The Jesus Myth? A Response to Richard Carrier (Part 1)
On Feb. 21, 2013 I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Richard Carrier, popular author and internet atheist, for the second time at UNC Greensboro. The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics club invited him to present his case for why the historical Jesus never really existed and is actually only a myth. In Dr. Carrier's defense, I understand that he could not present a solid and complete case for his thesis in an hour long presentation. While much of what Dr. Carrier said sounds completely farfetched, and indeed would not be taken seriously by virtually any scholar in the field, sans those on the very fringes, his ideas still need a response. This particular response will certainly not be the best one you can find or possibly present yourself. Nonetheless, I have been wanting, and promising, to offer my thoughts for a while now. I appreciate those who have studied this area of scholarship in much more detail than myself and who have shared their thoughts, many from which I will be gleaning.
The interesting thing about Dr. Carrier’s argument is that he does not think Christianity simply copied other pagan religions. Such a notion is very popular right now, and Dr. Carrier rightly points out that those arguments are fairly easily refuted. Rather, he argues that Christianity is simply another mythology that followed the same developmental lines as other mythologies and pagan religions. Hence, I think Dr. Carrier’s argument requires a slightly different response than a response to something like the Zeitgeist viral video which takes the more popular copycat theory approach (good responses to this video can be found HERE and HERE).
Dr. Carrier's main thesis is, "Jesus was the name of a celestial being, subordinate to God, with whom some people hallucinated conversations. The Gospel began as a mythic allegory about the celestial Jesus, set on earth, as most myths then were." He compares Muhammad’s alleged “hallucinations” of the angel Gabriel which resulted in Islam and Joseph Smith’s alleged “hallucinations” of the angel Moroni which resulted in Mormonism to the stories of Jesus interacting with the disciples. He claims Jesus was originally a “celestial being” like Gabriel or Moroni with which people “hallucinated” experiences. Later, the Jesus stories were placed in the setting of earth, Jesus was said to be a physical person on earth, and people eventually started to believe these stories were true.
Why should we believe this is the case? According to Dr. Carrier, his thesis is credible because Christianity conforms to four trends of pre-Christian religion thus showing the same progression of other myths:
- Syncretism: combining a foreign cult deity with Hellenistic elements
- Monotheism: transforming polytheism into monotheism (via henotheism)
- Individualism: agricultural salvation cults retooled as personal salvation cults
- Cosmopolitanism: all races, cultures, classes admitted as equals, with fictive kinship (members are all “brothers”); you now “join” a religion rather than being born into it1
To be fair, Dr. Carrier doesn’t believe that a conclusive view can be held either way regarding Jesus’ existence, and he admits that he once believed in a historical Jesus. That is all the more reason to begin my critique of his view by pointing out that he approaches the topic of Jesus’ existence from a strong atheistic standpoint. Why does that matter? Obviously, if God doesn’t exist then miracles are not possible. If miracles are not possible then there cannot be a miracle worker. If there are no miracle workers then the Jesus of the Bible is most certainly a myth (regardless of if a historical person named Jesus actually existed). If the Jesus of the Bible is a myth then there was no actual resurrection, and if there was no actual resurrection then Christianity is not true. Thus, it is very easy for Dr. Carrier to be dismissive of biblical claims, anything pointing to the supernatural, and any claim that Christianity is more than mythology. As a classical apologist, I’m convinced the proper way to approach these issues is to start with an understanding of what truth is and then move to the existence of God, miracles, the reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection, etc. so that one is building a step-by-step case for the truthfulness of Christianity. That is not our purpose here, but suffice it to say that there is VERY good evidence supporting each of those steps and that one need not simply be dismissive of miracle claims and the like. With that said, let’s examine a few of the main points Dr. Carrier tries to make.
He began by noting various pagan religions that have evolved into very syncretistic belief systems, meaning over time they accommodated varying beliefs and formed an amalgamation of sorts, some new mutant religion. Dr. Carrier maintains that the same thing happened with Judaism and the Hellenism of the area just before and just after the time of Christ. Thus, he concludes that Christianity is a syncretistic religion of Jewish beliefs and Greek/pagan thought. I don’t recall any real evidence for this assertion, but I will offer a brief response.
