The Gospels

Carrier’s most interminable chapter, running a full 123 pages of heavily footnoted analysis, concerns the four canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. According to Carrier the fundamental question is, “Are the Gospels fictional constructs, like the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus? In other words, are they just myths? Or are they some kind of historical records we can rely on to prove Jesus existed?” (p. 388) I describe the chapter as ‘interminable’ because the ultimate conclusion Carrier reaches is that the Gospels have no ultimate effect on our attempts to distinguish between minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. Carrier’s conclusion is, “The Gospels generally afford us no evidence whatever for discerning a historical Jesus. Because of their extensive use of fabrication and literary invention and their placing of other goals far ahead of what we regard as ‘historical truth’, we cannot know if anything in them has any historical basis—except what we can verify externally, which for Jesus is next to nothing. They are simply myths about Jesus and the gospel. They are not seriously researched biographies or historical accounts—and are certainly not eyewitness testimonies or even collected hearsay. Their literary art and structure are simply too sophisticated for that. This is equally expected on both minimal historicity and minimal mythicism, however, and therefore… the Gospels have no effect on the probability that Jesus existed, neither to raise or lower it” (pp. 506-507).

Carrier then addresses directly the two opposing camps. “A more ardent skeptic could disagree. Here I am arguing a fortiori, and as such granting historicity its best shot. But some will still ask why the Gospels appear out of nowhere forty to eighty years after the fact, as fully structured literary myths, rather than there being more mundane reports, memoirs and accounts, closer to the events concerned, only later evolving into increasingly grandiose myths” (p. 507). Carrier then mentions an example of another figure where this happened for illustration, but concludes that valid as these questions are, there could be reasons for the Church to have not preserved any prior material, and thus the Gospels are equally likely to be as they are under mythicism and historicism.

Addressing the other camp, “A more ardent apologist might disagree in the other direction, and ask how it is the cosmic myths became earthly myths. Isn’t a historical Jesus in fact more mundane, and thus a shift in an unexpected direction? More mundane, yes; but unexpected, no. That very trend to euhemerize (and thus make more mundane the tales of cosmic gods) was actually typical (Element 45). Indeed, to serve their obvious function as models for missionary life, values and teaching, not only must Jesus’ story be transformed to resemble the early experience of missionaries…, but a Gospel’s text also becomes considerably more powerful and effective if it is also taken literally…. Such historicizing also gave church hierarchies more control over doctrine and a rhetorical advantage over competitors, and thus it is more likely to be an observed feature of the eventually prevailing sect” (pp. 507-508).

Carrier then explores what all of this implies for future research concerning the Gospels. “We need to shift entirely to asking the question ‘What is the author attempting to say or accomplish with this story, or with his revision of this story?’ and not “Did that actually happen?’ Because the latter simply wasn’t a concern of these authors. Even if they were concerned to convince people it happened, they were not themselves concerned if it actually did. They had a different agenda, and are crafting the myths they need to sell it. The Gospels were produced by faith communities for preaching, teaching and propaganda, and not as disinterested or even interested biographical inquiry. There is no indication in them of a quest to determine what Jesus really said or did. There is no discussion of sources or of reasons to prefer one claim to another or of attempts to interpret contradictory data or even any mention of the existence of real alternative accounts (even though we know they knew of them—because they all covertly used them as source material). Each author just makes Jesus say or do whatever they want. They change the story as it suits them and neglect to mention they did so. They craft literary artifices and symbolic narratives routinely. They frequently rewrite classical and biblical stories and just insert Jesus into them. If willing to do all that…, the authors of the Gospels clearly had no interest in any actual historical data. And if they had no interest in that…, they didn’t need a historical Jesus. Even if there had been one, he was wholly irrelevant to their aims and designs. These are not historians. They are mythographers; novelists; propagandists. They are deliberately inventing what they present in their texts. And they are doing it for a reason…. The Gospels simply must be approached as such. We have to stop thinking we can use them as historical sources” (pp. 508-509).

With such a large amount of material analyzed in this chapter, and with no significant impact of any of it specifically on the comparison between our two minimal hypotheses, I am left with something of a conundrum in deciding how to proceed with my summary of this material. Covering all of it seems pointless, and yet covering enough of it to make the case that it is better viewed as literature and myth rather than as history is vital. I will do the best that I can to walk this tightrope.

