Jesus scholarship is often…
“a disguise to do theology and call it history, do autobiography and call it biography, do Christian apologetics and call it academic scholarship.” John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
I’ve read a lot of Richard Carrier’s work, but very little on his case for the mythicism of Jesus. This is partly because I have very little time, and partly because I haven’t seen it as particularly important to the project of atheism in general, and even to the deconstruction of the foundations of Christianity. The most major book of Carrier’s on the subject that I have read is the very good Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, which wasn’t particularly about mythicism per se, but the application of Bayes’s Theorem to historical analysis. (Of course, this was the methodological groundwork to his further academic projects.)
I think I am going to start reading more into it, and here’s for why.
My case is that Jesus was probably (intuitively a 2/3rds probability, but that’s pretty much plucked out of the air as a figure to represent my gut feeling) a real, historical figure. What do I mean by “real, historical figure”? Well, not all that much: all we can and do know about Jesus is that he was an itinerant preacher from Nazareth who was crucified in Jerusalem. That’s the sum total content of my historicism.
Everything else we read in the Gospels is mythological and theological overlay. Most atheists, even as historicists, would tend to agree with this. Therefore, the actual differences between historicists and mythicists are very small. Mythicists just add a few more claims into the myth folder.
Carrier, himself, reverses my intuitive probability with a far more technically-derived probability of 2/3rds mythicism, 1/3rd my brand of historicism. Both accounts are plausible, just that he sees his mythicism as more plausible.
But here’s the thing, even if my brand of historicism is true, an adherent (as well as Christians) would still need to explain an awful lot of fascinating mythicist data that sticks out like a sore thumb. And this is the value in Carrier’s work: even if you are not convinced of full mythicism, his array of arguments and points still need to be dealt with, and grappling with those arguments is hugely damaging for the sort of historicism that Christians adhere to. Carrier’s arguments smash the foundations of Christianity to bits even if you are unconvinced by the full account of mythicism.
And then when you take his deconstruction of Daniel into account, you are left with very little indeed.
I just want to take a little look at a few points Carrier makes in a really good interview he did with the Dragons in Genesis Podcast. Let’s take a couple of points that I just think are worth discussing.
First, it is worth knowing about how contemporaneous Jews understood the heavens and Earth (which gives the name to his latest book Jesus from Outer Space [UK]). They believed, generally, that the world was spherical, that the planets revolved around us, and that the heavens existed in firmaments above Earth – seven levels thereof. There was a kind of Platonic cave scenario where perfect versions of the things on Earth existed in the firmaments. There were hidden castles where Satan and his demons hung out, with the seventh heaven being where God resided with the higher order of angels. This can be seen in the Ascension of Isaiah, the Book of Hebrews, 2 Enoch and so on. The best version, the best form of everything on Earth existed in heaven, as mentioned, and this even included the Temple.
This was different from the beliefs of a disc-Earth at the time of the writing of Genesis and Exodus.
In this later cosmology, there was the Fall of Satan, where Satan and his legion of angels were kicked out and fell to the firmament that reached to the moon, and they brought about sin and whatnot. God would need to defeat the magic and undo the hold of Satan.
One way of doing this was with blood magic. Traditionally, this was done with burnt offerings and animal sacrifices that we see littered throughout the Hebrew Bible. Yom Kippur is the still incredibly important annual Jewish festival that does this. But Christianity sought to replace the goats and other such annualised animal sacrifices with Jesus as its own beliefs replaced (in a syncretic way) the existing Jewish beliefs. Jesus’ sacrifice and resulting eucharist was the new ritual, as I set out in my book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] – Jesus becomes one of the Yom Kippur goats.
Here, Hebrew 9 helps us out:
Redemption Through the Blood of Christ
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our[g] conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Also see Hebrews 10 and 13. For example, Hebrews 13 continues:
10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
The magic atonement effect of Jesus is eternal, not annual, and is obtained by his perfect blood, not the poor reflections of Earthly animal blood.
Of course, if (as a modern person) you were given this proper context and beliefs about atonement, sacrifice and even the cannibalistic ritualism of transubstantiation, you would rightly think this was mythical claptrap.
