Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carrier's snow job, part 3

This is a sequel to my two previous posts:

My third and final post is a mopping up operation. In my first installment, I focused on Carrier's opening statement. In my second installment, I focused on Carrier grading his own performance. 

In the course of the debate, Carrier added to the case he laid out in his opening statement. I'm going to comment on that. 

1. Carrier said Luke used Josephus. Carrier has said that before. As luck would have it, here's Dr. Timothy McGrew's assessment of Carrier's claim:

2. Carrier said that according to Mt 27:45, "the sun went out for 3 hours," but astronomers can't verify that claim.

However, the text doesn't say that. Rather, it says there was darkness over the land (i.e. land of Israel). Which doesn't imply that the sun stopped shining. 

Even from a naturalistic standpoint, there are different ways that can happen. Fallout from a volcanic explosion can block sunlight. Swarms of locusts can block sunlight. Dust storms can block sunlight. 

My point is not to furnish any particular explanation for Mt 27:45. The text itself only states the effect, and not the cause of the effect. It could be supernatural rather than preternatural. 

3. Carrier explained why he thinks the canonical Gospels are fictional by design. He cited Christ's parable in Mk 4, with its distinction between insiders and outsiders. He said that's a clue that the entire Gospel is parabolic. Jesus is a fictional character in that giant parable. It represents a double truth policy. The noble lie. 

But Carrier's appeal is forced:

i) Parables are embedded within narratives. Although parables are stories, they are told by a speaker outside the story (Christ). So that's a fictional narrative within the historical narrative.

ii) The distinction in Mk 4 isn't between literal and figurative, or factual and fictional, but between those who understand the message and those who don't. No one supposed the parables were describing real life events. 

4. Apropos (3), Carrier cited the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree as proof that Mark is fictional by design, because the withered fig tree is symbolic. 

i) That, however, is a false dichotomy. Sure, Christ's action is symbolic. Indeed, scholars have noted that many of his miracles are enacted parables. That is to say, the action functions as an object lesson. But the fact that Jesus used the fig tree to illustrate the impending judgement of unbelieving Israel does not imply that no such miracle occurred. Indeed, a nonexistent miracle would fail to illustrate the point. 

ii) Carrier said the miracle is historically ridiculous. He didn't explain what he meant. Does he mean the very idea of a miracle is ridiculous, or that believing in miracles is ridiculous? In any case, his dismissal presumes that miracles are incredible, but that, of course, begs the question–as well as ignoring extensive evidence for many well-attested miracles. 

iii) Furthermore, the hermeneutical question isn't whether the parable is ridiculous from Carrier's standpoint, but Mark's standpoint. Unlike Carrier, Mark was not an atheist. 

5. Apropos (4), Carrier classifies the canonical gospels as fiction. Now "fiction" is a coarse-grained category, so let's explore different kinds of fiction. 

i) You might have unintentional fiction. Take someone who repeats an urban legend. He thinks it's true, but it's actually false. 

That wouldn't be a fictional genre. Rather, that would be a case of intentional nonfiction. He means to tell the truth, but he's mistaken. The urban legend is fictitious. Yet something can be fictitious without belonging to a fictional genre. In unintentional fiction, the falsehood is unwitting.

Another example in kind would be a initial news report that turns out to be false. A week later the paper or station or network issues a retraction. The reported incident is fictitious. 

However, Carrier doesn't think the canonical Gospels are fictional in that sense. 

ii) You might have nonreferential fiction. By that I mean, the writer doesn't attempt to be realistic. That doesn't necessarily mean he attempts to be unrealistic. But he's simply going with his imagination and the creative momentum. It's spontaneous. Although the story might sometimes intersect with reality, that's incidental. 

However, Carrier doesn't think the canonical Gospels are fictional in that sense. 

iii) You might have historical fiction. However, that's ambiguous. 

a) For instance, some historical fiction is semi-autobiographical. Examples include novels and stories by Giorgio Bassani, as well as the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

In this case, the author doesn't necessarily intend to write realistic fiction. He doesn't plant historical nuggets at strategic points in the plot to give it an air of verisimilitude. Rather, the store is realistic because he's writing about his own time and place. So the historical quality is almost a side-effect. He isn't working historical nuggets into the story. Rather, because he draws on memory as well as imagination, it's only natural for the narrative to correspond to real life in many respects.

