Biblical scholars and historians have established beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Jesus of faith, as described in the New Testament, is more myth than history. Was there an actual person, however, that inspired the tales? This series of posts examines one historian’s case, published by an academic press specializing in biblical scholarship, that maybe there wasn’t. That historian is Richard Carrier and the book is On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (OHJ) (also available through Amazon).
The idea Jesus didn’t exist enjoys very little support within academics, however, not none. In 2012 respected Biblical scholar Thomas Brodie published his memoirs where he revealed he hadn’t thought there was a historical Jesus since the 1970’s. As his Wikipedia entry details, the Catholic church wasn’t too happy about it.
There is also Thomas Thompson a scholar who helped to overturn the notion that the Biblical patriarchs, like Abraham, were historical individuals. He has adopted an agnostic stance with regards to a historical Jesus. His view is that, whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no need to refer to him to explain the documents of early Christianity we have. The cultural setting and theological agendas of the Biblical authors are enough.
Robert Price is certainly more than qualified to have an opinion on the subject, with two relevant PhDs, and having participated in such venues as the Jesus Seminar. In his The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems he details how just about every bit of the Gospels appears to be derived from stories in the Old Testament, retold about Jesus. That being the case what need is there to propose a historical Jesus? On this basis, among others, Price thinks it unlikely there was such a person.
There are a couple of others that could be included in the agnostic camp but that’s about it (that we know of). There is however at least one scholar who, despite thinking there was a historical Jesus, sees value in discussing the notion of a mythical Jesus openly in the field.
Given the otherwise consensus view in favor of a historical Jesus, a reasonable stance for anyone not wanting to spend time on the question is to just trust the experts and be done with it. No one can investigate everything themselves and, as long as the experts seem to be doing rigorous work, trusting them seems a reasonable course.
Others might not quite trust the experts in Biblical studies. After all the field is overwhelmingly composed of Christians with confessional interests to protect. There is some validity to this concern, and an apologetic tendency can be traced within the field. When Thomas Thompson, mentioned above, published his work arguing against the historicity of the patriarchs there was a massive, knee-jerk, reaction to the work that saw his dissertation suppressed and him eventually driven (temporarily) from the field. Today though most everyone accepts he was right after all. Still, even if one doesn’t trust the experts, that at most argues for being agnostic about the question, if one hasn’t investigated it themselves.
Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think the field generally does its work with competence. We’re not talking about fundamentalists here (especially since there are some secular people in the field as well). I think there is a legitimate respect for the scholarly enterprise and researchers in the field are trained in the relevant languages and the relevant documents and approach the subject with care and reason. That doesn’t mean, however, they’ve got everything right! Nor does it mean they display competence and rigor on every subject.
I’ve opted for a third option: examine the evidence and try to decide for myself. Not possessing the specialized knowledge of the experts puts me at a disadvantage, obviously, but I believe that is a reasonable course for a layman to pursue if done carefully (and with some degree of humility).
In his book Carrier compares two theories with the goal of deciding which one the evidence best supports. I’ll just give a shortened (and paraphrased) version of each.
Minimal Historicity (OHJ Ch. 2):
An actual man named Jesus acquired followers during his life who continued as a recognizable movement after his death. Some of those followers claimed he had been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities and soon began worshiping him as a living god or demigod.
Minimal Mythicism (OHJ Ch. 3):
Christianity started with a Jesus Christ who was a celestial deity (existing only in the heavens). Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects through dreams and visions. He was believed to have undergone incarnation in human likeness, death, and burial in the supernatural realm. Later allegorical stories of this Jesus were written that placed him instead on earth. Later communities believed and/or taught that the invented allegorical stories were real.
The second theory isn’t exactly new. Almost 20 years ago, in 1996, Earl Doherty started promoting this idea on his website and in 1999 published a book called The Jesus Puzzle. Carrier has refined the theory and the arguments supporting it in order to meet the standards of an academic press.
Doherty had noticed what many scholars had. The documents we have from before the gospels, the epistles (letters) of Paul and others don’t seem to care anything about, and don’t tell us anything about, the life of Jesus on earth. They relate the crucifixion and resurrection of course, but never explicitly place it on earth. As to any of the other details of Jesus they seem to care not one whit. Nothing about a ministry or any teachings, no direct quotes of Jesus except ones said to be received in visions, no cleansing of the temple, no healings or exorcisms, no empty tomb, and no talk of disciples (only apostles). The only gospel event mentioned directly, the Eucharist, Paul says he saw in a vision directly from Jesus in heaven.
Think of how strange that is. Supposedly God’s chosen son (in their view) had just recently been walking the earth and no one seems to care to mention anything he did. Imagine any modern day preacher writing 20,000 words (roughly the combined word count of Paul’s letters) about Jesus and never mentioning anything he did on earth! It seems all but impossible today and, despite the excuses trotted out to explain it away, it has seemed equally strange to many scholars of the Bible. Maybe it is because the story of Jesus walking the earth hadn’t been invented yet.
Now it should be said that some have tried to read the gospel stories back into the epistles. Examining a particular passage or other, they say it must be referring, obliquely, to an event, or quote, mentioned in the gospels. It is possible they are right, in which case there are a handful of such mentions after all. There are also a handful of passages that, while not relaying a particular gospel story, seem to be either referencing or outright stating an earthly existence. If a theory of a mythic beginning is to prevail it is going to have to explain these passages. It must be pointed out however that every theory about Jesus has such passages to overcome, including that he was a historical person, and Doherty and Carrier have highlighted several such passages that are hard to explain on the assumption that Jesus lived.
My Personal Take
My opinion has evolved over the years. I don’t really care what the answer is; the Jesus of faith is certainly not true either way. I must admit however that I find the subject fascinating. Originally I was a bit awestruck by Doherty’s thesis and I still think it would be really cool if it was true; much more interesting that the historicist theory. However, before reading Carrier’s book the first time through my opinion was that there is just enough evidence to support the existence of a man named Jesus who inspired the Christian religion. I now plan to read it again and to use the framework Carrier provides to see how my final judgement comes out. That’s what I’ll be doing in these posts.
Unfortunately before diving in I’ll probably need one more preliminary post on Carrier’s use of Bayes’ Theorem as the framework for deciding the question. Really I just want to dive right in and not spend a lot of time laying the ground work, such as discussing the current techniques used in biblical studies, or cataloging all the potential sources of evidence, etc. After the post on Bayes’ Theorem I want to look at a couple early Christian documents that provide a model for the mythicist theory.
A Note on Comment Policy
I understand there are a lot of strong feelings on this subject. Some Christians simply cannot abide it. Some atheists as well can get pretty upset by it feeling that it makes atheists look bad considering the academic consensus (or as a proxy war in some intra-atheist feud or other). Other atheists, despite often knowing little to nothing about the subject, are insistent there is absolutely no evidence what-so-ever for Jesus having lived.
Anyone who is a friend is free to ask whatever they like but everyone else should know that I’m going to be a bit of dictator with any comments. Stay on the topic on the post, don’t cheerlead or “me too”, try to provide a reference for any claims you make, and don’t bash or slur other groups (atheist or Christian). I’m doing this for myself and not to convince anyone else of anything so I’ll have very little patience for any non-sense.
Carrier has spent considerable time on this book, and has managed to meet the standards of an academic publisher that specializes in biblical studies. That doesn’t mean he is right but it does mean that it deserves to treated seriously. I’m not interested in rationalizations you have come up with for dismissing it out of hand.
Before diving into the contents of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) I need to say a bit about the method he uses to organize his conclusions. Prior to this book Carrier wrote a book called Proving History. It was entirely concerned with what methodology he would be using to answer the question of Jesus’s historicity. It included a primer on historical inquiry in general, a critique of the methods biblical scholars use to “extract” historical information about Jesus from the gospels, and a defense of using Bayes’ Theorem in historical inquiry.
Biblical scholars for some time have used various criteria which they claim allows them to separate the fictional elements of the gospels, added by the church, from the historical elements. Or, at least they claim it increases the likelihood that some element is historical. For example the criterion of embarrassment says if an element of the story would be embarrassing to the church it is not likely they would have invented it.
The criteria have come under strong criticism within the field. The logic of them often is not sound and scholars apply them in situations where they aren’t applicable, or apply them inconsistently. Indeed the history of their use is not very encouraging as each scholar who sets out to paint a picture of “the true historical Jesus” comes back with a different picture. Carrier cites a lot of this critical scholarship and adds his own critique. I’ll just give one example and summarize the analysis given by Carrier (which I agree with).
