A Look at Richard Carrier’s Critique of Bart Ehrman: Part One

Well, we now have the ability to read hyper-skeptic Richard Carrier’s new post called Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic which shows nothing but mostly scorn for  the new Bart Ehrman book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Carrier had already attempted to trash Ehrman’s Huffington Post article a few weeks back. See Carrier’s article here: By the way, to see the article we did featuring some quotes on the existence of Jesus, see here:

One thing about Richard Carrier is that he is a big hit with the young skeptical crowd.  And being that I have dealt with college students in a campus ministry we do at Ohio State University here in Columbus, Ohio, I figure I would go ahead and respond to some of these comments by Carrier. While I have never met Carrier, I have met Ehrman. We were the host of  a debate we did a couple of years ago that he did for us here at Ohio State.  Even though I don’t agree with Bart on certain issues, I do like him. As far as Carrier, I have read some of his works. I own the book the Empty Tomb where he contributed an essay. I also own the book he always refers people to called  Not The Impossible Faith which was a book he wrote in response to James Patrick Holding’s The Impossible Faith.

After reading Carrier’s review of the Ehrman article in the Huffington Post, I popped in on his blog and had some exchanges with him. It was pretty evident to me that he was thoroughly ticked with Ehrman for calling out the Jesus myth crowd.  Anyway, I want to go ahead and address some of the issues on Carrier’s  work  to assure his faithful flock that the he and the Jesus myth crowd are still right and that Ehrman has written a book that is just plain wrong about a lot of things. Keep in mind, I do respect Carrier. But in the end,  I am not sure who really wins these kinds of debates.  I say this because I am a big believer in the comments here by Dale Allison:

“It is our worldview that interprets the textual data, not the textual data that determines our worldview.” Resurrecting Jesus Christ: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T & T Clark, 2005), p. 342.

Anyway, on with the first point:

#1: The Dying and Rising God Issue:  

I choose to deal with this one first because I have had some interaction with Carrier on his blog about it. Keep in mind, I don’t have my doctorate yet. I have one M.A. and am trying to finish another one.  But one thing I do have is an extensive background in the first century setting of early Christianity. I have been teaching and serving in a Messianic congregation for almost 20 years. I have read quite a few texts on the early formation of our faith and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. I also teach at a place called The Messianic Studies Institute  where I have also had the privilege of sitting under people like Craig Evans, Craig Keener, and Oskar Skarsaune who’s book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity is a must read for any student of early Christianity.

Anyway, one of key tenants of the Jesus mythers has always been to show some sort of religious syncretism about the early Christian faith. In other words, the historical records of the life of Jesus are examples of religious plagiarism. People such as Carrier who hold to this view automatically assume the New Testament witness to Jesus is false. Then they punt to the myths/mystery religions to explain the problems in the New Testament. If I had a five dollar bill for every time I have seen this on the internet or heard it on a college campus, I would be rich.

So what Carrier and others posit is that  the Jesus story was borrowed from influence of myths about Osiris (a.k.a. Tammuz, Adonis) or divine–human figures like Hercules.

So Carrier says the following about the problem with Ehrman’s work:

“Ehrman insists that in fact “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods)” (p. 26). He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false. In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).

A Response to Carrier:

First, Carrier is mistaken in that Ehrman solely relies on one person such as Jonathan Z. Smith. Ehrman mentions a couple of others-Mark Smith and T.N.G. Mettinger’s The Riddle of the Resurrection, (see more below).  When I first interacted with Carrier about this issue I asked him if he had read the book The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy.  In response, while he said he read it,  he also said their book was radical and not mainstream. He also said they can’t be trusted. So I found this to be interesting. After all, a book that has laid out the entire method  behind the Jesus myth issue and does a nice job of showing the problems with it is radical and not mainstream? What counts as not being radical and not mainstream?  Carrier also said that Glen Miller’s well researched article was off base as well.

Anyway, I guess Smith is just completely wrong. After all, what does Jonathan Smith know about such a topic? (See the Miller article  that discusses what Smith said about this issue) But even if Smith is wrong, I don’t think we are entirely dependent on him.  But what is more interesting, in relation to the Osiris issue is that Carrier said the following in a review of the Till-McFall debate:

“First of all, as their able arguments show, doubt can be thrown on both cases: there is no certain answer known to us today regarding what anyone really believed about Osiris in the time of Christ. This is all the more so since the only sources cited by both challengers are either ancient (preceding even Classical Greek literature) or very unreliable. This is most damning in the case of Plutarch, who was a rabid Platonist with an obvious and explicit disdain for popular religion. He is well known for rewriting and distorting facts to suit his genteel Greek sensibilities and his unabashedly Platonist dogmas, and he actually says many times that he has dismissed or omitted much out of disgust with popular notions. Yet Christianity arose from the illiterate masses, and waited quite a long time before scholars of any note took interest in it. Thus, Plutarch’s views could be worlds away from anything the Osiris worshippers, or the earliest would-be Christians, may have known or believed. This source problem only compounds what is already evident from the Till-McFall exchange: the evidence can legitimately be interpreted in many different ways.”