Mythical saviour cults
There was serious precedent for passion narratives contemporaneously, arising before Christianity. A saviour diety – a child of a god – suffers and saves humanity – always called a “passion”, too. Each follower will be ascended into heaven or whatever form of salvation they had. It always included the brotherhood of fictive kinship. None of these figures was historical – they were mythical though placed in historical contexts. Christianity is just another one of these cults.
This happened in Persia, Assyria, Greece and Egypt. Egypt holds the Osiris cult. Osiris was a celestial deity, a non-historical mythical figure, though he later is imagined to have been an actual mystical, historical Pharaoh.
Not only does Plutarch say Osiris returned to life and was recreated, exact terms for resurrection (anabiôsis and paliggenesia: On Isis and Osiris 35; see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and also describe his physically returning to earth after his death (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19), but the physical resurrection of Osiris’s corpse is explicitly described in pre-Christian pyramid inscriptions!
Plutarch writes that “Osiris came to Horus from the other world and exercised and trained him for the battle,” and taught him lessons, and then “Osiris consorted with Isis after his death and she became the mother of Harpocrates.” It’s hard to get more explicit than that. Contrary to Ehrman, there is no mention of Osiris not being in his resurrected body at that point. To the contrary, every version of his myth has him revive only after Isis reassembles and reanimates his corpse. As Plutarch says, “the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but his body Typhon oftentimes dismembers and causes to disappear, and that Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again” (On Isis and Osiris 54).
And indeed, carved on the walls of the pyramids centuries before Christianity began were the declarations of the goddess Isis (or Horus, or their agents), “I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs…raise thyself up, king, [as for] Osiris; thou livest!” (Pyramid Texts 1684a-1685a and 1700, = Utterance 606; cf. Utterance 670); “Raise thyself up; shake off thy dust; remove the dirt which is on thy face; loose thy bandages!” (Pyramid Texts 1363a-b, = Utterance 553); “[As for] Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (Pyramid Texts 207b-209a and 2010b-2011a, = Utterance 676). That sure sounds like a physical resurrection of Osiris’s body to me. (As even confirmed by the most recent translation of James P. Allen, cf. pp. 190, 224-25, 272. The spells he clarifies are sung to and about the resident Pharaoh, but in the role of Osiris, receiving the same resurrection as Osiris, e.g. “there has been done for me what was done for my father Osiris on the day of tying bones together, of making functional the feet,” “do for him that which you did for his brother Osiris on the day,” etc.)
Plutarch goes on to explicitly state that this resurrection on earth (set in actual earth history) in the same body he died in (reassembled and restored to life) was the popular belief, promoted in allegorical tales by the priesthood—as was also the god’s later descent to rule Hades. But the secret “true” belief taught among the initiated priesthood was that Osiris becomes incarnate, dies, and rises back to life every year in a secret cosmic battle in the sublunar heavens. So in fact, contrary to Ehrman (who evidently never actually read any of the sources on this point), Plutarch says the belief that Osiris went to Hades was false (On Isis and Osiris 78); and yet even in that “public” tale, Osiris rules in Hades in his old body of flesh, restored to life. Hence still plainly resurrected. But as Plutarch explains (On Isis and Osiris 25-27 & 54 and 58), the esoteric truth was that the god’s death and resurrection occurs in sublunar space, after each year descending and taking on a mortal body to die in; and that event definitely involved coming back to life in a new superior body, in which Osiris ascends to a higher realm to rule from above, all exactly as was said of the risen Jesus (who no more remained on earth than Osiris did). The only difference is that when importing this into Judaism, which had not a cyclical-eternal but a linear-apocalyptic conception of theological history, they converted the god’s dying-and-rising to a singular apocalyptic event.
And that’s just Osiris. Clearly raised from the dead in his original, deceased body, restored to life; visiting people on earth in his risen body; and then ruling from heaven above. And that directly adjacent to Judea, amidst a major Jewish population in Alexandria, and popular across the whole empire. But as Plutarch said in On the E at Delphi 9, many religions of his day “narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections.” Not just that one. Plutarch names Dionysus as but an example (and by other names “Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes“). And we know for a fact this Dionysus wasn’t the only example Plutarch would have known. Plutarch only names him because he was so closely associated with Osiris, and the most famous.
