Let me start by noting that this portion of the evidence is the only portion that Carrier, when arguing as far in favor if historicity as possible (i.e., a fortiori), finds portions of the evidence that might argue more in favor of historicity than it does in favor of mythicism. So, those of my readers looking to rescue a historical Jesus should pay particular attention to this particular set of material.
Richard Carrier spends a significant portion of his introductory section in his chapter on the Epistles reiterating some of his methodological points. There are several reasons for this. First, it is the last of the content chapters in his book (unlike my presentation wherein it is the earliest biblical content essay), and so the reminders are probably more needed. Second, the Epistles are the earliest biblical sources, and thus it is important to emphasize that we must evaluate them without already assuming the content of the later biblical sources. And third, the Epistles are the only biblical sources that Carrier concludes are not written deliberately as myth or propaganda, and so they are the ones where historical methodology is the most important. Taking my cue from Carrier, I will therefore include a very brief overview of the key methodological points that he thought were important enough to recap here.
“If you approach the text with gut reactions of what you think Paul (or any other author) probably meant, you are not thinking in a logically sound way. Those estimates of probability are in fact measures of the strength of your bias toward one conclusion over another, and not the probability of those biases being correct” (p. 512). “The logically correct way to reason from evidence to a conclusion is to assume that a hypothesis is true (for the sake of argument…), and then ask how likely the particular piece of evidence you are looking at would be in that case. You must do this for both competing hypotheses (thus generating two estimates of probability, not one)” (p. 513). So, first we must assume minimal historicity is true and ask the question, ‘Under that assumption, how likely would I see this piece of evidence?’ Second, we must assume minimal mythicism is true and ask the same question. “The difference in those probabilities is the weight of the evidence (toward whichever hypothesis entails the higher of those probabilities). If there is no difference, then the passage argues for neither hypothesis (it is equally likely on either one)” (p. 513).
The reason Carrier makes this point so strongly is what he perceives as the common way scholars look at arguments. He claims that scholars ask, “’Is that likely what Paul would have meant by that?’” (p. 513), when instead they should ask, “’If Paul was in fact a mythicist, is that likely what he would write?’ (and then ‘If Paul was in fact a historicist, is that likely what he would write?’, for the comparative probability)” (p. 513). Why is this distinction important? Because we will find repeatedly that the question, “’If Paul was in fact a mythicist, is that likely what he would write?’” will be answered yes. And in such cases, that passage cannot argue for historicity, because it is exactly what we would expect if mythicism were true. Carrier spends several paragraphs lamenting the state of historical scholarship on this point, attributing it to the lack of training most historians have in formal logic, and describing the results of this problem as being that ‘consensus’ in the field is unreliable, and that the methodology used by the majority of historians is fatally flawed. Discussing his methodological approaches, Carrier concludes, “Though biases can still affect these estimates, we are at least not simply using our biases as our premises but actually attempting to reason out which theory the evidence fits better, and taking both theories seriously when we do. With that understood, we can proceed” (p. 514).
The Indifference of Paul and his Christians
Carrier quotes Billy Wheaton and Joy Fuller, from Hooks and Ladders: a Journey on a Bridge to Nowhere with American Evangelical Christians, from their discussion of Paul’s letter to fellow congregants in
Rome, whom he has not yet met and thus cannot have discussed his own stories with): “Imagine for a moment that one of your friends writes you a twenty-page letter passionately wanting to share her excitement about a new teacher. This letter has only one topic, your friend’s new teacher. [But] at the end of her letter, you still do not know one thing about her teacher. Yet, Paul presents the central figure of his theology this way…. It [seems] impossible to imagine how Paul could avoid telling one story or parable of—or fail to note one physical trait or personal quality of—Jesus.”
In his seven authentic letters, Paul mentions ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ over 280 times. Adding in other references such as ‘the Lord’ and ‘Son of God,’ there are over three hundred mentions. “… on at least half of those occasions he tells us some particular fact or other about this Jesus. But (as we’ll see) not one of those facts connects Jesus with an earthly life (without adding suppositions not in the text). His crucifixion is mentioned over fifteen times; and his resurrection, over thirty times. But never any details. So those could have occurred in outer space…. We hear very little else” (pp. 514-515). Carrier’s unnecessarily-derogatory use of “outer space” to describe the lower heavens aside, this is an important point. “Never once is his baptism mentioned, or his ministry, or his trial, or any of his miracles, or any historical details about what he was like, what he did, or suffered, or where he was from, or where he had been, or what people he knew. No memories from those who knew him are ever reported. Paul never mentions Galilee or Nazareth, or Pilate or Mary or Joseph, or any miracles Jesus did or any miraculous powers he is supposed to have displayed…. Paul never references any event in Jesus’ life as an example to follow (beyond the abstractions of love, endurance and submissiveness), and never places anything Jesus said in any earthly historical context whatever. So far as these letters tell us, no Christian ever asked Paul about these things, either. Nor did any of these things ever become relevant in any dispute Paul had with anyone. Not one of his opponents, so far as Paul mentions, ever referenced a fact about Jesus’ life in support of their arguments. And no one ever doubted anything claimed about Jesus and asked for witnesses to confirm it or explain it or give more details” (p. 515).
Carrier contrasts this situation to roughly contemporaneous letters from Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus, who had expressed interest in Pliny’s father, Pliny the Elder. In around 1,500 words, Pliny’s letter tells us that “his father died from respiratory failure after breathing the ashfall of Mount Vesuvius in his attempt to investigate the disaster and rescue survivors as commander of the Roman naval fleet stationed nearby. Pliny relates as much detail as he was witness to and those present informed him of. Pliny’s response peaked Tacitus’s curiosity and questions even more” (p. 511), and subsequent correspondence included even more detail. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (among his shortest) contains around 3,000 words. Romans contains almost 10,000. Pliny’s and Tacitus’s correspondence is exactly what we would expect. Paul’s is not. “That’s all simply bizarre. And bizarre means unexpected, which means infrequent, which means improbable” (p. 515). Historicists have to explain why Paul included nothing of the kind I quoted in my previous paragraph, as well as “why the only sources Paul ever refers to for anything he claims to know about Jesus are private revelations and hidden messages in scripture…, and why Paul appears to not know of there being any other sources than these (like, e.g., people who knew Jesus)” (p. 515). Making a further methodological point, Carrier continues, “Whatever explanation historicists devise for these curiosities has to be demonstrably true, and not something they just make up to explain away the evidence. Because such ‘making up of excuses’ would risk the fallacy of gerrymandering, which necessarily lowers your theory’s prior probability since you have to assume facts that aren’t in evidence and that aren’t made probable by any evidence there is” (pp. 515-516).
Some specific evidence for what I described above:
- 1.11-16: Paul says he received the gospel only by revelation.
- 15.25-26: scripture and revelation are the only sources of information about Jesus that Paul mentions Christians having.
- 15.3-4: Paul appears to say that we have to learn things about Jesus by discovering them in scripture (why no knowledge of a community of witnesses to consult? He even seems to deny the existence of such a community in 1 Cor. 4.6).
- 1 Cor. 11.23-25: The Eucharist is cited as coming from revelation (Carrier discusses this in detail later in the chapter), despite this being exactly a place where we would expect human testimony to be the only possible source.