So my question to Carrier is what is the truth here? Can we know anything about Osiris? Was he even an historical figure? And what evidence do you really have that the Jews at the time of Jesus hacked the Jesus story from an ancient Egyptian god of the dead? As Ehrman says, “Anyone who says Jesus was modeled after such deities needs to cite some evidence–any evidence at all–that Jews in Palestine at the alleged time of Jesus’s life were influenced by anyone who held such views.” pg, 230.

Carrier goes on to say:

“So regarding the death and resurrection of Osiris, Ehrman states what is in fact false. And this is most alarming because much of his case against mythicism rests on this false assertion. But worse, Ehrman foolishly eats his foot again by hyperbolically generalizing to all possible gods (he repeatedly insists there are no dying-and-rising gods in the Hellenistic period).”

Which is really bad, because that proves he did no research on this subject whatever. I shouldn’t have to adduce passages such as, from Plutarch, “[about] Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes, they narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections” (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi 9.388f-389a). That looks pretty cut and dried to me. But it’s worse than that. Because for Romulus and Zalmoxis we undeniably have pre-Christian evidence that they actually die (on earth) and are actually raised from the dead (on earth) and physically visit their disciples (on earth). And likewise for Inanna, a clear-cut death-and-resurrection tale exists on clay tablets a thousand years before Christianity (she dies and rises in hell, but departs from and returns to the world above all the same).”

A Response:

So we have Romulus and Zalmoxis as pre-Christian evidence that they actually die (on earth) and are actually raised from the dead (on earth) and physically visit their disciples (on earth). And likewise for Inanna? Once again, how relevant is this? Maybe he can point out that Ehrman forgot to cite these, etc. But I still could ask the Miller questions (see below).  And once again, as Ehrman says, ” “Anyone who says Jesus was modeled after such deities needs to cite some evidence–any evidence at all–that Jews in Palestine at the alleged time of Jesus’s life were influenced by anyone who held such views.” pg, 230.

Also, since Carrier is an expert historian he knows that Plutarch was not even born until  after Jesus’ resurrection. I already pointed out Carrier’s  other comments about Plutarch above. But once again, Carrier desperately is trying to find some sort of dying and rising god motif that the early Jewish believers in Jesus borrowed or invented the Jesus story from.

Furthermore, we should remember what N.T. Wright calls a “ Jewish covenantal monotheism.” I would venture to say that Paul who was a very competent rabbi  and who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin, was familar with the following:

The Hebrew Bible forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). Religious Jews knew of these pagan myths and found them abhorrent (Ez. 8. 14–15). This is probably why there are references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). The Jews regard Gentiles as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23).  Second,  Paul’s Eddy’s article called Was Early Christianity Corrupted by ‘Hellenism’? is very helpful here.  To see an overview of Paul’s theology from  New Dictionary of Theology, see here.

But overall, I just have a difficult time understanding how someone such as a Jew like Paul  who would recite three times daily his nation’s creed, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6.4), would be so quick to base the Jesus story after  some Egyptian god/mythological construct such as Osiris or someone else.  Of all people, Paul knew the Commandments forbade worshipping any person or thing instead of, or as well as, the Lord.

Futhermore, as Miller points out, we need to  look  at the NT authors and ask the basic question of influences:

  • Question One: How would they have come in contact with these religions?
  • Question Two: Why might they have accepted some of these religious ideas (and correspondingly, interpreted Jesus in those categories)?
  • Question Three: What factors would have retarded their acceptance of these foreign-to-Judaism notions?
  • Question Four: Where there any public ‘checks and balances’ that would have hindered publication of these views by the early Christian community, even if a lone NT author would have accepted them?
  • Question Five: What does the literature and/or history they produced tell us about the views they accepted?

T.N.G. Mettinger’s Work

We should also mention something about this issue that is discussed in Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographal Approach:

This info was taken from pages 536-537. It is part of one gigantic footnote. Licona says:

“Perhaps the most recent treatment thorough treatment on the subject of dying and rising gods in the ancient Near East is that of T.N.G. Mettinger’s The Riddle of the Resurrection (2001).

