Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Art imitates life

I'm continuing my analysis of Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield 2014). 

Analogously, the mythical Abraham is conveniently named ('father of many') in Gen. 17.5 (and his original name, Abram, 'exalted father'. is no less convenient). similarly anticipating what he would become in the future. which doesn't tend to happen in the real world [240n9]

i) To begin with, do we even have Abraham's original name? Or do we have a Hebrew cognate? Abraham didn't speak Hebrew. His parents didn't give him a Hebrew name. He has a Hebrew name because the OT is written in Hebrew. But presumably that's a translation. 

ii) More to the point, a name that forecasts a future destiny is, indeed, improbable in a godless universe, but of course, that's hardly the viewpoint of the Pentateuchal narrator. Rather, the Pentateuch depicts a God who is orchestrating events behind-the-scenes to their appointed end. History as a series of divinely-planned events. As such, there's no incongruity within the narrative viewpoint of figure who has a prescient name. 

That should make us suspicious from the start. Isn't his name abnor­mally convenient? The 'Christ' part was assigned by those who believed he was the messiah, and thus not accidental. But what are the odds that his birth name would be 'Savior', and then he would be hailed as the Savior? Are historical men who are worshiped as savior gods usually so conveni­ently named? [240]

But according to Matthew and Luke, both his parents had angelic revelations regarding the future destiny of Jesus. Of course, Carrier is an atheist, but the point is that there's nothing inconsistent with his having a "convenient" name given the Jewish outlook of the Synoptics. 

We would then add the evidence that Jesus was a godman...So there is no getting around the fact that if the ratio of conveniently named mythical godmen to conveniently named historical godmen is 2 to 1 or greater, then the prior probability that Jesus is historical is 33% or less.

But this is a hypothetical reference class ('all conveniently named god­ men'). We don't have any clear or statistically solid data about the frequency of historical to nonhistorical persons in that class; I merely guessed (albeit reasonably, based on our total background knowledge that coincidences are rarer in actual fact than in human invention) that the ratio of mythical persons to historical persons in that class is 2 to 1 or greater, and therefore the prior probability that a person in that class is historical is 1 in 3 or less...The fact is, it's simply less likely that a historical man would be conveniently named Savior and then become a savior, than that a mythical man created to be a savior would be conveniently named Savior [241-42]

Even if we tried to work the question from the probability of any Jew actually being named Jesus (which is roughly 1 in 26),13 in comparison to the probability of any savior god being named Savior (among that god's many names, and Jesus also had many names, from Christ to Lord to Emmanuel), we'd end up even worse off. Because probably most savior gods were called Savior (soter in Greek), I'd say that ratio is closer to 1 in 2, and that is over ten times more likely than 1 in 26, not just two times more likely as we were suggesting before [242]

No matter how you chew on it, no matter what numbers you put in, with these ratios you always end up with the same prior probability that Jesus was an actual historical man: just 33% at best [244]

That's such a simplistic way to frame the issue. Suppose I drive a friend to the airport. Say, Dallas-Forth Worth airport. And suppose I'm a classic car buff. I own a 1963 Aston-Martin DB5, like James Bond drove in Goldfinger. 

I park my car in the DFW garage and walk my friend into the terminal. When I drive home, what's the reference class for my car? From what I've read, the capacity of the DFW airport parking garage has 39,988 spaces. Does that mean the reference class is 39,988 parked cars? What are the odds that I will drive any particular car home, out of 39,988 parked cars? What are the odds that I will pick a car in that numbered slot, out of 39,988 slots? What are the odds I will pick a car of that year, make, model, and color. Not to mention that this is a very rare car, c. 2018. How many other car models are far more likely to be in the garage? 

So is it just a wild, lucky coincidence that I drive the same car home that I drove to the airport? The sheer mathematical odds, the abstract reference class, is totally irrelevant to which car I drove home. There's only one live option. Carrier acts as though this is a random calculation, like flipping a coin or throwing dice. But that's completely artificial. 

Carrier approaches the text from presuppositions that are alien to the text. But who made atheism the frame of reference for background knowledge and prior probability? He's free to speak for himself, but it's not something he's entitled to impose that paradigm on any one else. 

Counting as the Rank-Raglan reference class all heroes who score above half the total criteria, we have fourteen members (besides Jesus, who makes fifteen); we can ascertain that those are the only members (or at least, there are no other known his­torical persons who are members; and adding mythical persons would only make the ensuing argument stronger, by reducing the prior probability that any member of the class was historical); and we can conclude with reason­ able certainty that none of those fourteen members were ever historical persons-all of them are mythical. That means a historical Jesus is lit­erally unique among all Rank-Raglan heroes. So to assume he was the sole exception in human history would be a rather extraordinary claim [242]

i) Carrier recycles an old strategy: identify (alleged) mythemes in the Gospels, then use their presence to reclassify Jesus as a variation on the perennial hero archetype or the "dying-and-rising savior god" trope. 

