• “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space?” James McGrath’s New Review Article

    Yup, Here we go again. = )

    James McGrath, a scholar of Christian origins at Butler University, has posted the first piece of his review series of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. I must give credit where credit is due: McGrath’s article is a little better than I expected. His criticisms mostly miss the mark, but he has raised some interesting questions, and he definitely takes a more open-minded and thoughtful approach to this than he has in the past.

    Here’s McGrath’s first criticism:

    “…Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.”

    Terribly wrong. Of course there are many occasions where the evidence we have is equally compatible with many scenarios. The right thing to do in that situation is to simply admit that no one knows. What goes on in New Testament studies, though, is that one scholar thinks the historical method proves that Jesus was a wisdom teacher like Mahtma Gandi, another scholar says the historical method proves Jesus was a magician, another says it proves he was an apocalyptic prophet, and so on. Clearly something is wrong with this picture. Either historians don’t know enough to say which of these scenarios is correct, or the way they are trying to interpret the facts is bankrupt. Either the data are too poor to draw a conclusion or the methods used on the data to generate a conclusion are too poor to accurately tell us anything. At least, that’s what Carrier is saying.

    McGrath: “…the question of whether any Jews before the rise of Christianity expected the Davidic anointed one to die before restoring his dynasty to the throne is an interesting one, but whether one agrees with Carrier’s treatment of the evidence or not, it is clear that such pre-Christian thinking about a dying messiah, if it existed, could have inspired a historical individual who believed himself to be the messiah to try to get himself handed over to authorities. And so we could devote a whole article just to that question, and yet not make any progress on the central question the book addresses, whether a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed.”

    McGrath frequently argues that no Jews believed in a dying messiah prior to Christianity, therefore no Jews would have invented a dying messiah, so Jesus must’ve been historical. Carrier addresses McGrath’s premise  (“no Jews believed a dying messiah prior to Christianity”), and argues that it is not true. McGrath responds that Jesus could still be historical even if some pre-Christian Jews believed in a dying messiah. *Shakes head.* Dr. McGrath, that is not the conclusion Carrier was getting at: Carrier was not making an argument for mythicism, he was killing off an argument for historicity (namely the previously mentioned argument that McGrath often makes). Sure, killing an argument for the historical Jesus doesn’t demonstrate mythicism (Carrier never says that it does). However, arguing for mythicism well necessarily means that you have to address the points made in favor of the alternative position. If Carrier didn’t do that, we can be sure as the sky is blue that McGrath’s first criticism would be that Carrier never addressed the many points in favor of historicity.

    “…the realm of malevolent spiritual forces was thought to be, not the firmament alone, but the entire realm below the moon, including Earth. And so references to a descent into this region need not be taken as excluding Earth. And for many Jews, the souls of the dead were still thought to descend to an underworld, rather than (as for instance in many Gnostic sources) making a journey skyward immediately after death. The question of where the realm of sheol was thought to be, and where “hell” was thought to be, by the author of Ascension of Isaiah, is a question that deserves attention in its own right, probably in more detail than can be provided here. But it is worth noting that, even in works such as 1 Enoch, which envisages the possibility of posthumous ascent, the realm of sheol is still thought of as one to which the living descend.”

    This is a legitimate issue to raise. What viewpoints did ancient people have about where sheol, the realm of the dead, was located? Can we say which viewpoint that the Ascension author held? If not, then this subtracts from the evidential force Carrier’s position has. McGrath has pointed us towards some great questions that can help us assess the truth value of Carrier’s hypothesis. I’m interested to hear Carrier’s response and to see more scholarly discussion of the issue because the outcome of such a debate has tremendous influence over the final conclusion I draw.

    McGrath: “As Carrier notes, ‘[Ascension] goes out of its way to explain that the firmament contains copies of everything on earth.’ …Carrier does not discuss the natural implication of this: that even if the celestial Beloved only descended as far as the firmament, and was crucified there by demons, this would mirror some corresponding occurrence on earth.”