One of the supposed bedrock truths scholars have extracted from the gospels is that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The criterion of embarrassment is invoked. Here is Jesus being portrayed as in some sense subordinate to John. In addition John’s baptism was for the remission of sin and wasn’t Jesus supposed to be without sin? Thus, the reasoning goes, this must have been something everyone knew about and it just couldn’t be avoided. Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke copied much of their material from him (often word for word, or nearly so). Matthew and Luke have tinkered with this story to make it less embarrassing.
It is a reasonable argument but there are several problems. The later gospel authors seem to have no compunction about altering stories to fit their agendas. They omit elements when it suits them. Why would Mark be any different? If he was embarrassed by this story why did he include it in the first place? In fact Mark shows no signs of embarrassment at all in telling this story. Let’s not forget that Mark was written roughly 35 years after Jesus would have lived. So are we to imagine the story of Jesus being baptized by John circulated for three and a half decades and no one noticed it was embarrassing? No one had already tinkered with the story before it reached Mark (and thus he would have already been reporting the apologetic in his gospel)? Suddenly, after Mark wrote his gospel, everyone finally noticed it was embarrassing and scrambled to explain it!
When you think it through it is a rather silly scenario. In fact, the actual sequence of events suggests quite the opposite of what the biblical scholars have concluded. Mark being completely unembarrassed by the story followed by signs of embarrassment after Mark wrote suggests that no one had heard the story before because Mark invented it! Either that or it simply wasn’t embarrassing to those that came before, but if that is case the criterion of embarrassment doesn’t apply!
I’ve gone one far longer than I intended so I’ll just leave it at that. I’ll just say I think Carrier, and the critics from within the field, have successfully called into question the validity of criteria based methods.
The challenge facing anyone examining a complex historical scenario is this. Each individual artifact or document could have had several causes and in most cases you cannot rule out all but one of them. So how do you evaluate your overall thesis if each piece of evidence only partially supports it? Also, it will often be the case that some pieces of evidence are more likely on one theory but other pieces suggest another (while not ruling out the first one). Clearly what is needed is some way to state how much weight each piece of evidence carries, and by how much it favors one theory over another. Finally, there needs to be some way to combine those individual judgments in a fair and rigorous fashion.
That’s where Bayes’ Theorem comes in. Bayes’ Theorem is an equation in probability theory specifically geared towards comparing one hypothesis with another (or, rather, one hypothesis with its negation). If we can state our evaluations of the evidence in terms of probabilities (or ratios of probabilities) then we can use Bayes’ Theorem to combine them, giving us a number at the end that states how likely it is the theory we are considering is the cause of the evidence we have. Obviously that number is entirely dependent on how sound our evaluations were but at least it gives us a principled way to combine them while at the same time allowing others to see how we’ve weighted the evidence.
Carrier defends the use of Bayes’ Theorem in Proving History and responds to most of the common objections people advance. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that material. I think it is an interesting subject and I may discuss it during the course of this series but for now I think it is enough to say that using Bayes’ Theorem seems reasonable enough. In OHJ Carrier simply tallies how strongly he thinks a piece of evidence favors one theory or the other, e.g. 5/4 in favor of mythicism, or 1/1 if it doesn’t favor either, etc. To combine them one simply multiplies the individual factors together to get a final ratio that tells you which theory is indicated by the evidence and how strongly.
So what do those ratios represent? I like to think of it in terms of the scientific method we all learned in school. The idealized scientific method is often presented as hypothesize, enumerate predictions, gather data, reach conclusions. The ratios represent the ‘enumerate predictions’ part of this picture. What we are doing is taking a hypothesis as a given, i.e. assuming it is true, and then asking ‘of all the possible worlds that could result with this hypothesis being true, what percentage of them will contain the piece of evidence we are evaluating?’ Then we do the same for the hypothesis we are comparing it to (or the combination of all hypotheses that aren’t the first one). Dividing the first by the second gets us our ratio. So if our ratio is 2/1 in favor of historicity, for example, we are saying a historical Jesus will produce the evidence twice as often as a mythical one will.
It should be noted that there is a certain level of generality involved here. If examining a document for instance, we aren’t asking how often that specific document with exactly the words it contains will arise. We are asking instead about general features of the document. Carrier mounts a defense of this approach in Proving History and I think it is generally sound, however I would point out it introduces another place where subjectivity can enter the picture. Which features are important and which features can be abstracted away?
There is one more feature of Bayes’ Theorem that must be mentioned. When you use it you must estimate the prior probability of the hypothesis you are testing. That is, before you even begin looking at evidence how likely is your hypothesis, based on your more general knowledge of the world? Carrier uses a scale, developed by Rank and Raglan, of traits often found in hero tales, on which Jesus scores very high. Though historical people sometimes have several of the traits, that arise in legends about them, no historical individuals score nearly as high as Jesus and the high scoring mythical beings. From this Carrier justifies starting with a prior probability that Jesus was historical of 33% (i.e. 1 in 3, or 2/1 against).
I’m not going to examine the issue of prior probability very closely at the moment. Nor will I be relying on his 33% estimate. The more important question is which hypothesis does the evidence favor, and by how much? If the evidence favors one hypothesis much more strongly than the other, then it won’t really matter much what prior you started with; it will be overwhelmed by the evidence. If the evidence is fairly close, then determination of the prior will become more important and can be pursued then.
It seemed about time to start tracking my individual estimates in one place.
Note: The scope of what I address may not always match the scope of Carrier’s relevant section.
On the Historicity of Jesus - Tally Sheet
|Item Name||OHJ Location | Tally Name||My Likelihood Ratio (Mythicism/Historicity)||Posts|
|Twin Traditions||Ch. 8 Section 1 | Twin Traditions||1/1||OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 1
OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 2
OHJ – Carrier’s Response on Epiphanius and Adam
|Missing Extrabiblical Refernces||Ch. 8 Sections 3 - 4 | Documentary Silence||11/10||OHJ – Missing Extrabiblical Evidence|
|First Clement||Ch. 8 Section 5 | 1 Clement||3/2||OHJ – First Clement|
|Josephus||Ch. 8 Section 9 | Josephus||3/5||Josephus, Jesus and Bayes’|
I was going to post some references Richard Carrier uses in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) to provide a model of the mythical Jesus belief. Instead I’m just going to jump ahead and start looking at some of the later chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 are rather lengthy chapters that supply background knowledge. That is, things you need to know about early Christianity and the surrounding culture at the time. Chapter 6 is devoted to determining a prior probability for historicity as briefly mentioned in the second post of this series. Chapter 7 is a cataloging of what different types of evidence are relevant to examine. Chapter 8 begins the examination of the evidence by looking at evidence outside the New Testament canon (i.e. extrabiblical evidence), the first part of which I’ll be looking at here.
This first section of Chapter 8 is titled ‘Jesus When?’ and discusses a few traditions about Jesus with oddly variant details. He mentions in passing the conflicting dates of Jesus’ birth in the canonical gospels. Also, mentioned is 2nd century church father Irenaeus’ belief that Jesus had been crucified under Claudius instead of Tiberius.
The primary focus however is on a tradition that Jesus had lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus who was the king of Judea from 103 BC to 76 BC. It is this discrepancy Carrier uses as a piece of evidence, which he counts against the historicity of Jesus (he thinks it is 2/1 against but allows that someone might adopt a smaller ratio like 5/4). His reasoning is that it must be easier, and therefore happen more often, to place a non-historical person in completely different time periods.
Carrier presents his case like this: he says Epiphanius, a 4th century bishop and heresiologist, documents a Jewish-Christian sect called the Nazorians and tells us they preached that Jesus had lived and died under Jannaeus (OHJ p. 281-82). Carrier goes on to say that the Babylonian Talmud of the Jews confirms this belief and appears to know no other view.
As far as I can tell Carrier has things wrong here. Epiphanius is not reporting the beliefs of any Jewish-Christian sect. He doesn’t directly say he is reporting what someone else has said, like I found he often does in other chapters when reporting a heresy he knows of. He doesn’t voice any disapproval which he usually does, often with very colorful, insulting language. Nor does he offer a corrective. Instead, to me, it reads as if he has simply gone off on a series of digressions, as he frequently does, and landed on the Jesus under Jannaeus thing as an apologetic response to a question that ‘someone might say’.
I’ll just quote the beginning of the relevant chapter (29) from the book in question, Panarion, copied from this site only for convenience (and not as endorsement of its subject matter which is Gerald Massey). I can’t speak to any issues regarding translation but there seem to be some differences between Carrier’s translation and the Frank Williams translation published by Brill. In the below quotation only the paragraph noted as such is in OHJ.