As Carrier says, “It is therefore crucially important to determine whether the Gospels are myth. This cannot be achieved by identifying their genre, because myth exists in all genres. It can be achieved only by confirming whether they contain narratives that conform more to the definition of myth than of history. Are the central narratives of the Gospels historically improbable but symbolically meaningful? Is this meaning concealed by a superficially ‘historical’ narrative that is highly allusive to other myths, texts or concepts that increase both the interpretability and likelihood of the content of that narrative, more than a supposition of history would? And is this evident in both the parallels to and the conspicuous deviations from those targets of allusion?… Characteristics of myth are (1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events); (2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and (3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional). No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical. But the presence of all three is conclusive. And the presence of one or two can also be sufficient, when sufficiently telling” (pp. 393-394). Moving from the identification of individual mythical narratives to the evaluation of a Gospel as a whole, Carrier says, “if there are many clear instances of mythmaking in a Gospel, and no clear instances of the contrary, then the remainder of that Gospel must be assumed to be (more probably than not) mythical, even if we can’t prove it in any of those remaining cases. The effect of this on historicity will not be to establish that Jesus didn’t exist but to eliminate evidence for his existence…. The net effect is simply the removal of the Gospels as evidence” (p. 395).

Examining the Gospels

The Gospels “lack all substantive… markers of being researched histories, even by the lax standards of antiquity. At no point do the Gospels name their sources or discuss their relative merits or why they are relying on them; at no point do the Gospels exhibit any historiographical consciousness (such as discussing methods, or the possibility of information being incorrect, or the existence of non-polemical alternative accounts); they don’t even express amazement at anything they report, no matter how incredible it is (unlike a more rational historian); and they never explain why they changed what their sources said, nor do they even acknowledge the fact that they did (as when, e.g., Luke or Matthew alters what they derive from Mark). And unlike many other ancient authors, they do not explain who they are or why they are qualified to relate the accounts they do. Only one Gospel, Luke, employs even the superficial trappings of actual history writing, such as explaining what his purpose in writing is and attempting to date events. But… that appears to be a ruse” (p. 396).

“Instead, the Gospels look like the edifying but fictional biographies composed for many other heroes and sages…. As David Gowler observes, they appear to be assembled networks of vignettes (periscopes in the language of biblical studies) that were already identified in ancient schools as chreiai, a standard rhetorical device that was extensively taught to all students of literary Greek (and as the authors of the Gospels wrote in literary Greek, we know they attended those schools).

“Students were actually taught to invent narratives about famous and legendary persons, and to build a symbolic or moral message out of general rules or proverbs. As Gowler explains, ‘the composition of the stories in the Synoptic Gospels is very similar to such exercises as the expansion and elaboration of chreiai found in other ancient literature and delineated in ancient rhetorical handbooks’, in which authors ‘were free to vary the wording, details, and dynamics of chreiai according to their ideological and rhetorical interests’, and in fact they ‘were taught and encouraged’ to make both minor and major changes even to traditional stories in order to make whatever point they desired. Schools also taught the method of emulating old stories by rewriting them into new ones with new characters and outcomes—in other words, what we saw Virgil had done to Homer was a standard method of composing stories taught in all schools of the day. Which means ancient schools taught their students how to construct symbolically meaningful historical fiction, by both innovating and emulating other fiction” (pp. 397-398). In particular, the “Gospels operate through extended parables, not recollections of memory, direct or transmitted” (p. 398).

“All of this is generally admitted by most scholars, who nevertheless are usually certain these literary constructs are built around some sort of historical core or the barest seeds of real transmitted memories. All they have to do, they assume, is develop the tools needed to extract those historical needles from the rhetorical haystacks of the Gospels. But none of the tools they have developed work. Every expert who has published a direct examination of them has concluded that they are invalid and incapable of doing what is claimed” (p. 399).

After Carrier discusses the Criterion of Embarrassment as an example of such a failed critical tool, he goes into an extended example evaluating the elision in the Gospels of ‘Nazorian’ with ‘Nazareth’, which are two unrelated concepts, and then the failure of arguments from Aramaic sources. Following this discussion, he dives into each of the canonical Gospels in turn.