Looking in more detail at one particular passage, 1 Cor. 15.3-9, we find, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that according to the scriptures Christ died for our sins, and that he was buried, and that according to the scriptures he has been raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to ‘the twelve’ and then he appeared [to hundreds of brethren all at once] and then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles, and last of all to me as well, as if to an aborted fetus—because I am the least of the apostles, who is not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Assembly of God.” Carriers interpretation of this passage, expanded on in a footnote, includes his belief that the passage has “become multiply corrupted, deliberately and accidentally, and that it originally may have referenced only Cephas and Paul and ‘all the brethren at the Pentecost’ (not ‘five hundred bretheren’, the word pentakosiois being just a few letters away from pentēkostēs…)… However to avoid needlessly controversial premises here, I will simply assume the passage as we have it is what Paul wrote” (p. 516).
Consider this passage carefully. The death and resurrection are known according to the scriptures, but he was seen only after his death and resurrection. There is no reference to him having been seen beforehand. This is confirmed in Phil. 2.5-11: no ministry, just descent from heaven, submitting to death, and rising again to heaven. Notice how well all of this fits with our discussion of 1 Clement, where the quotations Clement attributes to Jesus were actually quotations from scripture, only scriptural evidence is cited for things that happened to Jesus, and that the gospel is only transmitted through the apostles, thereby effectively denying that Jesus had a public ministry.
When we look at Paul’s authentic letters (“corroborated by other letters from the Pauline school: e.g. Eph. 3.3-12 and Col. 1.24-29” (p. 517), if we deliberately ignore what was written later (e.g., the Gospels, which we will find fit the mold of literary mythmaking much better than they do of history), minimal mythicism makes perfect sense without any further required suppositions. Why did Paul never show “any interest in the historical Jesus, nor did any of his congregations, nor did any of his opponents” (p. 517)? “Because there was no historical Jesus. There was only a revealed being. Which was not anything one could dispute—except by claiming to have contrary revelations (hence Gal. 1.6-9)” (p. 517).
Carrier claims that apologetic “attempts to dodge this bullet always involve suppositions, which are either not in evidence or implausible” (p. 517). For example, “the earliest Christians, including even Paul and his opponents in the church, simply weren’t interested in anything Jesus said or did in his life. There is no evidence of that. To the contrary, the letters are full of interest in Jesus’ death and what it accomplished and what words he revealed to his apostles. And a disinterest in everything else goes against all precedents in history and human nature. It should also be pointed out that if no Christians were interested in any details of Jesus’ life, then they cannot have transmitted any details of his life either” (pp. 517-518), which argues for the Gospels being fictions. “… you cannot claim the Christians were simultaneously keen to accurately preserve the memories of Jesus and completely uninterested in any memories of Jesus” (p. 518).
The second common apologetic tactic Carrier addresses is that Paul’s letters were only occasional, and only addressed specific issues that came up; therefore, they were not thorough treatises on what Jesus said and did. “The premise here is certainly correct. The conclusion is not. Why weren’t any facts about the life or deeds or teachings or trial or execution of Jesus ever themselves an ‘occasion’ of query or example or proof or dispute? Why were such things never relevant to any doctrine or question or dispute in the church that Paul spent thousands of words addressing? It’s not that the letters we have suggest Paul was asked or tasked with discussing or mentioning such things and he failed to answer. Rather, it’s that, so far as we can tell, no letters sent to him ever asked or tasked him with discussing or mentioning such things. No event in Jesus’ life, no details of Jesus’ life, ever had any relevant to any of the occasional issues he addressed, and no one ever used such events or details in any argument Paul ever had to confront. No one was even curious about such things. That is what is extremely improbable. Simply saying the letters were only ‘occasional’ does not make that fact any more likely” (p. 518).
Even if there were no direct questions about or places where a mention of facts from Jesus’s life would be relevant to the discussions in the letters, it is highly improbable that incidental details about his life wouldn’t have come up, unless there were no such details. Consider, Paul includes “happenstance mention of baptizing of the dead (1 Cor. 15.29) [and] the fear of what angels might do if Christian women don’t cover their hair in church (1 Cor. 11.9-10) [and] the fact that Christians will one day judge the angels (1 Cor. 6.3). Paul let’s slip countless incidental details like these about Christian practice and belief, not because he was required to but simply because that sort of thing can’t really be avoided. You would actually have to try very hard not to ever mention anything in twenty thousand wards beyond the bare few facts you need to communicate” (p. 518). And yet, no such details are mentioned.
Carrier spends a great deal of time discussing scholars who have reached the same conclusion… not that Jesus didn’t exist, but that Paul’s Epistles can be of no help in proving he did. I will omit quoting the scholars Carrier cites that simply reinforce Carrier’s positions I have already outlined. However, “[s]cholars are thus starting to rethink the sequence of events. Nikolaus Walter has concluded that many of the teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were in fact fabricated out of the sayings of Paul, and that there simply wasn’t any collection of teachings from Jesus beyond the occasional revelations [this conclusion is corroborated by other scholars Carrier cites.] James Dunn confesses this ‘would seem an odd conclusion to be forced to’ given what appears in the Gospels, but once we agree the Gospels are fiction, it does not look so odd after all, and even Dunn admits the letters are peculiar on any other assumption—so Dunn himself had to resort to the implausible hypothesis that Paul was everywhere simply implying Jesus as his authority. But that notion is exploded by the fact that Paul makes no such assumptions when citing scripture as his authority…, and in fact Paul frequently identifies Jesus (‘the Lord’) as his authority, and even takes care to distinguish between commands he received form his revealed Lord and his own opinions (e.g. 1 Cor. 7.25 vs. 14.37 or 9.8 vs. 9.14). We have to face the fact of it. There simply is no source known to Paul, for him or anyone, but scripture and revelations from his celestial Jesus. And that all but rules out a historical Jesus” (pp. 521-522).
Carrier addresses numerous scholarly denials of these observations, but hopefully the point is clear without me having to go through them. Paul’s seeming indifference to a historical Jesus is surprising, and therefore implausible. “Thus it becomes very significant… that Paul never once mentions anyone being Jesus’ ‘disciples’ (he never uses that word at all; not even ‘the twelve’ in 1 Cor. 15.5 are said to be ‘the twelve disciples’). Paul only knows of ‘apostles’, who, like him, received revelations of the Lord (1 Cor. 9.1; Gal. 1.1; etc.) and confirmed their status by proving God had bestowed on them miraculous powers (2 Cor. 12.12). So when Paul ranks the members of the church in order of authority, he says, ‘God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then those with powers [most likely exorcists], then charismatic healers, then aides, administrators, and speakers in tongues’ (1 Cor. 12.28). Disciples don’t make the list. They don’t exist. Instead, first in rank are simply all the ‘apostles’ like Paul. A special category of those who knew Jesus in life and were personally selected by him then, or were his family, is entirely absent. And those apostles include people we never hear about elsewhere, such as Apollos (1 Cor. 3.4-5) or possibly Andronicus and Junias (or Junia, Rom. 16.7)” (p. 524).
