Background Context

In On the Historicity of Jesus, Carrier spends an interminable two chapters (Chapters 4 and 5) establishing 48 background “elements.” Much of the information contained in these elements is fascinating and useful; unfortunately, its organization into these largely disconnected elements makes for dry, snore-inducing reading. Therefore, instead of treating this information separately here, I will simply list the primary conclusion of each element here stripped of all of the supporting information (often, stripping lots of supporting information; notice the large page gaps in the individual element summaries listed below, giving an indication of how much support is provided for each element). In later essays, when a particular element is necessary for the discussion, I will at that point include the supporting evidence and reasoning for that element.

  1. Elements of Christian Origin
    1. “The earliest form of Christianity definitely known to us originated as a Jewish sect in the region of Syria-Palestine in the early first century CE.” (p. 65)
    2. “When Christianity began, Judiasm was highly sectarian and diverse. There was no ‘normative’ set of Jewish beliefs, but a countless array of different Jewish belief systems vying for popularity.” (p. 66)
    3. “(a) When Christianity began, many Jews had long been expecting a messiah: a divinely chosen leader or savior anointed… to help usher in God’s supernatural kingdom, usually (but not always) by subjugating or destroying the enemies of the Jews and establishing an eternal paradise…. (b) We can reasonably infer that if those ‘enemies’ were ever considered to be invisible demons (rather than the actual Roman legions, for example) the way would have been open to imagine a messianic victory over Israel’s enemies that could only be perceived spiritually…. Otherwise the messiah was typically expected to achieve a transparent military victory. Sometimes (as in the Enochic literature) it was both. (c) That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread, influential, and very diverse (and thus incapable of being fixed to any single view) has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.” (pp. 66-67)
    4. “(a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism…. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.” (p. 67)
    5. “Even before Christianity arose, some Jews expected one of their messiahs heralding the end times would actually be killed, rather than be immediately victorious, and this would mark the key point of a timetable guaranteeing the end of the world soon thereafter.” (p. 73)
    6. “The suffering-and-dying servant of Isaiah 52-53 and the messiah of Daniel 9 (which, per the previous element, may already have been seen by some Jews as the same person) have numerous logical connections with a man in Zechariah 3 and 6 named ‘Jesus Rising’ who is confronted by Satan in God’s abode in heaven and there crowned king, given all of God’s authority, holds the office of high priest, and will build up ‘God’s house’ (which is how Christians described their church).” (p. 81)
    7. “(a) The pre-Christian book of Daniel was a key messianic text, laying out what would happen and when, partly inspiring much of the very messianic fever of the age, which by the most obvious (but not originally intended) interpretation predicted the messiah’s arrival in the early first century, even (by some calculations) the very year of 30 CE. (b) This text was popularly known and widely influential, and was known and regarded as scripture by the early Christians.” (p. 83)
    8. “(a) Many messianic sects among the Jews were searching the scriptures for secret messages from God about the coming messiah, in both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint (and beyond…). The Christians were thus not engaging in novel activity when they did the same. (b) Since countless Jews were already doing this, and had been for a century or more, we must conclude the Jews who would become the first Christians had already been doing it long before they became Christians (since it would be extremely bizarre if they weren’t). Thus it is incorrect to assume Christians only started doing this after the fact; for we know they and their sectarian predecessors were already doing it before the fact.” (p. 87)
    9. “What in the early first century were considered the inspired scriptures of God consisted of a larger network of texts than are now collected in the OT, including texts outside the cannon and texts that no longer exist and also variants of texts that do not exist (even canonical texts) but which often said different things then than extant versions now do. In other words, anyone trying to construct their picture of the messiah from hidden messages in the ‘Bible’ (per the previous element) would have been using texts and variants not in any current Bible today, and Christianity can be understood only in light of this fact.” (p. 88)
    10. “Christianity began as a Jewish messianic cult preaching a spiritually victorious messiah. This means that
      1. “sometime in the early first century at least one of the many diverse sects of Jews came to believe and preach that
      2. “a certain Jesus was an eschatological Christ,
      3. “despite his having been crucified and buried by the powers that be (whether temporal or supernatural),
      4. “because (or so they preached: 1 Cor. 15.3-8 and Gal. 1.11-12) he had afterward appeared to certain favored people and convinced them he was this Christ and
      5. “had to die in atonement for all sins but
      6. “had risen from the dead to sit at the right hand of God in order to begin his work (through the sect he was thus founding) of preparing for God’s kingdom until
      7. “the time when this Christ would descend from heaven to complete his mission of destroying God’s enemies, resurrecting the dead, and establishing an eternal paradise (g., Romans 8; 1 Cor. 10.11 and 15.23-26; 1 Thess. 4.14-17).
