I am presently grappling with Jesus mythicism. I am, at present, a historicist in terms of whether Jesus existed or not. My evaluation is somewhat intuitive, believing to the confidence of about two-thirds that a real Jesus existed under all the mythological overlay as opposed to one-third confidence in a completely mythological Jesus. Richard Carrier, on the other hand, has a more technically derived probability that is the reverse of this.
The thing is, I don’t really care either way. I don’t have a horse in this race in the same way that I don’t really care whether a real Buddha existed or whether such a figure is completely mythological. I am only really bothered in terms of wanting the most accurate appraisal of the world around me as possible. That and pure geekery.
My historicism is a minimalist historicism anyway. That is to say, I presently believe that all we can know about a historical Jesus is that he lived in Nazareth, was an itinerant preacher, and was executed in Jerusalem. Everything else is myth. Thus the Jesus of the New Testament is effectively mythological anyway.
Which is to say that the vast majority of the Gospels are completely mythological. As I’ve set out in my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK], the birth narratives are completely ahistorical. They didn’t happen. As I set out in my recent book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK], the death and resurrection accounts of Jesus are incredibly historically problematic. The Resurrection didn’t happen and the execution accounts are so full of historical issue that one could fairly convincingly argue that they may not have happened either. They certainly didn’t happen as reported in the Gospels.
This then leaves us with the middle part of Jesus’s life. You know, where he did all his miracles and preaching. These end up being mere assertions in the Gospels because there is no intersection with known history in any of these accounts whatsoever. This is the precise reason that I wrote the two aforementioned books. They are bookends to Jesus’ life that just so happen to intersect with known history. And they fail. They are left wanting. So if we can incredibly confidently state that the birth and death of Jesus as supposedly historical claims are massively problematic and either didn’t happen at all or didn’t happen in any way like the Gospels claims, then what does this say of all of the content between these two bookends? Where all of this content is devoid of any historical markers…
And, of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. These miracle claims concerning Jesus’ ministry are some of the most incredible claims in history. And what is the evidence? Mere assertions in the Gospels. Does this constitute extraordinary evidence.
So I have been really looking at my understanding of the evolution of the Gospels. And I have to admit that I have slightly adapted my beliefs. And it doesn’t look good for Jesus.
I have really come to believe that there is a very linear evolution in terms of the Gospels. Mark was first and after the Fall of Jerusalem. Importantly, Mark 16:9 onwards is known to be interpolated, which is why it is in brackets in most Bibles. This includes the resurrection appearance period of his supposed life.
And that is it. That’s all you need to know.
Because all the other Gospels are completely dependent on Mark. I’m not even particularly convinced of the Q theory, and think the work of Mark Goodacre is particularly strong. This is to say that Matthew takes on Mark and embellishes the Gospel, throwing in a whole bunch of old Testament references to validate Jesus. I now think that Luke definitely comes later, due to having knowledge of Josephus, writing for a different audience. He may even have written later than I originally thought. And John is right out, fraught with his own theological overlay and agenda.
It is highly improbable that any writer after Mark (and his access is also questionable) had any access to first-hand evidence and the people involved in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Which leaves Mark. Mark is the key.
Except that Mark isn’t the key because Paul is the key. Paul wrote decades before Mark and is much closer to the source material as far as we traditionally understand it.
Why, then, does Paul not include any of the details found in Mark? And I mean any. I think we sometimes overlook this issue, but Paul doesn’t talk about any aspects of Jesus’ actual life. Not his birth, not the supposedly historical details of his death, not his ministry. This is a problem that even Jesus historicists like Bart Ehrman recognise.
I am presently reading Richard Carrier’s book Jesus from Outer Space, his popular and condensed version of his voluminous academic treatise, On the Historicity of Jesus. Even if I have no horse in this race and it makes absolutely no difference to my worldview at all, I’m still quite interested on account of being a geek. So I want to grapple with mythicism in the least biased way I can to give as objective an analysis of both historicism and mythicism as I can.
