial powers (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians p.104 n.24).

It is not impossible that some day, someone will actually try to make a serious scholarly case for mythicism. But what has been offered so far is not at all impressive.

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