      8. “At this time Jesus was already believed to be a preexistent being (1 Cor. 8.6; 10.1-4; Phil. 2.6-8; and Rom. 8.3; see also Element 40), but
      9. “was not believed to be identical to God, but to be his appointed emissary and subordinate, not God himself but given God’s authority, being God’s ‘son’ in the same sense as angels and kings traditionally were….” (p. 92)
    11. “The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.” (p. 96)
    12. “From as early as we can ascertain, Christians believed they became ‘brothers’ of the Lord Jesus Christ through baptism (Rom. 6.3-10), which symbolized their death to the world and rebirth as the ‘adopted sons of God,’ hence they became brothers of the Lord, the son of God. Thus Jesus was only ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom. 8-29).” (p. 108)
    13. “Like all mystery cults, Christianity had secret doctrines that initiates were sworn never to reveal, and that would be talked about and written about publicly only in symbols, myths and allegories to disguise their true meaning.” (p. 108)
    14. “Mystery cults spoke of their beliefs in public through myths and allegory, which symbolized a more secret doctrine that was usually rooted in more esoteric astral or metaphysical theology. Therefore, as itself a mystery religion with secret doctrines, Christianity would have done the same.” (p. 114)
    15. “Christianity began as a charismatic cult in which many of its leaders and members displayed evidence of schizotypal personalities. They naturally and regularly hallucinated (seeing visions and hearing voices), often believed their dreams were divine communications, achieved trance states, practiced glossolalia, and were (or so we’re told) highly susceptible to psychosomatic illnesses (like ‘possession’ and hysterical blindness, muteness and paralysis). These phenomena have been extensively documented in modern charismatic cults within numerous religious traditions, and their underlying sociology, anthropology and psychology are reasonably well understood….” (p. 124)
    16. “The earliest Christians claimed they knew at least some (if not all) facts and teachings of Jesus from revelation and scripture (rather than from witnesses), and they regarded these as more reliable sources than word-of-mouth (only many generations later did Christian views on this point noticeably change).” (p. 137)
    17. “The fundamental features of the gospel story of Jesus can be read out of the Jewish scriptures… this fact… makes it plausible to ask whether the gospel was actually discovered and learned from the scriptures, rather than the scriptures being consulted after the fact as a merely defensive reinforcement for key claims Christians were making supposedly on other grounds.” (p. 141)
    18. “Jesus Christ was regarded as having fulfilled (and thereby replacing) by his death the two greatest annual sacrifices in the Jewish religion, Passover and Yom Kippur…, and thereby had replaced the temple as a relevant religious institution….” (pp. 143-144)
  2. Elements of Christian Development
    1. “The apostle Paul is the earliest known Christian writer, yet he did not know a living Jesus but was converted by revelation some time after Jesus is said to have died, and did not begin writing anything we know until many years after his conversion (Galatians,g., was written about seventeen years after: 1.18; 2.1).” (p. 146)
    2. “(a) The earliest known Christians proselytized Gentiles but required them to convert to Judiasm. (b) Paul is the first known Christian to discard that requirement (having received a special revelation instructing him to), and he had to fight the earliest known leaders of the cult for acceptance of that radical idea. (c) But some books in the NT are from the sect that did not adopt this innovation but remained thoroughly Jewish (most obviously Matthew, the letters of John and James, and Revelation).” (p. 146)
    3. “(a) Paul and other NT authors attest that there were many rival Christian sects and factions teaching different gospels throughout the first century. In fact, evidence of such divisions and disagreements date as far back as extant records go. Yet we know very little about these and other versions of Christianity (and in some cases nothing at all). And (b) of these only a few amalgamated sects survived the process of competition to remain in the Middle Ages, and those sects controlled nearly all choices as to what texts to preserve into the present, and which texts to ignore or abandon; and for the former, they also had complete custody of those texts for over a thousand years of hand-copying and editing.” (p. 147)