    McGrath believes that the ‘corresponding occurrence on Earth’ means an earthly Jesus’ sacrifice, and a belief in an earthly Jesus’ sacrifice points towards an historical Jesus (I’m interpreting McGrath here). However, the earthly counterpart to the heavenly Jesus’ sacrifice is, as the book of Hebrews says, the animal sacrifices dictated by the Old Testament, not an earthly Jesus. I find this to be one of the most telling points in favor of mythicism.

    McGrath: “Carrier writes, ‘It cannot be believed that the author of the Ascension just ‘by coincidence’ ended up telling almost the very same story [told in The Descent of Inanna about a daughter of a god with similar features], right down to its characteristic repetitions, seven-stage descent and disrobing, crucifixion by demons, and resurrection.’ Why Carrier suggests that those with whom he disagrees would view the similarities as ‘coincidence’ is unclear.”

    Maybe because ‘coincidence’ is the only imaginable alternative to a hypothesis of non-coincidence (i.e. that both stories embody a widespread cultural themes). McGrath seems to agree:

    “As Charles Talbert has conveniently summarized, there are many common motifs across a wide array of traditions which believed in some sort of descending and ascending redeemer figure… The parallels are between the outlines of the stories, which reflect the widespread ancient view that beings from the celestial realm come to Earth.”

    This is puzzling. I take it that McGrath thinks Carrier believes the early Christians stole the Inanna story and changed it so that it was about Jesus. Carrier’s actual position is that the early Christians were drawing on widespread themes in the culture when they created their story. Today’s pop stars don’t ‘rip off’ Madonna and Michael Jackson, but they certainly embody similar widespread themes.

    McGrath: “Mythicists have a long history of trying to drive a wedge between the early letters and the Gospels, regarding the latter as the euhemerization of an originally purely celestial Jesus. But the attempt to drive apart sources which naturally cohere, separated in time by a mere decade or two, only to then bring in still later sources and use them to interpret the earlier ones, is clearly problematic.”

    The problem with McGrath’s use of the gospels to interpret Paul is that McGrath interprets the gospels literally (i.e. as having an intent to convey historical occurrences) and then using the literal interpretation of the gospels to interpret Paul. Since the mythicist hypothesis includes the proposition that the gospels are symbolic, not literal, McGrath is just engaging in circular reasoning against the mythicist hypothesis. Moreover, the Ascension of Isaiah is not, I think, “used to interpret Paul.” Carrier uses The Ascension as a springboard to explain his hypothesis that Paul and other early Christians had the same thing in mind, and the Ascension of Isaiah is used evidentially as a document which is more probable under mythicism than historicism, but otherwise Carrier seems to want to let Paul speak for himself, asking only whether Paul’s words make more sense if he believed in an earthly Jesus or a celestial Jesus.

    McGrath: “It is important in concluding to notice what we find in Carrier’s treatment of Ascension of Isaiah, which is mirrored in his treatment of the Talmud, the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel, and other sources. Late sources are brought into the picture, with not-implausible arguments for their containing traditions that are much earlier. But these arguments for the presence of earlier tradition are no less weighty than the similar arguments that have been offered concerning traditional material about a historical Jesus being found not only in the Gospels, but also in the letters of Paul.”

    McGrath simply asserts this as a given, with no argument made in favor of such a proposition. Of course, anyone familiar with New Testament studies can easily recount an argument from multiple attestation or something similar, but anyone familiar with Carrier’s work, or with the general problems underlying the problems with the criterion of multiple attestation, knows that things aren’t so simple. If McGrath wants to successfully establish some event about Jesus life being ‘probably factual’ he ought to mount an argument for it, and try to countenance the many problems that presently exist with such arguments. Otherwise, he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.

    I hope McGrath will continue his review series, carefully taking note of any problems he sees with Carrier’s views, while also taking note of problem areas with his own views.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

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    16 comments

    1. Did you see McGrath’s explanation to me (comment #3) on the Docetic bit that also confused me:

      “The Docetism for which we have evidence was the view that Jesus lived in the world and was encountered by human beings, but he himself only appeared to be human. It is the sort of claim that can be made about a historical figure whom one wishes to assert was divine. That is distinct (in ways that I thought would be obvious and so apologize for not spelling out) from the mythicist view of Carrier that Jesus had never been a person who walked the Earth.”