And, as you can imagine, the key is Paul. This is because there is every possibility that Mark simply made up his Gospel. There are no historiographical techniques employed, there is no mention of sources, it is a world of difference from the earliest source that we have – Paul, and so on.
As Carrier states in “How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?“:
Phenomenologically, the historicity of Jesus, and the historicity of the Gospel resurrection narratives, are exactly the same. Likewise all the public miracles that were made up yet never gainsaid either: the sun going out for three hours, stars hovering over cities, the temple square ravaged, hordes of zombies descending on Jerusalem, hundreds of babies slaughtered, thousands of pigs drowned, thousands of people miraculously fed with Star Trek replicator food. All made up. Never gainsaid. We never get to hear from anyone who was really there, that none of that ever happened. So why should we expect to hear it for anything else? Inventing a mere man, is far easier (OHJ, Ch. 6.7).
In OHJ I provide extensive background knowledge on this, which is identical whether one is speaking of how the transition occurred in resurrection belief, or historicity belief. Origen’s giveaway about the principle of double truth—literal stories are invented to save the ignorant masses, while educated elites know the real truth is within the allegory, and dare not expose this to the rank and file lest they lose faith and become damned—all exactly as Plutarch said how Osiris cult reasoned: Elements 13 and 14 (Ch. 4). All of the records we would need to test and know what happened in the transition period (of about fifty years—an average human lifetime)—literally all those records, every single last one—were destroyed, and are never mentioned, quoted, or referenced by anyone, ever: Element 22 (Ch. 4) and Ch. 8. Whatever the original witnesses and their faithful successors had to say about the newfangled versions of events suddenly appearing, we never get to know: Ch. 6.7. Yet some hints survive of there having been Christians who preached the earthly Jesus was mythical: Chs. 3.1 and 8.12. Yet we aren’t allowed to see how ancient that view was or when or how it started…was it in fact the original view? We have no evidence it wasn’t.
This holds for historicity as firmly and plausibly as it holds for the resurrection. There is nothing implausible about this having happened, or about its matching exactly the evidence we now have. Because all the evidence that would expose it having happened, was destroyed. And that’s not conjecture. We know it for a fact. Christians didn’t just stop writing letters and homilies and polemics for a whole human lifetime. So it had to all have been destroyed. Even whatever they were arguing orally, as they must have been, is totally lost. Also a fact. But the literature is also gone.
The treatises 2 Peter was forged to rebut? Destroyed. The original edition of the Ascension of Isaiah? Destroyed. The original collection and version of Paul’s letters? Destroyed. All the cosmic-Jesus literature Irenaeus says he was attempting to rebut? Destroyed. All the supposedly “Docetist” treatises of early date we have no good reason to trust anti-Docetist apologists were representing accurately? Destroyed. Everything written by every Christian for a hundred years who would have had even a dogmatic reason (much less a genuinely informed reason) to challenge anything in the Gospels? Destroyed.
And this is why we don’t know how, when, or why resurrection belief shifted from personal inner visions, to physical earthly encounters. And it’s why we don’t know how, when, or why historicity belief shifted from personal inner visions, to physical earthly encounters.
Ireneaus, in around 180 CE, wrote Against Heresies, polemicising against all sort of contemporaneous Christian beliefs that we sadly no longer have the first-hand evidence of and for. But these beliefs were held by sects at the time, including beliefs in a cosmic/mythic Jesus, as opposed to the historical one proposed by the Gospels – qua, by Mark.