Paul never even identifies the ‘three pillars’ (Cephas, James, and John of Gal. 2.9) as being Jesus’ follower in life or having been specially appointed by him; that appears only in the Gospels (Cephas having morphed into Peter). There were appointed, as far as the Epistles say, by visions of the risen Lord. This is particularly important for Paul, because “he simply assumes his calling as an apostle (as in Gal. 1 and 1 Cor. 9.1) was the same as theirs. So we have to ask, why would Peter—or James or John for that matter—accept Paul into the apostolate at all if he hadn’t been chosen by Jesus in life and struggled with him in life? How could his claim to be an apostle carry any weight whatever? Why did visions of the Lord take precedence over actually having had the man himself appoint you in person? This, too, is improbable—not impossible, but definitely improbable. Unless that’s the only way anyone was appointed: by revelation” (p. 525).
This calls attention to a weakness in another common apologetic argument, “that Paul deliberately avoided talking about eyewitness testimony because he wouldn’t want to call attention to the fact that he himself wasn’t one.” Such a move might be explainable from Paul’s perspective, but has no explanatory value concerning why he wasn’t rejected by the eyewitnesses. But even the former explanatory power is an illusion. “’Why would he put a finger on his own weakness?’ Because if it was his weakness, he would have to. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the actual Christian congregations he was writing to. Paul is not writing to persuade us, some random foreigners two thousand years later. He’s writing to persuade actual contemporaries—from whom he could not hide so decisive a weakness. So if it was a weakness, he would constantly have to address it, head on. Because it would constantly be thrown in his face, and constantly used against him, becoming a constant hurdle he would have to overcome. Yet there is no sign in his letters that it was. This is therefore just another made-up excuse, for which we have no evidence, and ample evidence to the contrary” (pp. 525-526).
“Paul’s whole argument of Galatians 1-2 is that human testimony was evidently distrusted by the Galatians, to the point that Paul had to deny he ever relied on it, and had to insist instead that he had all his information by direct revelation, and that he didn’t even talk to anyone else in the church for years (he is even forced to swear to this). He clearly had to argue this way to persuade the Galatians his gospel was legitimate. So the Galatians only trusted direct revelation. This makes no sense on anything but minimal mythicism. How could Paul make this argument if there was a historical Jesus and therefore eyewitness companions and a family of Jesus still living and active in the church whose authority could never be trumped in such a way and whose direct testimony would surely be paramount to deciding all doctrinal authority within the church?… Only if there were no such witnesses would revelation be the defining feature of apostolic authority, and only then would Paul have to defend his relying on nothing but that, as only then would the Galatians accept only that—rejecting human testimony as illegitimate (as apparently they were). Otherwise Paul would have to insist here that he learned the gospel from the first witnesses and then swear they can confirm to the Galatians that he had stuck to what they told him. But that’s not what he argues…. There would be no plausible way Paul could expect to win any argument by never even addressing his opponents’ evidence or even acknowledging it existed” (p. 526).
“The ‘anxiety’ Paul is supposed to have had over his not being an eyewitness never appears. It’s a modern fiction. This is evident, for example, in the passages where Paul uses the phrase ‘super-apostles’, huper lian apostoloi, literally ‘apostles beyond exceedingly’, which some who make this argument cite as evidence of his anxiety of not being an eyewitness like them. But in fact Paul never says this phrase relates to their having known Jesus. To the contrary, he says it relates to their being much better speakers than him (2 Cor. 11.1-7 and 12.7-13, which in context I suspect indicates that the famous ‘thorn in his side’ he complains of was a stutter or speech impediment). Remember that ‘apostle’ means ‘messenger’, so being a ‘super great messenger’ has a more obvious meaning in the Greek: they were better at it than he was” (pp. 526-527). Carrier provides numerous further examples of this, but I think the point has been made.
Consider as well that Paul talks about alternate theologies as people preaching ‘another Jesus’ than the one he preached, involving receiving a ‘different’ spirit and thus a ‘different’ gospel (2 Cor. 11.4 and Gal. 1.6-9). This would be a strange way to describe things if there had been a historical Jesus (instead we would expect he would argue that false things were being said about Jesus, or that he was being misrepresented), but is perfectly reasonable if there was only a celestial Jesus.
The only remaining argument against this conclusion is “that the Epistles are not in fact silent about the historical Jesus, that in fact there are ‘implicit’ references in them that establish his historicity” (p. 528). The rest of Carrier’s chapter on the Epistles addresses this claim.
Epistles from the Pillars?
Carrier established earlier that evidence from forgeries cannot be counted as evidence in favor of historicity, although they might let slip evidence of nonhistoricity. Some such evidence can be found in the Epistles of the Pillars. “The epistles of James and 1 Peter are also oddly silent about a historical Jesus—an oddity later rectified by the forgery of a second letter from Peter…, and perhaps by the forgery of the Epistles of John…. the Epistle of Jude (literally, Judas), which also makes no reference to the historical Jesus—not even to claim the author was his brother, despite introducing himself (in Jude 1) as the brother of James. Notably Jude concurs with 1 Clement… in suggesting that the words of Jesus only came to be communicated to the world through the apostles (Jude 17), making no mention of disciples or of Jesus having preached to the public. The Epistle of James makes no mention of its author being the brother of Jesus, either. Instead, Jas 5.11 imagines that all Christians have ‘seen’ Jesus die (just like Clement did) and implies Jesus has never been on earth before—he will only one day come (Jas 5.7-8); James does not say Jesus is ‘returning’ or coming a second time (such a specific notion is never found in the letters of Paul, either…)…. This James also says things that later appear on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels, yet were clearly not the words of Jesus when James wrote them” (pp. 528-529). Jas 1.12 and 5.12 are examples of this. “So the sequence of events is again reversed: sayings came to be invented for Jesus by adapting sayings from common lore, lost scriptures and even the apostles themselves (real or fictional). James was also written by someone defending a Torah-observant sect of Christianity (the original sect before Paul’s innovation…)—exactly as Paul implies James the Pillar had done (Gal. 2.9-12). This letter might thus be an authentic letter from the original, actual James (who was not the brother of Jesus, but of the other pillar, John: see, e.g., Mk 5.37…). That this letter looks more in agreement with minimal mythicism than minimal historicity is therefore noteworthy” (p. 529).
1 Peter also lacks any apparent knowledge of a historical Jesus, and the author describes himself as an ‘apostle’, not a disciple. 1 Peter 1.10-12 confirms that the process by which facts about Jesus are discovered is through scripture and revelation to the apostles, with nary a mention of Jesus ministering to the public. Jesus is never quoted, and no events are discussed other than vague mentions of his suffering death, which is already expected on minimal mythicism. “We’re likewise told that Jesus preached to infernal spirits (1 Pet. 3.19-20) after being resurrected (3.18-19, 21), but curiously we’re never told that he preached to men on earth before that. All we hear about is a celestial Jesus who suffers and dies in some sense ‘in the flesh’ (3.18; 4.1), descends to preach to imprisoned spirits (3.19-20), including spirits of the dead (4.6), and then ascends back to heaven once his is put in charge of the universe (3.22). this is all in agreement with minimal mythicism, and in fact sounds a lot like the Ascension of Isaiah and the Ignatian mini-gospel. So when at last Peter tells us he was a ‘witness of the sufferings of Christ’ (1 Pet. 5.1), possibly in what was originally a separate letter (possibly not even by Peter), we must either convict the Gospels of lying (as in their accounts Peter is not present at the crucifixion) or conclude he means by revelation, the very way Paul saw Jesus offering the bread and cup (in 1 Cor. 11.23-25), or the way James said all Christians saw Jesus suffer (Jas 5.11)” (pp. 530-531).
