Friday, September 21, 2018

Minimal mythicism

A review of "On the Historicity of Jesus" by Richard Carrier 

This is a massive tome by Richard Carrier, arguing that Jesus didn't exist – a position known as “mythicism”. It's still something of a fringe belief in academia. The standard position is here referred to as “historicism”. Most Christians are historicists, but also many secular scholars. Thus, Bart Ehrman (a well known NT scholar and atheist) argues that Jesus was a real historical person whose message was similar to that recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. As an atheist, Ehrman of course rejects the miracle stories and the resurrection. However, the man Jesus himself was just as real as, say, Pontius Pilate or John the Baptist (who everyone agrees were real people). Carrier wishes to go much further. If mythicism is real, Jesus was a wholly fictive person/entity and belongs in the same category as Osiris, Dionysius or Hercules. Carrier's project is to make mythicism academically respectable. In this, I believe he succeeds eminently well. Regardless of what you think of his conclusions (or his constant use of based mathematical theorems to demonstrate probabilities for historical events), this book deserves a detailed response from the likes of Ehrman or competent Christian scholars such as N T Wright. Nor is it the only work by Carrier on the subject. Most people familiar with this debate would have read “Not the Impossible Faith” (his response to a particularly nutty Christian apologist) or Carrier's articles in the collections edited by John Loftus.

There are many anomalies in the New Testament. Thus, the Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels, even on very basic facts. The epistles of Paul contain very little (if any) information on the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Paul seems strangely oblivious to the Gospel traditions, even when it would have suited him (thus, he never quotes Jesus on clean/unclean food – a central issue explicitly addressed in the Gospels). Even stranger, the epistles attributed to Peter, James, Jude and John contain just as little information. The epistle to the Hebrews (a very early work) sounds like a theological treatise, once again saying very little about the carpenter from Nazareth and his concrete ministry. Various solutions to these anomalies are possible from a historicist viewpoint, but there is still something distinctly odd about Paul almost never referring to the Gospel traditions with their information about the sayings and deeds of a historical Jesus. Why didn't Paul knew Q, M, L, Proto-Thomas or the Signs Gospel, which presumably all existed during the time he wrote his letters? It's also odd that Paul was accepted as an apostle at all, since he only met Jesus in a vision and had very little contact with the Christians in Judea for about 14 years afterwards. The most peculiar anomaly is a tradition recorded by notorious heresy-hunter Epiphanius (it's also found in the Talmud), according to which Jesus lived 100 years BC and was killed by Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus. How could such a tradition even arise, if everyone (even the Gnostics) knew that Jesus had lived (or had appeared to live) during the first century AD?

Carrier believes that these facts are better explained on a mythicist basis than on a historicist one. Other facts pointing to mythicism from Carrier's perspective include early Christian esotericism, similarities between Christianity and the pagan mystery cults, and the fact that virtually the entire Gospel story can be reconstructed from scriptural passages in the Old Testament, Philo, Pseudo-Philo and the Wisdom of Salomon. I'm intrigued by the fact that Carrier believes the OT proves some Jews awaited a dying-resurrecting Messiah. He quotes Daniel's prophecy of 70 weeks at this point (note that this is actually the *Christian* position on Daniel!). In contrast to more extreme esotericists and conspiracy theorists on the web, Carrier places less reliance on supposed Pythagorean numerological codes in the NT, Zodiacal symbolism, Egyptian parallels and the like. He does note the curious fact that “Jesus” means “Savior”, that the robber Barabbas was actually named Jesus bar Abbas (“Jesus Son of the Father”), or the improbable names of many other NT characters.

Carrier dubs his position “minimal mythicism”. He doesn't say the early Christians didn't believe a Jesus existed at all. Rather, they had a position similar to that found in the original un-redacted version of “The Ascension of Isaiah”, sprinkled with some ideas from Philo. Jesus was the name of God's Logos and/or a powerful archangel in Heaven. This Jesus took on a human-like body and descended to the sub-lunar sphere (“outer space” in Carrier's somewhat provocative formulation), where he was killed by Satan and his demons. Jesus then rose from the dead and ascended back to Heaven. The sub-lunar sphere is a kind of “twin world” to Earth. Every material object down here is a copy of perfect archetypes in the sub-lunar realm. Thus, an actual murder through crucifixion is possible in this region of “outer space”. Paul, Peter and other apostles then got information about this event (similar to the death and resurrection of Osiris) by divine revelation. Exegesis of OT, Philo and other texts provided corroborative evidence (or perhaps triggered the visions in the first place). This explains why the epistles are so strangely silent about the historical man Jesus, except in bare outline. That's because no historical man existed, while the outline is based on a cosmic event known only through visions and scripture. Jesus was historicized by the Gospel writers several generations later, but the original message lived on as an esoteric teaching (compare Clement of Alexandria and Origen) until that too was suppressed or forgotten, leaving only different versions of historicism and literalism.

Carrier's reconstruction of the original Christian faith is, of course, very speculative. Still, it's not *entirely* off the wall either. I think every single element can be demonstrated to have existed at the time, or sometime earlier. It's the synthesis that makes Carrier's work so daring to many (and the mathematical equations). Personally, I'm actually somewhat surprised that no known religious group has the exact message Carrier attributes to early Christianity. Some Christians do believe in a “twin world” of archetypes, sometimes interpreted in a sophisticated intellectual way (Franz von Baader), sometimes not (Seraphim Rose – who apparently believed the Garden of Eden is still up there). The idea of a descent through different spheres is found in Rudolf Steiner, while Annie Besant believed Jesus lived 100 BC. There are also those who see Jesus and/or Mary as incarnated angels, or believe that Jesus restored an original form of Judaism which (to a disinterested observer, at any rate) looks more “pagan”. Margaret Barker believes that *Jesus himself* got revelations of a cosmic drama, in which his earthly ministry and passion were to become central tenets. C S Lewis famously said that Jesus was the “real” mystery god, while all the others were just premonitions. And yet, all these thinkers still operate on the assumption that Jesus was a historically real person! Perhaps Tolkien came closest, with his statement that “the Gospels are myths created by God to save humanity”. But then, Tolkien probably had a very different epistemology than Carrier (or most modern Christians), not making a clear-cut distinction between the real and the mythological, so he doesn't entirely fit either. In an ironic way, this may be the best argument against Carrier: the fact that nobody have come up with it before, shows it's extremely improbable… ;-)

That being said, I was nevertheless fascinated by this work (and the copious footnotes) and will probably follow some of the leads further in the future. Regardless of how the present dispensation ends, I think Dr Richard Carrier has provided us with the definite statement of mythicism. Five stars.

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