    4. “(a) We have no credible or explicit record of what happened within the Christian movement between 64 and 95 CE (or possibly even as late as 110 CE). And (b) unlike almost any other cult we might consider for comparison, we know the leadership of the Christian church had been catastrophically decimated by the beginning of that period.” (p. 148)
  3. Elements of Political Context
    1. “The Romans annexed Judea to the imperial province of Syria in 6 CE, bringing the center of the Holy Land under direct control of the Roman government, ending Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and the temple of the Most High God, along with most of the Holy Land that had been promised by God to the Jews.” (p. 153)
    2. “(a) Owing to their vastly greater resources (in materials, money and manpower) and superior technical ability (in the training, equipping and supplying of their armies) the Romans were effectively invincible and could never be expelled from Judea by force or diplomacy. (b) This fact was some empirically evident and publicly tested and demonstrated on such a wide scale that it had to have been evident to at least some Jews, even while many either didn’t see it, denied it even when seen, or imagined celestial aid would redress the imbalance. In other words, the traditional messianic hope (of a conclusive military victory over all of Israel’s neighbors) was a doomed hope, and that would have been obvious to at least some Jews.” (p. 154)
    3. “The corruption and moral decay of the Jewish civil and temple elite (regardless of to what extent it was actual or merely perceived) was a widespread target of condemnation and often a cause of factionalizing among Jewish sects.” (p. 155)
    4. “For many Jews in the early first century… the Jewish elite became the scapegoats for God’s failed promises…: the reason God withheld their fulfillment (and instead allowed the Romans to rule) was imagined to be the Jewish elite’s failure to keep God’s commandments and govern justly (already a common theme throughout the OT…). God would come through only when all sin had ended and been atoned for….” (p. 155)
    5. “(a) The temple at Jerusalem was the central focus of most Jewish messianic hopes…, which entailed that as long as the ‘corrupt’ Jewish elite controlled it, God would continue Israel’s ‘punishment’…; and as long as the Romans remained in power, they would maintain the corrupt Jewish elite’s control of the temple. Accordingly, (b) Jewish religious violence often aimed at seizing physical control of the temple and its personnel.” (p. 156)
    6. “A spiritual solution to the physical conundrum of the Jews would have been a natural and easy thing to conceive at the time. Those Jews who believed they could physically retake control of the temple naturally pinned their hopes on military messianism….. But if any Jews had realized that such a reconquest was impossible (as some must, in accord with Element 24) but still sought a means to escape their cognitive dissonance (in accord with Element 23) without denying the evident facts or abandoning deep-seated religious beliefs…, then for them only one solution remained: to deny the physical importance of the temple at Jerusalem itself. That would require replacing it, and not with another temple… but with something intangible, which neither the Romans nor the corrupt Jewish elite could control…, and which required neither money nor material power to bring about or maintain…, and whose ruler was himself incapable of corruption.” (pp. 156-157)
    7. “… what are now called ‘Cargo Cults’ are the modern movements most culturally and socially similar to earliest Christianity, so much so that Christianity is best understood in light of them.” (p. 159)
  4. Elements of Religious and Philosophical Context
    1. “Early-first-century Judea was at the nexus of countless influences, not only from dozens of innovating and interacting Jewish sects…, but also pagan religions and philosophies….” (p. 164)
    2. “Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea…. For example, you won’t find this trend in ancient China. No such gods are found there. If Christianity had begun in China, its claims would indeed have been unique and astonishing. Yet in its actual Greco-Roman context it was neither unique nor astonishing. Thus it cannot be a coincidence that Christianity arose with an idea matching a ubiquitous pagan type unique to the very time and place it was born. Any theory of historicity, to be plausible, must take this into account.” (p. 168)
    3. “By whatever route, popular philosophy (especially Cynicism, and to some extent Stoicism and Platonism and perhaps Aristotelianism) influenced Christian teachings.” (p. 173)