Carrier concludes that the content of the Epistles of the Pillars is less probable on historicity than it is on mythicism. The “content could be ‘interpreted’ as being in agreement with [historicization], even though we can see this agreement is strained and requires arbitrary, dogmatic assumptions to maintain” (p. 531). He argues a fortiori (maximally in favor of historicity) that the content of these letters is no more than 80% as likely on historicity as it is on mythicism, but thinks it is more reasonably 60% likely on historicity as it is on minimal mythicism. Personally, I think even that is an overestimate. He then notes that he doesn’t “count the fact that some of the forged epistles in the NT show a reaction against ‘mythical’ Jesuses as evidence for either theory, since that evidence is consistent with both. But it does refute the claim that we should have some such evidence yet don’t—because we do, in fact even more than we might have expected” (p. 531).
The Earliest Gospels
It is sometimes claimed that the instances in Paul’s letters and in the Pauline letters composed in his name where a statement of the gospel ‘kerygma’ (the core doctrine defining what Christians believe) demonstrates a belief in a historical Jesus. Carrier claims, however, that they obviously do not, and that they make more sense on a mythicist thesis. The most commonly cited such passage is 1 Cor. 15.1-8, which says only that Christians believed “Jesus died (sacrificially for their sins), was buried, and rose again, and then (and, it would seem, only then) appeared to select church leaders” (p. 532). Carrier provides the usual litany of things that are not included, but the point should be clear: this passage is exactly what we would expect on minimal mythicism.
The next most-commonly cited passage is the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Romans, which reads, “[T]he gospel of God, which he announced in advance through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerns his Son, who was born from the sperm of David according to the flesh, who was appointed to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, in other words Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, into obedience of faith among all the nations, for the sake of his name, and among whom you, too, are called to be Jesus Christ’s” (Rom. 1.1-6). The specific issue of the “sperm of David” will be addressed in a separate section below. Other than that detail, all of this is completely compatible with minimal mythicism. The appointment as apostles, for example, is consistent with revelation rather than in-person action.
The next version is the most detailed we get from Paul: “Have this mind [of humble love] in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not decide to seize equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, and being discovered as a man in outward form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, a death of a cross. For this [act] God also highly exalted him, and granted him the name that is above all names, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2.5-11). This is largely an expansion of the same gospel in Romans, and again is completely compatible with minimal mythicism. The part about “being discovered as a man in outward form” is particularly interesting, because it implies someone doing the finding. Who? “In the original Ascension of Isaiah, it was Satan and his demons who found him in that form—and then killed him, not knowing who he really was” (p. 534). Also interesting is the assigning of Jesus’ name in this passage. “the notion evidently being that Zechariah 6 was thought by Christians to describe the event of his naming, after his resurrection…, before which he may have had some other name” (p. 534). Carrier, in a footnote, suggests that the prior name might have been Melchizedek in line with some of the background information, but that particular speculation isn’t relevant to the argument. The fact that this passage seems to fit so poorly with minimal historicity has troubled scholars. “So odd [is this passage], in fact, that some scholars have had to insist this entire passage must be an interpolation, that Paul can’t possibly have said this. But there is no evidence it’s an interpolation. No manuscripts omit it; no significant variants exist for it (beyond variant spellings of a few words, which is common); it also does not contradict anything else Paul says in this or any other letter, and it does not interrupt the flow of thought in Philippians 2—it even matches the thought of the surrounding argument, emphasizing the theme of Christ’s self-humbling and obedience as an example the Christian is exhorted to follow. I must conclude that this passage is authentic” (p. 535). He also concludes that the passage fits minimal mythicism better than it fits minimal historicity.
Paul, when describing the source of these gospels, uses the same phrases consistently, phrases that he uses to describe material he received by revelation. An argument could be made, according to Carrier, that he actually received the information from human tradition, but that he couldn’t admit to this because the Galatians expected him to have received all of it by revelation, otherwise he wouldn’t be a true apostle. Regardless of whether he hallucinated it or merely pretended to hallucinate it (see the support for background claims), this is still fully expected on minimal mythicism.
Looking at letters written in Paul’s name, at least those that most closely match his theology, we find another summary of the gospel in Col. 1: “[Give] thanks to the Father, who made us fit to be part of the inheritance of those holy in the light, he who delivered us from the authority of the darkness and transferred [us] to the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have [our] redemption, the forgiveness of [our] sins, he who is the Image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were all things created, in the heavens and on earth, things seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities, all things have been created through him, and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things are held together. He is also the head of the body, the church, and he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he would have preeminence in all things. He was pleased that in him should all the fullness dwell and through him all things should be fully reconciled with himself, having made peace [with them] through the blood of his cross-whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens” (Col 1.12-20). We are told that this is “the mystery that has been hidden for ages and generations, but now has been manifested to his holy ones, [the ones] to whom God wished to make known what the riches are of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, [that being the realization of] Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1.26-27). This is an elaborate description of who Jesus Christ is, what he did, and why it matters, but there are no historical facts given. “This sure sounds like a celestial demigod working a celestial deed. There is nothing here that sounds like a historical man who recently lived and died on earth” (p. 358).
The most elaborate early Gospel is found in the book of Hebrews. “The author of this text is not named” (p. 538), and despite that some claim it was Paul, Carrier considers that unlikely, particularly when stylistic considerations are taken into account. Many scholars try to date Hebrews after the canonical Gospels, but Carrier finds this implausible for two reasons. First, “Hebrews shows no knowledge of those Gospels (it never references any of their unique content and never quotes from them, and what it does argue often seems to be in ignorance of what they say)” (p. 539). Second, “Hebrews assumes without explanation that the Jewish temple cult is still operating—that the temple hasn’t been destroyed by the romans and the rites there outlawed” (p. 539). For both of these reasons, Hebrews should be dated pre-70 CE, which would make it, in a sense, “the earliest Christian ‘Gospel’, since it is mostly an elaborate treatise on the gospel and why it should be believed (it just isn’t a narrative of Jesus or a collection of his sayings, so it’s not analogous to other Gospels only in structure and genre)” (p. 539). Carrier goes on to support the dating in a more detailed argument, but that is probably unnecessary in my overview, so I will leave the point where it is.
“Whatever its date, this letter is almost entirely about Jesus, yet seems wholly unaware of his having been any kind of earthly man. I suspect this epistle represents, at least in its core elements (indeed if not in its entirety), what the gospel of Jesus was that Paul was preaching and what that gospel was before the Gospels mythically euhemerized Jesus into an earthly man. But whether that’s the case or not, Hebrews certainly appears to imagine a solely cosmic Jesus. The simplest explanation for this fact is that this letter preserves the gospel in its earlier form, rather than it being a later (and thus radical) departure from the stories and sayings tradition found in the Gospels” (p. 540).
