A Look at Richard Carrier’s “So…if Jesus Didn’t Exist, Where Did He Come From?”

By Eric Chabot

Introduction

Richard Carrier is one of the most popular apologists for skepticism. He has a strong online presence and has debated Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and Michael Licona. When Bart Ehrman released his book Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for the Existence of Jesus, I interacted with him a bit on his blog on this topic. Carrier also did a debate this year with David Marshall at one of our chapters.

Anyway, Carrrier now has an online pdf called “So…if Jesus Didn’t Exist, Where Did He Come From?” I am happy Carrier did bring this topic to the surface. While Christian origins is one of my favorite topics I think Richard’s work warrants a response. So here goes:

#1 The Issue of Metaphysics

It could not be more apparent that in investigating the evidence for the life of Jesus, every historian interprets the past in direct relationship to his own Weltanschauung (the German word for worldview). Hence, a worldview will always impact one’s historical method/philosophy of history. Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism refers to the view that nature is the “whole show.” If one has a commitment to philosophical or metaphysical naturalism, several aspects of the life of Jesus will be interpreted in a naturalistic way. Remember, naturalism is not a discovery of science. It must always be viewed as a presupposition of science as presently practiced. It is clear that Carrier is looking at the Jesus story in light of his own worldview. I am aware that Carrier has discussed his biases and other issues in his latest book Proving History. I know the verdict is still out whether his use of Bayes Theorem can help curb the biases of historians. But given I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on it. James McGrath has reviewed it here:

#2: The Gospel began as mythological allegory about the celestial Jesus?

If we look at the pdf, Carrier says, “The Gospel began as mythological allegory about the celestial Jesus set on earth, as most myths then were”. To make this case, Carrier first points to the hallucination theory (the followers of Jesus hallucinated). He builds his case by using analogies in Islam and Mormonism. After all, Mohammed hallucinated conversations with the angel Gabriel and the Koran records the spoken teachings of Gabriel. And in Mormonism, Joseph Smith hallucinates conversations with the angel Moroni and seeing words on magical plates, and the Book of Mormon records what the latter two said.

A Response:

First, comparing the Book of Mormon with the Bible is like comparing apples to oranges. There is practically no external evidence for The Book of Mormon. Also, plenty has been said about the hallucination hypothesis and the resurrection. This hypothesis states that the experiences of the disciples were intramental phenomena such as hallucinations; the disciples and followers of Jesus were so emotionally involved with Jesus’ messianic expectation that their minds projected hallucinations of the risen Lord. In response, the resurrection appearances do not meet three criteria for a collective hallucination:

As Glen Miller points out:

1. Expectation plays the coordinating role in collective hallucinations
2. Emotional excitement is a prerequisite
3. Those involved must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination.

When we examine the resurrection appearances, they fail to meet these three criteria.

Also, the hallucination hypothesis fails the test of plausibility. To try to make the hallucination hypothesis plausible, one must psychoanalyze Peter, Paul, and those that Jesus appeared to. You can try to psychoanalyze someone in front of you, but it is very hard to do it with historical figures in antiquity.

Furthermore, as Michael Licona points out:

1. Since a hallucination is an event that occurs in the mind of an individual and has no external reality, one person cannot participate in another’s hallucination. In this sense, they are like dreams.

2. If a group hallucination had actually occurred, it would have been more likely that the disciples would have experienced their hallucinations in different modes. Perhaps one would have said, “I see Jesus over by the door,” while another said, “No. I see him floating by the ceiling,” while still another said, “No. I only hear him speaking to me,” while still another said, “I only sense that he’s in the room with us.”

#3: Carrier tries to point to trends in Hellenistic Religions and says there were four big trends in religion in the centuries leading up to Christianity and Christianity conforms to all four of them.

The big four are:

Syncretism: combining a foreign cult deity with Hellenistic elements
Monotheism: transforming polytheism into monotheism
Individualism: agricultural salvation cults retooled as personal salvation cults
Cosmopolitanism: all races, cultures, classes are admitted as equals, with fictive kingship (members are all “ brothers”; you now “join” a religion rather than being born into it.

Response:

First of all, it is still debated when we even have a “Christianity” pre-70 AD. A couple of resources that discuss this are The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages by Adam H. Becker, Annette Yoshiko Reed and Ray Pritz’s Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century.

We know that the early Jesus movement started out as a Jewish sect that ended up drawing not only Jews but a large majority of non-Jews as well.

