• On the Historicity, Part 4.

    This is the fourth installment of my review of Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus. The index to my series of reviews can be found here.

    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:

    “[H]ad human authorities known who Jesus was and what his death would accomplish (their own salvation), they would have even more reason to kill Jesus, not less, as Paul asserts. It would only be Satan and his followers, who would be defeated by Jesus’ sacrifice, who would have refused to kill Jesus, had they known who he truly was. As Carrier recognises, this interpretation coheres well with the celestial Jesus’ death and resurrection portrayed in the early and non-canonical Christian document, the Ascension of Isaiah (p. 565). The latter interpretation fits minimal mythicism perfectly, while the former would at least be less expected (if not completely outrageous) on minimal historicity. In formal expression, less expected means less probable.”

    So What?

    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.

    End Notes

    * 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.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."

    7 comments

      1. Paul does indeed use the word ‘archon’ to refer to human rulers in Romans. However, the phrase ‘archontes’ of the ‘aeons’ (ages) probably doesn’t refer to human rulers, because:

        1. “Rulers of the Aeons” seems to be a cosmic turn of phrase.
        2. Satan is called “the god of this world” – a similar phrase.
        3. Most importantly: the context indicates demonic powers; Look at verse 8:

        “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

        If these were human rulers, how could understanding divine wisdom have caused them not to crucify Jesus? After all, Jesus had to be crucified to atone for *their* sins, the human rulers would’ve had everything to gain from it. On the other hand, the demons would have had a reason to avoid the crucifixion had they known who Jesus was (see especially the ‘Ascension of Isaiah’ where the demons and Satan are aghast when they learn who Jesus was).

        I disagree with your analysis of 2 Corinthians 4:3-4. You state: “about what would Satan blind the unbelievers if not from God’s secret
        wisdom (and the ensuing God’s plan), which he had to know then? In other
        words, Satan cannot be one of the (ignorant) ‘archons’.”

        The earliest Christians pictured Satan and his angels being ignorant *until after* they’ve already done it: then they realize who Jesus was and come to regret their mistake. At that point, Satan and his angels could have been said to know full well what happened, what the gospels was, at which point they could seek to stop humans from understanding and believing it.

        I find Colossians 2:15 to be supportive of this interpretation as well. I notice in your blog post that you point out Colossians was forged. While this is true, it is equally true that most scholars would date Colossians to the 80’s or 90’s AD, which means that it offers us insight into early Christian thought, regardless of whether or not Paul wrote it.

        Sincerely,
        Ryan

        1. Ryan,

          “1. “Rulers of the Aeons” seems to be a cosmic turn of phrase.”

          Aeons also is an earthly turn of phrase in Paul’s epistles, more so obvious in Ro 12:2, 1 Cor 1:20, 3:18 & Gal 1:4.

          BM: “world” & “age(s)” also applied to a worldly context, such as earthly dominion and time(s) (the later applies to both).

          “2. Satan is called “the god of this world” – a similar phrase.”

          BM: Yes, but it is singular. And Paul never gave demonic subordinates to Satan. When he used ‘daimonion’, it is only for pagan gods (1 Cor 12:20-21).

          “3. Most importantly: the context indicates demonic powers; Look at verse 8:
          “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.””

          BM: What the rulers of this age/world did not understand is God’s wisdom (opposite the age/world (human) wisdom of the times),
          and,
          from 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16, the ones who do not understand God’s wisdom (& his plan) are specified to be humans (ref: 1:20, 22-25; 2:5, 9, 11, 13-14) and not spirits.

          “If these were human rulers, how could understanding divine wisdom have caused them not to crucify Jesus? After all, Jesus had to be crucified to atone for *their* sins, the human rulers would’ve had everything to gain from it.”