The Gospel of Mark

For fifty-four pages, Carrier analyzes the Gospel of Mark in detail. The main arguments are:

  • The story of Barabbas is an extended Yom Kippur allegory about atonement, which cleverly incorporates the sacrifices of the other primary Jewish holy day, Passover.
  • The crucifixion scene is a patchwork fabrication mined from Psalms 22 and 69, Amos 8.9, Zechariah 9-14, Isaiah 53, and Wisdom 2.
  • Jesus’s resurrection of a girl in Mark 5.22-43 is a rewrite of the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.17-37.
  • The thematic structure of the narratives fits literary aims rather than historical ones. For example, the “ceaseless incomprehension of the disciples… is wholly unrealistic. No real human beings would ever be that dense or take so long to understand what Jesus was saying and doing, or learn nothing in between episodes (as if they never spoke to one another except in the few brief exchanges Mark depicts). In reality a single hour’s conversation with Jesus would have resolved all questions. This literary fiction of the dense lackeys is adapted either from Homer’s similarly unrealistic depiction of the fickleness and incomprehension of Odysseus’s crew or from Exodus’s equally unrealistic depiction of the fickleness and incomprehension of the Jews—most likely both…. In each case such ‘group stupidity’ only makes sense as a deliberate literary device” (p. 411).
  • The overall structure of Mark’s narratives employ a common-at-the-time literary device known as ring composition. I will explore this and several other structural idiosyncrasies in more detail below.
  • Shared plot structures between Mark’s Passion Narrative and typical Jewish myths and legends.
  • One “of the most peculiar (and obviously fictional) episodes in Mark’s entire Gospel: the withering of the fig tree. As history it makes no sense at all, not only because it defies the laws of physics, but also because Jesus’ behavior would be wholly illogical had such a thing actually happened—for he curses a fig tree because it isn’t bearing figs for him to eat… even though it wasn’t the season for figs! (Mk 11.12-14). The fig tree promptly withers before nightfall (Mk 11.19-22). Obviously this story is completely made up. But why write such a bizarre story? to illustrate a point…. this is a parable about Jesus and the Gospel, a bit of fiction Mark has composed to communicate something he wants to say, using Jesus as its central character. As here, so everywhere else in the Gospel: Mark is writing parables about Jesus as a mythical character; he is not recording anyone’s memories of a historical man” (p. 433). The allegorical meaning of this passage is the withering of the temple’s tradition of sacrifice. This is signaled by wrapping the fig tree story around the clearing of the temple; the allegory wraps the meaning of the allegory. Mark uses this narrative marker approach in multiple places within his Gospel.
  • “Mark created his fiction by fusing Homeric parallels with biblical ones. Just as Virgil updated Homer by recasting the time and place and all the characters to suit Roman mythology, and then changed key things to communicate how Roman values were superior to Greek, Mark updated homer by recasting the time and place and all the characters to suit Jewish and (newly minted) Christian mythology, and to fit the Roman history and political reality the Christians now lived in, and then changed key things (often by drawing on the Septuagint) to communicate how Christian values were superior to Jewish, Greek and Roman values. Jesus is not only the new (and better) Moses and Elijah and Elisha, he is also the new (and better) Odysseus and Romulus…, and the new Socrates and Aesop…” (p. 436).

Mark overall has the following structure:

  • The Discipling Narrative (chaps. 1-3)
  • The Sea Narrative (chaps. 4.1-8.26)
  • The Road Narrative (chaps. 8.27-10)
  • The Passover Narrative (chaps. 11-16)

The “Sea Narrative’s structure is consistently artificial” (p. 412):

