One of the most compelling arguments for mythicism comes from the book of Hebrews. Though Hebrews contains a couple of problematic passages for mythicism, which Carrier explains reasonably (on pp.544-545 and pp.550-551, also see my conversation with him quoted at the end of this blog post). Hebrews also contains a number of passages highly supportive of mythicism, two in particular that I find really compelling, which we will look at here.
The author of Hebrews believes that there are copies of things in heaven mirroring the things on earth (shadows of the things in heaven, 9:23-24) and that the animal sacrifices are a copy or shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice (10:1). Think about the Hebrews author’s logic:
1. There are imperfect earthly copies of heavenly things.
2. Animal sacrifices are an imperfect copy of Jesus’ sacrifice,
Therefore: Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice.
The logic of what I am arguing is that the early Christians believed that earthly things were but imperfect copies of heavenly things, and Jesus’ sacrifice, as a perfect thing, has its most natural place in the heavens according to the author’s own logic.
I think Jesus as a perfect sacrifice is very implicit within the book of Hebrews, especially Hebrews 10:1-18. The whole passage is worth reading, but in particular, notice what is said in verse 1: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image of those
things, can never, with those sacrifices which they offered continually year by year, make those who come unto it perfect.”
The animal sacrifices of the old testament are a shadow of the good things that were “to come” (which refers to Jesus’ sacrifice). Hebrews 8:5 explicitly declares Moses’ tabernacle a shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. As such, it seems to me the most natural inference to draw from this is that Jesus’ sacrifice was in the heavens.
The evidence before us is 100% likely if mythicism is true. How likely is it if historicism is true? If historicism is true, how can we explain this evidence? The only ways I know of are if we posit that the author of Hebrews held self-contradictory beliefs, or by sheer accident communicated his beliefs so that others would draw a very natural (but false) conclusion from his statements. Both of these, I think, are pretty unlikely: with any given belief that someone may hold, it is uncommon for them to also hold a contradictory belief. It happens, of course. But if you took an inventory of all the thousands of beliefs a person held, I’m sure most of them would be consistent, contradictory ideas being the exception to the rule. It is also rare for people to convey their beliefs in such a way that others are easily misled. It happens from time to time, of course, but it is the exception to the rule. I will therefore estimate that the probability of the book of Hebrews is no more than 25% likely under historicism (though it is arguably much more unlikely than that: after all, people do not miscommunicate or hold contradictory beliefs 25% of the time; a more realistic estimate might be one percent, or less).
The convergence of evidence here is remarkable: we have, in the Ascension of Isaiah, a testimony to Christians who believed exactly this, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 and Colossians 2:15 implying that Jesus’ death was a triumph over the spiritual / demonic rulers (the only kind of rulers who could have killed him if his sacrifice was in the lower heavens), the pervasive silence of Paul’s letters, a pre-Christian Jesus in Philo, and the presently discussed evidence in Hebrews. Pretty good theory, I’d say.
Addendum: Is Hebrews 4:15 evidence of a historical Jesus?
I have reproduced an email correspondence I had with Carrier concerning a potentially problematic passage in Hebrews.
Me: In Hebrews 4:15, it says that “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one [Jesus] who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
If Jesus was tempted in every way doesn’t that sound like an earthly Jesus? In particular, I’m thinking of things like sexual temptation / temptation to steal / etc., which would only seem plausible on earth. Of course, maybe there’s a way for him to be tempted in every way up in the lower heavens, but that’d seem like stretch, don’t you think? Or do you have an alternate interpretation?
Carrier: The Greek says “we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested according to everything according to a likeness without sin.”
His temptation “of everything” is most likely what is simply stated in Phil. 2: he was tempted to acquire all the power of God and declare himself his equal (as, we know legends had it, Satan had tried), but voluntary refused that temptation and allowed himself to become weak and powerless, even to experiencing death. It is this way in which he experienced all temptation: he resisted all possible offers of power, and he suffered all the way to the point of dying.
There isn’t any reason that need entail anything further, but even sexual temptation would be available to a cosmic incarnate being (hence the Watchers, not even incarnate but still divine angels, succumbed to sexual temptation, birthing the demons, per the OT and Enochian legend), so that would not require an earthly sojourn (just the temptation of one…i.e. Jesus could have used his powers, like the Watchers did, to come all the way down to earth and ravish women, but he declined.).
So the passage is simply inconclusive as written.
Carrier later sent me a second and third email:
BTW, I have looked further into the possible corrupted grammar here, and normally with kata homoiotêta in a sentence like this we’d expect here a repeat of hêmôn, which would mean “he has been tested in all things the same way as us.” That’s more ambiguous. But as such still inconclusive. In what “way” does the author mean? It can mean simply that he was tested “just like we are,” which would be as true on the Doherty thesis as on any historicity thesis; likewise the “all things” can mean all the things he was actually tempted with, not necessarily all the things it is possible to be tempted with, although even the latter would be available to a cosmic incarnate, per the Watchers example, and the example of Satan, only in their case they failed the test. So we can’t get anywhere from even that reconstructed text.