Part 29. Epiphanius Against the Nazoraeans
Introduces the sect he’ll be discussing (eventually!)
1:1 Next after these come the Nazoraeans, at the same time as they or even before them—either together with them or after them, in any case their contemporaries. I cannot say more precisely who succeeded whom. For, as I said, these were contemporary with each other, and had ideas similar to each other’s.
1:2 For these people did not give themselves the name of Christ or Jesus’ own name, but that of ‘Nazoraeans.’
Explains that, per Acts 24:5, all Christians were initially called Nazoraeans. Also, mistakenly, thinks the Jessaeans Philo wrote about were another name for Christians
1:3 But at that time all Christians alike were called Nazoraeans. They also came to be called ‘Jessaeans’ for a short while, before the disciples began to be called Christians at Antioch.
Digresses to explain where the name Jessaeans comes from
1:4 But they were called Jessaeans because of Jesse, I suppose, since David was descended from Jesse and Mary was a lineal descendant of David. This was in fulfilment of sacred scripture, since in the Old Testament the Lord tells David, ‘Of the fruit of thy belly shall I set upon thy throne.’
Digresses to explain the ‘fruit of thy belly’ reference
2:1 I am afraid of drawing the treatment of every expression out too long [too late!] and so, though the truth moves me to touch on the considerations for contemplation in every expression, I give this note in brief, not to go to great length in giving the explanation.
2:2 Since the Lord said to David, ‘Of the fruit of thy belly shall I set upon the throne,’ and, ‘The Lord sware unto David and will not repent,’ it is plain that God’s promise is irrevocable.
2:3 In the first place, what does God have to swear by but ‘By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord?’—for ‘God hath no oath by a greater.’ The divine does not swear, however, but the statement has the function of providing confirmation. For the Lord swore to David with an oath that he would set the fruit of his belly upon his throne.
2:4 And the apostles bear witness that Christ had to be born of David’s seed, as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ indeed was. I shall pass over the vast number of testimonies, in order, as I said, not to drag the discussion out to great length.
Who might say? Well, who knows? But, this is as good as place as any I guess for a random apologetic for a guy like Epiphanius.
2:5 But probably someone might say, ‘Since Christ was physically born of David’s seed, that is, of the Holy Virgin Mary, why is he not sitting on David’s throne? For the Gospel says, ‘They came that they might anoint him king, and when Jesus perceived this he departed … and hid himself in Ephraim, a city of the wilderness.’ ‘
2:6 But now that I have gotten to this passage and am asked about this text [Umm, you asked yourself, but OK!] and the reason why the prophecy about sitting on David’s throne has not been fulfilled physically in the Saviour’s case—for some have thought that it has not—I shall still say that it is a fact [How very rational of you.]. No word of God’s holy scripture comes to nothing.
Here begins the part quoted in Carrier’s book and I’ll just use his translation (OHJ p. 282)
The priesthood in the holy church is [actually] David’s throne and kingly seat, for the Lord joined together and gave to his holy church both the kingly and high-priestly dignity, transferring to it the never-failing throne of David. For David’s throne endured in line of succession until the time of Christ himself, rulers from Judah not failing until he came ‘to whom the things kept in reserve belong, and he was the expectation of the nations’. With the advent of the Christ the rulers in line of succession from Judah, reigning until the time of Christ himself, ceased. For the line fell away and stopped from the time when he was born in Bethlehem of Judea under Alexander, who was of priestly and royal race. From Alexander onward this office ceased – from the days of Alexander and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, to the days of Herod the king and Augustus the Roman emperor. and now back to the previous translation to let Epiphanius finish his argument(Though this Alexander was crowned also, as one of the anointed priests and rulers.
3:5 For when the two tribes, the kingly and priestly, were united—I mean the tribe of Judah with Aaron and the whole tribe of Levi—kings also became priests, for nothing hinted at in holy scripture can be wrong.)
3:6 But then finally a gentile, King Herod, was crowned, and not David’s descendants any more.
3:7 But with the transfer of the royal throne the rank of king passed, in Christ, from the physical house of David and Israel to the church.
From there he goes on for another page, where at one point he references Pilate, before he finally gets back to the Jessaeans and another half page after that before finally getting back to the Nazorians, but only to discuss their name again. Eventually he gets around to telling us where they are located, that they followed the Hebrew Gospel, and otherwise only differed from Christians in that they are in reality Jews (i.e. they still follow the OT law).
I see nothing here to suggest the Nazorians were the ones preaching a Jesus under Jannaeus. It is bizarre, to be sure, for such an orthodox heresy hunter to be saying this but I don’t see any other way to understand what is written.
In addition to what I think is a plain reading of the text there is the fact that Epiphanius apparently repeats his claim later. See Panarion Ch. 51 22.20. I’ll include the text here also but instead copy/pasted from GRS Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 BC?.
“From the time that Augustus became Emperor, for four years, more or less, from [the beginning of] his reign, there had been friendship between the Romans and Jews, and contributions of troops had been sent, and a governor appointed, and some portion of tribute paid to the Romans, until Judaea was made [entirely] subject and became tributary to them, its rulers having ceased from Judah, and Herod being appointed [as ruler] from the Gentiles, being a proselyte, however, and Christ being born in Bethlehem of Judaea, and coming for the preaching [of the Gospel], the anointed rulers from Judah and Aaron having ceased, after continuing until the anointed ruler Alexander and Salina who was also Alexandra; in which days the prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled: ‘A ruler shall not cease from Judah and a leader from his thighs, until lie come for whom it is laid up, and he is the expectation of the nations’ –that is, the Lord who was born.”
So here we see the reference to Jannaeus again but this time in the midst some very clear statements (both before and after this passage) that place Jesus in the normal time-line. I would say it calls into question whether he is intending to place Jesus in the time of Jannaeus in the first place. At any rate, his repeating his confusing statements about Jannaeus here would seem to confirm he was not attributing them to the Nazorians earlier.
So just what the heck is going on here? Since there are very few commentaries on these passages that I could find I was reading GRS Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 BC. He speculates that perhaps Epiphanius is trying to extinguish the Jewish polemic against Jesus by clumsily incorporating its data in his orthodox histories. He appears to have done it at least one other time in the Panarion, in a defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Joseph was the brother of Clopas, but the son of Jacob surnamed Panther; both of these brothers were the sons of the man surnamed Panther.
Panther(Pandera) of course was part of the Jewish polemic against Jesus. They said his mother hooked up with a Roman soldier with that name. So here is Epiphanius trying to “explain away” the Jewish polemic by incorporating it into his orthodox narrative. (Or reusing Origen’s attempt to do so?) Perhaps he is doing the same with Jannaeus. That’s Mead’s hypothesis. Either way it appears the references to Jesus under Jannaeus are either an invention of Epiphanius or a response to the Jewish polemic against Jesus and not the beliefs of the Nazorians.
It is possible Carrier has surveyed all of this and has an argument as to why we should view it his way. That argument, however, is not advanced in the book and without it I have to conclude that Epiphanius cannot be called on as independent support of a “Twin Tradition” (especially not of one believed by a group of Christians).
My ultimate goal in this series is to come up with my own numbers to plug into the framework Richard Carrier develops in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ). Some items will just be short statements and the numbers I’ve assigned and others I’ll devote time to writing something more extensive, or explore the underlying sources. There will no doubt be digressions as well. This entry will be short.
As I mentioned in the previous post, as Carrier has it in the book, Epiphanius says there was a group of Jewish-Christians who preached Jesus lived under Alexander Jannaeus and the Jews confirm this view in the Babylonian Talmud. I found the case for the former part of the claim lacking. Robbed of that aspect, I really don’t see that much can be made of the Jews reporting variant stories of Jesus. It’s one thing if a sect of Christians has an entirely variant timeline for Jesus but quite another for a hostile witness like ancient Judaism.
I invite anyone who is interested to review the Wikipedia page that covers Jesus in the Talmud, but for me I have to say I find this ‘Twin Traditions’ issue a wash and not favoring either theory.
The canonical books of the Old and New Testament are just a fraction of the religious literature that circulated in early Jewish and Christian circles. Some works were very popular and received wide distribution. The Life of Adam and Eve was one such book. It tells the story of Adam and Eve after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden including their deaths. I encourage everyone to read it as it is pretty interesting.
There are several (ancient) translations with variable tellings; the Greek (called the Apocalypse (Revelation) of Moses, and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve) and the Latin are the primary two. The composition dates of what we have now are not known with any certainty, but it is generally thought they are based on an original Hebrew version from the first century AD (or possibly even BC).