  • Cycle 1
    • Phase 1 (4.1-34): Jesus with crowds by sea [preaching from a boat]
    • Phase 2 (4.35-41): eventful crossing of sea
    • Phase 3 (5.1-20): landing with healings/exorcisms
  • Interval 1:
    • Step 1 (5.21-43): first stop [after an uneventful boating]
    • Step 2 (6.1-6): second stop
    • Step 3 (6.6-29): going around
  • Cycle 2:
    • Phase 1 (6.30-44): Jesus with crowds by sea [with an uneventful boating]
    • Phase 2 (6.45-52): eventful crossing of sea
    • Phase 3 (6.53-55): landing with healings/exorcisms
  • Interval 2:
    • Step 1 (6.56-7.23): going around
    • Step 2 (7.24-30): first stop
    • Step 3 (7.31-37): second stop
  • Cycle 3:
    • Phase 1 (8.1-12): Jesus with crowds by sea [with an uneventful boating]
    • Phase 2 (8.13-21): eventful crossing of sea
    • Phase 3 (8.22-26): landing with healings/exorcisms

Prior to this cyclical triad “Jesus had also journeyed to the sea and taught by the sea three times (Mk 1.16; 2.13; 3.7) without embarking on a boat, but now he embarks on a boat… and makes six journeys by boat, three eventful ones (each part of a three-phase cycle repeated three times) and three uneventful ones that make a looser pattern” (p. 413).

Between the three Cycles are two intervals that involve Jesus traveling inland away from the sea of Galilee and back again also in a triadic pattern. First from the shore to the house of Jairus, then to the hometown of Jesus, and then circulating around the towns to complete the first interval. The second interval reverses the sequence. The patterns continue into the smaller details, but I think the larger point is made.

“Every unit of this narrative has the same literary purpose, a message about faith and the gospel, playing the incomprehension of the disciples (and rejection of Jesus by neighbors and kin) against the ready faith of outsiders… even though they don’t understand. The cyclic triad even begins and ends on the theme of ‘seeing, hearing, understanding’ (compare Mk 4.12 with 8.17-21), and continually contrasts human expectations… with the true realities offered by the gospel. When you look at what Mark has to do to force the narrative to fit this elegant structure so perfectly, and the central role of unbelievable events or behaviors in nearly every one of his scenes, it is no longer possible to believe Mark is recording memory or even re-crafting historical lore. He is inventing all of this, each scene his own parable, usually with Jesus cast as the central character, illustrating symbolically something the reader needs to understand about the gospel. This is an artful literary creation, start to finish” (p. 414).

Within this pattern is layered yet another: “two matching sequences of five miracles each, interspersed with parables and preaching and generic references to miracles (i.e. other miracles mentioned by not narrated)” (p. 415):

  • First Sequence
    • Mastery of the Waters: Stilling of the storm (4.35-41)
    • Exorcism of a Gentile Man: The Gerasene Demoniac (5.1-20)
    • Curing an Older Woman: The Woman with a Hemorrhage (5.25-34)
    • Curing a Younger Woman: Jairus’ Daughter (5.21-23, 35-43)
    • Miraculous Feeding: Feeding of the 5,000 (6.34-44, 53)
  • Second Sequence
    • Mastery of the Waters: Jesus walk on the sea (6.45-51)
    • Exorcism of a Gentile Woman: The Syrophoenician Woman (7.24-30)
    • Curing a Deaf Man with Spit: The Deaf-Mute (7.32-37)
    • Miraculous Feeding: Feeding of the 4,000 (8.1-10)
    • Curing a Blind Man with Spit: The Blind Man of Bethsaida (8.22-26)

The traditions from Jewish scripture show a common sequence of five miracles from holy men. For comparison, consider Moses, who masters the waters with his parting of the Red Sea (Exod. 13-15), refers to God’s healing (Exod. 15.22-27), manna from heaven (Exod. 16), calls water from a rock (Exod. 17.1-7), and demonstrates power over the violent forces of evil (Exod. 17.8-16).

Looking back at the overall structure of Mark, The Sea Narrative, with its remarkably cyclical structure, is itself embedded within the mirrored bookends of the Discipling Narrative and the Road Narrative. Consider:

  • A: Peripheral ministry begins (1.14-34)
  • B: People looking for Jesus to be healded (1.35-38) – but Jesus says he needs to teach more people
  • C: Jesus ventures out (1.39-45) – throughout all Galilee
  • D: Jesus stops at Capernaum (2.1-12) – explains he can forgive sins
  • E: problems and controversies (2.13-3.12)
  • F: an important gathering on a mountain (3.13-19)
  • G: Jesus is accused of being in league with Baalzebul (3.20-35) – and preaches those who reject Jesus are damned
  • The Sea Narrative
  • G: Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with Satan (8.27-9.1) – and preaches those who blaspheme Holy Spirit are damned
  • F: an important gathering on a mountain (9.2-13)
  • E: problems and controversies (9.14-32)
  • D: Jesus stops at Capernaum (9.33-50) – explains dangers of sin
  • C: Jesus ventures out (10.1-6) – expands his ministry beyond Galilee
  • B: People looking to Jesus for boons (10.17-45) – but Jesus teaches them the error of their ways
  • A: peripheral ministry ends (10.46-52)

Within this structure, there are numerous further conspicuous triads as well that Carrier describes, but which I will omit for length reasons. All in all, this is highly artificial. Note “that in all of Jesus’ ministry throughout chaps. 1 through 3 never once does Jesus actually teach the gospel…, even though the whole narrative begins by having Jesus declare ‘repent and believe in the gospel!’ (Mk 1.15), and odd demand when you never explain what that is. In the Sea Narrative Jesus starts telling parables about the gospel (even beginning with an explanation of the whole concept of parable as a way of concealing the true meaning behind fictitious stories: Mk 4.9-12), but never mentions anything resembling its kerygma (that Jesus had to dies to atone for everyone’s sins and that this would procure eternal life for those who believe—in other words, the actual gospel). Only in the Road Narrative does Jesus start expounding the actual gospel, all in preparation for its actual enactment in the following Passover Narrative. This makes no sense as history. It only makes sense as artificial suspense-driven literature, and in particular as a slow-building teaching tool that would operate in a single sitting (or series of them) as you went through the Gospel story as Mark crafts it” (pp. 419-420). Thus it seems clear that Mark 1-10 is literary fabrication. What about the rest?

Carrier discusses at length how Mark has arranged his narrative “to symbolically represent Jesus as the Passover lamb” (p. 425) and simultaneously the goat of Yom Kippur. Mark does this in ways that violate historical plausibility, further emphasizing his valuing of narrative need over historical accuracy. For example, the choice of the day Jesus was crucified emphasizes this allegorical reading, but is impossible because (a) executions would not be performed on holy days, and (b) “trials for capital crimes had to be conducted over the course of two days and could not be conducted on or even interrupted by a Sabbath or holy day, nor ever conducted at night” (p. 425). Had Jesus been arrested during Passover he would have been held until Sunday, and couldn’t have been convicted until at least Monday. As history, this makes no sense, but as symbolic myth it is nearly expected. Carrier’s comparison to these holy days covers numerous details, including the questioning of Jesus matching in theme the questioning of a seder, and other elements of literary artifice that match with the ritual haggadah of the Passover seder. Thus, “the entire narrative of Mark is a fictional, symbolic construct, from beginning to end” (p. 428).

“… while Mark is inventing narratives to fit his symbolic structure and to communicate abstract messages about the gospel, he often ignores historical plausibility, not only inventing narratives that center around blatant defiances of the laws of physics (walking on water, withering trees), but making his characters behave in completely implausible ways, such as having the disciples act completely surprised at the second miraculous feeding, as if some time-traveling Men in Black had erased their memory of the first one; or having Jesus curse a fig tree for failing to bear fruit out of season” (p. 435).

Incredibly striking are the parallels between Mark’s Passover Narrative and a story told about another Jesus, known as Jesus ben Ananias, the ‘Jesus of Jerusalem’, who was an insane prophet active in the 60s CE who is killed in the siege of Jerusalem. The parallels are so clear that Carrier considers it nearly certain that Mark’s story of Jesus Christ are based on the stories of Jesus ben Ananias, probably as told by Josephus in his Jewish War. Carrier notes twenty significant parallels (and one reversal):