“The Gospel repeatedly emphasized throughout the book of Hebrews is that ‘Jesus the Son of God is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens’ (Heb. 4.14; see also 6.19-20, in reference to the account in Heb. 5; etc.). You might notice that that sounds exactly like the celestial high priest named Jesus in early Jewish theology (Element 40) undertaking the very task described for the celestial Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah…. We saw that in the earliest discernible redaction of the latter, the Jesus who passes through the heavens dies in outer space, in the sublunar heaven, not on earth” (pp. 540-541). It seems the author of Hebrews believes the same thing: “the sum of what we’ve said is this: we have such a High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of His Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices, therefore it is necessary that this One have something to offer, too. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are already priests who offer gifts according to the law, and who only give service to the copy and shadow of heavenly things [because Moses was instructed to make on earth copies of the things he saw in heaven]” (Heb. 8.1-5). Carrier’s analysis is, “This certainly seems to say Jesus died in outer space. Because here we’re told that Jesus not only performed his sacrifice in the celestial temple…, but that he had to do so. Otherwise the magic of it wouldn’t have worked. We’re also told that Jesus wasn’t ever on earth—instead, he could only have been God’s celestial high priest (so as to perform the ultimate sacrifice) if he wasn’t on earth. Because ‘if he were on earth, he would not be a priest’” (p. 541). We are told the same things here that Isaiah was told in the Ascension of Isaiah.
But we don’t have to rely on implication, because the author of Hebrews specifically says it:
Christ, arriving as a High Priest of the good things to come, through a greater and more perfect temple, the one not made with hands (that is to say, not of [human] construction), and neither through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered into the holy place once and for all, finding eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and sprinkling the ashes of a heifer, made holy again those who were defiled, cleansing their flush, how much more should the blood of Christ (who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God) cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!
And it is for this reason that [Christ] is the mediator of a new testament, so that by a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they that have been called may [now] receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, it must follow on the death of him that made it. For a testament is only valid upon death; it doesn’t go into effect when he that made it still lives. For this reason even the first testament was not enacted without blood… [since Moses inaugurated the old testament with a blood sacrifice].
Pretty much, according to the law, all things are cleansed with blood and without bloodshed no forgiveness occurs. And so it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not go into the holy place made with hands, the antitype of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God on our behalf. Nor does he need to present himself time and again, like the high priest does who goes into the holy place year by year with the blood of another. Otherwise [Christ] must have suffered repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But now, once and for all, at the end of the ages, he has appeared to put away sin by sacrificing himself.
And insofar as men are appointed to die only once, and after that comes judgement, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, without sin, to those who eagerly wait for him for salvation. For the law, containing only a shadow of the good things to come and not the actual image of them, can never perfect those who would draw near with the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually. Otherwise wouldn’t they have ceased to be offered? Because then worshippers, having been cleansed once and for all, would have no more sins on their conscience. But in these [sacrifices[ there is a remembrance of sins year by year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins [for good].
For this reason, when coming into the world, [Christ] says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire…’ [here beginning a lengthy quotation of Ps. 40.6-8]. [And so] he put an end to the first, so he could establish the second. By this testament we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. Indeed every priest stands day by day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time and again, which can never take away sins. But he, when he offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down on the right hand of God. Thereafter waiting, until his enemies are put down to be a footstool under his feet. For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are made holy.
And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us, for after that he said… [here quoting Jer. 31.33-34]. For where the pardoning of sins be, there is no more offering for sin [required]. (Heb. 9.11-10.18)
This passage lays out the entire original logic of the Christian gospel: “the temple sacrifices were insufficient for salvation and had to be done away with…, but to do that a more perfect sacrifice had to be conceived, one with eternal magical power (rather than one that last only a year) and one that can cleanse sins to their celestial core, and not just the earthly veneer of them…. Logic then entails that this sacrifice has to be of a divine body, not an earthly one—and has to be performed in the divine temple, not the earthly one. And the author here says that is exactly what Jesus did, that that was his whole purpose. That is the sum of the gospel” (p. 543).
This gospel proclaims Jesus to be the “superior replacement for Moses” (p. 543). So is he just as mythical? Notice the complete lack of historical detail in this passage. Notice that the author’s quoting of Jesus is simply the quoting of Old Testament scripture (a pattern followed throughout Hebrews). Notice as well that “Jesus in this gospel sprinkles his blood on objects in outer space, not on earth. Though he does not die in the celestial temple, he nevertheless must carry his blood there. And only once he does (and thus, only after his ascension) is the new covenant established and the sins of the elect forgiven. Which means that feat had not been accomplished on the cross. More importantly, this author sees no need to explain how a man crucified by the Romans could do any of this. It seems to be taken for granted that Jesus performs his sacrifice in the heavens, in parallel to the priests who perform theirs on earth. Sacrifices performed on earth are feeble; only a sacrifice in heaven has lasting power. The logic of this fits that of the earlier redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah. It doesn’t fit the historicizing narratives in the Gospels” (p. 543). Despite that it is sometimes claimed that this passage places Jesus on earth, there is, quite conspicuously, nothing of the sort in the text.
Later, Hebrews contains an additional detail about where Jesus died: “For the bodies of those beasts whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest [as an offering] for sin are then buried outside the camp. For this reason Jesus also suffered outside the gate, in order to make the people holy through his own blood. Therefore, let us go out to him, outside the camp, bearing the same reproach he did. For we do not have a lasting city here, but we seek after a city to come” (Heb. 13.11-14). Carrier’s analysis is, “From the context the argument here is metaphorical, ‘leaving the camp’ meaning departing Judaism and the temple cult. The two cities are metaphors for the two worlds: the present world of flesh is where they have no city, while their future life in the heavens is the city they look for (see Heb. 11.16 and 12.22; Paul said much the same in Phil. 3.20—and Gal. 4.25-26…). But for the latter metaphor to work, the author cannot mean Jesus was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem. That is in this world, where we have no city, and is certainly not where we must go to meet Jesus now” (p. 544).
All of this, according to Carrier, makes Hebrews exactly what we would expect to find under minimal mythicism, but at least somewhat surprising (and thus less probable) on minimal historicity. Carrier then “bring[s] my point home” (p. 545) by going through Hebrews from start to finish to show how it corroborates the points already made (including further support for Carrier’s identification of Jesus as Melchizedek). I will leave out this extensive analysis in this overview. Combining all of these early gospels from Paul’s letters, the pseudo-Pauline letter to the Colossians, and in Hebrews, Carrier argues that these gospels would only look as they do with a 40% probability on minimal historicity compared to minimal mythicism, though arguing a fortiori he allows a 60% probability.
Things Jesus Said
According to Carrier, it is often claimed that Paul attests to a historical Jesus because he quotes or cites sayings of Jesus. “But this evidence is often ginned up and abused. Ginned up are occasions where Paul says something that sounds like the Gospel Jesus, even though Paul shows no awareness at all that he is quoting or paraphrasing Jesus. These are just the words of Paul. They were later redacted and attributed to Jesus. As already noted, no other account makes any human sense…. Thus such passages cannot be used as evidence of a historical Jesus. Abused are occasions where Paul says he has a commandment ‘from the Lord’ to apply to a situation, which he carefully distinguishes from his own opinions—thus demonstrating considerable reverence for making clear when he is speaking for the Lord and when he is speaking for himself (further refuting the notion that he would ever quote or paraphrase the Lord without attribution). To cite such passages as evidence of historicity is to abuse the evidence beyond what it’s capable of proving. For we know Paul routinely received messages from Jesus by revelation…. He therefore did not need a historical Jesus to learn commandments from” (p. 553). Never once does Paul place any such saying in a historical context, and the words he uses for received and transmitted doctrine are exactly the same that he uses for direct revelation. Also, Paul “essentially says Jesus never taught on earth” (p. 554), in Rom. 10.14-17. Carrier continues to analyze several specific cases where Paul’s writings seem to be used as inspiration to invent sayings by Jesus in the canonical Gospels. Finally, “[a]nother evidence for this conclusion is the fact that the most typical mode of teaching attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (at least the Synoptics) is the parable. Yet parables seem completely unknown to Paul. He never once cites one or uses one” (p. 557).