Syncretism

So what about the syncretism charge? Remember, while there were various Jewish sects duing the time of Jesus, religious syncretism is a form of idolatry. First, the Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). Following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, it can asked whether Jews still fell prey to physical idolatry. So to assert that the Israel always had problems with idolatry in their early formation which would lead to further into idolatry in the Second Temple period leads me to cry “anachronism.” Remember, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament( 1 Cor. 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph. 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8). Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor .5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even commends the Thessalonian for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9) (see Walter A. Elwell’s Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pgs 364-365). So I guess my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act and but then later speak against idolatry? It seems rather inconsistent.

Hellenism

The word “Hellenistic” was given to describe the period of history that started with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and ended when Rome conquered Alexander’s empire in 30 B.C. But as Paul Eddy points out in his article Was Christianity Corrupted by Hellenism? from the middle of the third century BC, while Jewish Palestine had already experienced the effects of Hellenism we need to remember that Hellenism did not tend to infiltrate and ‘corrupt’ the local religious traditions of the ancient world. Rather, people maintained their religious traditions in spite of Hellenistic influence in other areas of their lives.

Polytheism

As far as polytheism morphing into monotheism, I can only assume this stems from the standard evolutionary view of religion. Norm Geisler has an article on this topic here: Also, 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) Also, let’s look at one of the most important monotheistic/Christological texts in the New Testament:

1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:
“For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”

Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism. A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah.

Louis Jacobs sums up the significance of The Shema:

” There is only one God and there are no others. Allied to this is the idea that God and his essence are indivisible. A deity like Baal could be split up, as it were, into various deities, hence, the plural form Baalim and Ashterot found in the Bible when speaking of pagan gods. The polytheistic deities were thought of as separate beings, frequently in conflict with one another, each having a part of the universe for his or her domain. Monotheism denies the existence of such beings”- Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, (London, Behrman House) 21, 22

Therefore, Paul clearly understood he was addressing a culture that worshiped many “gods” (polytheism). But there is no evidence that Paul is transforming polytheism into monotheism. As I said above, I agree that Israel had problems with idolatry/worshiping other gods. But we want to avoid an anachronistic reading of New Testament.

#3: Carrier tries to punt to the religious plagiarism charge again (e.g., Romulus, Osiris, Zalmoxis) and the mystery religions.

Response:

Some of my comments about these are already dealt with above. But a few more issues: The book The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy (see some of it on Google books) discuss the entire method of Jesus mythers. Also, Glen Miller’s well researched article and and Evidence for Jesus and Parallel Pagan Examined are some resources online to read. 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.”

Also, as Ehrman said in his latest book on The Historical Jesus, “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. As Miller also 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?

Finally, 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.

Point #4: The Jesus Paul speaks of is always in outer space!

Response:

To make this point, Carrier assumes Paul never refers to an earthly Jesus that actually walked this earth. First, Paul’s Letters are written to congregational issues that were dealing with specific issues. They are not biographical in nature. While I can’t be absolutely sure, it could be that Carrier is following the lead of Earl Doherty’s work on this one. Maurice Casey points out the problem with Doherty’s work in his article The Jesus Process: Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence and Falsehood. Also, Paul also recorded the following earthly features about Jesus (thanks to Rich Deem for these points): I also added a few of my own.

Jesus came into the world: 1 Timothy 1:15, Philippians 2:5-8

Jesus was seen by Paul: 1 Corinthians 9:126

Jesus was a man: Romans 5:15, 1 Timothy 2:5, Philippians 2:5-8

Jesus’ Jewish ancestry : Galatians 3:16

Jesus’ Davidic descent: Romans 1:3

Jesus had Brothers: 1 Corinthians 9:5

Jesus had 12 Disciples: 1 Corinthians 15: 7

Jesus was born of a woman: Galatians 4:4

Jesus was flesh: Romans 1:3, 8:3, 9:5, 2 Corinthians 5:16, Ephesians 2:14-15, 1 Timothy 3:16

Jesus ate and drank: 1 Corinthians 11:23-25

Jesus bled: Romans 3:24-25, 5:9, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:25, 27Ephesians 1:7, 2:13, Colossians 1:20

Jesus was crucified: 1 Corinthians 1:13, 23, 2:2, 8, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 3:1, Philippians 2:8

Jesus died: Romans 5:6, 8, 10 6:3, 5, 9-10, 8:34, 14:9, 15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 11:26 15:3, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Galatians 2:21, Philippians 2:8, 3:10, Colossians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:1032

Jesus was raised from the dead: Romans 1:4, 4:24-25, 6:4-5 9, 7:4, 8:11, 34, 9:17, 10:9, 1 Corinthians 6:14, 15:4, 12-17, 20, 2 Corinthians 4:14, 5:15Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 2:12, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 4:1433

Carrier also asserts that Paul hallucinated. He bases this off the text, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”- 1 Corinthians 11:23-24

Here we see again that Paul “received” a teaching. “Received” (a rabbinical term) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. In other words, according to Paul, he did not create the Gospel story. It was something he received from another source.