    4. “In addition to its pagan influences, Christianity was also (obviously) influenced by several Jewish sects…, and can be understood only in this context too. This means the role must be considered not just of the OT and many other Jewish scriptures then revered…, but of specific Jewish sects and their distinctive ideologies and innovations, many of which we do not in fact know much or anything about….” (p. 175)
    5. “Popular cosmology at the dawn of the Common Era in the Middle East held that the universe was geocentric and spherical and divided into many layers…, with the first layer of ‘heaven’ often called the firmament’ (being the foundation holding up all the others) and consisting of all the air between the earth and the moon (or sometimes the same term only meant the topmost part of this: the sphere traveled by the moon). This expanse was known even then to extend hundreds of thousands of miles…. Above that were several more levels of heaven, the number varying depending on the scheme adopted, but the most commonplace view was that there were seven in all, one for each major celestial body: the region from the moon to Mercury being the first, then on to Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn (not always in that order), and finally the sphere of the stars (astronomers tended to regard the stars as distant suns; theologians tended to favor the theory that the stars comprised a single layer of lights at the top of heaven.” (p. 178)
    6. “Popular cosmology of the time also held that the sub-heaven, the firmament, was a region of corruption and change and decay, while the heavens above were pure, incorruptible and changeless. This view was most widely popularized by Aristotle and then by philosophers after him who adopted it, though many did not, and it remained a debated topic in science well into the Roman era. Nevertheless, it was such a good fit for religious beliefs of the time that theologians clung to Aristotle’s original scheme.” (pp. 180-181)
    7. “Because of this division between the perfect unchanging heavens and the corrupted sublunar world, most religious cosmologies required intercessory beings, who bridge the gap between those worlds, so God need not descend and mingle with corruption.” (p. 181)
    8. “The lowest heaven, the firmament, the region of corruption and change, was popularly thought to be teeming with invisible spirits… and demons…, throughout the whole space, who control the elements and powers of the universe there, meddle in the affairs of man, and do battle with one another. In pagan conception some of these demons were evil and some were good, and the good demons were often intermediary deities…. In Jewish conception all the demons were evil, defying the will of God; and they did the bidding of fallen angels who also set up residence in the firmament, who were once intermediary deities serving God but who were cast down and took up residence in the lower realm.” (p. 184)
    9. “(a) In this same popular cosmology, the heavens, including the firmament, were not empty expanses but filled with all manner of things, including palaces and gardens, and it was possible to be buried there. (b) In this worldview everything on earth was thought to be a mere imperfect copy of their truer forms in heaven, which were not abstract Platonic forms but actual physical objects in outer space.” (p. 194)
    10. “(a) In this cosmology there were also two Adams: one perfect celestial version, of which the earthly version (who fathered the human race) is just a copy. And (b) the first Christians appear to have connected their Jesus Christ to that original celestial Adam.” (p. 197)
    11. “In fact, the Christian idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God called the Logos, who was God’s true high priest in heaven, was also not a novel idea but already held by some pre-Christian Jews; and this preexistent spiritual son of God had already been explicitly connected with a celestial Jesus figure in the OT…, and therefore some Jews already believed there was a supernatural son of God named Jesus—because Paul’s contemporary Philo interprets the messianic prophecy of Zech. 6.12 in just such a way. This is the prophecy about a high priest crowned king in heaven named ‘Jesus Rising’, God’s ‘servant’, who will ‘rise’ from below and be given godly authority and somehow be involved in cleansing the world of sin.” (p. 200)