And so it comes back to Paul. And this is why Carrier spends a lot of time dealing with Paul (and much more so in his larger book, by all accounts). On page 45 of JFOS, Carrier states:
the Epistle of the Romans likewise never references any facts or events of Jesus’s life on Earth, only his cosmic role and importance; theological beliefs, not genuinely historical ones. Indeed, here Paul outright says the preaching and gospel of Jesus is known only by revelation and scripture (Romans 16:25–26). No mention of human witnesses, disciples, or faithful tradents. So when Romans opens with the creedal declaration that Jesus “came from” the “seed of David,” notes that Paul does not say Jesus descended from David. Peculiarly, he not only avoids such terms, but even deliberately avoids the only word he elsewhere employs the human birth (which is elsewhere genaô, “beget”), and uses instead the word he employs for direct manufacture of bodies by God (ginomai, “come to be”), such as the creation of Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45–49) and our future resurrection bodies waiting for us in heaven (15:37; cf.2 Corinthians 5:1– 5), neither of which are “born” to human parents. That Jesus, a preexistent archangel, had a mortal body manufactured for him (as the pre-Pauline creed in Philippians 2:5–11 says), just like Osiris, is not evidence of a belief this happened on Earth, just as it was not for Osiris. Thus that Paul frequently refers to Jesus as becoming a “man,” and his murder and burial as real, still does not tell us where he thought any of this happened.
Of course, I have not detailed the case that Carrier lays out before this in terms of the contemporaneous cosmology in this Jewish context. Jesus, he claims, is a cosmic deity, a saviour god the likes of which were common in the area and at the time.
I will leave you today with this quote from pages 47–48:
all these evidences from the Epistles are hopelessly vague and theological, not plain references to an earthly life of Jesus at all. Which is already by itself extremely strange. Why is this all we have, and not numerous debates and discussions and questions about Jesus’ ministry and trial and death or his miracles or parables or how he chose or affected or instructed the people who knew him? How has Paul never heard of the word “disciple” or that anyone was Jesus’ hand-picked representative in life? Why is he always weirdly vague; for instance, ascribing the death of Jesus to “archons of this eon” (1 Corinthians 2:6–10), which he characterises as spiritual rather than terrestrial forces (as he there says they would understand esoteric details of God’s planned magical formulae), rather than to “Pontius Pilate” or “the Romans” or “the Jews”? Why does he never say Jesus’ death occurred “in Jerusalem”? How can Paul avoid in some 20,000 words ever making any clear reference to Jesus being on Earth? How can every question, argument, or opposition he ever faced have avoided referencing things Jesus said or did in life? He never referenced them. He never had them cited against him. He is never asked about them. That’s weird. And weird is just another word for improbable. Unless the only Jesus any Christians yet knew was a revealed being, not an earthly minister.
I find this pretty powerful stuff and there are some great questions here to contemplate. He continues:
it’s additionally revealing, therefore, that modern translators will “presumptuously” at implications not in the text. For instance, almost all Bible translations imagine Paul is referring to the “betrayal” of Judas in his account of his Eucharistic vision, when in fact Paul says no such thing. He instead uses the same language he does elsewhere, of God (not Judas) “handing over” Jesus to those who would effect his atoning sacrifice (Romans 8:32), few Bibles get this right, but those include the Darby Bible and Young’s Literal Translation. Similarly, some translations will render Hebrews 5:7 as saying that “during the days of Jesus’ life on Earth” he cried and prayed for his deliverance (such as in the supposedly more accurate NIV Bible). No such words are in the Greek. The text, in fact, says that “during the days of his flesh” Jesus did this (as many Bibles will more honestly read, from the King James to the modern NASB). No reference to where—at all, much less “on Earth.” And so on. Any time you find a verse in the Epistles that seems to say or imply Jesus was ever on Earth, you’ll find the actual Greek does not say that. We are never told a location for any of this. Vague terms are always used as to what was happening, where, or by whom. And that’s just weird.
The evidence for Jesus is remarkably poor. We assume, due to normalisation of the Bible and Christianity as a whole, that the massive array of writing in the New Testament and thereafter for thousands of years, present voluminous evidence for Jesus. But don’t be hoodwinked. All we have are Paul and Mark. Explain them, and you explain the advent of Christianity. Dismiss them and you dismiss all of Christianity. 11 o’clock
Something to think about.
[Please consider grabbing copies of my books The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] to help me out!]
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