As always, it is important to understand Carrier’s thesis in order to understand what follows. Briefly, Carrier is proposing that earliest Christianity had a belief in a heavenly redeemer, like Philo’s heavenly Adam, who was crucified in the lower heavens (just like the heavenly Adam had created ‘celestial plants’ as we have previously seen, they also believed lots of other things were possible in the heavenly realm). Naturally, since Satan is the ‘Prince of the air’ and demonic and angelic beings are thought to abide in the heavens, it follows from this theory that the early Christians must have believed demons were responsible for the death of Jesus.
Let us look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8:
“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
Who are the ‘rulers of this age’? According to Gordon Fee,* there is a “growing consensus” that they are demons. Fee disagrees with the consensus, and offers some arguments in favor of a different reading.
First, Fee tries to connect the ‘rulers of this age’ to the ‘philosophers of this age’ in 1 Corinthians 1:20, so that he can argue the ‘rulers’ mentioned here are just leaders in a broad sense, and not demons. I don’t think that works: Paul makes a distinction between the ‘wisdom of this age’ (probably referring to Greek philosophy and things of that nature) and the wisdom of the rulers of this age (verse 6), which means we cannot safely assume that Paul is talking about ordinary human ‘wisdom.’ On the contrary, this verse seems compatible with idea that Paul used ‘wisdom of this age’ to refer to (for example) the teachings of the Greek philosophers, and used ‘wisdom of the rulers of this age’ to refer to demonic teachings people had gotten through the demons (Ephesians 2:2 supports this view).
Second, Fee argues that the ‘linguistic evidence’ against the demonic interpretation is decisive, that ‘rulers of this age’ is not used to refer to demons until the second century. This strikes me as weak; Paul was writing in the mid-first century, is it really legitimate to cut out anything not written within fifty years of Paul to interpret what he is saying? I’m no expert in ancient Greek; for all I know it could be routine for historians to analyze the meanings of Greek words within extremely narrow time-frames, nonetheless it strikes me as contrived for Fee to do this.
More to the point, Fee neglects to realize that a similar phrase, ‘god of this world,’ is used to refer to Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4! If Satan is the ‘god of this world’ the demons would certainly be in second place; making them the lesser ‘rulers’ of this age.
Fee (on page 104, footnote 24) says that demonic powers could not be responsible for Christ’s death because Christ’s death was a triumph over them (Colossians 2:15)**, but that’s nonsense. If we read 1 Corinthians 2 to mean “the demons would not have crucified Jesus if they had understood the wisdom of God” this implies that demons had a reason not to crucify Jesus, and that in doing so they defeated themselves. Such an interpretation fits well with Colossians 2:15.
It’s ironic that Fee (on page 106) says there is a “lack of certainty” about whether there ever was a “myth” in which Jesus was crucified by the demons. But if Carrier is right in his analysis of the Ascension of Isaiah (pp.36-48) there was indeed such a myth, dating no later than the early second century if not earlier.
Last but not least, I’d offer the comments of Raphael Lataster to show just how strong the case for demons being intended in this passage is:
What does all this mean? We must ask ourselves, “If Paul believed in a historical Jesus, how likely is it that he would identify demonic powers as Jesus’ killers?” and likewise, “If Paul believed in a celestial Jesus, how likely is it that he would identify demonic powers as Jesus’ killers?”
If Paul believed in a historical Jesus, it might be the case that he believed demonic powers worked through humans to accomplish Christ’s death. But wouldn’t he have been explicit about that belief? And if not, why wouldn’t he have identified the chief priests or Pilate as the instigators of Christ’s death? If he had it would have fit the context just as well: Pontius Pilate would have been another gullible dupe following the will of the demons just like many had fallen for “the wisdom of the world” and the “wisdom of the rulers of this world [demons].” So, under the historicity hypothesis, there are two possibilities we could predict:
A. Paul mentions humans as responsible for, or at least involved in, the death of Jesus.
B. Paul mentions only demons as responsible for the death of Jesus (this is not absolutely inconsistent with a historical Jesus).
Option (A) seems like the most credible possibility under the historicity theory, but set that aside: We can safely estimate that what Paul says here is no more than 50% likely under historicity, arguably much less.
Under the celestial Jesus theory, the only beings who even could kill Jesus are celestial ones. As such, what Paul says is effectively 100% likely under the celestial Jesus theory. In short order, the 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 passage is good evidence for the Jesus myth theory.
As an aside: it is true that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 does say that “the Jews” “killed the Lord Jesus Christ,” however, it is as easy as a trip to the library to find that this passage is thought by many scholars to by an interpolation. Carrier summarizes the reasons in the book, and I see no reason to repeat them here.
* See Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians pp.103-6. This much is available on google.books.
** Colossians may not have been written by Paul, but nonetheless it is probably early enough (written around 80 AD) that it is useful source for early Christian beliefs.