Richard Carrier, Jesus, and Heracles

Richard Carrier, Jesus, and Heracles May 1, 2013

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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