In On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) Richard Carrier cites the Apocalypse of Moses in support of his background knowledge Element 38 (the heavens were filled with structures and objects), and later in a footnote in the chapter covering the epistles. He makes the following references in Element 38.
note 97. Revelation of Moses 37.4-5; 40.1-2. This text is otherwise known as the Greek edition of the Life of Adam and Eve, an early-first-century Jewish document, possibly translating an even earlier account in Hebrew or Aramaic. …
note 105. Revelation of Moses 32-41 (esp. 32.4, 37-40); …
Reading M.D. Johnson, “Life of Adam and Eve, A New Translation and Introduction” (1985), in JH Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2, raises some question about the latter claim as Johnson thinks all the references to paradise but two mean the earthly paradise not the heavenly one. Perhaps he is wrong, and I certainly can’t translate the Greek myself, but some elements of the story, which I’ll review below, strongly suggest he is right.
I should say that in the bigger scheme of things this isn’t a huge deal. Carrier doesn’t lean heavily on this one citation. It should also be noted that this very popular story contains other intriguing parallels to the mythicist version of early Christianity. However, I have heard Carrier cite this idea of burial in heaven in other venues and it appears to me to be wrong.
Of special interest is the conception of soul and body, seen most clearly in the Greek text, in which at the death of Adam the soul is taken into the third heaven (ApMos 37) while the body is buried in the ground (ApMos 40). Restoration of full life waits the resurrection, when the soul and body will be reunited.
32.3 Even as Eve prayed on her knees behold, the angel of humanity came to her, and raised her up and said:
32.4 “Rise up, Eve, from your penitence, for behold, Adam your husband has gone out of his body. Rise up and behold his spirit borne aloft [to heaven] to meet his Maker.”
33.1 And Eve rose up and put her hand on the face (of Adam), and the angel said to her, “Lift up your hand from that which is of the earth.” [Adam’s body is “of the earth”, and she needs to let go of earthly things, so to speak, because everything she and Seth see through 37:6 is taking place in heaven. The first heaven it seems to me.]
33.2 And she gazed steadfastly into heaven, and beheld a chariot of light, borne by four bright eagles, (and) it was impossible for any man born of woman to tell the glory of them or behold their face and angels going before the chariot
33.3 and when they came to the place where your father Adam was [in the heavens], the chariot halted and the Seraphim were between the father and the chariot.
33.4 And I beheld golden censers and three bowls, and behold all the angels with censers and frankincense came in haste to the incense-offering and blew upon it and the smoke of the incense veiled the firmament.
33.5 And the angels fell down to God, crying aloud and saying, “JAEL, Holy One, have pardon, for he is Your image, and the work of Your holy hands.”
34.1 And then I Eve beheld two great and fearful mysteries before the presence of God and I wept for fear, and I cried aloud to my son Seth and said,
34.2 “Rise up, Seth, from the body of your father Adam [Seth has been looking at Adam’s body on earth while Eve was watching him in heaven], and come to me, and see a spectacle which no man’s eye has yet beheld and how they supplicate on behalf of your father, Adam.”
35.1 Then Seth arose and came to his mother and said to her: “Why do you weep?”
35.2 (And) she said to him: “Look up and see with your eyes the seven heavens opened, and see how the body of your father lies on its face and all the holy angels are praying on his behalf and saying: ‘Pardon him, Father of All, for he is Your image.'”
35.3 Pray, my child Seth, what shall this mean? And will he one day be delivered into the hands of our Invisible God?
35.4 But who are, my son Seth, the two [dark persons] who stand by at the prayers for your father?”
36.1 And Seth said to his mother, “They are the sun and moon and themselves fall down and pray on behalf of my father Adam.”
36.2 Eve said to him: “And where is their light and why have they taken on such a black appearance? ”
36.3 And Seth answered her, “The light has not left them, but they cannot shine before the Light of all things, the Father of Light; and on this account their light has been hidden.”
Assumption of Adam to Paradise
37.1 Now while Seth was saying this to his mother, behold, an angel blew the trumpet [still in heaven here], and all the angels who were lying on their faces rose up, and they cried aloud in an fearsome voice and said:
37.2 “Blessed (be) the glory of the Lord from the works of His making, for He has pitied Adam, the creature of His hands.”
37.3 But when the angels had said these words, behold, there came one of the seraphim with six wings and snatched up Adam and carried him off to the Acherusian lake [interesting tidbit: Johnson notes this is the river over which the dead must cross in Greek myth and that the angel Michael is said to wash repentant sinners here in the Apocalypse of Paul 22], and washed him thrice, and led him before God.
37.4 And he stayed there three hours, lying down, and thereafter the Father of all, sitting on his holy throne stretched out his hand, and took Adam and handed him over to the archangel Michael saying:
37.5 “Lift him up into paradise unto the third Heaven [God decides to have mercy and has Adam’s spirit taken from the first heaven to the third], and leave him there until that fearful day of my reckoning, which I will make in the world.”
37.6 Then Michael took Adam and left him where God told him [to the third heaven]. And all the angels sang an angelic hymn being amazed at the pardoning of Adam.
Adam and Abel’s Funerary Rites
38.1 But after this joyous event of Adam, the archangel Michael cried to the Father concerning Adam.
38.2 And the Father commanded him that all the angels should assemble before God, each in his order, some having censers in their hands, and others lyres, bowls and trumpets.
38.3 And behold, the Lord of Hosts entered and four winds drew Him and cherubim mounted on the winds and the angels from heaven escorting Him and they came on the earth, where was the body of Adam. [His spirit has been dealt with and now it is time to deal with his body]
38.4 And they came to paradise and all the leaves of paradise were stirred so that all men begotten of Adam slept [The offspring of Adam are on earth not in heaven; this is the earthly paradise God is entering.] from the fragrance save Seth alone, because he was born according to the appointment of God.
39.1 And God came to the body of Adam and grieved greatly over him and God said to him: “Adam, what is this you done? Had you kept my commandment, those who born you down to this place would not have rejoiced.
39.2 Yet, I tell you that I will turn their joy to grief and your grief will I turn to joy, and I will return you to your rule, and seat you on the throne of your deceiver.
39.3 But that one (the one who sat on it prior to his becoming arrogant) shall be cast into this place [Satan is going to be punished by being cast into the third heaven? No.]with that he may see you seated upon it. Then he himself shall be condemned along with those who obeyed him and he shall grieve when he see you sitting upon his throne.
40.1 Then God said to the archangel Michael: “Go away to Paradise in the third heaven [you don’t send someone to where they already are], and carry away [away, and back to earth] three fine linen clothes.”
40.2 And God said to Michael and to Gabriel and Uriel: “Spread out the clothes and cover the body [which has not been said to have been moved from earth] of Adam.” And they bore the sweet olive oil and poured it upon him. And the three great angels prepared him for burial.
40.3 When they finished preparing Adam, God said they should bear the body of Abel also. And they brought more linen and prepared him for burial.
40.4 For he was unburied since the day when Cain his brother slew him; for Cain took great pains to conceal (him) but could not, for the body sprang up from the earth and a voice went out of the earth saying: [Cain tried to bury him but the body popped right out and the earth, certainly not in the third heaven, said:]
40.5 “No other body can be covered until –with respect to the first creature who was taken from me — the earth from which he was taken is returned to me.” And the angels took at that moment and put him upon a rock until Adam, his father, was buried. [Abel is being buried with Adam and up until now the earth would not accept him. What would be the point of saying this if the burial was taking place in heaven?]
40.6 And God commanded that after they had prepared the body of Abel for burial that they bear Abel up also to the area of paradise [Up could be important I suppose but, I think, the rest of the story shows it doesn’t mean to the third heaven] , to the spot where God had taken the earth and fashioned Adam [The same earth the voice came out of in 40:4-5, who said Adam was taken from it]. And God made them dig the spot for two.
40.7 And God sent seven angels to paradise and they brought many fragrant spices and placed them in the earth, and afterward they took the two bodies and placed them in the spot which they had dug and built (a sepulcher).
41.1 And God called and said, “Adam, Adam. “And the body answered from the earth and said: “Here am I, Lord.”
41.2 And God said to him: “I told you (that) earth you are and to earth shall you return.
41.3 Again I promise to you the Resurrection; I will raise you up in the Resurrection with every man, who is of your seed.”
42.1 After these words, God made a three-fold seal and sealed the tomb, that no one might do anything to him for six days [Who is going to do something to him in the third heaven?] till his rib should return to him.