As we see elsewhere, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians : 15:3-8) and in Galatians 1:11-12, “ For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

So in both cases, as said by Carrier, Paul received the Gospel from two mediums (Jesus/divine revelation and from the other Apostles). Therefore, it is a losing battle because whether Paul received anything received from Jesus as a revelatory medium or the Apostles, it will be passed off as an hallucination. Remember, the ones who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus hallucinated as well. So we are back to the hallucination hypothesis (as discussed above). The lesson is the following:

1. Dead people do not rise from the dead.
2. Therefore, Jesus did not rise from the dead.
3. There is no more discussion!

#5: Carrier says the Gospels are fictitious and come to use decades later. He tries to use an analogy with who people invent flying saucer stories.

Response
:

Enough responses have been provided to this assertion: See our resource page here:

Conclusion:

I doubt much can sway Jesus mythers. I honestly think that they should concede that there was a Jesus (as discussed in the NT) who was crucified and that his followers at least thought he rose from the dead. If they want to reject his deity and resurrection, so be it. Those issues can be debated as well. But why not agree with The Historical Bedrock? Perhaps Ehrman is right when he says the following:

“ What is driving the mythicists agenda? Why do they work so hard at showing that Jesus never really lived? I do not have a definitive answer to that question, but I do have a hunch. It is no accident that virtually all mythicists (in fact, all of them, my knowledge), are either atheists or agnostics. The ones I know anything about are quite virulently, even militantly atheist. On the surface that may make sense: who else would be more invested in showing Jesus never existed? But when you think about it or a moment, it is not entirely logical. Whether or not Jesus existed is completely irrelevant to the question of whether God exists. So why would virulent atheists (or agnostics) be so invested in showing that Jesus did not exist? It is important to realize the obvious fact that the mythicists all live in a Christian world for which Christianity is the religion of choice for the vast bulk of the population. Of course we have large numbers of Jews and Muslims among us and scattered Buddhists, Hindus, and other major faith traditions in our culture. But by and large the people we meet who are religious are Christians. And mythicists are avidly antireligious.

To debunk religion, then, one needs to undermine specifically the Christian form of religion. And what easier way is there to undermine Christianity than to claim that the figure at the heart of Christian worship and devotion never existed but was invented, made up, or created? If Christianity is base d on Jesus, and Jesus never existed where does that leave the religion of billions of the world’s population? It leaves it in shambles, at least in the thinking of the mythicists. What this means is that, ironically, just as secular humanists spend so much time at their annual meetings talking about religion, so too mythicists who are so intent on showing that the historical Jesus never existed are not being driven by a historical concern. Their agenda is religious and they are complicit in a religious ideology. They are not doing history, they are doing theology”– Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pgs 337-38.

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2 thoughts on “A Look at Richard Carrier’s “So…if Jesus Didn’t Exist, Where Did He Come From?”

  1. ralfellis November 3, 2013 / 3:44 pm

    I would not believe anything Richard Carrier says: he does not even know that Jesus is mentioned many times in the Talmud. But Jesus is mentioned as Yeshu the Nazarene in Sanhedrin 43, and called Balaam in many other locations. If Carrier does not even know this, then of what value are his other pronunciations?

    If you want to find the real historical Jesus – the person, not the demigod – the complete evidence for this is contained in the books ‘King Jesus’ and ‘Jesus, King of Edessa’.

    Jesus was a king of Edessa called King Izas-Manu (while Jesus was called King Jesus Em-Manu-El). And all the kings of Edessa wore a ceremonial Crown of Thorns.

  2. lotharson November 15, 2014 / 1:33 pm

    “If we look at the pdf, Carrier says, “The Gospel began as mythological allegory about the celestial Jesus set on earth, as most myths then were”. To make this case, Carrier first points to the hallucination theory (the followers of Jesus hallucinated). He builds his case by using analogies in Islam and Mormonism. After all, Mohammed hallucinated conversations with the angel Gabriel and the Koran records the spoken teachings of Gabriel. And in Mormonism, Joseph Smith hallucinates conversations with the angel Moroni and seeing words on magical plates, and the Book of Mormon records what the latter two said. ”

    It is very far from being Weltanschauungsneutral (worldview neutral). How do we know that Jospeh Smith and Mohammed had hallucinations?
    Since we have no historical evidence they did, the only way to ground this conclusion would be by appealing to well-argued worldview (i.e. naturalism) making it very likely.

    A non-materialist open to the existence of spiritual beings or parapyschology has other options.

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