“However,” Carrier concludes, “that almost everything Jesus says in the Gospels is nonhistorical is not the same as Jesus himself being nonhistorical. If we are to honestly test minimal historicity, we must concede it’s entirely possible Jesus was historical but didn’t teach very much at all, or much of any subsequent use” (p. 557). Carrier therefore assigns equal probability for the sayings of Jesus being what they are on minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. “Although I admit that’s over-generous. Since it is still hard to explain how Jesus could have been so rapidly worshiped as a demigod if he hardly ever taught anything worth repeating” (p. 557).
The lone possible exception to the last point may be the Eucharist, since it is both an event that supposedly happened and a ‘saying’ Paul learned ‘from the Lord’. It appears to be derived from a revelatory conversation (called ‘hallucination’ by Carrier) with Jesus, or at least so Paul claimed. This passage reads: “For I received form the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up took bread, and having given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for your sake. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Likewise also the cup after the eating, saying ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11.23-26). The verbal similarities with the scene in Mark 14.22-25 (from which the other Gospel accounts are derived) are strong, indicating that Mark derived his scene from Paul’s. Notice, however, the changes that Mark makes to Paul’s version. Paul only reports Jesus taking the objects and giving instructions to him. “Mark turns it into a narrative scene with guests present: ‘as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, and so on (Mk 14.22). Gone also is the instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of me’, and inserted are repeated references to people (the disciples) being present and eating and drinking with Jesus” (p. 558).
“If we see this for what it is—“, Carrier continues, “Mark having turned Paul’s ritual instruction from Jesus into a story about Jesus—we can no longer presume that Paul is talking about an actual historical event. The more so as he says he was told this directly by Jesus, not by anyone who was present at the meal…. And Paul tells us he had been preaching the gospel and founding churches for three whole years before he ever spoke to anyone who could have been there (Gal. 1.15-20), and he couldn’t possibly have been doing that without teaching the Eucharist ritual. He therefore must have received this revelation then, or claimed to have (Gal. 1.11-12)” (pp. 558-559).
Carrier elaborates on several further points, such as how Jesus doesn’t say until he ‘returns’, but until he ‘comes’, thereby providing no support for the idea that he had already been on Earth, and how Paul’s phraseology ‘in the night in which he was delivered up’ is commonly translated as ‘betrayed’, but which linguistically more similar to how Job had been handed over to Satan, but I won’t belabor these points for space reasons. The upshot is that the Eucharist in Paul, far from clearly describing a historical event, is at least as easily explained under minimal mythicism, if not more easily explained. Carrier concludes that this detail therefore argues neither for historicity nor mythicism.
Paul mentions little else, other than the Eucharist, of things that could be argued Jesus either did or had done to him. Suffering, dying, being buried, and then being resurrected are all expected on minimal mythicism, even though those activities are expected in the celestial realm rather than on Earth, and indeed the language in Paul’s Epistles describing all of these are more in line with a celestial interpretation than with a historical interpretation. It’s also clear from the language used in these letters that the resurrection occurred only in secret. Paul himself is the only person who was not already a believer that he reports Jesus having appeared to, and that was in a revelation. The appearances to believers are also post moretem.
Paul’s letters include two descriptions of who killed Jesus. The first is this: “We speak a wisdom among the mature [i.e., the fully initiated…], a wisdom not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are being abolished, but we speak God’s wisdom, in a mystery, that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age had known. For if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. But as it is written, ‘Things which eye saw not and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of a man, those things God prepared for those who love him’. For God revealed them to us through the Spirit…” (1 Cor. 2.6-10). Notice the emphasis in this passage on everything having been hidden. The question, in this passage, is who are ‘the rulers of this age’? “This cannot mean the Jewish elite, or the Romans, or any human authority. None of them would have been dissuaded by knowing such a fact; indeed they would either have gladly gone through with it (to save all mankind) or not cared one whit (if they didn’t really believe it would have such an effect). There is only one order of beings who was invested in preventing such a result: Satan and his demons” (p. 564). The specific language Paul uses for ‘the rulers of this age’ is archontōn tou aiōnos toutou. The word archōn had, at the time it was written, a common supernatural sense: the demonic powers. Paul almost never used the word to refer to earthly authorities, and never did so when also using the “cosmic vocabulary of aeons” (p. 565). Instead, this passage is perfectly in line with the Ascension of Isaiah. The early Christian scholar Origen agrees with this interpretation (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, fragment 9.14-25).
A historicist can still try to argue that “this is all just a veiled way of referring to Pilate and the Sanhedrin” (p. 566); however, doing so requires ad hoc excuses, whereas the mythicist reading is completely natural. That leads to a probability favoring mythicism over historicity, even if just by a small amount.
The second passage in Paul’s letters concerning who killed Jesus seems to directly implicate ‘the Jews’ (1 Thess. 2.15-16). Unfortunately for this argument, this passage “has long been recognized as an interpolation” (p. 566), even among historicist scholars. Carrier summarizes the arguments that lead to this conclusion, but since this is apparently a well-accepted fact in the scholarly literature I will leave those arguments out of this summary for space reasons (anyone interested can find these arguments on Carrier’s pages 567-569).
Carrier makes a similar argument concerning Jesus’s suffering, “which likewise would have occurred at the hands of the same demons who killed him”, his humbleness and love, “which were likewise displayed by his obedience to God’s plan in the heavens”, and his having been a man, “since as we saw in the Philippians gospel, in order to die Jesus had to be clothed in a human body, which the Ascension of Isaiah originally placed in outer space” (pp. 569-570). I will omit these details in my overview as well for length reasons.
Some claim that Romans 15.8 implies a ministry among the Jews. This passage reads, “Christ has been made a deacon of circumcision for the sake of God’s honesty, in order to confirm [his] promises to the patriarchs.” Carrier, however, argues that all this implies is that Jesus had to be given a Jewish body and to appear first to the Jews.
Carrier continues in this vein analyzing several other passages, with similar outcomes. “And that’s it. That’s all Paul ever says about Jesus’ deeds in life that could possibly have any link to a historical man. Paul says he was incarnated, suffered, crucified, died, and buried, and spoke about a ritual meal on the night that happened; and that he is humble, fair and loving. All of which can be true of a cosmically incarnated Jesus. As far as Paul seems to care, there were no miracles, no ministry, no trial, no names or dates or places or any details at all of anyone or anyplace involved, and quite simply nothing anyone witnessed before his death. That’s all very odd. Which means very improbable. Unless, of course, minimal mythicism is true. Then it makes perfect sense” (p. 573).
How likely is it that Paul would mention no historical facts about Jesus? Carrier argues that it is no more than 50% as likely on minimal historicity as it is on minimal mythicism, but arguing a fortiori he grants a 75% chance on minimal historicity compared to minimal mythicism.