42.2 Then the Lord and his angels went to their place [back to the heavens].
Eve’s Prayer to Join Adam
42.3 And Eve also, when the six days were fulfilled, fell asleep. But while she was living, she wept bitterly about Adam’s falling asleep, for she knew not where he was laid. For when the Lord came to paradise to bury Adam all were asleep [which would have been unnecessary if it had been happening in heaven] until he finished the burial of Adam except Seth alone. And no one knew (this) on the earth, except her son Seth.
42.4 And Eve prayed while weeping that she might be buried in the place where her husband Adam was. And after she had finished her prayer, she said:
42.5 “Lord, Master, God of all virtue, do not alienate me from the body of Adam, from whose members you made me.
42.6 But deem me worthy, even me who is unworthy and a sinner, to enter into his tabernacle. Just as I was with him in paradise, both of us not being separated from the other;
42.7 just as in our transgression, we were (both) led astray and transgressed your command, but were not separated, even so now, o Lord, do not separate us.”
42.8 But after she had prayed, she gazed heavenwards and groaned aloud and smote her breast and said: “God of All, receive my spirit,” and she delivered up her spirit [again, spirit up to heaven, body still on earth].
Eve’s Funeral and Epilogue
43.1 And Michael came and taught Seth how to prepare Eve for burial. And there came three angels and they bore her body and buried it where Adam and Abel’s bodies were.
43.2 And afterwards Michael spoke to Seth saying; “Lay out in this manner every man that dies until the day of the Resurrection.”
43.3 And after giving him this rule he said: “Mourn not beyond six days, but on the seventh day, rest and rejoice on it, because on that very day, God and we the angels rejoice with the righteous soul, who has passed away from the earth.”
43.4 After the angel said these things he ascended into heaven, glorifying (God) and saying: “Allelujah, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.”
Adam Made in Heaven
Carrier mentions the Apocalypse of Moses again in a footnote in the chapter covering the epistles.
He has in mind here the statement in the Apocalypse of Moses that says Adam was buried in the same soil he was made from, which Carrier has said was in heaven. If I’m right though Adam was buried (and therefore made) on earth so this support evaporates.
Richard Carrier has responded to a couple of my posts in a comment thread on his blog. I guess I should not be surprised that he thinks I am someone who, “needs the truth to be different than it is, so they invent implausible conspiracy theories to explain how the evidence got the way that annoys them,” as that too often seems to be Richard’s default reaction to anyone who disagrees with him.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. I don’t care at all what the outcome of my exploration here is. I’ve followed the Doherty thesis, and Richard’s blog, for years. At one point I was pretty gung-ho in favor of the thesis. My current stance has changed slightly to the negative; it is a hesitancy rather than a resistance, however. I would gladly accept it if I think it is warranted. That doesn’t mean I want to believe things that aren’t true in support of it.
I had been waiting to read On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) for a few years now. Because of that, I read it through in a handful of days after its arrival; there was no way I was going to go through it slowly and examine each claim. Now that the initial reading is done that is what I intend to do. The two items in question just happened to be among the handful I wanted to look into first, because I found them interesting.
Life of Adam and Eve (original post)
I’ll start with the Life of Adam and Eve and keep things simple. There is one passage in particular that seems to me to be conclusive; Adam (and Abel) were buried in the earth of our world. This passage is far from the only one in support of my view, but it is the most direct. Without an explanation of it I don’t see me changing my mind. You might say the consequent so favors my view that it would take a lot of evidence the other way to change the posterior, yet there are other passages pointing in the same direction.
Before I quote the passage I want to note that I’m not alone in my overall conclusion. As I noted in my original post it was the conclusion of the translator in “Life of Adam and Eve, A New Translation and Introduction” (1985), in JH Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2. Richard cites no one else supporting his take when he introduces the idea, and I haven’t been able to find anyone either.
So here goes:
40.3 When they finished preparing Adam, God said they should bear the body of Abel also. And they brought more linen and prepared him for burial.
40.4 For he was unburied since the day when Cain his brother slew him; for Cain took great pains to conceal (him) but could not, for the body sprang up from the earth and a voice went out of the earth saying:
40.5 “No other body can be covered until –with respect to the first creature who was taken from me — the earth from which he was taken is returned to me.” And the angels took at that moment and put him upon a rock until Adam, his father, was buried.
Neither Cain nor Abel were ever in paradise, where ever it is located. The murder of Abel happened in our world. Cain tried to conceal Abel’s body in our world. Variant readings replace conceal with bury but it should already be clear that is what is meant by conceal when it says the body sprang from the earth. Then that earth said,“No other body can be covered until –with respect to the first creature who was taken from me — the earth from which he was taken is returned to me.”
On the face of it the consequent for a passage like that on the theory that Adam was taken from soil in the heavens is essentially zero. The only inference required is to realize Cain and Abel were never in paradise and therefore this speaking earth has to be of our world. Hardly a stretch.
As for the parts Richard highlights in his response they don’t actually support his theory. The angels are told to go the third heaven and “carry away” three cloths. Go to, as in somewhere you aren’t right now, as in they aren’t in the third heaven. Carry away, as in away from the third heaven where they were just sent to get the cloths. Somehow Richard missed my comments to that effect? Pseudepigrapha has “and bring me” fine linen cloths. Why he thinks this supports the notion Adam was in the third heaven is beyond me.
Then Richard highlights the passage that says to bear the body of Abel as well. Yes, but bear him where exactly? That is not evidence for his view. Then he conveniently skips highlighting the passage I gave above since it would give away the game. In the final highlighted section is a statement to bear up the body of Abel to paradise. Unlike Richard I did at least acknowledge that ‘up’ might be against my view but it turns out that might not have been necessary. I should have checked back with Pseudepigrapha which only has “and both were buried according to the
command of God in the regions of Paradise in the place from which God had found the dust”. No ‘up’. Since I’m saying there was an earthly paradise (and other sections of the book require that to be the case) this isn’t a problem.
Now I welcome an explanation for the 40:3-40:6 passage, but I don’t see what it is, nor what it could be. So by all means enlighten me, but there are several other passages which I highlighted that point in the same direction, and an entire story line that requires Adam to have been in an earthly paradise at some point. I can mention all that later if an explanation of this passage is forthcoming. For now I’m sticking with what the scholar other than Richard has said. There are two scenes, one dealing with Adam’s soul which gets sent to the third heaven, and another dealing with his burial on earth.
Epiphanius (original post)
Richard’s complaint that the Talmud confirms the belief that Jesus lived under Jannaeus is not relevant to my post. He clearly says in his book, “Epiphanius then says a curious thing: these Christians say Jesus had live and died in the time of Alexander Jannaeus. This is what he says they preach:” He then quotes the passage I gave in the original post and goes on to say (in reference to the Talmud passages about Jesus under Jannaeus), “the Jews east of the Roman Empire (where this Talmud was compiled, assembled from the third to fifth centuries) were reacting to this Nazorian Christianity.”
The claim that Epiphanius was ascribing views to the Nazorians is completely separate from the (correct) claim that the Talmud mentions a Jesus living under Jannaeus. If the Epiphanius claim is wrong, it is wrong! That something similar appears in the Talmud doesn’t suddenly make it right. Or is Richard perhaps “invent[ing] implausible conspiracy theories to explain how the evidence got the way that annoys” him?
Let’s be clear here. The passage Richard quotes in the book does not say anywhere that it is describing the views of the Nazorians. Neither does any other portion of Chapter 29 of the Panarion. Richard cites no scholarship in support of his claim nor does he advance any argument whatsoever in its favor. Even in his blog response he provides no evidence, only a plea for a low prior probability. But we need to look at the evidence Richard!
What is the prior probability Epiphanius would make a non-orthodox apologetic? Well in one location he says Jesus was born in a cave so it does happen, but let’s be as generous, absurdly generous, as possible here. Let’s give P(h), the probability Epiphanius is stating the Jannaeus claim himself, a very low value 0.01.
Now what is our evidence ‘like’. It lacks certain things like any mention the Nazorians are the source of what he writes about Jannaeus, and any correction of the claim. I haven’t read all of the Panarion but I did sample a handful of chapters and I found no instances where both of those things were missing. We don’t want to be too harsh here so lets be absurdly generous and say that 10% of the time Epiphanius tells us a belief of a group without mentioning he is telling us a belief of the group and without correcting their erroneous view. Of course those items will always be missing if he is stating the claim for himself, so:
So P(h)=0.01, P(~h)=.99, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1 for a posterior of 0.0917.
So that’s what the passage doesn’t have, what about what it does have? Well it does have a direct statement of what Epiphanius is responding to! It is a hypothetical challenge a skeptic might make.
2:6 But now that I have gotten to this passage and am asked about this text and the reason why the prophecy about sitting on David’s throne has not been fulfilled physically in the Saviour’s case—for some have thought that it has not—I shall still say that it is a fact. No word of God’s holy scripture comes to nothing.
Immediately ! following is the passage Richard quotes in the book. I have to wonder, did Richard even read the entire chapter here or did he just go fishing for the part he needed for his “case”?
So how often do you supposed Epiphanius would introduce a passage that’s supposed to describe the beliefs of the Nazorians but instead frame it as an answer to a hypothetical skeptic? And not only that but specifically say that it is he, Epiphanius, that will still say it is a fact! Zero? Nada? Zilch? None? Negative four? I mean really! Let’s be preposterously generous and say he’ll do something that idiotic 1/10th as often as he would if he, rather than the Nazorians, is saying it. Using the outcome of the previous calculation for this round’s prior we have:
P(h)=0.09, P(~h)=.0.91, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1 for a posterior of 0.5.
Well look at that, even being insanely generous things are coming out dead even. But we aren’t done yet.
If Epiphanius is ascribing this view to the Nazorians, how often do you think he will repeat in another chapter, in the middle of giving his own timeline of the birth of Jesus, the strange statements about Jannaeus and Alexandra, and even cite the same exact scripture as being fulfilled by their “ceasing” and Jesus being born? Again, nada? Zilch-o? Let’s be embarrassingly generous to Richard here (I’m feeling sorry for him for not bothering to investigate the source he used) and again say he’ll do it 1/10th as often.
P(h)=0.5, P(~h)=.0.5, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1
And the answer is…. 91% in favor of my hypothesis.
Now, to be fair, I haven’t evaluated Richard’s evidence yet, but that’s because he hasn’t given any! Not in the book. Not in the form of a citation. And, not in his blog response. He appeals only to a low prior which I incorporated above and easily overcame. There is no other conclusion I can come to other than Richard is wrong here.
There is one final piece of info I’ve left out. I started out only giving my hypothesis a 1% prior. However, as I noted in the original post, Epiphanius also included this gem as part of a defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity, in his Chapter 78 (7)
Joseph was the brother of Clopas, but the son of Jacob surnamed Panther; both of these brothers were the sons of the man surnamed Panther.
Well what do you know, surname Panther, from the Jewish polemic against Jesus. (Naw, that’s just crazy conspiracy talk right? To heck with that evidence stuff.) So, we can clearly see 1% is far too low for the prior probability that Epiphanius would make unorthodox apologetic claims. I won’t go back and account for that. The evidence is already enough as it is, but keep this in mind lest anyone wants to gainsay the generous estimates I’ve given above.
Ball’s in Your Court
Now I’ve had a bit of fun above, but in the end I’m more than happy to be shown to be wrong. I just don’t want to accept faulty or un-evidenced claims. It is going to take more than knee-jerk slanders on my character and motivations, and shoddy reading of source materials however.
If Jesus lived should we have heard about him from the numerous writers who lived in and around his time? That’s the topic of Chapter 8 Section 2 through 4 in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ). I have a dilemma of sorts when it to comes to this subject. On the one hand it bores me to tears for the simple reason that I’ve heard it discussed so many times before. On the other you can’t reasonably form a conclusion without at least considering it. There are the Josephus passages, after all, and numerous silences in authors who we might expect to have written about Jesus. I’ll just have to find some way to make it interesting to myself.
The silences of pagan authors are covered in Chapter 8 Section 3. Carrier documents several people who had every opportunity and reason to write about Jesus but didn’t (or if they did their writings were not preserved). The section documents many types of missing evidence but I have in mind those authors closest to the time Jesus would have lived, who failed to mention him. Ultimately, Carrier decides the silences as a whole favor neither historicity or mythicism, and thus assigns 1/1 as the likelihood ratio.
I’m inclined to think he is being too generous to historicity. To understand why we’ll need to look at what (and how) it is we are estimating when we state a likelihood ratio. (I’ll note that I haven’t fully worked through this intuition I have, so enjoy watching me fumble in the dark a bit here).
When estimating our likelihood we are given two things; the hypothesis under consideration, and our background knowledge. By given I mean, we are to assume they are true during our analysis. You can think of it like this: given the hypothesis, imagine all the possible worlds where it is true. These worlds will have properties (or states if you will) that are entailed by the hypothesis (i.e. they logically must be the case if our hypothesis is true), and properties that are merely allowed by it (because the hypothesis doesn’t specifically disallow them or have any logical effect on them). It is important to note that we are not to limit the space of possible worlds to the evidence we will be considering. In fact that’s the whole point, to discover what percentage of the total space has our evidence in it.
Now one of the excuses often given for all of the silences is that, unlike his portrayal in the gospels, Jesus wasn’t at all famous. However, this a conclusion based on the very evidence Carrier will have us consider here. Though he discusses this possibility in Section 2, he hasn’t included it in the extensive background knowledge chapters, and neither is it part of our minimal historicity hypothesis. Therefore ‘Jesus was famous’ is not ruled out by either, and therefore must be part of the total space of possible worlds under historicity. Remember, the space of possible worlds will include worlds whose evidence is nothing like ours.
What this means is that a (potentially) large fraction of the possible worlds under historicity will contain lots of early written information about Jesus because he was famous. But that is not what our actual world looks like at all. So the only way the silences could be a wash is if there is an identical large fraction of possible worlds under mythicism where we expect to have such references even though they are false. Otherwise we would expect the entire space for mythicism to contain no references. Obviously there is the possibility of false references (I believe the Testimonium Flavianum is one such reference) but is it enough to balance out the references we should expect if Jesus had indeed been famous? I think, perhaps, not.
This obviously has implications for analyzing the passages in Josephus. So I may have found a way to make this interesting for me, after all. In the future I’ll explore how exactly I want model this intuition and how specific evidence and arguments can effect this more general evaluation.
Though I reserve the right to change my estimate in the future, for now I’m going to say that the silences are at least 10% more common on mythicism, which gives me a ratio of 11/10.
The earliest Christian letter outside of the New Testament comes from Clement, supposedly the bishop of Rome. The letter doesn’t actually name its author, but it was traditionally attributed to him. Scholars typically date it to the late first century. The letter was written to the Corinthian church in response to an incident involving the ouster of the elders of the church. It is quite a long letter (ten thousand words) and calls for the group that took over to hand the leadership back to the elders.
In On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) Richard Carrier examines the letter to see if it provides any evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus. Some odd features cause Carrier to conclude this letter is evidence for a mythical Jesus. He summarizes those odd features as “of such great length, filled with so many opportunities to reference the facts of Jesus’ life but never doing so, and with scripture and revelation the only mentioned sources for Jesus’ deeds and sayings” (p. 315).
A translation of First Clement is available at Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings.
One silence I found particularly striking was in Chapter 17 where we read, “Let us be imitators also of them which went about in goatskins and sheepskins, preaching the coming of Christ. We mean Elijah and Elisha and likewise Ezekiel, the prophets, and besides them those men also that obtained a good report.” Where is John the Baptist in this list? Lest you think he is one of the men “that obtained a good report”, he is not. Those men are detailed in the rest of the chapter, and the next, and are all Old Testament figures. Later in 36:4 when writing, “Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee”, he cities the Psalms in full, not any encounter with John the Baptist. Biblical scholars assure us that the story of Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the truest pieces of information recorded in the gospels, yet he doesn’t even merit a passing mention. (But, perhaps this is merely another indication the story was invented by Mark.)
As Carrier points out, when recounting the evils of envy in chapters 4 through 6, Clement can’t find a place for the envy of the Pharisees leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. This despite the fact the examples given range from the ancient, to Paul and Peter, and even examples of a more general nature. Chapter 7 follows, on the subject of repentance. Though the blood of Christ gets a mention as bringing repentance to all, no sayings of Jesus on the subject are produced.
In my view, it is not just that Jesus based examples are missing from places they should be. It is also that the letter is structured the way it is. 1 Clem 45:2-4 says, “Look diligently into the scriptures… for ye will not in them find the just expelled by holy men. The just were persecuted, but it was by the lawless;”. Because of this framing of the topic, in terms of what is in the Hebrew scriptures, we might not expect to find a mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, but why frame it that way in the first place? Surely, the best possible example here is of the Jews violating their own laws to kill Jesus. I think it is very odd we don’t find each section of examples, throughout the letter, topped off with an example from the life of Jesus.
Holy Ghost Writer
The view of Clement is that the authors of the Hebrew scriptures were channeling the Holy Spirit. In 45:2 we read “Look diligently into the scriptures, which are the true sayings of the Holy Spirit”. But, apparently, sometimes the Holy Spirit was merely a conduit for Jesus. In giving examples of humility, peacefulness, and obedience to God, Clement tells us Jesus spoke to us through the Hebrew scriptures, using the Holy Spirit as ghost writer (pun intended).
All these things doth the faith which is in Christ assure. For he himself, through the Holy Spirit, thus calleth unto us:
[Psalm 34:11-19]Come, ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is he that wisheth for life and would fain see good days?
Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are over the just, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to destroy their memorial out of the land.
The righteous cried, and the Lord heard him, and delivered him out of all his troubles.
[Psalm 32:10]Many are the afflictions of the sinner, but they that hope in the Lord, mercy shall compass them round about.
Stranger still, when Clement wants to tell us Jesus was of a “lowly condition” he doesn’t produce an actual story about Jesus, he simply cites Isaiah 53 as evidence.
For Christ belongeth unto them that are humble, not unto them that exalt themselves over his flock.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the sceptre of the majesty of God, came not in the arrogance of boasting and pride, though he was able to do so; but in humility, even as the Holy Spirit spake concerning him.
For he saith,
[Isaiah 53]Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Like a child have we delivered our message before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land. There is no form nor glory in him, and we beheld him, and he had neither form nor comeliness, but his form was despised, lacking comeliness, beyond the form of the sons of men. He was a man stricken and in toil, knowing how to bear infirmity, for his face was turned away; it was dishonoured and held in no reputation.
He beareth our sins and suffereth pain on our account, and we esteemed him as one in toil, stricken and afflicted.
He was wounded for our sins, and for our transgressions did he suffer infirmity; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we were healed.
All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one hath erred in his own way,
and the Lord hath given him up for our sins; and he, through affliction, openeth not his mouth. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers is dumb, so openeth he not his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and who shall declare his generation, for his life is taken from the earth;
for the iniquity of my people he hath come unto death.
And I will give the wicked in requital for his burial, and the rich for his death: for he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: and the Lord willeth to purify him from stripes.
If ye make an offering for sin your soul shall prolong its days.
And the Lord willeth to take away from the travail of his soul, to show him light and to form him by knowledge, to justify the righteous man who serveth many well; and their sins he shall bear himself.
Wherefore he shall receive the inheritance of many, and shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his soul was delivered up unto death, and he was numbered among the transgressors,
and he bore the sins of many, and was given up for their sins.
And again he saith,
[Psalm 22:6-8]I am a worm and no man — a reproach of men and despised of the people;
all they who saw me mocked me, they spake with their lips, they shook the head; he hoped in God, let him deliver him, let him save him, because he desireth him.
See, beloved, what is the example that hath been given unto us; for if the Lord so humbled himself, what shall we do who have through his mercy come under the yoke of his grace?
What must the situation have been regarding knowledge of Jesus to produce passages like these? It can’t be the one biblical scholars like to imagine; there is no rich oral tradition to draw from. Together with the silences regarding the deeds of Jesus during his life these passages present a serious problem for a historicist understanding of this letter.
The Sayings of Jesus
In his extensive quotation of the Hebrew scriptures, Clement twice cites scriptural passages that don’t match anything we have today (23:3-4 and 46:2). Similarly we also find two passages describing things Jesus spoke that, while resembling sayings in the gospels, are slightly different from them. If these are indeed things a historical Jesus said, Clement probably didn’t get them from a gospel we have. Indeed, the aforementioned silences all but require that to be the case.
The possibility exists though that we are indeed seeing a preserved memory of Jesus’ teaching. The problem is, it is tough to see how this can outweigh the strange features already reviewed above. We know that eventually a large body of sayings were attributed to Jesus despite not being from him. We also know that in Paul’s letters he appears to at least have received some of his information via direct revelation from Jesus. That Clement quotes from unknown (to us) scripture also leaves open the possibility he is doing the same and, like in Chapter 22, attributing the scripture to Jesus.
13:1 Let us therefore, brethren, be humble, laying aside all boasting and pride, and folly and wrath, and let us do that which is written; for the Holy Spirit saith, Let not the wise boast in his wisdom, nor the strong in his strength, nor the rich in his riches; but let him that boasteth make his boast in the Lord, even by seeking him and doing judgment and justice. Let us especially remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ which he spake when teaching gentleness and long-suffering, for he spake thus:
13:2 Show mercy, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven unto you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye give, so shall it be given unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kindly affectioned, so shall kindness be showed unto you; with whatsover measure ye measure, with the same shall it be measured unto you.
13:3 With this commandment and with these exhortations let us strengthen ourselves, that we may walk obedient to his holy words with all humility. For the Holy Scripture saith,
13:4 [Isaiah 66:2]Upon whom shall I have respect but upon him that is meek and quiet, and that trembleth at my words?
Carrier thinks the quotation in 13:2 looks like a proverb, perhaps a lost one. Against the notion that Clement is quoting a lost scripture here are the following points: (1) unlike in Chapter 22 he doesn’t say it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is speaking and (2) when introducing the next quotation in 13:4, which is from scripture, he says so. So, I don’t buy that explanation. On the other hand I also don’t see why this couldn’t be the kind of thing someone received through revelation. That is a mere possibility however, and therefore I think this slightly favors a historicist interpretation.
The same could be said of the other saying of Jesus found in Clement’s letter (46:7-8). It is a combination of sayings found in the gospels but slightly changed. In this case I agree with Carrier that the saying best fits a church community settings, in which case it couldn’t be an actual saying of Jesus, since there wouldn’t have been a church when he was alive.
From Jacob According to the Flesh
There is a passage in the letter that is more challenging for a mythicist interpretation.
For from Jacob came the priests and all the Levites that serve the altar of God. From him came our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh; from him came the kings and rulers and governors of the tribe of Judah; and the remainder of his tribes are of no small glory, since God hath promised, Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.
A discussion of the phrase translated as “according to the flesh” is beyond what I want to go into here. The mythicists certainly think Jesus took on the ‘likeness’ of flesh before his heavenly sacrifice. The merits of that view though aren’t what I have in mind as being challenging. It is where in the passage the phrase occurs. The priests that came from Jacob were certainly ordinary flesh and blood human beings. The same can be said of the kings and rulers of Judah. So why is Jesus, who only took on the likeness of flesh sandwiched in between those two references? Shouldn’t he be set apart somehow? Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but it seems strange to me to find Jesus casually enumerated among people who came from Jacob in the ordinary way.
In the end there are indications pointing in different directions. Without the two sayings of Jesus and the listing of Jesus among the things that came from Jacob I would find the letter to strongly side with the mythicist position; at perhaps as much as a 4 to 1 ratio. The sayings don’t reduce it by much but perhaps it might bring it down to a 3 to 1 ratio instead. The Jacob passage however I feel is at least 2 to 1 against mythicism.
Putting that all together the final ratio would be 3 to 2 in favor of mythicism.
First Clement: 3/2
Continuing with my theme of bouncing all over the place, according to whim and fancy, next up is the Testimonium Flavianum.
In the late first century, historian Flavius Josephus published his book Antiquities of the Jews, which is a history of the Jewish people. In the book are found two references to Jesus Christ whose authenticity have been questioned by scholars. I’ll just briefly indicate why for the first of these references.
Josephus was a Jew, not a Christian, so you’ll notice that phrases such as “He was the Christ”, and “if it be lawful to call him a man”, cannot possibly be authentic. Since all of our extant manuscripts come from Christian sources it would seem that phrases such as these, at the least, have been added by Christians. Now, some scholars want to argue for an authentic core to the passage, but I find this to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
For a good summary of the arguments regarding authenticity, pro and con, I suggest this article on Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings. The arguments that I find conclusive are 6(missing from table of contents), 8 (doesn’t fit well in the surrounding material), 9 (not cited in works of early church fathers and should be if it was there), and 11 (sounds very much like the language of Eusebius, who may have been the forger himself) on the con side. For more on number 11 see this blog post by Ken Olson brought to my attention in the review of OHJ by Nicholas Covington.
The rest of this post is just me playing around with some ways to visualize the task of coming up with likelihood ratios. I’m not sure if this will be at all useful to anyone so you may want to skip it (no, trust me, you probably do). I’m just experimenting, really. As I said above I consider the Testimonium completely spurious but find it to be a convenient starting point for the discussion below.