Mettinger states the scholarly consensus lay with the position that there was no clear motif of the dying- and-rising god in antiquity. However, he takes issue with the consensus and argues that his recent research has led him to a different conclusion. “There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the apparent appropriateness of the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient Near Eastern world. Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of almost extinct species. The results of my investigation led me to challenge this scholarly consensus and to disagree with a number of colleagues whom I greatly esteem.” (pg 7).

Licona goes on to say:

“Mettinger’s work is impressive. He argues that there are three fairly clear examples of dying and rising gods in the ancient Near East(Dumuzi, Baal, Melqart) and possibly two others (Eshmun and Adonis). Mettinger arrives at four conclusions as a result of his research:

1. The world of the ancient Near East religions actually knew of a number of deities that may be properly described as dying and rising gods (217).

2. These examples listed “long before the turn of  the Christian era, in pre-Christian times” (217).

3. One could not hypostasize these gods into a specific type ‘the dying and rising god.” On the contrary, the gods mentioned are of very different types, although we have found tendencies to association and syncretism.” (218)

4. The gods that die and rise have close ties to the seasonal cycle of plant life. The summer drought is the time when their earth can mourned ritually. The time after the winter rains and flooding may provide the occasion for the celebration of their return. (219)

What about Jesus as a dying and rising god? Mettinger says the answer is beyond the scope of his study. However, he makes the following notes:

“For the earliest Christians, “the resurrection of Jesus was one-time event, historical event that took place at one specific point in the earth’s topography. The empty tomb was seen as a historical datum (221). Whereas the death and rising gods were loosely related to the seasonal cycle with their death and return were seen as reflected in the changes of plant life. The death and resurrection of Jesus is one-time event, not repeated, and unrelated to seasonal changes…… (221).

The death of Jesus is presented in sources as vicarious suffering as an act of atonement for sins. The myth of Dumuzi has an arrangement with bilocation and substitution, but there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious sufferings for sins” (221). There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites in the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.” (The Riddle of the Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East), 2001, p. 221.

Learning from Lewis

Perhaps we need to take a different approach to Carrier. While this is a last resort it does have some merit. This is a similar approach that C.S. Lewis took quite some time ago with the myth issue. Boyd and Eddy point this out in The Jesus Legend, pg 161:

The differences we find between the mythic saviors and the Jesus of the New Testament are precisely what we would expect to find if the Jesus story  in The New Testament is grounded in history. As Lewis said:

“The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately….It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in the first- century Palestine.”

Boyd and Eddy go on to say, “So from this vantage point, Lewis argued that Jesus was “Myth became Fact.” In Jesus, “ the essential meanings of all things came down from ‘heaven’ of myth to the ‘earth’ of history.” The dreams of finding salvation in the so-called dying and rising god are perfectly expressed, and become historically true, in the New Testament story of Jesus Christ.”- pg 161.

In the end, I think Carrier is grasping for straws.  But  I seriously doubt much will change his mind. Ehrman was right to tackle this issue because it is one of the foundational points of the entire Jesus myth issue.  I just so happen (and others as well)   find it to be one of the weakest links in the chain.

To see Part Two- click here:


10 thoughts on “A Look at Richard Carrier’s Critique of Bart Ehrman: Part One”

  1. Of course, since Carrier is an expert historian, he knows that Plutarch was not even born until long after Jesus’ resurrection.

    Doesn’t he say that he knows that in the article? Doesn’t he cite scholarship which finds that the phenomena described by Plutarch dates back much earlier. Let’s not pretend that you have identified some shortcoming here.

    Anyway, I guess Smith is just completely wrong. After all, what does Jonathan Smith know about such a topic?

    Why guess? After all, Carrier told you why he thought Smith was wrong. Why not tell us about the research you did to confirm whether what Carrier said was right?

    I read Carrier’s responses to your challenges and they appeared to be well thought out and well supported. Didn’t he address the substance of your arguments in detail and explain the problems with the sources you cited?

  2. Hey Vinny,

    I guess I can count on you to comment on this. First of all, as I said, regarding Plutarch, Carrier seems to contradict himself in his article on Ehrman (see the review he did of the Till debate). As far as Smith, you can see what Smith said in the Glen Miller link. Most of it is there. I also mentioned Mettinger’s work on this. Did you read that? Not that I want to read book reviews, but take a look at the comments on it on Amazon. In reality, there is just not a ton of sources for this info (the dying and rsiing god motif). Even if Smith is wrong, I don’t think it matters. You can try to find all kinds of motifs. Even if you found one, it does not even mean they are historical figures. Secondly, as Miller points out (I wrote above)..

