Thursday, February 11, 2016

Jesus and Romulus

Richard Carrier published a book in which he argues that Jesus never existed. I was reading a review:

The reviewer picks out key items in Carrier's case for mythicism. I'm going to comment on those items. 

Carrier does ask good questions.  Why do so many first century extrabiblical sources fail to mention Jesus or Christianity, if Jesus existed in the first century?  

i) Jesus was a local celebrity. He wasn't widely known. This wasn't the television era. He was well-known in pockets of Palestine, but completely unknown in most of the Roman Empire. Most folks in the Roman Empire would have no occasion to be aware of a short-lived Palestinian celebrity. It would take time for that information to disseminate.

ii) Our sources of information for that time and place are sparse and spotty. 

Why does Paul so often fail to mention aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching?  

That's an old canard:

i) There's the difference in genre. Paul is a letter-writer, not a biographer.

ii) Paul had less direct knowledge of Jesus than people who accompanied Jesus during his public ministry.

iii) Since Luke was Paul's friend and traveling companion, assuming Paul had firsthand and/or secondhand knowledge of Jesus, he probably shared that with Luke. Paul needn't write a separate account concerning the life of Christ if what he knew fed into Luke's Gospel. In that event, Luke's Gospel includes whatever Paul had to contribute. 

iv) That isn't pure speculation. For instance, Luke's account of the Last Supper is more like Paul's account in 1 Corinthians than Matthew or Mark. So there may well be cross-pollination between Luke's knowledge of the historical Jesus and Paul's, or vice versa. 

Why did Epiphanius (Panarion 29.3) and rabbinic sources (Carrier cites BT Sanhedrin 107b; Sotah 47a; JT Hagigah 2.2; Sanhedrin 23c) mention a view that Jesus lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus, which was a century before the historical Jesus supposedly lived?  For Carrier, this is an indication that early Christians differed on where to put Jesus in history, which would be odd, had Jesus been historical.  

i) For Carrier to cite the Talmud is a double-edged sword. After all, the Talmud bears witness to Jesus, albeit with a polemical slant:

Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defense, let him come and declare it.” As nothing was brought forward in his defense, he was hanged on Passover Eve.Tractate Sanhedrin (43a).

This bears witness, not only to Jesus' existence, but his reputation as a miracle-worker. And it's more impressive because it represents a hostile witness. 

ii) In addition, there's evidence that the Talmud was censored to suppress historical references to Jesus:

iii) The Talmud is a mishmash of legend and historical traditions. It isn't easy sift the material. 

iv) If, moreover, Jesus never existed, then why didn't Jews capitalize on that damning fact? Why wasn't that a fixture of the Jewish polemic against Christianity? Surely Jews were in a uniquely qualified position to challenge the existence of Jesus–if, in fact, he was purely a figure of myth and legend.  

v) It's easy to overlook the fact that many people know very little about the past, have a very shaky grasp of relative chronology. Let's take two examples, beginning with the Pilgrimage of Etheria, about a 4C nun who made a trek to the Holy Land. It's clear from her account that she has, at best only the sketchiest grasp of how to correlate Biblical events and place-names to locations in the Holy Land. She's entirely dependent on local traditions and ecclesiastical traditions. 

To take another example: Cotten Mather's commentary on Genesis (Biblia Americana: Genesis). Mather is often completely at sea regarding historical identifications, regarding when and where people lived and events occurred, in the text of Genesis. 

For all its limitations, archeology has given us a far more accurate relative chronology of ancient history. More so than many ancient people enjoyed. 

vi) As one scholar notes: 