Of course, if you actually compare the Gospels to stories about Romulus, Osiris et al., there are drastic differences. However, proponents contend there's a generic skeletal plot which all these types of stories exemplify. Yes, there may be dramatic differences, yet they share the same basic plot outline and plot devices. And it's the nature of the genre to have endless variations. So proponents can always explain away the differences consistent with their theory. They isolate and abstract a recognizable, oft-repeated core plot and stock characters. 

There is, however, a basic fallacy in the comparative methodology. Consider different movie genres and TV dramas, viz. westerns, war movies, road movies, disaster flicks, buddy flicks, coming-of-age, police dramas, courtroom dramas, hospital dramas, private-eye, gangster, high school, family reunion, small-town America, generation gap, vigilante/revenge, underdog sports. 

Genre movies and TV dramas have very repetitious plots. Formulaic variations on the same stock characters and shorelines. And, of course, that's fictional. However, it's not fictional because it's repetitious. To the contrary, it's repetitious because it's factual. Art imitates life. Those genres are parasitic on history, social life, the lifecycle, &c. The tropes happen in real life. Life is repetitious. Repetition with variation. 

So even if the life of Christ has parallels with fictional tropes and legendary figures, this doesn't create the slightest presumption that the Gospels are fictional. For fiction is a second-order artifact that borrows from the world around us. And that includes the paranormal or supernatural. Those originate in firsthand experience. They may undergo legendary embellishment, or have fictional counterparts, yet they don't originate in the imagination, but encounters with real entities and events. 

Of course, atheists deny it, but this shows you that the question can't be settled by appeal to comparative mythology, for the deeper question is the kind of world we live in, whether things like that actually happen, and the evidence. That can't be prejudged by comparative mythology.

ii) Even from a secular standpoint, if you're going to critique a position, it's often necessary to cultivate critical sympathy by adopting the opposing viewpoint for the sake of argument, then tracing out the ramifications of that position if it were true. What if the Incarnation really happened? If so, wouldn't God Incarnate be expected to exhibit traits of the hero archetype? He's not going to be an ordinary human being. Both by nature and mission, he will be extraordinary.  

iii) Why should the Rank-Raglan mythotype be the benchmark for assessing the historical Jesus? It's an arbitrarily selective list. What makes those figures the right frame of reference? 

Instead of that, what about a plausibility structure that takes supernaturalism into account? Evidence for the Christian faith isn't confined to ancient documents. While the documentary basis (Scripture) is foundational, Christianity is a living religion with ongoing evidence. Consider modern miracles, answered prayer, revelatory dreams and visions, as well as apparitions of the dead. Has Carried made any effort to canvas the best examples? What we find probable, improbable, possible, impossible, credible, or incredible is context-dependent. Carrier is not entitled to take his atheism for granted when persuading readers to view the NT through his ethnocentric filter. 

iv) In addition, Carrier fudges on the Rank-Raglan criteria. He tinkers with it to convert it to a custom-made strainer to yield the desired results. It's not the evidence that's driving his position; rather, he creates a grid to force the evidence to match his preconceived theory. Let's conclude with two reviewers: 

But the Rank-Raglan hero-type scale is a rather strange device employed by Carrier (and other mythicists), undoubtedly used to further tilt the scale in favor of mythicism.112 The immediate question that comes to mind in surveying Carrier’s reference class for Jesus is why the Rank-Raglan hero-type? Criticized for being Euro-centric and male-centric, these holistic-comparative theories have been almost universally rejected by scholars of folklore and mythology, who instead opt for theories of myth that center on the myths’ immediate cultural, political, and social settings. Nevertheless, if a general point of reference for Jesus is required, why does Carrier not use Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as his reference class?113 Is it because Campbell’s system is so general and universal it would fit almost any figure or story (hence the term monomyth)? Why does Carrier preference a hybrid Rank-Raglan’s scale of 22 patterns, over Rank’s original 12? Could it be because Rank’s original list includes the hero’s parents having ‘difficulty in conception’, the hero as an infant being ‘suckled by a female animal or humble woman’, to eventually grow up and take ‘revenge against his father’?114 Why not Jan De Vries’ heroic biographical sequence or Dean A. Miller’s characteristics of a Quest Hero?115 I can deduce that it is because other comparative mythological scales, being either too general or too rigid, would not suit his ends.