I’ve said before that what we are doing when developing our likelihood ratios is imagining the total space of possible worlds under the hypotheses we are comparing. We are then comparing how often our evidence shows up under each. We don’t mean the very specific details. For instance, we don’t really care that the Testimonium Flavianum shows up specifically in the 18th book of the Antiquities, that isn’t relevant. So we are abstracting away some of the details and want to know which possible worlds have evidence ‘like’ ours.
- Historicity Possible Worlds
- Contains passage ‘like’ Testimonium (x%)
- Doesn’t contain passage ‘like’ Testimonium (100 – x%)
- Mythicism Possible Worlds
- Contains passage ‘like’ Testimonium (y%)
- Doesn’t contain passage ‘like’ Testimonium (100-y%)
Our ratio then will be y divided by x. Obviously, it will matter quite a bit what our evidence is ‘like’. For example, if ‘definitely authentic’ is one of the characteristics the passage has, x and y will be very different than if the passage is inauthentic.
Our intuition might be that an interpolated passage (i.e. not authentic) doesn’t argue for either historicity or mythicism. If we take a step back though, and look at the situation before we decide on authenticity, we might think differently. I’ll show you what I mean.
- A- No passage in Josephus
- B- Passage present but entirely interpolated
- C- Passage present and has, at minimum, an authentic core
- 1- Info gleaned from Christian report only
- 2- Info independent of (or mostly independent of ) Christian reports
- A- No passage in Josephus
- B- Passage present but entirely interpolated
- C- Passage present and has, at minimum, an authentic core
- 1- Info gleaned from Christian reports only
I want to briefly defend dividing up the possible worlds as I have done in A, B and C. As long as the items in any subtree add up to 100% any division should theoretically be as good as any other. Before we divided them up into ‘like our evidence’ and ‘not’, here I add a more finely grained view. Now, not every way of dividing up the space will be as useful, but there is nothing wrong with doing things this way. In fact, in this case, it aligns better with how we naturally want to approach the problem. We would like to figure out if the passage is an interpolation(or not) and then figure out how often interpolations show up under each theory.
Getting back to the outline above we should first notice how difficult it would be to actually estimate the numbers we need. We are basically floating free here. (I think) we have no actual, empirically derived, numbers to use. Still, perhaps we could say something about the relationships between them. It seems like I.C. should be bigger than II.C. for the simple reason that there are more ways for an authentic passage to show up under historicity. This means that I.A. or I.B., or both, have to be smaller than their counter parts in II. So which one is it?
Our initial intuition might have been that an interpolated passage was just as likely under either theory and so the extra occurrences of an authentic passage are all coming out of the “No passage” bucket. I would be more inclined to think it would diminish a little of each. There is less need to interpolate under historicity and therefore it would occur less. I think whatever the ratio of II.A. to II.B. is should be maintained under I. Redrawing the tree in a slightly different way, and adding some actual numbers (pulled straight out of nowhere), might help visualize what I’m saying
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (4%)
- 1 – Info gleaned from Christian report only (50%)
- 2 – Info independent of (or mostly independent of ) Christian reports (50%)
- B – No authentic passage (96%)
- 1 – No passage at all (75%)
- 2 – Entirely interpolated passage (25%)
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (4%)
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (2%)
- 1 – Info gleaned from Christian report only (100%)
- B – No authentic passage (98%)
- 1 – No passage at all (75%)
- 2 – Entirely interpolated passage (25%)
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (2%)
So B. takes up a slightly different amount of space in the over all possibility space under each hypothesis, but is split up between ‘no passage’ and ‘interpolation’ the same.
This all means that an interpolated passage would actually end up favoring mythicism. Not so much because the passage is interpolated, but because it falls under the no authentic passage scenarios which happens more often under mythicism. This fits in with what I said in a previous post where I felt that each failure to find a mention of Jesus should at least count somewhat against historicity.
Does this seem right, though? The arguments I gave seem reasonable but it definitely gives me a healthy respect for the complexity of the situation. If I’ve got the relationships right, the numbers themselves are probably less than justified (I just made them up). My thinking was that there was probably a low chance for inclusion by Josephus even if he has heard of Christians but that, given the status of Josephus, there would be a strong motive to fill in any silences found in his work.
What’s It Like?
More important is the case where we can’t narrow things down to one branch but favor one over the other. In the case of the Testimonium I’m convinced we can proceed as if our passage is interpolated; I don’t think there is much chance it has even an authentic core. For the other passage in Josephus however I’m not as confident of that conclusion.
Just adding together both the interpolated and authentic options won’t do in this less clear cut scenario. Some of those possible worlds will have unmistakable evidence one way or another, and they aren’t ‘like’ a passage that could be either. Besides we may heavily favor one, interpolation say, but still give authenticity a reasonable chance of being true.
Jeffrey Conditionalization is one way forward. Basically we just do a weighted average, which requires us to estimate how likely each branch is. The way it would work in this case is we would calculate our posterior probability as if we know the passage is authentic, and then multiply by the percent chance we think that is the case. Then add to that the calculation, done as if we know it isn’t authentic, multiplied by the percent chance we think that is the case. Too many words… an example:
Let’s say the posterior probability of mythicism is 0.333 , if the passage is authentic, and we started with a flat prior (i.e. P(h) = 0.5 = P(~h) ). But lets say we only think there is a 5% chance the passage is authentic so we multiply: 0.333 * 0.05 = 0.017.
Now let’s say the posterior probability for an interpolation (we know there isn’t “no passage”) is 0.505. We think it is 95% likely this is the case so we multiply: 0.505 * 0.95 = 0.48
Now adding those two numbers together we come up just shy of 0.5. Surprised? Those are the actual number you will get, by the way, if you plug the numbers in my outline into your favorite Bayes calculator. What is happening is that an authentic passage is a much better indicator than an interpolated one, so even though I gave authenticity a mere 5% chance of being true, it was enough to bring the posterior below 50%.
The final number is sensitive to how likely we think it is for an authentic passage to show up. For example, if I change II.A. to 5% and I.A. to 10%, and again assume a flat prior, we get a final posterior slightly above 50%. If we go to 10% and 20% then the posterior will be about 52%. All in all calling it a wash seems fair since I have no idea what those actual numbers should be, however do note that if I give authenticity as little as a 20% chance of being true we are back under 50% even with the larger estimates for I.A and II.A.
The lesson here is that a characteristic that sharply distinguishes between two theories can sway our results even if we think it has a low probability of being true.
The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James
Moving on, the strangely worded phrase in the heading is the other reference found in Josephus, this time in Antiquities 20.9.1. I again recommend Peter Kirby’s site for the arguments for and against this passage.
The phrase does look a bit odd, with Jesus coming first and James last, but Peter Kirby thinks it is just another grammatically correct way to identify James. I also find items 4 and 5 in favor of authenticity important. Against authenticity I find items 4 through 6 sway me to consider interpolation more likely than authenticity, but not by much.
Richard Carrier has published a peer-reviewed article on this passage where he suggests the passage was an accidental interpolation. That kind of thing happened a lot back then. They had no method to distinguish between a marginal note and a phrase that had been left out during copying of the manuscript, so often a marginal note would be included in the text the next time it got copied. To read the article you can buy Carrier’s book Hitler Homer Bible Christ or read a summary of the argument here.
He offers a very plausible scenario for how an interpolation might have occurred. Still I don’t find the arguments quite as convincing as those against the Testimonium. I’m going to proceed by assuming there is a 25% chance of the passage being authentic.
- No passage (90%)
- Interpolated passage (5%)
- Authentic passage (5%)
- No passage (94.999%)
- Interpolated passage (5%)
- Authentic passage (.001%)
With the Testimonium I see interpolation as a purposeful action designed to fill a void. Here any interpolation is going to be accidental. Therefore I’ve lowered the rate of occurrence and kept it at a fixed rate. I could have structured things the same as before but this way gives me a nice even fraction which I would probably round off to anyway (I checked).
Using these numbers and the technique I used in the previous section:
Assuming an authentic passage, and flat priors gives us essentially zero. And, zero multiplied by 25% is still zero.
Assuming an interpolated passage, and flat priors gives us 0.5. Multiplying by 75% gives us: 0.375
So if this were our only piece of evidence we would have 37.5% chance for myth and 62.5% chance for historicity. Since I’ve been using ratios instead of percentages, dividing 37.5/62.5 gives 0.6… or a 3 to 5 ratio in favor of historicity. The Testimonium I found to favor neither theory (i.e. the ratio was 1/1) so 3/5 is our final answer.