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.