However, Carrier doesn't think the canonical Gospels are fictional in that sense. 

b) By contrast, you have self-conscious historical fiction, where the author intends to write historical fiction. He deliberately incorporates historical details into the story to give it an accurate period milieu. 

Carrier thinks the canonical Gospels are fictional in that sense.

6. Apropos (5), here's a basic problem with Carrier's classification. What's his evidence that the canonical Gospels are fictional in the particular sense he demands? How does he distinguish evidence for one kind of fiction from evidence for another kind of fiction?

From what I can tell, he has no evidence that singles out his subcategory of fiction. His classification isn't driven by the evidence, but by his theory. His theory demands that the Gospels be fictional in the sense of 5(i-b). That's because he denies the existence of Jesus. So he must classify the Gospels in a way that excludes any evidence for the historical Jesus. 

He can't admit that the Gospels are fictional in the sense of 5(i), because that would amount to a mainly nonfictional account with some inadvertent fictitious elements. 

He can't admit that the Gospels are fictional in the sense of 5(ii), because the Gospels have too much archeological corroboration. His classification must be able to accommodate "incidental" factuality, without conceding that the Gospels are generally historical. So he needs a literary category with enough built-in flexibility to keep his theory safely unfalsifiable. 

But assuming (ex hypothesi) the Gospels are fictional, there's no a priori reason they must be historical fiction. Carrier himself keeps comparing the canonical Gospels with the apocryphal gospels. Yet the apocryphal gospels aren't historical fiction. The authors of the apocryphal gospels didn't attempt to reconstruct an accurate setting. Rather, the apocryphal gospels are imaginary from start to finish. Imaginary plot, characters, dialogue, setting. 

There's no effort to make them true to Palestine or Jerusalem in the time of Christ. Rather, the apocryphal gospels are written from the artless ethos of someone living in the 2C–or later. Their authors aren't even conscious of the anachronism. 

Conversely, some apocryphal Gospels are deliberately written to present an alternative version of events that diverges from the canonical gospels. Written by heretics who wish to supplant the historical Jesus with a different Jesus.

If Carrier were serious about his comparison, we'd expect the canonical Gospels to be fictional in the sense of 5(ii), but he can't allow it because that's inconsistent with archeological corroboration. 

And he can't permit the canonical Gospels to be fictional in the sense of 5(iii-a), because that would mean they were written by someone contemporaneous with the events he narrates; someone who lived in Palestine or Jerusalem during the public ministry of Christ; or an author whose informants hail from that time and place. That would make the canonical Gospels far too factual to cohere with his theory of a nonexistent Jesus. 

So by process of elimination, he must classify the canonical Gospels as fictional in the sense of 5(iii-b). But that's an ad hoc classification. That isn't based on differential evidence, but what his theory requires. It's not the evidence that selects for that subcategory, but his theory. He begins with his theory, then picks out a classification that suits the needs of his theory. 

7. Incidentally, if the canonical Gospels are really allegories of what was going on in Gentile churches, why don't they mirror the kinds of issues we find in the NT epistles or 2C apocryphal Gospels? The narrator would invent characters who give voice to controversies in the late 1C or 2C. Characters would pose questions to Jesus, who'd give authoritative answers. So why are the canonical Gospels so focused on Jews, to the neglect of Gentiles? 

8. Darrell Bock draws attention to another obvious problem with Christ mythicism: if Jesus never existed, why doesn't the Jewish polemic against Christianity exploit and accentuate that fact? If Jesus never existed, surely the most efficient way for Jews to counter the nascent Christian movement is to point out that Jesus never existed! Surely Jews were uniquely qualified to say that, if that was so. If Jesus existed, he lived in Jewish history. What could be more damning than for Jews to say we have no record of such a person. 

Moreover, Carrier can't say that evidence was suppressed. Christians had little control over what Jews said about Christianity, as the Jewish polemic against Christianity illustrates. 

9. Because he disallows any evidence for the historical Jesus in the Epistles, Carrier must compartmentalize the Epistles from the Gospels. 