The garbled, muddled nature of the Babylonian version [i.e. Babylonian Talmud] is evident in the strange story of Ben Pnrahia's rebellious pupil. The anonymous fool of the Jerusalem Talmud's legend is identified with Jesus of Nazareth. Because of a silly slip of the tongue, his rabbi bans him, and because of an accidental difficulty, he is not pardoned, and therefore abandons his faith. Joshua b. Perahia proclaims a ban with the blowing of four hundred rams' horns according to the Babylonian Talmud model…The insertion of the Christian Messiah's name and the peculiar identification with the dissident pupil in Ben Perahia's company led to a confusion of chronological conceptions and great difficulties for medieval defenders of Judaism, who were obliged to refute hostile accusations and disown the talmudic vilifications of the Christian savior.  
Nevertheless, there was no lack of modern attempts to uncover an ancient core in that report that identifies Jesus of Nazareth with Joshua b. Perhia's pupil, relying on the support of Epiphanius, who sets the birth of Jesus in the reign of Alexander (Jannaeus) and Alexandra, that is, in the time of Ben Perhia or Ben Tabai. All these attempts, however, are based on pure delusion. Epiphanius does not contradict the doctrine of the Church and does not, in opposition to deep-seated belief, bring forward the birth of Jesus (the Christian Messiah or some other Jesus). He simply reiterates the claim made by the Church Fathers (e.g. Hippolytus, Eusebius, Jerome) that after the decline of the Hasmonean kingdom, Jacob's blessing of Judah was fulfilled ("The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come"; Gen 49:10) as was the count of "seventy weeks" of years according to Daniel (9:24ff.). In their view the redeeming mission of Jesus was thus confirmed. 
For Epiphanius, Jannaeus represents the last appearance of a Jewish prince, a true independent ruler wearing a double crown of kingship and priesthood. Upon his death the single rule was divided, quarrels and disturbances split the country until the rise of Herod, who was not of Jewish descent, that is, until the realization of the vision in biblical prophecies. According to this viewpoint, Jerome, too, sees Jannaeus as the priest king, the last legally anointed head of the Jewish people, before "the scepter" departs "from Judah" and the Christian salvation comes, at the end of the "seventy weeks" as foreseen by Daniel. Intending to stress the theological notion, Epiphanius skips the period between the death of Jannaeus and the gospel of Jesus, in order to connect Jannaeus and his offspring with the Herondian era. His entire exegesis contains no trace of a tradition, Jewish or Christian, regarding an unknown Jesus at the time of Joshua b. Perahia. Joshua Efrón, Studies on the Hasmonean Period (E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1987), 158-59.

Back to the review:

Carrier says that there are parallels between Christ and mystery cults, and also between Christ and Romulus (for which Carrier cites Plutarch, Romulus 27-28).  One can perhaps quibble on details: there is debate about how or whether Romulus even died, and thus it may be hasty to say that he was resurrected.  At the same time, there are parallels: Romulus does ascend to heaven, appear to people thereafter, and talk about a kingdom. 

i) What you have in the case of Romulus is not a resurrection but apotheosis. A mortal who's elevated to the pantheon. It's a category mistake to compare the two. These belong to different thought worlds. 

ii) Romulus is the legendary founder of Rome. This is national mythology. Political propaganda to retroactively validate the claims of Rome. Romulus was never anything other than a mythological figure. 


  1. Why did Epiphanius (Panarion 29.3) and rabbinic sources (Carrier cites BT Sanhedrin 107b; Sotah 47a; JT Hagigah 2.2; Sanhedrin 23c) mention a view that Jesus lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus, which was a century before the historical Jesus supposedly lived? For Carrier, this is an indication that early Christians differed on where to put Jesus in history, which would be odd, had Jesus been historical.

    While Epiphanius knew when Jesus lived, and (presumably) most of the rabbis knew when Alexander Jannaeus lived, maybe Epiphanius wasn't sure when Alexander Jannaeus lived just as some of the rabbinic sources didn't know exactly when Jesus lived. One or both sides may have piggybacked on the other's error. Or at least Epiphanius didn't know when Alexander Jannaeus lived. In which case, this doesn't tell us that the early Christians didn't know when Jesus lived, but merely confirm the fact that the early Christians (most of whom were gentiles) weren't fully conversant with Jewish history.

    If we're talking about Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310–320 – 403), by his time the canonical Gospels were already recognized as canonical and there are plenty of historical markers in the Gospels to correctly place when in history Jesus lived. For example, the Gospels and Acts acknowledge the fact that there were many Herods, yet the Gospels make it clear which Herods Jesus was born under and then later lived under.

    1. While I don't fully understand Carrier's evolving views on the Christ Myth, here's a link to my attempted undermining of some of Carrier's basic views on the topic:

      Undermining Richard Carrier's version of the Christ Myth Hypothesis