James McGrath, a professor of New Testament studies and blogger (and critic of the Christ myth theory) has recently blogged on some of my and Carrier’s thoughts on the Jesus myth theory.
McGrath quotes me:
“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…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.”
McGrath comments: “I really find it very hard to believe that even Covington (who describes himself as an ‘armchair philosopher’), to say nothing of Carrier, who has a PhD in history, cannot see the problems with this reasoning. There is no serious doubt that Augustine thought that Jesus had lived as a real human being. And yet if you read his letters, you will find far more places where Augustine doesn’t refer to Jesus/Christ at all, much less in a way that makes unambiguous that he viewed him as a historical figure, than places where he does… It would be an interesting thought experiment to see whether there is any epistolary reference by Pliny the Younger to his uncle that a determined ‘Pliny the elder mythicist’ could not interpret as referring to events that transpired in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm.”
Neil Godfrey has taken the trouble of citing a number of specific passages that make it abundantly clear Pliny the Younger thought of his adoptive father as a human who had lived on earth, and the letters of Augustine don’t fare any better. Why aren’t the Pauline letters even somewhat like the letters of those two? McGrath can’t offer a decent, non-ad hoc explanation of this, so he tosses out some examples that don’t even demonstrate his point.
McGrath again: “One can make the same point with most ancient correspondence. But if one is willing to presume that a particular figure who is mentioned is mythical, then no references to details of their life need stand in the way of that interpretation. Crucifixion, burial, and even descent from David can all conveniently be situated in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm.”
The crucifixion of Jesus is said to have been carried out by demonic powers (which were thought to inhabit the upper atmosphere) and Paul mentions no one else as responsible or involved. So that’s not a ‘convenient placement’ on the part of Carrier or anyone else, that’s just the least ad hoc interpretation of the text. Good luck finding anything in the letters of Pliny that suggest his adoptive father was killed by demons. If crucifixion can happen in the celestial realm, so can burial. ‘Nuff said. The ‘descent from David’ is a little harder to grapple with, but I think there is a reasonably good (and evidence-based) way to explain this under mythicism. I’ve attached my thoughts on Davidic descent at the end of this post.
A little context is necessary before I talk about what McGrath says next: I had said that I found the ‘high-context society’ excuse inadequate to explain the silence of Paul’s letters. Carrier added to my point:
“The reason Romans cannot be, in any relevant way, using high context discourse (discourse that presupposes the readers have already been fully briefed) is because Paul is there writing to people he has never communicated with before, even some of whom have not yet heard the gospel (Rom. 1:15). And accordingly, much of the text from chapter one on is an elaborate summary of the gospel and how it works salvation, refuting the notion that Paul would not repeat basic things already understood—for Romans is specifically about many of those basic things!”
McGrath responds: “Returning to Romans, I would point out that Paul indicates that he wanted to proclaim the Gospel to ‘you who are in Rome.’ There are any number of things that that could mean, and there is substantial scholarship on the question, which needs to be interacted with. Does it hint that Paul considered the Gospel that others proclaimed to be inadequate? Is it just treating the residents of Rome together, and referring to his desire to preach to those outside of the community to which he was writing? It is not sufficient to merely assert without argument that what Paul meant was that the congregation that he was writing to was one that included those we would call non-Christians.”
Carrier referred to his citation of Gerd Ludemann. Ludemann said: “In the letter to the Romans, which cannot presuppose the apostle’s missionary preaching and in which he attempts to summarize its main points, we find not a single direct citation of Jesus’ teaching. One must record with some surprise the fact that Jesus’ teachings seem to play a less vital role in Paul’s religious and ethical instruction than does the Old Testament.” (emphasis mine, p.211, Sources of the Jesus Tradition)
In brief: Paul is communicating with people who have not yet heard Paul’s teaching (though some of them had probably heard the teachings of other Christians). Therefore, Paul needs to be as explicit as possible, since some of the audience does not yet have knowledge of his particular theology. Granted, some of the people in that congregation certainly understood some version of early Christian teachings, but that doesn’t mean much. Put yourself in Paul’s position: he would have needed to accommodate his teachings to the newbies (or, if he was fighting against an ‘inadequate gospel,’ as James suggests, he would’ve needed to ‘start from scratch’ and re-teach all the basics in order to avoid confusion).
McGrath: “But be that as it may, it is clearly not going to make a coherent argument if one says, on the one hand, that Romans as we now have it is a composite pastiche of multiple letters from which basic Christian teachings have been omitted, and then to claim that the absence of details about a historical Jesus (which most interpreters consider to be the kind of basic Christian teaching Paul didn’t bother to recap) somehow supports mythicism.”