    We need to look at the NT authors and ask the basic question of influences.
    •Question One: How would they have come in contact with these religions?
    •Question Two: Why might they have accepted some of these religious ideas (and correspondingly, interpreted Jesus in those categories)?
    •Question Three: What factors would have retarded their acceptance of these foreign-to-Judaism notions?
    •Question Four: Where there any public ‘checks and balances’ that would have hindered publication of these views by the early Christian community, even if a lone NT author would have accepted them?
    •Question Five: What does the literature and/or history they produced tell us about the views they accepted?

    Carrier will now throw a hypothesis out there to answer these questions by Miller. But it is pure speculation.

    Have you really studied Second Temple Judaism? Also, the Lewis comments are worth taking seriously.

  3. Eric,

    The issue for me isn’t whether Carrier can prove that syncretism produced the belief in the belief in the resurrection. The issue is whether Ehrman accurately and fairly represented the current state of scholarship on dying and rising gods during the relevant time period. Without an accurate picture of that, it becomes more difficult for me to evaluate the arguments. If I am less well informed on the topic after reading Did Jesus Exist?, the book is worse than useless. Nothing in your exchange with Carrier leads me to believe that he was incorrect about Ehrman’s inaccuracies.

  4. Vinny, I know Ehrman is going to respond to Carrier (on his new blog). I am responding how I would deal with Carrier. Ehrman can do what he wants to do. But I don’t really see how Carrier offers much in his response to Ehrman. So when you keep saying I don’t offer any correction to Carrier, I guess I will just say “Oh well.”

    As I said, Carrier jumps to the Osiris issue in Plutarch. But he has already contradicted himself a bit on that one. He then mentions Romulus and Zalmoxis and Inanna. Well so what? For me, this is pretty worthless. I would still ask the questions Miller asked. For you, the syncretism issue is not the pressing question. But for Carrier and his myth hypothesis, he tries to point these things out because he is emphatic about the syncretism issue. If you find the Ehrman book to be not helpful in that area, read Mettinger’s work (as I mentioned above).

  5. Eric,

    Since this post purports to be a response to Carrier’s review of Ehrman’s book, I thought it might be relevant whether Carrier accurately identifies the book’s shortcomings. I guess I should have known better.

  6. Vinny, I am not sure what is hard to understand here. I just went over one ascpet of Carrier’s review of the book- the dying and rising god motif…the Osiris issue. I don’t think Carrier has identified a shortcoming here because of his comments before on the topic and other issues as well. In other words, Ehrman is justified in pointing out the shortcomings of the dying and rising god motif issue.

  7. So you think that Ehrman’s statements about the scholarly opinion concerning Osiris and dying and rising gods were accurate?

  8. I think Ehrman could of of given more info on it. But I think he is still justified in pointing out the weakness of the entire hypothesis of the dying and rsing god motif. If he had mentioned what Carrier said about Plutarch, why would it really matter? Look what Carrier says about the Plutarch issue in his comments on the Till debate. And then you have the same problems again that I have already mentioned in the post. So if your whole worry is that whether Ehrman gave enough info on it or not it is not an issue for me. There is not a whole lot of info on these pagan/myth deities, etc… And I think it is silly for Carrier to try to use that as some sort of defeater. I am more interersted in why he insists on some sort of religious syncretism which is not an issue for you. I will have some more posts this topic. But perhaps you should look to Bart’s response soon.

  9. Here’s the point Eric, and it’s the difference between scholarship and apologetics. After I read Misquoting Jesus, I was capable of following reasonably sophisticated discussions of textual criticism, asking intelligent questions, and recognizing the difference between someone who knew there stuff and someone who was bluffing. That is to me the mark of a good scholar, he gives his readers an accurate picture of the arguments and evidence on both sides of a question regardless of whether they find his conclusions persuasive. And it doesn’t matter whether the reader and the scholar are on the same end of the conservative/liberal spectrum. An evangelical Christian will better understand textual criticism after reading Misquoting Jesus just as I have understood issues better after reading good evangelical scholars like Dan Wallace of Darrell Bock.

    The problem with Did Jesus Exist? is not that Ehrman is wrong about his ultimate conclusions and Carrier is right. The problem is that Ehrman does not give his readers an accurate picture of the arguments and evidence on both sides of mythicism which leaves them less well equipped to evaluate the issues for themselves than they were before they read the book. This is why I think Carrier is ticked off. He knew that Ehrman was going to come down in favor of a historical Jesus, but he hoped that Ehrman would give his readers the same kind of clear picture of the issues and evidence that he had given them in all his previous books.

    1. Well Vinny, I am all for solid scholarship. So no disagreement there. Remember, apologetics and scholarship can be integrated together. A friend of mine who teaches Greek full time and is a biblical scholar used the Boyd/Eddy book that I mentioned here in one of his NT classes. That is a book that integrates both apologetics and scholarship.

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