      Also, I think you are dating yourself saying today’s pop stars don’t rip off Madonna and Michael. (And if I’m correct, we are of similar age) That’s too far in the past for your example. How about Nicki Minaj and Maroon 5? (Yes, I looked at Billboard to get these examples.)

      1. Madonna and Michael are classic examples, so I don’t feel they were dated (they have to be a little old in order to have influenced newer stars).

        Btw, I’m 25. It’s funny that my writings make me seem older, when in fact a lot of people who meet me think I am much younger (I’m a baby face lol).

    2. it would be interesting to know if for the Ascension of Isaia Jesus’death happened on Earth or in heaven or both.
      In the best case for McGrath, that the first author of the Ascension was surely a historicist Docetic, I should just made ​​this nip in the bud of any scrutiny of other evidence to see which theory is more likely? I don’t think, but it seems that this is exactly the sense of McGrath’ words. Only because a text, even the more abstrusely mythological, offers a glimmer to a historicist reading, the text ceases virtually, only for this fact, to be evidence more expected on mythicism than on historicism or viceversa.

    3. What if the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus never really happened, but were just invented out of literary models from older Greek and Jewish writing? What if this was done because it was thought the world would be a better place if people believed Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave?

      Plato writes: “What they will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire …” (Republic 2.361e-2.362a). Maybe this passage in Plato’s Republic inspired the crucifixion story in the New Testament in the same way Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and the Wisdom of Solomon did by way of haggadic midrash. Maybe the crucifixion and resurrection story about Jesus was one of those noble lies Plato spoke of in the Republic (see Republic Book 3, 414e–15c), told because it would make the world a better place if the masses believed it.

      Plato apparently takes the idea of the noble lie from Euripides’ Bacchae, where Cadmus says “Even though this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you say, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, for this would make it seem that she was the mother of a god, and it would confer honour on all our race.” Maybe this is why Christians said Jesus was a God.

      “The noble lie” would fit in with Jewish and Christian theology, where lying and deception were allowed if it served the purpose of God (see Exodus 1:18-20, Joshua 2: 4-6, 1 Kings 15:5, 1 Kings 22:23, 2 Kings 8:10, 1 Samuel 21:2, Jeremiah 4:10, John 7: 8-10, 2 Thessalonians 2:11, James 2:25).

      Maybe a better world was a cause the original Christians would die for, even if they knew Jesus never rose from the dead. Paul would have been part of this conspiracy too, because he was never hunted down by his former employers when he deserted and joined the Christians.

      Of course the Jesus story was all lies. Religion has always been all lies. Did Muhammad fly off into the sky on a winged horse, or was somebody lying? Did Apollonius of Tyana do all those miracles, or was somebody lying? Did Joseph Smith find golden plates from heaven, or was somebody lying? Did Jesus do all those miracles and rise from the dead, or was somebody lying?

      “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)”

      1. Plato’s passage on the just man are striking. But, should we adopt the hypothesis that there’s a causal link between Plato and Christianity?

        In support of the hypothesis are the similarities of the writings. However, crucifixion was a common method of execution at that point in time. In our day, Crucifixion automatically brings Jesus to mind, but in those days crucifixion was a widespread thing which was not in any way unique to Jesus (just the opposite: enemies of the Roman empire got crucified left and right). The only other similarity we can see is the general thought that a truly just man would bear the sufferings for the sake of being just. Said similarity is very broad, hardly specific or unlikely enough to offer us firm assurance of influence.

        I have no doubt that “noble lies” were a part of early Christianity, though I’m unsure to what extent (for instance, how much of the gospel that Paul taught did he actually believe? It’s probably impossible to say too much on that question at this point).

    4. Also McGrath’s first argument is a double strawman: a particular theory’s validity, in-itself, is different from the methodology used to make it, likewise, overlap between opposing theories says nothing about the original theory’s (historicism) methodology.

    5. I am not sure where some people get the idea that the principle of likeness between heaven and earth involves the concept that every event on earth has a counterpart in heaven, or vice-versa. McGrath is one who seizes on that idea, and G. A. Wells was another who offered it in dispute of me. I have never advocated such a thing, and I see no evidence for it in the record. Yes, certain specific things in heaven have their counterpart on earth, such as the heavenly and earthly tabernacle, or the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem, but the idea hardly extends to every conceivable event. No ancient writer believed that because Caesar crossed the Rubicon on earth, a heavenly Caesar also did so in heaven.

      Ascension of Isaiah 7 (often quoted) simply states “As above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth.” Nations war on earth, so too do the demon hosts in the firmament. There are trees on earth, so also are there trees in heaven, and a host of other natural things (see 2 Enoch, for example). Crucifixion takes place on earth, so also can it take place in heaven. But that does not mean that every specific crucifixion on earth is mirrored by a specific crucifixion in heaven. McGrath’s argument in this regard is fanciful.

      Also, for McGrath to use the phrase “die in outer space” mirrors the prejudice he feels toward the concept, and the lack of understanding he has for it in ancient thought. “Outer space” in such a context implies a pejorative dismissal, almost relegated to “beyond reality”. The layers of heaven in Platonic thought were anything but beyond reality, but an integral part of it. And for McGrath or anyone else to claim that the concept of the firmament does not necessarily exclude earth, has not read the literature carefully. To think that something like the Ascension could imply that its “firmament” could include earth, with earth itself actually being the intended locale and yet never make specific reference to that locale, is pipe-dreaming. (The interpolation in chapter 11 served to remedy that omission, but even there the ‘earthly’ references mirror previous heavenly references and were created out of them, not out of historical tradition. The interpolation following the birth scene is a literary construction inspired by the heavenly precursor in the earlier stage of the document.)

      Earl Doherty

      1. Hi Earl!

        Thanks for the comment, it’s a pleasure to have you! I agree that McGrath went overboard in thinking that every heavenly thing must have an earthly counterpart. That said, I think even if such a conception were right, Your hypothesis is fully up to the task of handling the problem, since Hebrews compares Jesus’ sacrifice to the earthly animal sacrifices.

        Also, have you read “On the Historicity”? Carrier uses the term “outer space” throughout the book, and this probably explains why McGrath chose to use it. Though McGrath often is prejudiced, I do not believe he was being willfully pejorative on this count.

      2. The idea that something that every reader will take as a distinctive expression of specifically *Roman* power, crucifixion, would *of course* be taking place in some supra-terrestrial order as well, is like thinking that *of course* there are CIA offices, electric chairs, waterboarding and the stars and stripes in the heavens. It is only where Christianity has existed for some time without the real crucifixion machinery of the Roman empire, that it could cross anyone’s mind that crucifixion, of all things, is an apt item to introduce into one’s religious fantasies about an angelic order.

        The present material is complicated by a number of impediments to understanding, of course; chief among them is the fact that, as it seems, Isaiah is in some surpra-terrestrial place ‘seeing’ future events, that is, he is seeing them precisely as not having happened; of course he represents the ‘seeing’ itself as happening, and thus as happening in the heavens. The document does seem to have its imaginary Isaiah anticipating an angelomorphic ‘christology’ and maybe a sort of ‘docetism’ about its Christ, but these are rather ordinary christological views that arose in the self-interpretation of what otherwise seems pretty much akin to the present enthusiasm about Schneerson, who seems to have been ‘historical’. Mostly the document is transparently just ordinary non-mythicist general-Christian propaganda: it is trying to represent Isaiah as already having ‘prophesied’ what the reader agrees actually happened in actual Palestine, and thus to put a particular theological spin on it.

        Only a dreamy, cultish, de-realized, itself-mythicizing understanding could fail to grasp these really extremely obvious facts.

        1. Hi Mark,

          Philo wrote about the logos creating celestial plants, and of course there were celestial wars and celestial swords (like the Cherubim at the Garden of Eden had). So I don’t think we can put a limit on what the ancients could think of about the heavens.

          Secondly, there are credible mythical roots to the crucifixion. Richard Carrier has pointed out that there was a ‘double cross’ that was stained with blood during passover. Rodney Stark has pointed out that the cross was used as a symbol of the messiah long before Jesus (He says this in “The Rise of Christianity” I *think* on page 101).