Perhaps the most glaring example is his treatment of the Lord's Supper in 1 Cor 11:23ff. He is forced to deny that transparent an allusion to the Last Supper. To do so would concede damaging evidence for the historical Jesus. So he had to pretend that it's not an allusion to Judas betraying Jesus, and the institution of the Lord's Supper. Rather, Paul thought that happened to Jesus in outer space. Incidentally, it's very droll when Carrier is so sure that we can detect Homeric allusions in Mark's Gospel, but we can't detect an allusion to the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11!

Now, in a way, his position, even though it's special pleading at its most preposterous, is a half-truth. It flags the fact that readers subconsciously interpret the Pauline passage in light of Gospel accounts regarding the institution of the Lord's Supper. Indeed, the wording of the Pauline passage is especially close to Luke, which makes sense if they were friends.

If, however, we bracket the Synoptic background information and read the Pauline passage in isolation, then it's very obscure. Without the background information supplied by a Synoptic Gospel, Paul's description would be cryptic or even incomprehensible. For the original audience, Paul's reference was supplemented, either by their knowledge of a Synoptic Gospel, or oral history regarding the life of Christ.

10. In the debate, Carrier said dying-and-rising savior gods were all the rage at the time of the NT, whereas they're not in ancient times. Why would there be a dying and rising god in Judaism conveniently in the culture and the time when dying and rising gods were all the fashion whereas in ancient times that was not the case? He says this around the 1:03 mark. And he revisits that contention around the 1:40-41 mark, posing a rhetorical question about whether that's just a random coincidence or total coincidence. 

Giving examples, he claims the Pyramid texts "explicitly" describe the death and "resurrection" of Osiris. By the same token, he says the Sumerian Descent of Inanna to the Underworld "explicitly" describes her death, "resurrection", and "ascension". And in passing he mentions Adonis. But his appeal suffers from many problems:

i) His chronology is contradictory. On the one hand, he stresses the timing of a Jewish version of a dying-and-rising savior gods. That's synchronized with a general fad for dying-and-rising savior gods in NT times. And that stands in contrast to ancient times, when that was not the case. 

Yet he then does an about-face, and appeals to the cult of Osiris and Inanna in ancient times. The Pyramid texts date to the 3rd millennium BC (5th and 6th dynasties). Likewise, by his own admission, The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld goes way back to ancient Sumerian literature. 

So this wasn't all the rage during NT times, in contrast to ancient times. Rather, that motif antedates NT times by centuries or even millennia. But in that case, it could well be coincidental that you have these parallels. 

I'm not saying his alleged parallels are genuine. I'm saying that even if you accept his interpretation, his argument is gratingly inconsistent. 

ii) Maybe I missed it, but I don't find an explicit description of Osiris's "resurrection" in the Pyramid texts. Likewise, I don't find an explicit description of Inanna's "resurrection" and "ascension" in The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld. 

One problem is the use of Christian terminology, which has very specific connotations. But the alleged parallels don't match the terminology.

In the The Descent of Inanna to the Underworld, you don't have Inanna dying, before her soul descends to the Underworld. Rather, she dies after descending to the Underworld. 

By contrast, Jesus didn't descend to the Underworld. And even if you think he did, that would be after he died. Likewise, Osiris remains in the underworld. 

iii) Carrier discerns parallels from stories with such disparate characters, plots, and settings, that it's hard to see what criteria he uses to distinguish parallels from nonparallels. 

iv) A fundamental problem with Carrier's comparative mythology is the fact that it's a throwback to James Frazer's obsolete paradigm. But don't take my word for it. Let's quote a few examples from the standard reference work:

The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.  
There are two major forms of the Adonis myth, only brought together in late mythographical tradition (e.g. the 2C CE Bibliotheca, falsely attributed to Apollodorus of Athens) The first, which may be termed the Panyasisian form, knows only of a quarrel between two goddesses (Aphrodite and Persephone) for the affections of the infant Adonis. Zeus or Calliope decrees that Adonis should spend part of the year  in the upperworld with one, and part of the year in the lowerworld with the other. This tradition of bilocation (similar to that connected with Persephone and, perhaps, Dumuzi) has no suggestion of death and rebirth. The second, more familiar Ovidian form narrates Adonis's death by a boar and his commemoration by Aphrodite in a flower. There is no suggestion of Adonis rising. The first version lacks an account of Adonis's death; the second emphasizes the goddess's mourning and the fragility of the flower that perpetuates his memory. Even when the two versions are combined, Adonis's alternation between the upper and lower worlds precedes his death. 
The practice of addressing a statue "as if alive" is no proof of belief in resurrection; rather, that is the common presupposition of any cultic activity in the Mediterranean world that uses images. 
Considerably later, the Christian writers Origen and Jerome, commenting on Ezk 8:14, and Cyril of Alexandria and Procopious of Gaza, commenting on Isa 18:1, clearly report joyous festivities on the third day to celebrate Adonis (identified with Tammuz) having been "raised from the dead". Whether this represents an interpretatio Christiana or whether late third- and fourth-century forms of the Adonis cult themselves developed a dying and rising mythology (possibility in imitation of the Christian myth) cannot be determined. This pattern will recur for many of the figures considered: an indigenous mythology and ritual focusing on the deities death and rituals of lamentation, followed by a later Christian report adding the element nowhere found in the earlier native sources, that the god was resurrected.  
[Osiris] did not return to his former mode of existence but rather journeyed to the underworld, where he became the powerful lord of the dead. In no sense can Osiris be said to have "risen" in the sense required by the dying and rising pattern. 
The myth [of Inanna] emphasizes the inalterable power of the realm of the dead, not triumph over it. No one ascends from the land of the dead unless someone takes his or her place. The pattern of alternation–half a year below, half a year above–is familiar from other myths of the underworld in which there is no question of the presence of a dying and rising deity (e.g. Persephone, as in Ovid, Fasti 4:613-4, or the youthful Adonis as described above), and is related, as well, to wider folkloristic themes of death delayed if a substitute can be found.
As the above examples make plain the category of dying and rising deities is exceedingly dubious. It has been based largely on Christian interest and tenuous evidence. As such, the category is of more interest to the history of scholarship than the history of religions. "Dying and Rising Gods", Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd ed., 2005), 4:2535-39. 
A word must be said here about the connection often made between the mysteries and the idea of "dying and rising divinities," who are linked to the vegetation cycle…In addition to an uninhibited use of terminology (e.g. resurrection is usually understood in the biblical and Christian sense), the chief defect of this theory is its utter neglect of source criticism…As we know today, there is no evidence at all that any of these gods was thought of as "rising" in any proper sense of the term…The often only fragmentary mythology centering on these divinities told of the disappearance or stay of the god in the lower world, where he lived on (as lord of the lower world or, in the case of Osiris, as judge of the dead)… "Mystery Religions," ibid., 9:6328.


  1. To supplement Bock's point, it should be noted that mythicism should have been popularly discussed among the early Gentile opponents of Christianity as well. If Christian leaders like Paul and his fellow apostles he claims to be in so much agreement with (1 Corinthians 15:3-11, Galatians 1:23, 2:7-10, etc.) were traveling the Gentile world teaching mythicism, Gentiles visiting Israel kept hearing mythicism being taught by Christians within that nation, Jewish informants kept telling Gentiles that Christians believed in mythicism, etc., then we should expect explicit and widespread references to mythicism among the early Gentile opponents of Christianity. Paul and the other earliest Christian leaders were traveling the world and teaching their view of Jesus for a few decades. Yet, mythicism leaves no trace among the early Gentile opponents of the religion. Instead, they affirm Jesus' historicity, attribute belief in his historicity to the earliest Christians, and so on. The widespread early acceptance of Jesus' historicity among both Jewish and Gentile opponents of the religion demonstrates how pathetic mythicism is.

    Similarly, Old Testament Messianic expectations suggest a historical Jesus. The Messiah was expected to live on earth, come from an earthly descendant of David, etc. Thus, passages in Paul and other early sources that apply a term like "Messiah" to Jesus or refer to Messianic prophecy fulfillment in Jesus' life, for example, are thereby providing evidence for an earthly, historical figure. In a sense, we shouldn't start our consideration of the evidence for Jesus' existence with the New Testament. We should start with the Old Testament and other pre-Christian sources.

    So, the mythicist has to argue that the earliest Christians took the Old Testament in a highly unnatural, highly unpopular way, then argue that a mythicist belief system spread around the world by figures like Paul and the other apostles left so little trace among both the earliest Jewish and the earliest Gentile opponents of the religion. That's implausible.

  2. Hi Steve,

    I do not have your e-mail, so please, if and when you have the time, please e-mail me at: