• On the Historicity, Part 6.

    This is the sixth part of my review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The other parts of my review can be found here.

    One of the rather odd things about the Pauline epistles is how Paul almost never talks about Jesus as if he were a human being on earth. Paul knows Jesus was crucified and resurrected, but those beliefs are perfectly consistent with the mythicist view of early Christian beliefs, as Richard himself has explained:

    It came to my mind as I went along that Doherty’s thesis resembles what we know of ancient Sumerian worship of Ishtar… In Sumerian tablets, we learn that the goddess Inanna “abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld,” crossing seven gates there…Eventually she is killed by a demon in Hell: “The sick woman was turned into a corpse. The corpse was hung from a nail. After three days and three nights had passed,” her vizier petitions the gods in heaven to resurrect her. Her Father gives her the “food of life” and the “water of life” and resurrects her, then she ascends from the land of the dead, sending another God (her lover) to die in her place: “the shepherd Dumuzi” (aka Tammuz, a forerunner of Attis). Doherty argues that Christianity began with a story like this: where the death and resurrection took place in realms beyond earth. Ishtar still had flesh and could be killed, even crucified, and resurrected, but not “on earth.” There is a lot more to Doherty’s theory than that, of course. I offer this analogy only to show that such an understanding of a dying and rising God actually was, and thus could be held by ancient peoples who were among the ideological ancestors of the Christians.

    There’s a laundry list of passages in the epistles that are supposed to prove that Paul thought of Jesus as a regular mortal who had lived on Earth, but Richard shows again and again that they all have equally credible explanations under the mythicist theory. The infamous ‘James, brother of the Lord’ passage may count as evidence for a historical Jesus, but it is certainly not as good as most historicists think; the passage has a pretty reasonable explanation under mythicism, as I’ve discussed before (see Part 2, 2a, and Richard’s responses here).

    Setting that one passage aside, it’s astonishing how often Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ life on earth, which is surprising… unless Paul didn’t believe Jesus ever lived on Earth. Here’s one example of this phenomenon:

    “But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am;but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

    Why didn’t Paul compare the unmarried and widows to Jesus (who had lived a celibate life, if the gospels are taken as literal truth) rather than to himself? Why not say, “It is good for them to remain as the Lord was during his life, and even as I am” ? Of course, Paul not mentioning Jesus like this wouldn’t be such a big deal if we were talking about a handful of passages; after all, we all occasionally forget to bring up something that would support our argument. It’s happened to me before: I’ll have a conversation with someone and realize later that I could’ve made some point even more forcefully than I already did, and perhaps some of the silences in Paul’s letters could be explained this way.

    However, the silence in Paul’s letters go much deeper than that. Earl Doherty has a list of the top 20 “missing references” to Jesus, even a much longer list of 200 “missing references” in the letters of Paul and other early Christians in which we see, again and again, the strange lack of any reference to Jesus’ life on earth that we saw in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.* When you compare the 200 silent passages with the handful of debatable passages that might refer to a historical Jesus (or just as easily might not) and the lone reference to James the brother of the Lord (which can be plausibly explained by mythicism) things begin to look pretty bad for the historicists. Paul mentions Jesus again and again in his letters, mentions his crucifixion and resurrection multiple times, but never says much of anything else about him.

    Carrier draws an analogy between Paul’s letters and the letters of Pliny the Younger to Tacitus. Pliny’s 1500 word letter contains all kinds of information about Pliny the elder (the subject of the letter), information that places us beyond any reasonable doubt that Pliny was not talking about a god who died in some other realm. But in Paul’s letters (amounting to about 20,000 words) we don’t see that at all.

    The argument from silence here is extremely compelling. The Pauline letters are certainly what we should have if the mythicist thesis is correct, and but apparently very improbable under historicism. In my final Bayesian analysis of this issue I will treat the James passage in Galatians from the remaining content of the Pauline letters. How likely is it that Paul would miss so many chances to discuss the life of Christ? If we took ten examples from Doherty’s 200, we should all readily admit that in each passage the historicity theory would allow for two possibilities: that Paul would have mentioned Jesus’ life or that he would not have. The former possibility seems the most likely in many examples (like in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9). If there are two possibilities, and one is more likely than the other, then we can safely say that it has a greater than 50% chance of obtaining. As such, we can safely say that the possibility of Paul mentioning Jesus’ life in some particular passage is at least 50%, possibly more. So, to find the probability that Paul would not mention Jesus’ life in ten examples (if historicity is true), we can multiply .5 times itself ten times. The resulting number is less than one in one thousand. And that’s an overestimate, since we’ve already established that chances are above 50% and that there are not just ten silent passages, but two hundred.

    The standard excuses for this silence don’t bode well. For instance, there’s a popular Christian apologist who argues that Paul didn’t mention Jesus because Paul lived in a ‘high context society’ – a society in which information was often not given explicitly because those being spoken to were already ‘in the know’ about the life of Jesus and thus such information would be redundant (a “high context” society might also be thought of as a “low redundancy” society in which communication was not nearly as repetitive concerning details as our present day communications are). I don’t think this explanation works — Being in a high context society didn’t stop Paul from mentioning– in very explicit terms and on multiple occasions– the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, or the visions that Paul had concerning Jesus, or even passages from the Old Testament that Paul referred to on many occasions.

    In conclusion: I will treat the silence of the Pauline letters as having a ten percent chance under historicism (a generous overestimate given my previous figure of less than one in a thousand) and a one hundred percent chance under mythicism.

    * Such an absence is noted by contemporary scholars too, such as Gregory Jenks:


    If you read the article, be warned that most of the things he cites as evidence that Paul knew of an earth-dwelling Jesus are answered by Carrier in On The Historicity.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."