  1. Both are named Jesus.
  2. Both come to Jerusalem during a major religious festival (Mk 14.2 = JW 6.301).
  3. Both entered the temple area to rant against the temple (Mk 11.15-17 = JW 6.301).
  4. During which both quote the same chapter of Jeremiah (Jer. 7.11 in Mk; Jer. 7.34 in JW).
  5. Both then preach daily in the temple (Mk 14.49 = JW 6.306).
  6. Both declare ‘woe’ unto Judea or the Jews (Mk 13.17 = JW 6.304, 306, 309).
  7. Both predict the temple will be destroyed (Mk 13.2 = JW 6.300, 309).
  8. Both are for this reason arrested by the Jews (Mk 14.43 = JW 6.302).
  9. Both are accused of speaking against the temple (Mk 14.58 = JW 6.302).
  10. Neither makes any defense of himself against the charges (Mk 14.60 = JW 6.302).
  11. Both are beaten by the Jews (Mk 14.65 = JW 6.302).
  12. Then both are taken to the Roman governor (Pilate in Mk 15.1 = Albinus in JW 6.302).
  13. Both are interrogated by the Roman governor (Mk 15.2-4 = JW 6.305).
  14. During which both are asked to identify themselves (Mk 15.2 = JW 6.305).
  15. And yet again neither says anything in his defense (Mk 15.3-5 = JW 6.305).
  16. Both are then beaten by the Romans (Mk 15.15 = JW 6.304).
  17. In both cases the Roman governor decides he should release him.
  18. … but doesn’t (Mark); … but does (JW) (Mk 15.6-15 vs. JW 6.305).
  19. both are finally killed by the Romans (in Mark by execution; in the JW by artillery) (Mk 15.34 = JW 6.308-309).
  20. Both utter a lament for themselves immediately before they die (Mk 15.34 = JW 6.309).
  21. Both die with a loud cry (Mk 15.37 = JW 6.309).

“Given that Mark is essentially a Christian response to the Jewish War and the destruction of the Jewish temple, it is more than a little significant that he chose this Jesus to model his own Jesus after. This also tells us, yet again, how much Mark is making everything up. (It also confirms that Mark wrote after the Jewish War.)” (p. 430)

There is much more than I have outlined here in Carrier’s discussion, but I hope that I have made the point that Mark looks much more like literature than history. As Carrier writes, “Mark even tells us (on the sly) that he is writing parables, so that those who follow the exoteric [i.e., surface] meaning will not understand and thus not be saved—only those who follow the esoteric meaning (the symbolic meaning) will get the real meaning and be on the road to salvation (Mk 4.9-12; see again Element 14). So Mark even invented a story about Jesus that provides us with a model for how to read Mark’s Gospel” (p. 443).

Addressing potential critics of his analysis, Carrier writes, “Often an argument is made that some item or other in Mark can’t have any other explanation for why it’s there than that it happened, and somehow the tradition of it had reached Mark. These arguments tend to be illogical as well as ill-informed, as I have already demonstrated elsewhere [here Carrier references his book, Proving History]. But though I treated all the principal examples there, others remain” (p. 444). Carrier then goes through many such examples. Since, however, the primary examples are in the other book, and since that is not the book I am reviewing here, I will leave these arguments aside for now other than to note that even the best of these counter-arguments that Carrier addresses in the current book he concludes are no better than inconclusive, which means that they cannot argue either for minimal historicity or minimal mythicism.

Again, despite the length of my summary above, I have barely scratched the surface of Carrier’s analysis. I hope that what I have chosen to include, however, sufficiently captures the essence of his arguments.

The Gospel of Matthew

Having gone through Mark in quite some detail, I, like Carrier, will be much briefer with Matthew. Scholars nearly unanimously agree that Matthew is a redaction of Mark, containing nearly the entire Markan narrative, often duplicated verbatim. “Matthew then added a ridiculous Nativity Narrative (which no reasonable historian should regard as anything but fiction) and a brief but vague resurrection-appearance narrative (to fix what he may have regarded as the unsatisfying ending of Mark), which most historians also doubt is historical, and then revised the material in between, often altering or expanding on the stories Mark invented, occasionally inventing new ones and adding large sections attributing new teachings to Jesus” (pp. 456-457). Given our discussion above about how Mark constructed his narrative, we should not consider Matthew, who quotes Mark so extensively, to be any more historically reliable.