    6. I just left a comment in McGrath’s article. I think he is completely wrong in classifying the Ascension of Isaiah as Docetic. The whole point of Docetism was that the spiritual could not suffer or be killed. That is why the Docetic Jesus is calm and removed even laughing while his body is being crucified. In contrast in the Ascension of Isaiah the Beloved does suffer and is killed in heaven. In no way is this the same doctrine as those other Docetic texts he quotes.

    7. Hi Nick, This is to follow up on my comment in our exchange on Dr McGrath’s “Exploring Our Matrix” here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2015/10/sam-harris-the-powerful-philosopher.html. I’ll put it here since it touches on Carrier’s “Death in Outer Space” concept.

      You had written: “Also, a resurrection can happen in the celestial realm as easily as it can on earth. Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris makes clear that Osiris was beloved resurrected in this way.”

      Dr Carrier makes much the same claim in OHJ, writing on page 172 that Plutarch “says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies” in “outer space”. I suspect Carrier was relying on Doherty’s reading there, but AFAICT Plutarch does not write that Osiris either incarnates or dies in outer space. As per my analysis in the link below, where I give specific references to Plutarch’s “Isis and Osiris”, there is no mention of incarnation, and if Osiris “dies” above the earth it is only as an allegory. Even then, there is no “incarnation” allegory. Analysis here: http://members.optusnet.com.au/gakuseidon/JNGNM_Review4.html#4.3

      In Section 4 of my review of Carrier’s OHJ, I look at the sources Carrier uses to support his “incarnation and death in outer space” concept. Link is here: http://members.optusnet.com.au/gakuseidon/Carrier_OHJ_Review.html#Section4

      These sources are:
      1. Ascension of Isaiah
      2. Book of Hebrews
      3. Plutarch’s ‘Isis and Osiris’
      4. Paul’s ‘Rulers of this Age’ in 1 Cor. 2

      In my review of OHJ, I examine each source to see if the concept of an incarnation, crucifixion or death in “outer space” is present in the texts. Since it is not, then I believe that invalidates one of the central planks of Dr Carrier’s Christ Myth theory (as I explain in my review). My contention is that Carrier provides no evidence for the concept of incarnation and crucifixion in a sublunar realm in ancient times. It doesn’t mean that Jesus was historical, since GA Wells’ myth theory lacks the “celestial Jesus” component and might well be prove stronger than any HJ theory. But to me it is enough to suggest that Carrier’s theory is on the wrong track.

      Any comments or criticisms of the above welcomed!

      1. Hey, yesterday I re-read On Isis and Osiris and I am currently working on a blog post about the subject, hopefully will be by tomorrow if not sooner!

        1. Thanks Nick. I’ll look forward to what you find on this!

          On Plutarch’s Osiris, Dr Carrier claims a few times in OHJ that Plutarch has Osiris descend into the sublunar area and incarnate, i.e. takes on flesh. I’ve reproduced two quotes below. My key disagreement is that as far as I can tell, nowhere does Plutarch suggest this.

          From Carrier’s OHJ, page 172 (Carrier states Plutarch is “explicit” on this):

          “As surveyed for Element 14, Plutarch is explicit about the cosmic ver­sion of the Osiris myth: he says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies (albeit in outer space; but he dies, too, as Plutarch admits, also in the myth that places his death on earth at a single time in history) and is actu­ally restored to life in a new supernatural body”

          From page 544:

          “Likewise that Jesus had a ‘body’ to sacrifice, from which could pour ‘blood’, is exactly what minimal mythicism entails: he assumed a body of flesh in the sub lunar firmament so that it could be killed, then returned to the upper heavens from whence he came. Exactly as the Ascension of Isaiah describes Jesus did, and just like what many believed happened to Osiris (Elements 14 and 31).”

          Note: I believe Carrier is wrong on the Ascension of Isaiah describing that Jesus (the Beloved) assumed a body of flesh in the sublunar firmament as well, but that can be an argument for another day.

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