Women and Sperm
There are two remaining lines of evidence that historicists claim as demonstrations that Paul and his Christians knew of a historical Jesus. The first are “some vague references to his parentage” (p. 575), which I will discuss in this section. The second are “mentions of there being ‘brothers of the Lord’” (p. 575), which I will discuss in the next section.
“Jesus’ father is never named or even mentioned by Paul; nor is his hometown or genealogy or anything else distinctive of an actual man…. in Rom. 1.3 Paul says Jesus was ‘made from the sperm of David, according to the flesh’, in contradistinction to Jesus being ‘declared the Son of God in power, according to the spirit’, in the one case referencing his incarnation (cf. Phil. 2.5), in the other his resurrection (cf. Phil 2.9). Likewise, Heb. 7.11-17 says scripture ‘foretold’ that the Christ would ‘arise’ (anatellō) from the tribe Judah, and Rom. 15.12 says scripture foretold that the Christ would be a ‘root of Jesse’ (the father who sired King David). The same is implied in Rom. 9.5 and 15.8. These all hinge then on what it means to be ‘made from the sperm of David, according to the flesh’, since these all reference the same fact. An allegorical meaning is possible. But so is a literal one—even on minimal mythicism” (p. 575).
Carrier then begins what may be his weakest argument in the book as he looks at the possible literal interpretation that could be possible under minimal mythicism. Fortunately, Carrier recognizes the weakness of this argument and therefore assigns a higher probability to this text being as it is on minimal historicity than on minimal mythicism, one of only three places he does that (the second being a second set of texts that will also be considered in this section, and the third to be covered in the next section). I will get to the summary after the analysis, but I mention it here to set the reader’s mind at ease that Carrier, and I, acknowledge that he is going out on something of a limb with his interpretation.
“Philippians 2.6-11 portrays this fact as an act of divine construction, not human procreation…: Jesus ‘took’ human form, was ‘made’ to look like a man and then ‘found’ to be resembling one (see also Heb. 2.17)…. In Rom. 1.3 (just as in Gal. 4.4) Paul uses the word genomenos (from ginomai), meaning ‘to happen, become’. Paul never uses that word of a human birth, despite using it hundreds of times (typically to mean ‘being’ or ‘becoming’); rather, his preferred word for being born is gennaō. Notably, in 1 Cor. 15.45, Paul says Adam ‘was made’, using the same word as he uses for Jesus; yet this is obviously not a reference to being born but to being constructed directly by God. If so for Adam, the so it could be for Jesus (whom Paul equated with Adam in that same verse). Likewise in 1 Cor. 15.37 Paul uses the same word of our future resurrection body, which of course is not born from a parent but directly manufactured by God (and already waiting for us in heaven: 2 Cor. 5.1-5). Thus, Paul could be saying the same of Jesus’ incarnation” (p. 576). Carrier argues that Christians were aware of the distinction between Paul saying ‘made’ rather than ‘born’. “[W]e know many Christians did conceive of these things celestially. Irenaeus documents this extensively in his first book Against All Heresies, where we learn of celestial ‘seeds’ impregnating the celestial ‘wombs’ of celestial ‘women’…, and of Jesus being fully understood as having been born to a ‘woman’ of exactly that sort…” (pp. 580-581).
Carrier then analyzes 2 Samuel 7.12-14a, which tells the prophecy of Nathan concerning King David, “When your days are done, and you sleep with your fathers, I will raise up your sperm after you, which shall come from your belly, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build for me a house in my name, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.” If this is read as a pesher, according to Carrier, it would be easy to conclude that God was saying he had extracted semen from David and held on to it until he was ready to make good on his promise of David’s descendants sitting on an eternal throne. Keep in mind that the original writing of 2 Samuel likely intended not only that David’s direct line would have been unbroken, but so would the throne; however, when Paul was writing it was clear that history didn’t match that prophecy, so he would have to find another way to fulfill it.
The idea of a cosmic sperm bank is not without precedent, and in fact later “Jewish legend imagined demons running their own cosmic sperm bank, even stealing David’s sperm for it, to beget his enemies with” (p. 576). Specifically, “the demoness Igrath was believed to collect semen from sleeping men, and once did so from David himself, using his sperm to beget rival kings” (p. 576). Carrier argues that when the prophecy of Nathan is read in light of known history, the most plausible way to rescue God’s prophecy would be with a similar cosmic sperm bank. “The notion of a cosmic sperm bank is so easily read out of this scripture, and is all but required by the outcome of subsequent history, that it is not an improbable assumption. And since scripture required the messiah to be Davidic, anyone who started with the cosmic doctrine inherent in minimal mythicism would have had to imagine something of this kind” (p. 577). Personally, I can imagine some other possibilities, most notably a hidden line of David that led to Jesus, which is essentially what the Gospels present. But, consider that this would only work from a historicist perspective. If mythicism were true, a line of descent from David here on Earth would have required some other mechanism to produce a celestial Jesus, so perhaps Carrier is right that what we see is actually expected under mythicism… or at least as expected as anything could be.
The second set of evidence discussed in this section deals with Jesus’s mother. The only mention is a strangely vague passage in Galatians 3.29-4.7 and 4.22-5.1, which reads:
If you are Christ’s, then you [like him] are the sperm of Abraham, heirs according to the promise. And I say that as long as the heir is a child, he’s no different from a slave. Even though he is lord of all, he is under guardians and stewards until [the day] the father has foreordained. And so we, too, were enslaved under the elements of the universe when we were children. But when the fullness of time came, God sent his son, made from a woman, made under the law, in order to rescue those under the law, in order that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, father!’ As a result, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then also an heir by God… [so, Paul asks, why are you returning to the elements that had enslaved you, whom you know aren’t really gods? Remember how things were when we met? Why re-subject yourself to the Torah law all over again?]
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one from a slave woman and one from a free woman—but the one from the slave woman was born according to the flesh, and the one from the free woman by the promise. Which things are said allegorically, for these [women] are the two testaments, the first being the one from Mount Sinai, which gives birth to slavery. That’s Hagar—Hagar meaning Mount Sinai in Arabia, which corresponds to Jerusalem now, for she is enslaved with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother… [as scripture says].
So now, [my] brothers, we are the children of the promise, like Isaac [the son of the free woman, i.e., Sarah]. But as in those days the one born according to the flesh [i.e. Ishmael] persecuted the one according to the spirit [i.e. Isaac], so it is now. But what does the scripture say? Cast out the slave girl and her son, for the son of the slave girl will not be heir with the son of the free woman [== Genesis 21.10]. Accordingly, [my] brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free one. For freedom did Christ set us free [so don’t go back to being a slave to the elements.]
According to Carrier, “It’s clear that Paul is speaking from beginning to end about being born to allegorical women, not literal ones. The theme throughout is that Christians are heirs of ‘the promise’ (to Abraham), and as such have been born to the allegorical Sarah, the free woman, which is the ‘Jerusalem above’, meaning the heavenly city of God. Jesus was momentarily born to the allegorical Hagar, the slave woman, which is the Torah law (the old testament), which holds sway in the earthly Jerusalem, so that he could kill off that law with his own death, making it possible for us to be born of the free woman at last. This is what Paul means when he says Jesus was made ‘under the law’ and ‘from a woman’; he means Hagar, representing the old law; but we now (like Jesus now) have a new mother: God’s heavenly kingdom” (p. 578). Philo allegorizes Sarah and Hagar in a similar way, and also uses ‘sperm’ allegorically, so there is precedent for this interpretation. For space reasons, I will omit the details.
