In this post I’m going to take Carrier to task for missing an important piece of evidence… a piece of evidence that supports his theory.
In Richard Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts, p.40-43, Pervo discusses the mysterious discontinuity between the Gospels and the Pauline letters. In the Pauline letters, Jesus is the proclaimed, whereas in the gospels Jesus is the proclaimer. In other words, the gospels portray Jesus as one proclaiming the kingdom of God, whereas in the Pauline letters, the order is reversed: Jesus is what the kingdom of God proclaims. This may sound insignificant at first, but let’s take a closer look…
Paul says that God revealed Jesus “in me” (Galatians 1:15-16). In that passage we see Jesus as the proclaimed, a relationship which is confirmed throughout the rest of the Pauline letters.
The gospels, of course, paint a rather different picture: Jesus was the one proclaiming the kingdom of God (not the other way around) with his sermons and teachings, and plenty of people from the early church (such as Peter and James) were there to witness the life of Jesus.
Luke noticed this discrepancy and attempted to harmonize the two portraits:
“He said to them, ‘Remember when I was with you before? I said that everything written about me must happen—everything in the law of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the Psalms.‘”
“Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He said to them, ‘It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third dayand that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things.I will send you what my Father has promised, but you must stay in Jerusalem until you have received that power from heaven.'” (Luke 24:44-49).
As Pervo says: “The solution to the problem… is that Jesus personally authorized his change of status from proclaimer to proclaimed, at which time he also authorized a mission to the gentiles (“all nations”).”
A second contradiction (which Carrier actually does mention) is an equally odd contradiction between Paul and the gospels. Naively, you might expect that Paul would say he got his gospel after interviewing the eyewitnesses who found Jesus’ tomb empty, after hearing the disciples preach about the life of Jesus, or something along those lines. In a bizarre twist of fate, Paul says that he got his gospel from the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12) and Paul also mentions receiving some of his information from the Old Testaments (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, when Paul says “Jesus died according to the scriptures” as if there were no other source of information for this, like an eyewitness account).
Luke’s Jesus harmonizes the contradiction between Paul’s source of knowledge about Christ (revelation in scripture) with the gospel’s implicit source of knowledge (eyewitness testimony).* Luke does it by having Jesus tell the eyewitnesses to search the scriptures to learn more about him.**
Let us try to account for the strange discontinuity between Paul and the gospels under the historicity theory. Under historicity, Jesus must have been a man proclaiming the kingdom of God when he was teaching. After Jesus died, the order was reversed for some reason, and Christians began to think of Jesus not as the proclaimer of the kingdom but as the entity being proclaimed by the kingdom, and all that with no mention in the Pauline letters of such a change having taken place. Later on, Mark and Matthew come along and set the order straight. After that, Luke comes along and notices the discrepancy, and is so troubled by it that he has to invent a way to harmonize the contradiction between the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Historicists desperately need something like Luke’s harmonization to be true, but since Luke’s harmonization was made-up,** they have no solid historical evidence for such a harmonization.
Let us try to account for the discontinuity under the mythicist theory: Jesus was originally known as a revealed supernatural entity, so naturally he is portrayed in earliest Christian literature as the object of proclamation. Later, Mark and Matthew wrote allegorical fictions about the life of Jesus as if he had lived on earth, and quite naturally they portray Jesus as a man proclaiming the word of God. Some Christians begin to notice the contradiction between these two portraits, and so Luke goes out of his way to dissolve the contradiction (either because Luke himself was an early historicist or because he wanted the real truth not to be known to the ‘babes in Christ’ until they were ready to learn the allegorical meaning behind the gospels). Richard demonstrates in his book that pretty much every element of this explanation I have offered is thoroughly supported by scripture and what we know about mystery cults back then. And it’s a pretty straightforward explanation, unlike the contrived stretch of an explanation that a historicist would have to come up with.
As such, I will estimate that the proclaimed / proclaimer issue is 50% likely under historicism (since the only way to explain it involves an ad-hoc, convoluted sequence of events that happen for no apparent reason) and that it is 90% likely under mythicism (we can’t absolutely expect it to happen, but given some of the things we know we could expect it would probably happen).
* Mark and Matthew never say that they derive their information from eyewitnesses, but nonetheless an early first or second century Christian would’ve believed that those gospels came from eyewitness sources (directly or indirectly), especially if such a church member did not know about the church’s original belief that Jesus’ sacrifice had taken place in the heavenly realm.
** It cannot be argued that Luke’s account is historical: Luke has Jesus authorize a mission to all nations (which would include Gentiles). But if that had happened, why was the early church divided on the question of whether to preach to the Gentiles? Why would Peter have needed a vision to confirm that gentiles were to be preached to (Acts 10:9-19), if he had already heard Jesus say this after he was resurrected?