But if Romans is a pastiche of letters, the first bit of which contains a significant portion of information about basic gospel teachings, that still leaves open a strong chance that we’d see some details of Jesus’ life, if historicism is correct. Besides that, the main thing that McGrath is missing here is that this is just one of many problems with the ‘high context society’ excuse. The original point that I made is that communication within a high context society doesn’t stop people from repeating details or being explicit, at least on occasion. Living in a high context society didn’t stop Paul from mentioning the crucifixion and resurrection numerous times. Living in a high context society didn’t stop Paul from telling us all kinds of things about his theological views concerning Jesus (that he was God’s firstborn, the instrument of creation, etc.) in some cases saying such things more than once. If Paul had a historical figure in mind, why didn’t he expound on that? There are only two passages (Rom. 1:3 and Gal. 1:19) that prima facie indicate Paul viewed Jesus as a historical man (along with a handful of other passages that certainly don’t when read in context), and even those two have pretty reasonable explanations under mythicism. McGrath, as usual, thinks that if he explain away the silence of Romans, his work is done. He’s wrong. Lots of straws can break the camel’s back, and the epistle to the Romans just adds special weight to the argument.
In a recent article, Carrier wrote: “As Bart Ehrman himself has recently confessed, the earliest documentation we have shows Christians regarded Jesus to be a pre-existent celestial angelic being.”
McGrath responds: “This is such utter nonsense, and thoroughly hypocritical, that it makes me doubt that Carrier has any interest in engaging in serious discussion. He has elsewhere argued that Ehrman’s work is so full of errors that he is incompetent and completely untrustworthy…”
This is just silly of McGrath. It is possible to think a scholar is generally reliable while at the same time believing one particular book they’ve written isn’t that great. Ironically, McGrath himself thinks the same of Ehrman’s work, describing How Jesus Became God as “an idiosyncratic case for his own atypical view,” though McGrath generally likes Ehrman’s work. Nice.
Appendix: From the Seed of David Kata Sarka
Romans 1:3 says that Christ was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” The phrase used for ‘made’ (genomenos) can mean a lot of things, including just ‘becoming.’ The ‘Seed of David’ was used as a mere title in pre-Christian Judaism (p.110, Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel) and thus need not be taken as indicative of literal descent, just as ‘Messiah ben Joseph‘ is, in my opinion, probably just a title that was applied to Christ, and even the name ‘Jesus’ may be only a title (See here as well as p.349-356, Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man). But what about that troublesome phrase kata sarka, translated as “according to the flesh,” doesn’t that indicate the relationship between David and Jesus was literal? I don’t think. Kata sarka can mean all kinds of things, including just ‘according to the human understanding’ (p.119, William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans*) and in this context the ‘human understanding’ of Jesus was as the son of David spoken of in the scriptures (many passages in the Old Testament about the son of David were applied to Jesus by the early Christians), the messiah humans had spoken of and been waiting for. So I think the phrase could be translated to mean “Jesus became what humans call (or understand as) the ‘Seed of David.'” I’m no expert in Greek, so feel free to disregard this possibility as a crazy crackpot idea. If there’s anything that shows such a translation is untenable, though, I would consider it worth knowing about.
There’s a second way to understand the phrase ‘made from the seed of David according to the flesh.’ The Ascension of Isaiah, which was written in the early second century (possibly in the early first century) documents how Jesus made his way through the various layers of heaven, each time changing form, until finally he changed into the form of a man. If you read Carrier’s commentary on the issue, it’s clear that Jesus’ change of form happened not on the solid ground, but in the air among Satan and his angels. Since Christians were committed to acknowledging the messiah’s Davidic descent, they could’ve imagined that Jesus’ fleshly body having been formed from the seed of David when he entered the realm of the flesh, or they could’ve held the more metaphysical view that Jesus’ body was fashioned after the archetype of David’s body (archetypes were sometimes called ‘seeds,’ and there is some indication of ‘seed’ being used this way, or at least in some non-literal fashion, in Galatians 3:29). The Christians who read and believed the Ascension had to have believed something like that (again, they were committed to believing in Jesus’ Davidic descent). If they believed it, why couldn’t Paul? More to the point, I think there is a clue that supports interpreting Paul’s letters in this manner. Paul doesn’t say Jesus was born of the seed of David, he says Jesus was made of the seed of David, as if Jesus’ attainment of Davidic flesh happened without being born in the usual way. I brought this up to McGrath, and he pointed me to an online discussion in which the verb Paul uses (genomenos) is used by Josephus as referring to a birth on occasion. Fair enough, but three examples from a completely different author don’t carry the same weight as way Paul himself uses it on more than three occasions. My presentation of this possibility is roughly based on the idea Carrier presents on pp.575-582 of OHJ, and the evidence he cites backs up every element of the ideas I’ve given here.
The point of all the above is to show that alternate interpretations of Romans 1:3 are not out of the question, and as such McGrath should parade it (or Galatians 1:14) around as some sort of absolute proof of the historical Jesus, because it is not, nor is it even clear that such passages increase the probability that a historical Jesus existed.
* Barclay understands the phrase differently that I do in the context of Romans 1:3 (he interprets kata sarka as meaning literal descent). I am citing him purely on the point of Kata Sarka commonly meaning ‘according to human understanding’ and I think whether rendering it that way in Romans 1:3 makes sense depends purely on contextual considerations.