Furthermore, Carrier changes Raglan’s traditional list and does not inform his readers how and why he is doing this. For example, Carrier changes the specificity of the ‘hero’s mother is a royal virgin’, to the more ambiguous ‘the hero’s mother is a virgin’.116 He modifies that the hero’s ‘father is a king’ to the far more open ‘father is a king or the heir of a king’ in order to include Jesus’ claimed Davidic lineage.117 He also excludes from his scale that the attempt on the hero’s life at birth is ‘usually by his father or his maternal grandfather’. Carrier adds the qualifying ‘one or more foster-parents’ when the hero is spirited away to a faraway country, while Raglan only states ‘foster-parents’.118 A significant change Carrier makes is that the hero is only ‘crowned, hailed or becomes king’ whereas Raglan states that the hero ‘becomes king’.119 Another important change made by Carrier is that the hero’s ‘body turns up missing’ whereas Raglan’s list has that the ‘body is not buried’.120 After examination, it is clear that Carrier has modified Raglan’s qualifications in order to make this archetypal hero model better fit the Jesus tradition. 

Per Carrier’s assessment of the Rank-Raglan hero-type applied to Jesus, Mark’s Jesus scores 14 and Matthew’s Jesus scores 20. But according to the traditional Raglan heroic archetype, Mark’s Jesus scores 7 or 8, and Matthew’s Jesus scores 8 or 9, producing a result that is less than 11 (the required result, according to Carrier’s methodology, to firmly place Jesus in the same reference class as Oedipus, Moses, Theseus, Dionysus, Romulus, Perseus, Hercules, Zeus, Bellerophon, Jason, Osiris, Pelops, Asclepius, and Joseph, son of Jacob).122 Even so, Carrier’s faulty Rank-Raglan hero-type is most on display when compared to the non-canonical gospels. These texts contain some of the most legendary and extraordinary tales about the life of Jesus and are produced much later than the earliest gospels, and yet they score remarkably low on Carrier’s Rank- Raglan hero-type scale.123

Even if Jesus’ life merited a 20 out of 22 on the Rank-Raglan hero-type list (which it does not, as I have shown), this does not confirm his place amongst other mythological figures of antiquity. As the late folklorist Alan Dundes pointed out, mythicists’ employment of this analysis does not have much to do with whether Jesus existed; it is merely an exercise in literary and psycho- analytic comparisons.124 The traditions of Jesus conforming to these legendary patterns does not negate his historicity any more than the legends connected with Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana denies theirs. Daniel N. Gullotta, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts:  A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2017): 341-44.

The attempt to see patterns and archetypes in fairy tales and folklore is closely linked, in its origins, to Freudian psychoanalysis, Otto Rank having been one of Freud’s disciples at the time when he wrote The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Indeed, Alan Dundes, in a study that focuses on this aspect of the approach, notes that Freud himself wrote a section of Rank’s book.[2] We must also keep in mind that the era which produced these works is one in which parallelomania (to use Samuel Sandmel’s famous phrase) often ruled the day, in ways that have subsequently been criticized so severely by scholars as to leave their validity in doubt.[3] This is not to suggest that a list of typical elements may not have a certain usefulness. But we should not assume that it does, and must ask critical questions about whether superficial similarities are being noted which obscure more substantive differences, and whether the scale is designed precisely to allow a claim to be made about the similarity of Biblical and Greek stories.[4]

The vagueness of the points on the list, and their applicability to many historical individuals, must be noted. If someone is a king, they will by definition fit a number of points: they will be descended from a king, become king, and make laws. Numerous kings and potential heirs to the throne have had the experience of being exiled, either by a close relative who is a competing heir, or by imperial powers who were prone to take members of the royal family hostage. And so the scale is focused on royal figures, and such figures have been the focus of not only the extremes of historical and fantastical storytelling, but also a range of genres in between, including historical fiction and mythologized history. And so it is appropriate to approach with some skepticism the attempt to use this scale to determine historicity, something that it was not created to do.

In our earliest sources, Jesus fits at most four of these in a fairly precise way – on the list given above, these are points 5, 9, and 19, and presumably we can include 18 as well, although crucifixion was hardly a mysterious way of dying in the first century, and so it depends what one means by “mysterious.” It is only in subsequent sources – and sometimes significantly later – that we find other elements added. On the basis of a modified version of the scale above, ignoring differences between earlier and later sources, Carrier gives Jesus a rank of 20. My reckoning would put him at 9, allowing for some stretching (e.g. descent from David is not the same thing as having one’s father be king), and focusing mainly on the New Testament sources - but generously allowing an additional point because there is a tomb of Jesus in Japan.[6] And so Carrier’s claim about Jesus getting a nearly perfect score seems to be simply false.