This cosmic story of battling the Egyptian Satanic forces is startlingly similar to Carrier’s evaluation of Christianity:
“This is very close to what I think the early Christians did with Jesus. They imagined something similar happened: that Jesus came down to the cloud castles of Satan and was wearing a body of flesh, specifically tricked Satan into killing him and then because of the death of the mortal flesh, release the blood magic that allowed him to resurrect, to ascend to heaven and gain conquest over death – the power over death – that he can now share with all his followers. Just like the Osiris cult and all these other saviour cults.
So this is very common – this idea of having the real teaching is this celestial event and the fake teaching that you trick people with or teach people with (use it as a teaching tool) is fiction. There is no actual guy walking around on Earth but we’re going to tell you stories about a guy walking around on Earth in order to communicate the values and the message and the beliefs that we want. So that was very normal, and like I said, Egypt has a very classic model of it that looks very similar to what I think the first Jews did that invented Christianity.
And there were Christians who claimed none of the supposedly historical Christian claims really happened. We hear from Ignatius (and 2 Peter) that there were contemporaneous mythicist Christians who had books to expound their beliefs. But since the historicists won out, rather like with Celsus, we no longer have the primary evidence as this was purged. But they definitely existed.
What does this tell us? Mythicism is not “right out” as a fringe belief because:
- There were contemporaneous Christians who believed in an ahistorical Jesus.
- There was cultural, geographical, contemporaneous precedence for such mythical divine beliefs and saviour cults.
- The Jesus cult was late to the game and looked to have conveniently gleaned from those that came before.
What better explains different contextual placements of Jesus’ sacrifice?
Certain Jewish sects thought Jesus existed 100 years earlier and was crucified by the Greeks, as we can glean from the Babylonian Talmud and the writing of Epiphanius:
…several other scholars have discussed the sources that place Jesus in the reign of Jannaeus in the 70s B.C. Ehrman seems to think (and represents to his readers) that G.A. Wells just made this up (pp. 247-51). In fact, Wells is discussing a theory defended by others, and based in actual sources: Epiphanius, in Panarion 29, says there was a sect of still-Torah-observant Christians who taught that Jesus lived and died in the time of Jannaeus, and all the Jewish sources on Christianity that we have (from the Talmud to the Toledot Yeshu) report no other view than that Jesus lived during the time of Jannaeus. Though these are all early medieval sources, it nevertheless means there were actual Christians teaching this and that the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity.
This is indeed a strange curiosity, since it is hard to explain how a religion that taught from its inception a Jesus who lived and died under the Romans, and Pontius Pilate specifically, could ever evolve a sect that placed him a hundred years earlier, or how this sect could become so ubiquitous east of the Roman Empire that the Jews there had not heard of any other. Make of that what you will.
In this account, Jesus is stoned to death and then hung on a tree in Joppa at the hands of the Seleucids (the Hellenised rulers). So some Christians outside the influence of the Roman Empire put Jesus a hundred years earlier under Greek rule.
This had to have come from somewhere. Carrier stays that you have two options:
- Either they decided to move what period Jesus lived or died in. This is an odd thing to do. Or…
- Both groups (orthodox, Roman Empire-based Christians, and these others evidenced in the Babylonian Talmud) are separately deciding where to place Jesus’ life and execution.
Option 2. is best explained by mythicism, Carrier argues, since they could place Jesus whenever and wherever they wanted, fitting with what was politically expedient.
These are just tidbits to get your teeth into. I will discuss plenty more in coming weeks and months, no doubt. Am I a mythicist? No. Am I an anti-mythicist? No. I think it’s plausible and am willing to entertain the idea and even change my mind. There is so much animus within atheism between historicists and mythicists that surprises me. At the end of the day, all of the important parts of the New Testament – the theology and almost all the claims of Jesus – are mythical. I think most of my atheistic readers would agree with that, irrespective of what side of the fence they sit on.
I think good, quality work and discussions regarding Jesus mythicism bring up a host of interesting points and important analysis that should work with “traditional” critical approaches as a two-pronged strategy to shake the foundations away from the religious, theological edifice of Christianity.
I have Carrier’s recent book on order and look forward to reading it.
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