This blog post is going to be about Richard Carrier’s views of the origin of Christianity as expressed in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.First, a brief recap: In the ancient world, there were some people who thought that the gods were personal embodied beings that lived up in the sky (heaven) and interacted there. Sometimes they even told stories about these heavenly gods placing them in an earthly setting for the sake of the story only. Carrier argues that Jesus Christ was one of these: Jesus was believed to have taken on a body in the lower heavens, been killed by demonic powers, and resurrected, all in the heavenly realm and not on Earth. Later on someone we now call “Mark” wrote a deliberate myth placing Jesus on Earth. And at some point probably a few decades after that some group began believing in a historical man.
One problem with the above theory is Romans 1:3, where Paul says Jesus was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” How could such a thing be said about a heavenly savior who never resided on earth?
Carrier has an answer, he reasons that: Christianity began with a belief in a celestial Christ (Statement of his hypothesis); Jewish people believed the Christ must be descended from David (Proven Fact); and given those premises we should expect that early Christians would believe Christ was a descendant of David even if they believed in a celestial Christ. Carrier thinks that this was possible because they may have envisioned Jesus’ body being created directly out of David’s supernaturally preserved seed in the lower heavens (That should raise an eyebrow, read on).
Of course, the theory that Christianity began with a terrestrial Jesus makes the same prediction; so Romans 1:3, Paul’s statement that Christ was “came from the seed of David according to the flesh” is expected and fully explained no matter which theory is true, and thus cannot be used to prove a historical Jesus.
I’ve long felt this reasoning might be unsound. You can get in big trouble if you make a deduction from two premises that are in tension with each other, which is what Carrier appears to be doing. By “in tension” I mean that one premise can lower the probability of the other. Here’s an example: Let’s say that a creationist reasoned that since (1) All major plant and animal families were created 6,000 years ago [hypothesis] (2)The fossil record shows clear patterns of different life in successive rock layers, then therefore Noah’s flood must have had a mechanism(s) for sifting these fossils into the pattern we observe in nature.
Premises one and two are in tension: If the fossil record shows a pattern of life changing from the bottom to the top layer, that lowers the probability that creationism is true, whereas the syllogism falsely assumes that the two are compatible (and technically they are: the fossil record doesn’t 100% disprove creationism, it just 99.9999…% disproves it). So it makes sense to ask whether Carrier’s syllogism has a similar problem. Let’s investigate and see.
If some ancient person came up with the notion of a celestial Christ, let us consider all the possible outcomes that might obtain:
- Random ancient sage (the apostle Peter?) comes up with a celestial Christ idea, and he gets rebuked by an elder who says that the messiah must be the seed of David and therefore terrestrial. This leads to the ancient giving up his idea because he sees no reconciliation.
- The ancient sage doesn’t give up his idea: instead, he finds a way to meld descent-from-David with the celestial Christ belief.*
If the first scenario is more likely than the second, then that means that Carrier’s celestial Christ theory predicts that Christianity should not exist, which would be a problem for his theory (obviously). If the second scenario is more likely than the first, then his theory faces no obstacle from Romans 1:3.
So which is more likely? Cults, religious thinkers and irreligious thinkers have limitless creativity when it comes to wedding two conflicting ideas. I think of committed biblical inerrantists who rationalize Jesus’ promise that “some standing here would not taste death” until his prophecies had been fulfilled with the belief that somewhere out there in the world live a couple of 2,000 year old people who had personally known Jesus (‘Gotta be! Otherwise the bible wouldn’t be true!’). They must face the fact that Jesus’ prophecies have not passed, but they are also committed to the belief that the Bible can contain no false prophecies or mis-statements of fact, and so such is the strange conclusions that follow from their beliefs. Yes, some people really believe the ‘Wandering Jew’ theory. In like manner, Carrier suggests that the early Christians believed that a celestial messiah had been directly created out of David’s seed, just like God directly created Adam out of clay.
So Carrier has demonstrated that the earliest Christians would and could have blended the “descent from David prophecy” with a celestial Christ belief. But the hard work is still ahead: is it at all likely that early Christians would have been able to think of such a bizarre idea in the first place?