This chapter begins and ends with the same theme, the transition from slavery under Torah law to freedom under the new testament, all under the same explicitly-stated allegory of Sarah and Hagar, so the statement, often taken out of context in order to support a historicist reading of Jesus having had a mortal mother, in context is clearly allegorical. Further, if Paul were trying to establish that Jesus was a Jew by birth, stating that he was born of a woman is insufficient to do so, since gods, angels, sprits, and demons could also be female. “Even if we just assume he means a human, that is already a rather odd thing to say of a historical man—aren’t all men born to a woman?” (p. 580). An allegorical meaning just makes more sense.
So to sum up, Carrier considers both supposed references to Jesus’s parentage to be explainable on minimal mythicism. He treats the “sperm of David” portion and the reference to Jesus’s mother separately. Each he assigns a “realistic” estimate of being equally likely under minimal mythicism and minimal historicity, but is willing to allow, a fortiori (as favorably toward minimal historicity as possible) that each might be twice as likely on historicity as it they are on mythicism. Personally, I think that is being quite generous toward historicity in the second case, but might be about right in the first case. Keep in mind, however, in analyzing that first case that Carrier’s argument only considered the literal reading; an allegorical reading is still possible, and that is equally likely under historicity and mythicism.
Brothers of the Lord
“The last evidence historicists appeal to (and in my opinion the only actual evidence they have) is that twice Paul mentions ‘brothers of the Lord’, once as a generic group (1 Cor. 9.5) and once naming a specific person as belonging to it: James (Gal. 1.19)” (p. 582). Here is the first case: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you. For you are my seal of apostleship in the Lord. My defense to those who are putting me on trial is this: Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along with us a sister as a wife, as also the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas do? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to give up working for our keep?” (1 Cor. 9.1-6)
Carrier begins his analysis, “Note that this passage is out of place: The argument that Paul is answering has been lost (whatever charge he says he is defending himself against in 9.3). It would have been explained in the preceding verses, but in fact in the present letter, those verses are on a different and largely unrelated controversy (1 Cor. 8.1-13), and then the subject abruptly and inexplicably changes. Like other epistles, 1 Corinthians seems to be a mishmash of several letters, this being an example of where two were mashed together, and here the preceding part of whatever letter this came from was left out (a curious fact in itself)” (p. 582).
The thrust of the controversy Paul is addressing seems to be that “he was accused of being a lazy moocher” (p. 582). “Paul seems to think every traveling minister was allowed to take his wife with him, to be fed by the community along with him, at least if she was a believer (a ‘sister’ of the Lord)” (p. 583). The specific wife in question was probably Barnabas’s, since Paul elsewhere implied that he himself remained single. The context is clearly Christians who are traveling on church business. So, when Paul says, “the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas,” he is clearly not discussing biological brothers, but rather all Christians, who are known as ‘brothers of the Lord.’ Notice as well that the phraseology is not, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ but ‘brothers of the Lord,’ which is much more akin to a cultic title. Carrier makes an extended argument concerning this point, but it should be uncontroversial enough to my audience that I will leave that discussion out.
The second mention of a ‘brother of the Lord’ is this: “When it was the good pleasure of the God who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood right away, nor did I go to Jerusalem to those that were apostles before me, but I went to Arabia and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went to Jerusalem, to consult with Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days, but I did not see any other of the apostles, except James the brother of the Lord. And look, these things I’m writing to you, by God, I’m not lying! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown by face to the congregations of Judea that were in Christ” (Gal. 1.15-22).
Carrier begins his analysis of this text by noting that since he had already established that Paul used ‘brother of the Lord’ to mean Christian rather than a biological brother, he would have needed to be more specific in this case if he had meant a biological brother in this case. This seems at least plausible.
Note as well that shortly after this passage (Gal. 2.9), Paul lists James as one of the three Pillars of the church, James, Cephas, and John. The “Gospels uniformly report that this James and John were the brothers of each other, not Jesus” (p. 588). So either Paul changes which James he is talking about from Gal. 1 to Gal. 2, or Paul didn’t intend James to be identified as a biological brother of Jesus.
Carrier goes into a convoluted (but convincing) argument concerning the strange phrasing of the passage (especially in the original Greek) being an odd way for Paul to say that he had only seen two apostles, Peter and James, and speculates on why he would have said it this way, but the arguments I have already listed are probably sufficient to make the point that it is at least reasonable that Paul didn’t intend biological brotherhood with this passage. As an aside, Carrier’s argument that I am leaving out further supports his position that Paul was deliberately trying to emphasize that he received his information by revelation alone, because that’s all that the Galatians would accept.
“One way to look at these two passages would be to ask what would we think if we only had Paul’s (authentic) letters? If that was all the evidence we had for Christianity, would we conclude that Paul was describing with the title ‘brother of the Lord’ a biological relation or a cultic relation?” (p. 591). Carrier concludes that the evidence from the letters themselves strongly support the cultic relation interpretation, and that it is only evidence outside these letters that biases our interpretations toward a biological relationship.
So, how likely would Paul be to use the phrase ‘brothers of the Lord’ in these two cases, in their given contexts, and given our background knowledge that all Christians would be known as brothers of the Lord? Carrier decides that it is at best half as likely on historicity as it is on mythicism. But he is willing to argue a fortiori the other way around… twice as likely on historicity as it is on mythicism.
The Epistles: Weighing the Evidence
There is nothing in the Epistles that places Jesus in history, and all supposedly questionable passages have reasonable, non ad hoc explanations under minimal mythicism. “Yes, we lack a smoking gun, such as an Epistle wherein Paul explicitly says Jesus was known to exist only by revelation, but we fully expect no such evidence to have survived for us to see it: the victorious sect did not preserve such things and even actively suppressed them…. Romans 16.25-26 outright says the ‘gospel’ and ‘preaching’ of Jesus Christ was discovered by revelation and finding secrets hidden in scripture. We should conclude that’s indeed exactly what happened. We should not try to import into this or any other passage in Paul things invented by the authors of the Gospels decades later” (p. 594).
The Eucharist and the “things Jesus said” Carrier concluded were each equally likely under minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. The remaining evidence, in odds form rather than percentages, lines up as follows (the first odds ratio is the a fortiori estimate, and the second is Carrier’s more realistic estimate, each in historicity/mythicism order):
- Other canonical Epistles: 4/5 or 3/5
- ‘Gospels’ in Paul, Hebrews, Colossians: 3/5 or 2/5
- Things Jesus did: 3/4 or 1/2
- Made from sperm: 2/1 or 1/1
- Made from a woman: 2/1 or 1/1
- Brothers of the Lord: 2/1 or 1/2
Combining these probabilities using Bayes’ Theorem, we find that arguing a fortiori the evidence from the Epistles is more likely on historicity… it is only 34.7% as likely on myth. But arguing more reasonably, we find that this same evidence is more likely on mythicism, and is only 6% as likely on historicity.