          BM: That is if the Romans rulers would become Christians, which would be unlikely. And these Romans would not take the risk to kill a favorite of a god (“the Lord of glory”) if they knew who was Jesus, because that god could exercise terrible revenge on them. Furthermore, these Gentile Romans would want to keep the status quo, keep control of everything, and not give a chance for a foreign god to them to proceed with his plan (whatever it was, including possible wrath on them: Ro 9:22), the emanation of his secret wisdom.

          For the rest of your post, you may have a point against my argument,

          Cordially, Bernard

          1. “‘world’ & ‘age(s)’ also applied to a worldly context, such as earthly dominion and time(s) (the later applies to both).”

            That’s true, it is ambiguous. Maybe we cannot conclude who is right based on the mere usage of ‘aeons’ in this passage.

            “Paul never gave demonic subordinates to Satan.”

            Paul never speaks of this, but nonetheless we have early Christian literature (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 12:9) that speaks of “the devil and his angels.”

            “When he used ‘daimonion’, it is only for pagan gods (1 Cor 12:20-21).”

            I think you may have the wrong reference here; 1 Corinthians 12:20-21 doesn’t speak of pagan gods.

            “the ones who do not understand God’s wisdom (& his plan) are specified to be humans”

            Paul’s belief that “humans do not understand God’s wisdom” does not at all exclude him from believing that some spirits may not understand the wisdom of God, either.

            “That is if the Romans rulers would become Christians, which would be unlikely.”

            Under Paul’s worldview, the Romans might have been able to know the truth and might have converted if they had realized that God would forgive them (in other words, if the Romans had known and believed Christian theology, they could have joined the church).

            “For the rest of your post, you may have a point against my argument.”

            I appreciate that Bernard. It’s nice to see you have an open mind concerning this issue. Sincerely,
            Ryan

            1. Ryan,

              I meant 1 Corinthians 10:20-21. Damned typo!!!

              Paul expecting the Roman & Jewish leadership to “know” (& accept the belief) and then convert is a long shot. I do not think Paul was thinking that far. And with Satan, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers”, there was no chance they would “know”!

              But if your thinking is right, then these Romans would have asked “the Lord of glory” to sacrifice himself voluntarily, at best facilitate the process and make it as official & public as possible. Certainly, they would not want to be the executioners of “the Lord of glory”, forcing his crucifixion, making it look like NOT a self-imposed sacrifice.

              Cordially, Bernard

    1. Some thoughts:

      * 1 Cor 2 seems to me to be about **human** wisdom. When Paul writes in 2.6 that “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”, it is difficult to believe that Paul needs to explain that Christians were NOT speaking of the wisdom of demons.

      * More generally, from 1 Cor 1:19 to 1 Cor 2:13, there are frequent mentions of “wise” or “wisdom”. When they are not a reference to God’s, they appear to be about **man’s** wisdom, i.e. Greek philosophy. And I’m not aware that Paul talks about “the wisdom of demons” anywhere in the NT.

      * Roman authorities are “coming to nothing” because they crucified Jesus, which is ushering the end times, i.e. the general resurrection of the dead and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Lataster’s point that Roman authorities would have **more** reason to crucify Jesus seems weak to me.

      * Paul writes in 1 Cor 5:5 “to deliver such a one [an evil doing Christian] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” showing he believed that Satan could act on earth to kill people.

      1. Hi Don,

        I’m happy you’ve joined the discussion!

        Concerning your first two points, consider the words of Colossians 2:8:

        “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition **and the elemental spiritual forces of this world** rather than on Christ.” (emphasis mine)

        Concerning your third point: I think I have come to see that some aspects of the 1 Corinthians 2 passage could be read either as demonic powers or as earthly rulers. I grant that the interpretation you’ve provided of the phrase “coming to nothing” is credible, but I also believe it is credible to posit that the ‘rulers’ were demonic powers whose reign was being put to an end when they would be cast in the lake of fire.

        Naturally, we wonder if we can distinguish between the two interpretations. I think Colossians 2:15 provides the tie-breaker:

        “God stripped the spiritual
        rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the
        victory and showed the world that they were powerless.”

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