    12. “(a) The ‘Son of Man’ (an apocalyptic title Jesus is given in the Gospels) was another being forseen in the visions of Enoch to be a preexistent celestial superman whom God will one day put in charge of the universe, overthrowing all demonic power, and in a text that we know the first Christians used as scripture (1 Enoch). (b) According to that scripture, this ‘Son of Man’ will in the appointed day reveal divine secrets to mankind, when also his name will be revealed; and it is implied that he may be the Christ…. (c) But his identity has been kept secret so evildoers will not know him when the time comes (just like Jesus). (d) Yet he already sounds in many respects like the same being as the primordial Adam (Element 39) and Logos (Element 40).” (p. 205)
    13. “There is a parallel tradition of a perfect and eternal celestial high priest named Melchizedek, which means in Hebrew ‘Righteous King’. We have already seen that a celestial Jesus was already called Righteous and King by some pre-Christian Jews. And a connection between the Christ and the Melchizedek figure was probably made before Christianity….” (p. 206)
    14. “(a) Voluntary human sacrifice was widely regarded (by both pagans and Jews) as the most powerful salvation and atonement magic available. (b) Accordingly, any sacred story involving a voluntary human sacrifice would be readily understood and fit perfectly within both Jewish and pagan worldviews of the time.” (p. 209)
  5. Elements of Literary Context
    1. “In Jewish and pagan antiquity, in matters of religious persuasion, fabricating stories was the norm, not the exception, even in the production of narratives purporting to be true. In fact, the persuasive power of representing a story as true was precisely why fabricated stories were often represented as true. We therefore must approach all ancient religious literature from an assumption of doubt, and must work to confirm any given story or account as true, not the other way around. Because prior probability always favors fabrication in that genre.” (p. 214)
    2. “A popular version of this phenomenon in ancient faith literature was the practice of euhemerization: the taking of a cosmic god and placing him at a definite point in history as an actual person who was later deified.” (p. 222)
    3. “Ancient literature also proliferated a variety of model ‘hero’ narratives, some of which the Gospel Jesus conforms to as well, and one of these hero-types was widely revered among pagans: the pre-Christian narratives of the life and death of Socrates and Aesop. These match those of Jesus in the following respects:
      1. “They all came from a humble background (Socrates was the son of a stonemason; Aesop was a slave).
      2. “Yet all were exalted as a moral hero and an exemplary man, who was in the right, and whose teachings one ought to follow.
      3. “And that despite all of them having opposed and denounced the established religious authorities and having challenged the received wisdom of their people.
      4. “All attacked sin and greed on the religious and political elite.
      5. “All attended the parties of sinners and ate and drank with them.
      6. “Yet all consistently denounced sinners, and sought to reform them.
      7. “All taught with questions, parables and paradoxes.
      8. “All taught to love truth, despise money and have compassion on others.
      9. “All taught that they wanted to save everyone’s soul.
      10. “All were despised by some and beloved by others for their teachings.
      11. “All were publicly mocked in some way.
      12. “All were renowned to be physically ugly or deformed.
      13. “All were executed by the state for blasphemy, a crime they did not commit.
      14. “All were actually executed for speaking against the sin and greed of the authorities.
      15. “All voluntarily went to their deaths, despite all having had the power to escape.
      16. “All prophesied God’s wrath would befall their killers; and all were right.
      17. “All were subsequently revered as martyrs.
      18. “And all at the outset had been given a gift of the spirit from God.” (pp. 222-223)
    4. “Another model hero narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the apotheosis, or ‘ascension to godhood’ tale, and of these the one to which the Gospels (and Acts) most conform is that of the Roman national hero Romulus…. The more general point is that this narrative concept of a ‘translation to heaven’ for a hero (often but not always a divine son of god) was very commonplace, and always centered around a peculiar fable about the disappearance of their body.” (p. 225)
    5. “Finally, the most ubiquitous model ‘hero’ narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the fable of the ‘divine king’, what I call the Rank-Raglan hero-type, based on the two scholars who discovered and described it, Otto Rank and Lord Raglan.” (p. 229)

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