Certainly there was accommodation within early Christianity in a linguistic sense. That is, early Christians like Paul used the language, and even pagan beliefs and understandings, in their missionary efforts to build bridges to the Gospel. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 9:22 he became all things to all people for the purpose of winning them to Christ. But as the authors of Reinventing Jesus point out, “The language Paul used is meant to be a point of departure–to show that Christianity is not in any of its essentials like the pagan religions.”2 Similarly, Justin Martyr used pagan myths as an appeal to his readers to believe the Gospel. He was essentially saying, “If you believe these myths, then why do you find the truth we report to be so far fetched?” Once again, however, as the authors of Reinventing Jesus observe, “Never was the gospel altered by such accommodation, however. And in the second century, Justin Martyr went so far as to concede certain parallels between Christianity and pagan religions…a careful reading of Justin shows that at every turn he sees the gospel as ultimately unique and thus superior to pagan religions.”3
In contrast, other early Christians like Tertullian felt such accommodation was wrong and famously conveyed the notion, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” I’m convinced that such an extreme view is wrong. Rather, we should recognize that all truth is God’s truth, and given the fact that we all share a rational nature and we all observe the same reality we should not be surprised that pagan thinkers, like Aristotle for example, offer tremendous philosophical insights that, if true, do not contradict Christian teachings. Rather, any true statement about reality will simply compliment Christian teaching when both are understood correctly.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament would show that Paul and the other Apostles were distinctly Jewish and constantly wrote combating pagan teachings and influences. A direct example would be Paul’s apologetic to the thinkers in Athens in Acts 17 where he appeals to Christ’s resurrection and to Yahweh, the one true transcendent God about whom the Greeks were ignorant. The core beliefs the Apostles taught stand in stark contrast to the overall views of the Greeks and Gnostics, and they were adamant that believers were not to conform to the world (Rom. 12:2), to call upon the name of the Lord/Yahweh alone (Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 8:4, 12:2), to avoid deceptive/bad philosophy (Col. 2:8), to ignore any other “gospel” that others may preach (Gal. 1:8), and to realize that Christ alone is the Jewish Messiah and our only means of salvation (Acts 4:5-12). The New Testament writers refer to Jesus, and tell us Jesus referred to himself, as Yahweh. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus alone is the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the Old Testament. In other words, Judaism, and Christianity as its fulfillment, were anything but syncretistic. Even the Roman senator Pliny the Younger, writing around 96 A.D. tells us that early Christians worshiped Christ as a god and refused to worship Roman gods. It was their refusal of syncretism that often lead to their persecution.
As Dr. Paul Eddy observes HERE, “although the claim that early Christian belief and practice was corrupted by Hellenistic influence is commonly argued by critics of orthodox Christianity, the historical evidence does not support this claim. Rather, like the Judaism from which it arose, the Christian faith rigorously guarded its unique religious identity in the midst of the religious and philosophical diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world.”4 For a bit more on a specific often-alleged example of syncretism, I refer you to THIS Ronald Nash article.
The second trend Dr. Carrier listed is the idea that monotheism, or the belief in one single god, developed from earlier versions of polytheism, or the belief in many gods. Is this true? IF the Bible is true, then such an idea is obviously false. And as I’ve said, I’m thoroughly convinced we have excellent reasons to believe the theistic/monotheistic God exists and that the Bible, and by implication Christianity, is actually true. Certainly, from the very first verse of the Bible, through early Judaism, and into the development of Christianity, monotheism was the explicit belief system. For information on the charge that the early Jews were polytheists, I refer you HERE. But what can we learn from a strictly historical standpoint without going into the arguments for the truthfulness of Christianity?
It turns out, there are good reasons to believe monotheistic belief preceded polytheism. I will not dwell on this a great deal, but I will point you to HERE for a bit more detail of the highlights I’m going to cover.
Many of the views associated with the Jesus myth theory stem from the work of Bruno Bauer in the mid 1800s, John Robertson’s 1900 work Christianity and Mythology, James Frazer’s 1912 work The Golden Bough, more recently the work of G.A. Wells, and, most significantly for Dr. Carrier, Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle. The idea that monotheism “evolved” from more primitive polytheism is no exception. While many of the notions proposed by Jesus myth adherents have been discredited by modern scholarship, their influence still remains. Nevertheless, a look at some of the historical facts (again, not even including the arguments for Christianity) show that presupposed evolutionary ideas about monotheistic religion are unfounded and use anecdotal and fragmentary evidence built around the assumed notion of monotheism’s evolution.
Aside from the biblical accounts, the Syrian Ebla tablets (c. 2500-2250 B.C.) predate any other written material by centuries and provide some of the earliest information about primitive beliefs we’ve discovered.5 Among other things, the tablets say, “Lord of heaven and earth, the earth was not, you created it, the light of day was not, you created it, the morning light you had not made exist.”6 Many of the things the tablets convey are quite similar to the records of the Bible.
In addition, John Mbiti studied 300 traditional African religions and concluded, “In all these societies, without a single exception, people have a notion of God as the Supreme Being.”7 This seems to be true the world over. It is therefore just as likely, and probably more so, that polytheism is in fact a degraded monotheism, an idea proposed by people like anthropologist W. Schmidt. Speaking of Schmidt’s work, the famed liberal-turned-conservative biblical archeologist Dr. William F. Albright commented, “There can no longer be any doubt that Fr. Schmidt has successfully disproved the simple evolutionary progression…fetishism—polytheism—monotheism, or Tylor’s animism—polytheism—monotheism…The simple fact is that religious phenomena are so complex in origin and so fluid in nature that over-simplification is more misleading in the field of religion than perhaps anywhere else.”8 Thus, taken as a whole, the evidence seems to point to the belief in a single deity as the most primitive.
There is much more to say, and I will post the remainder of my thoughts in the days to come.
1. Dr. Carrier's entire presenation PowerPoint can be seen here: http://www.richardcarrier.info/Historicity_of_Jesus.pdf
2. J. Ed Komoszewski;M. James Sawyer;Daniel Wallace. Reinventing Jesus (Kindle Locations 2197-2198). Kindle Edition
3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 2215-2219
5. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999, p. 208
6. Ibid., p. 497
8. Ibid., p. 261
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