• On the Historicity, Part 9.

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

    I have changed my mind on a few things, and so today’s post will be all about what I have changed my mind on and why. Special thanks goes out to Giuseppe, Gakusei Don, Bernard Muller, Geoff Barrett, and Richard Carrier for their helpful comments. Some of what follows (especially the discussion on James) is going to very, very heady. Read it only when you can give it your full undivided attention.

    The Demons of 1 Corinthians 2:6-8

    I have come to think that the ‘rulers of this age’ mentioned in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, is ambiguous if read by itself (see the discussion in the comments that took place here). However, if we take Colossians 2:15 into account, we have a decisive case for reading the passage as mentioning demonic powers: That passage is translated (by New Century version) as saying, “God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless.” Christ’s death was a triumph (or victory) over the demons (the ‘spiritual rulers’). Why? If the demons did not realize they were doing themselves in by crucifying Jesus, this would be the sense in which Jesus’ death was a ‘victory’ over them. The interpretation I just gave is echoed in “The Ascension of Isaiah” (see Carrier’s analysis in Historicity). Overall, this is a decent piece of evidence for mythicism.

    The Pre-Christian Jesus in Philo

    GakuseiDon has expressed doubts about whether Philo thought that the Logos’ name was Jesus. I think such a doubt is misplaced: since the Christian community believed that Christ was the logos, and further believed that this logos was a heavenly high priest who built the heavenly temple, this would mean that Jesus was the heavenly counterpart to the Joshua [Jesus] of the Old Testament, the high priest who builds the earthly temple (recall that in Greek Jesus and Joshua are the same, and recall that Christians believed there was a heavenly counterpart to everything on earth, see discussion here and here). In support of Philo’s logos being connected to the Jesus of the Old Testament, we can also note that although Philo might be quoting Zech. 6:11-13 without intending to connect the logos to the Jesus mentioned there, this is unlikely: when the early Christians quoted OT passages out of context like this, as when Matthew quotes the passage “out of Egypt I have called my son” and applies it to Jesus (although in context the passage refers to Moses) they usually saw deep connections between the two figures: it is well-established that Matthew portrays Jesus as a sort of ‘New Moses.’ It follows that Philo probably saw a deep connection between the logos and the OT Jesus.

    The Pre-Christian Jesus provides powerful support for the myth theory. One of the reasons scholars doubt the existence of King Arthur is because there was a celtic god much like him who was worshipped before he existed. In fact, one of the tell-tale traces of a historicized myth is when you can find a deeply similar but obviously mythical form of a figure prior to the time he is believed to have lived as a normal human. In fact, this is true concerning at least 1 of the 14 characters Richard Carrier lists (Hercules, he was worshipped a solar deity prior to being considered a human who had lived on Earth) and it also true about Sampson (it’s probable he was originally a solar deity*, too, and he also fits the mythic hero archetype). As such, it is safe to assume that if a character is myth historicized the odds that we will find a more obviously mythical version of the same story at an earlier point in time is no less than 1 out of 14 (2 out of 15 if we count Sampson, possibly more, I am just not aware of this type of evidence existing for the other 13 characters on Carrier’s list), or about 7 percent. What are the chances of us finding this to be the case with historical persons? We rarely find it to be the case that, say, someone worships a god named Julius Caesar who is believed to have a large number of specific attributes in common with the historical man before the historical Julius Caesar was ever born. Something like that would be a rare fluke. As such, we can safely estimate it as having no more than a four percent chance (a big overestimate, it is obvious that such a thing is true about far fewer than one in twenty-five historical figures). This will make its way into my final analysis.

    The Absence of Paul From The Gospels

    Initially I thought that the absence of the Apostle Paul from the gospel of Mark was strange if the gospels were total fiction. After all, if Mark was writing a symbolic narrative, and he included Peter, James, John, and others who had never known Jesus except through private revelation like Paul (which is what the mythicist theory says) then why isn’t Paul there? Along came Giuseppe with a brilliantly insightful comment:

    “The point of Mark with the (apparently strange) absence of Paul is well expressed on Vridar in a book that I will read securely:

    What the ending of Mark would make clear is that no apostle, neither Paul nor any of the others, was the first to see the resurrected Lord nor any of the others, was the first to see the resurrected Lord at the tomb or anywhere near Jerusalem. No resurrection sighting whether by Paul or Peter or James or John could thus bestow the Lord’s authority more effectively than any other. Moreover, for a resurrection appearance to be valid it would have to happen “in Galilee,” that is, by an apostle who was committed to the combined Jewish-Gentile messianic community. In this way the “last” and “least” of the apostles truly became the “first” and the “greatest.” (p. 140, Mark, Canonizer of Paul, Tom Dykstra)

    “In this way, Paul is implicitly referred from Mark as the ”first” and the ”greatest” against the Pillars (alias the sons of Zebedee).”

    Adding to Giuseppe’s point, even if Jesus was historical, there’s a strong case to be made that Mark could and did make up whatever he wanted the reader to know (Dennis MacDonald has demonstrated the Sea of Galilee was a myth in Homeric Epics, p.55-58). So, upon further reflection, I must agree that the omission of Paul from the gospel accounts indicates nothing, it is no less puzzling under historicism. So it is not evidence for historicism. As such, this issue won’t make the cut for or against anything in my final analysis of the issue.

    James The Brother of the Lord

    Some background on this issue is needed before I explain further:

    1. Paul says that Christ is the “firstborn among many brethren” in Romans 8:29, which meant that all Christians were ‘brothers of the Lord.’ As such, it is perfectly credible under the mythicist theory that Paul might refer to someone-or-other as ‘brother of the Lord.’

    2. As Neil Godfrey put it, commenting on the names of Jesus’ brothers in Mark:

    Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As historical Jesus scholar Paul Fredriksen remarks:

    It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth , p.240)

    3. In Historicity p.589, Carrier has adduced some highly plausible reasons that Paul could have had for specifying James was the ‘brother of the Lord’ in Galatians 1:19 which I will not repeat here.

    4. Carrier has adduced additional considerations we have for thinking that the relationship between James and Jesus that Paul discusses is a symbolic relationship, not a literal one. Among them: the fact that Paul does not specify that James was the “brother of the Lord” according to the flesh, which is a distinction he ought to have made if the relationship was literal, since Paul clearly believed all Christians were the brothers of the Lord in a symbolic way (see point one above). Moreover, the gospels never say that James the brother of Jesus ever played any role in the church after Jesus’ death (the only exception is Luke, who in Acts reports that Jesus’ brothers were present in the church, though notably Luke never mentions James specifically as a brother of Jesus and never tells us anything about James the brother’s role in the church, in spite of mentioning Peter and Paul’s journeys very prominently and giving a place to lesser known people in the church like Stephen).

    I had previously argued that under the mythicist theory the odds of Paul and Mark agreeing that James was a “brother” of Jesus was 25%, whereas under the historicist theory the chances were over 62%. The reason the chances are 25% under mythicism is that 25% of Jewish males were named either Simeon, Judas, Joses or James (whom Mark 6:3 lists as the brothers of Jesus). I obtained the frequencies of these names from Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.85-88. Now, however, I have come to think that historicity does not predict this piece of evidence as well as 62%. Below is a detailed explanation of why.

    Under the historicity theory, it is possible that Paul’s reference to James as a “brother of the Lord” is symbolic (a symbolic relationship is not made unlikely or impossible by supposing that Jesus was a historical figure), and it is also possible that it was literal. However, because of the reasons I gave in point 4 above, the hypothesis of a symbolic relationship must be considered more firmly evidenced than the hypothesis literal relationship. If we have two possibilities, and one is more likely than the other, then it is necessarily the case that the more likely possibility is over 50% likely. Arguably it is much more than 50% likely, given the strength of the above considerations.

    Under the historicity theory, it is plausible that Mark’s ‘brothers of Jesus’ was a historical report, and it is also plausible that they were literary fictions Mark created. Given points 2 and 4 (listed above), the literary fiction hypothesis seems to be the more likely of the two. Again: If we have two possibilities, and one is more likely than the other, then it is necessarily the case that the more likely possibility is over 50% likely. Arguably it is much more than 50% likely, given the strength of the above considerations.

    I will estimate the symbolic interpretation as 60% in each case (given that I have argued the chances must be far above 50% in both instances). This allows us to create a ‘decision tree’ for the historicist theory. Here are the possibilities under the historicist theory:

    1. Paul and Mark were speaking symbolically.

    2. Paul was speaking literally, Mark symbolically.

    3. Paul was speaking symbolically, Mark literally.

    4. Both were speaking literally.

    I have already concluded that the symbolic explanation is 60% likely in each case; That is, I estimated the chances of Paul’s passage being a non-literal reference in Galatians 1:19 was 60% and likewise for Mark’s reference. Therefore, the chances of both passages being symbolic is 36% (Multiply .6 times .6; Since each passage has a 60%, or .6, chance of being literal). The chances of Paul speaking literally and Mark symbolically are .4 times .6, which equals 24%, and the chances Paul speaking symbolically but Mark literally are exactly the same. The chances of both being literal are .4 times .4, which equals .16, or 16%. So here is what we have:

    1. Paul and Mark were speaking symbolically. (36%)

    2. Paul was speaking literally, Mark symbolically. (24%)

    3. Paul was speaking symbolically, Mark literally. (24%)

    4. Both were speaking literally. (16%)

    Under possibilities 1-3, the chances of both Paul and Mark naming a “James” as a “brother” are no better than they are under the mythicist theory, since all of them entail that the name “James” is just a coincidence; so the chances are therefore only 25%. Under the fourth possibility, the fact that “James” is reported as a “brother” by both Mark and Paul is a moral certainty (I’ll call it 100% likely). We need to average out these numbers to find out how likely it is, given historicism, that both Paul and Mark would report “James” as “brother.” To find the average: add the chances of possibilities 1-3 together (for a total of 84%) then multiply .84 times .25 (which is .21). Our fourth possibility stays the same since mutliplying .16 times 100% still equals .16. Now add .21 to .16, for a total of .37 (37 percent). That is how well historicism predicts the data, given our previous estimates.

    Mythicism predicts the data with 25% certainty, whereas Historicism predicts the data with 37% certainty. So historicism is a little better on this point, but it is not drastically better. In my final analysis of this issue, I will bump the estimate of .37 to .4, in the interest of making my analysis as fair and undoubtable as it can be.

    Geoff Barrett left this comment on my blog: “You can’t rule out that the author of Mark was familiar with Paul’s letters and could have borrowed James the brother of Jesus from Galatians. It might not be independent.” This is certainly true, but I do worry that if Mark thought Paul was making a literal reference in Galatians 1:19, that would mean Mark believed in a historical Jesus, and it seems implausible (under the mythicist theory) to suggest that Mark was a historicist, given that his gospel is the earliest. For the sake of argument I am assuming that the chances of such a scenario are zero, and that the chances of Galatians 1:19 being an interpolation are zero. However, the chances are not exactly zero, even if they are very low, and whatever probability they have is ultimately just going to take away from the historicist theory’s ability to predict the data. So, once again, just keep in mind that the analysis I have given above is only for-the-sake-of-argument, if I am wrong it’ll only increase the chances of mythicism, so there is no need to quarrel with it unless it actually makes a difference in what conclusion I reach, and the way things are going I doubt if historicism will be judged ‘most likely’ when everything is said and done.


    *Pages 93-95, Glenn Taylor, Yahweh and the Sun.

    Category: Uncategorized

    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."