Scholars also generally agree “that Matthew rewrote Mark not only to fix and improve on it but also to reverse its too-Gentile-friendly argument. Unlike Mark, which favors a brand of Christianity developed by Paul (in which Torah observance was optional), the author of Matthew comes from a community of Torah-observant Christians and is keen to have Jesus insist that we continue to make all converts remain or become practicing Jews (complete with circumcision and obedience to dietary and other laws, only minus the temple cult rituals). Many of Matthew’s rewrites reflect this specific need to rewrite Mark. But that Matthew had to do this by rewriting Mark (rather than simply producing his own Gospel) proves that Matthew had no actual independent sources from which to argue his position. He thus had to fabricate what he needed—but not by composing his own text, but instead simply constructing a better Mark” (pp. 458-459).

Carrier details several of Matthew’s ‘fixes’ to Mark that make the story more ridiculous. He also goes into the structure of Matthew, much like the structure of Mark that I detailed in the previous section; having made the case there for narrative structure signaling a literary approach rather than a historical one, I will simply note that a similar argument (with a different structure) is made here, and move on. I will note, however, that the sophistication of this structure (and a similar case could be made concerning Mark’s structure) is inconsistent with the notion of the Gospels having been the result of an oral tradition.

Carrier uses the Sermon on the Mount as a case-in-point for many of his argument, including sophisticated structure, the origins of the work being in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic, that it fits squarely “within known rabbinical debates over how Jews could still fulfill the Torah after the destruction of the temple cult,” and so on.

Carrier’s ultimate conclusion is that there “is in fact no way to discern what if anything Matthew has added to Mark has any historical basis, or even a source…. The same conclusion must therefore follow for Matthew that we reached for Mark: nothing in it is any less likely on myth than on historicity. It therefore has no evidential value” (p. 469).

The Gospel of Luke

“Luke is the first Gospel to overtly represent itself as history. Matthew comes close by suggesting that the things he says happened fulfilled scripture, but that could still have lent itself to an llegorical reading. Luke, however, writes like a historian, adding superficial historical details as local color and attempting to date some events and even including an albeit-vague preface explaining what he is doing by writing. Luke also creates a resurrection narrative that is engineered to answer skeptics of Matthew’s account, a tactic that ‘requires’ his story to be true. Although on this count we know it is a fabrication. No prior Gospel, nor Paul, had ever heard of the peculiar and convenient details that suddenly make their first appearance in Luke, such as that Peter double-checked the women’s claim that the tomb was empty and handled the burial shroud (Lk. 24.11-12), or that Jesus showed the disciples his wounds and made sure the disciples touched him and fed him food to prove he wasn’t a ghost (Lk. 24.36-43), or that the resurrected Jesus actually hung out and partied with dozens of his followers for over a month before flying up into the clouds of heaven (Acts 1.2-9)” pp. 469-470).

It seems clear from these details that Luke is fabricating details specifically to help win arguments against doubters. “This already warns us not to trust anything he has added to the story found in Mark and Matthew: we should assume it is, like those, a convenient fabrication invented for some purpose, unless we can find sufficient evidence to believe otherwise. In accord with this conclusion, despite his pretense at being a historian, preface and all, Luke’s methods are demonstrably nonhistorical: he is not doing research, weighing facts, checking them against independent sources, and writing down what he thinks most likely happened. He is simply producing an expanded and redacted literary hybrid of a couple of previous religious novels (Matthew and Mark), each itself even more obviously constructed according to literary conventions rather than historiographical” (p. 470).

In this section of the book, Carrier goes into great detail on his reasons for abandoning the Q hypothesis. As the outcome of the myth vs. history debate doesn’t really depend on this argument, I will therefore leave it out of my summary.

“Many scholars have argued that Luke aimed to unify the two major divided factions of Christianity, the Gentile and Torah-observant sects, and his account (across Luke and Acts) revises history to tell a tale of continuous harmony between them, while simultaneously portraying Jesus and Christianity as a valid, devout, law-abiding philosophical sect respected by the Romans and opposed only by a faction of the hard-lined Jewish elite…. Luke is thus in effect a ‘rebuttal’ to Matthew, just as Matthew was an attempted ‘rebuttal’ to Mark. Mark promoted Gentile Christianity; Matthew promoted Torah-observant Christianity; Luke promotes a harmonious church, one that is a good and faithful evolution of Judaism into what is essentially (but carefully never said to be) the Gentile church” (p. 473). “… clinching [the idea that Luke is favoring rhetorical purposes over historicity] is how much of the material that Luke adds to Mark and Matthew is demonstrably fabricated by essentially rewriting the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings, just as we saw Mark had done…, casting Jesus in the central role and updating the details to fit the conditions of Roman Palestine” (p. 474). Carrier details the evidence for this extensively, but because of length concerns I will omit those details here. Several other origins of stories in Luke are documented as coming from other Old Testament stories.