The Answer? Yes, they could have thought of it, here’s proof: The Zoroastrians believed that the final prophet would be born of a virgin who would become pregnant after bathing in Lake Kasaoya, which contained the miraculously preserved the semen of Zoraster. Interestingly enough, this final prophet would resurrect the dead, his apprearance marks the final triumph of good over evil, and he would be a judge of mankind. My sources for this are:
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 4, Page 127.
Mark W. Muesse, The Age of the Sages: The Axial Age in Asia and the Near East. p.29
Regardless of whether the early Christians borrowed this idea from the Zoroastrians or not, this should establish at least that the idea of supernatural conception and supernaturally preserved ‘seed’ or semen was conceivable to ancient people.
Did the Christians borrow this idea from the Zoroastrians?
Consider that the final Zoroastrian prophet (called the Saoshyant) was a virgin-born savior figure who would usher in the apocalypse and raise the dead (like Jesus), and many scholars believe that the Saoshyant concept influenced Danielic Son of Man (which Jesus was thought to be). A search on books.google.com reveals a wealth of reputable sources (search “Daniel Saoshyant” to see what I mean, see especially Imagining the End: Visions of Apocalypse from the Ancient Middle East to Modern America, p.36; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, page 42).
Whether through direct borrowing or indirect influence, somehow the Zorian concept of the Zoroastrian Saoshyant led to the creation of the idea of the Jewish Messiah. Several points of deep and improbable similarities raise the probability that the two are alike in another respect: both miraculously created out of supernaturally preserved seed. The inductive validity of this is beyond dispute: If an ancient biologist observes that a sheep and a goat both have a heart, lungs, gallbladder, and kidneys and knows that the sheep has a large intestine (but is not given access to the knowledge of what the second animal has) then the ancient scientist should infer that the goat has a large intestine. At bare minimum, it is safe to infer that there is a decent chance (if not a probability) that the goat has a large intestine.
Likewise, given the knowledge that the Saoshyant was (a) A savior figue (b) who would come at the end of time (c) being miraculously conceived by virgin (d) through preserved seed of an ancient prophet (e) later defeat evil (f) bring about the resurrection of the dead and (g) serve as a cosmic judge then, all things being equal, there is a good chance that (d) is true of both Jesus and the Saoshyant given the numerous other points of improbable similarity.
Revelation 12:1-5 may even be a confirmation that the early Christian community believed in a Jesus who was born (and presumably conceived) in the heavens:
“A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head… Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who ‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.'”
I think it remains to be adequately explained why John, the writer of Revelation, would have written this, unless he thought this was how it happened. Why place Jesus’ birth in a heavenly realm for symbolic reasons? On the other hand, it seems peculiar that in Matthew 2:13-23 we read a story about a wicked earthly ruler (Herod) trying to kill the savior after his birth. Carrier thinks the gospels are stories about what happened in heaven disguised as (fictional) stories about what happened on Earth. It’s a funny thing that Revelation presents us with a story of a heavenly Savior being sought for slaughter by an evil heavenly ruler (Satan), and later Matthew writes a (provably fictional) story about an earthly savior being sought for slaughter by an evil earthly ruler (Herod).
With the gospels as allegorical myths that never truly happened, the book of Revelation as fully supportive of Carrier’s thesis, and Paul’s own language being vague (we cannot tell if “made from the seed of David” means ordinary biological descent or a miraculous fashioning from seed or even placement of David’s seed inside the womb of a heavenly woman), Carrier’s thesis only seems crazy until you try to discredit it based on hard evidence.
In short, those who think Romans 1:3 is a damning disproof of the Christ myth theory neglect that early Christians may well have tried to marry the celestial Christ idea with a belief that he would be of David’s stock (just as cult members often marry seemingly contradictory ideas when necessary), that they would have had ready access to similar ideas of creation by supernaturally preserved seed in the Zoroastrian religion (from which they had already borrowed plenty from), and they neglect that the textual evidence which is more naturally explained by mythicism than historicism (as explained in the previous paragraph).
*You could add a third possibility: that the early Christians would have bitten the bullet and rejected the prophecy that Christ would come from David’s line, but rejecting a prophecy seems unlikely enough to me that we can reject it.