In terms of narrative structure, Luke seems more ad hoc than either Matthew or Mark. There is some evidence of structure that seems interrupted, possibly a result of another source, now lost to us, that was Luke borrowed from. “But even if we accede to that hypothesis, it then only confirms the same point: that Luke is not writing history, but myth” (p. 480). Carrier details several further examples of myth in Luke, originating in the stories of Romulus and elsewhere.

“The same conclusion must therefore follow for Luke that we reached for Mark and Matthew: nothing in it is any less likely on myth than on historicity. It therefore has no evidential value…. Even if any historical facts about Jesus are in it, we have no way to identify them” (p. 487).

The Gospel of John

Carrier cites the critical consensus that John is a “free redaction of the previous Gospels” (p. 487). “Once we concede John is not independent of the other Gospels but in fact freely using them as sources, we can see that he (or they, as this Gospel appears to have had multiple authors and to have been redacted multiple times) aimed to rebut a theme common to them all: that ‘no sign shall be given’ that Jesus is the messiah (Mk 8.11-12). Mark had clearly written when no miracles had yet been imagined for Jesus (thus he had to explain this); as Paul says, no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24…). Hence even when Mark invents miracles to put in his story as allegories, he makes sure no one other than the disciples ever either notices or talks about them or understands them. Even the witnesses of the empty tomb never tell anyone about it (Mk 16.8).

“Matthew had already expanded and corrected this by having Jesus say instead that ‘an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign’ and therefore ‘there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah’ (Mt. 12.39 and 16.24), meaning the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew thus slightly retreats from Mark by allowing one sign—and accordingly, unlike Mark, Matthew actually narrates a resurrected Jesus and makes sure that in his story the Jews ‘know’ about it (the purpose of Mt. 28.11-15). This was not the case before. Matthew is inventing new evidence” (p. 489).

“John ‘refutes’ this entire sentiment by littering his Gospel with explicitly identified ‘signs’ and by reversing Luke’s parable of Lazarus with an actual tale of Lazarus (Jn 11-12)…. Indeed, John’s Jesus fills his ministry with ‘signs’ that ‘manifested his glory’, and it is for this reason ‘his disciples believed in him’ (Jn 2.11), a notion not found in the previous Gospels. When Jesus is asked for a sign (Jn 2.17-18), he does not declare, as the other Gospels do, that no sign will be given or that only an evil generation would ask for one; rather he simply says (albeit cryptically) that his resurrection will be a sign…; but John conspicuously does not say this will be the only sign. To the contrary, he immediately tells us, ‘having seen the signs he did, many believed in his name’ (Jn 2.23), and ‘a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did’ (Jn 6.2), and when people ‘see the sign he did’, they declared him a true prophet (Jn 6.14)” (p. 489), and so on. Even the Jewish elite “lament the fact that ‘he has done many signs’ (11.47)” (p. 490). And on and on. This focus on signs, or ‘proof’, is notably not only absent in all prior Gospels, but actively badmouthed.

A significant problem in evaluating John is the extent to which our best copies of it have clearly been edited and reorganized. Scenes are clearly out-of-order, and the text even has two endings that are seemingly ignorant of each other. Carrier gives extensive examples illustrating the evidence for these edits, and shows how there is structure within John that seems to be of equal literary artifice of Mark and Matthew, but which has been screwed up by the later edits. It is not clear that any of this is relevant to the overall conclusion, however, which is that the Gospel of John is myth, not history, and even if it contains historical details, there is no way to identify what those might be.

The Final Evaluation of the Gospels

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Carrier, for the reasons described above, finds the Gospels to be clearly literary invention rather than history, and thus they carry no evidential value.

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