Carrier claims that people who rank that high or close to that high are consistently mythological figures. He also claims that it does not matter whether a person is depicted in this way in our earliest sources or is only conformed to the type later. These claims are not self-evident, and seem to in fact be at odds with the evidence which we will summarize below.

Not only do the typical lists of heroes include both undoubtedly ahistorical and clearly historical figures, but Otto Rank’s book begins with Sargon I.[7] Raglan gave Muhammad 17 points.[8] Thomas J. Sienkewicz’ web page on the hero pattern includes both Czar Nicholas II and Harry Potter, the former getting 14 points while the latter a mere 8.[9] Alexander the Great and Kim-Jong Il have also been discussed in relation to their depiction in a manner that connects with many points on the scale.[10] The fact that the hero figure in view with respect to this scale is a royal one should make obvious that many fictional non-royal figures will score low on the scale, while historical rulers will start off with a number of points automatically.


  1. Several of Carrier's remarks seem to boil down to "if we presuppose an atheistic universe, then, it is unlikely that the Biblical Jesus existed". That's saying nothing useful.

  2. // Even if we tried to work the question from the probability of any Jew actually being named Jesus (which is roughly 1 in 26),13 in comparison to the probability of any savior god being named Savior (among that god's many names, and Jesus also had many names, from Christ to Lord to Emmanuel), we'd end up even worse off. Because probably most savior gods were called Savior (soter in Greek), I'd say that ratio is closer to 1 in 2, and that is over ten times more likely than 1 in 26, not just two times more likely as we were suggesting before [242]//

    Many (most?) cultures, not just Semitic, give their children names which have overt or covert meaning. Sometimes the names have a negative connotation, but it's psychologically obvious why the names often have positive connotations. Parents would more naturally want to name their children with positive sounding names in hopes of a good future for the child. A child who will likely end up taking care of them in their old age. Moreover, "Jesus" was a popular name around the 1st century in that area of the world for at least two reasons. One being the fact that Joshua/Yehoshua/Yeshua was a famous leader in Israel's past, and parents naturally like to give the names of famous people to their children. Another reason was that people at that time were especially expecting a messiah to arrive soon on the historical scene, and so many couples would naturally want to name their sons in hopes that any particular son of theirs was a/the messiah. The names Jesus or Moses or David (et al.) would naturally be names one would think the Messiah would end up having. So, we shouldn't be surprised that the eventual Jewish messiah and savior would be named "Jesus".

    Finally, in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matt. 1:18-21 an angel told Joseph to specifically name the child "Jesus" [Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous)]. So, the New Testament itself says it's NOT a coincidence that Jesus the alleged savior is named Yeshua [a shorted form of Yehoshua], meaning "YHVH's salvation". Carrier talks as if it's too coincidental for Jesus to happen be named Jesus. Therefore it's likely a myth. But that ignores the fact that the New Testament AGREES it's not coincidental, since an angel TOLD Joseph to name the child such. Only if Carrier begs the question that God and angels don't exist would his objection work.

    When it comes to the name Emmanuel, that's not Jesus' proper name, but is more of a descriptive title of who He is.

    1. typo correction:

      shorted = shortened

      I've forgotten whether it was after the Babylonian Captivity or around the time of the building of the 2nd Temple that the name Yehoshua was often shortened to Yeshua.

    2. List of Jewish messiah claimants

      See the above link to a list of historical Jewish Messianic claimants. Notice how many of them have Biblical names. I don't see any that also have the name Jesus. But that's to be expected since most of them come after Jesus. They normally wouldn't want to be associated with the Jesus of the 1st century. Generally it's Gentile claimants to be Messiah who claim to be Jesus (either returning or reincarnated etc.). So, we shouldn't be surprised that Jewish claimants to be the Messiah would have Old Testament names (some having more than one name that's Biblical). Moreover, even on secular grounds one can imagine that a person named Yeshua could have a god and/or messiah complex and think he's messiah merely because of having been given that name. So, it's not inherently implausible that the real Messiah would have the name Jesus, if even a false messiah could plausibly be so named. Nor does it make it more plausible that the story of Jesus in the New Testament is mythical merely because the messiah described in it is named "Jesus". Carrier clearly has an agenda that clouds his objectivity on the issues on even secular grounds (how much more on the grounds of openness to the possibility of theism?).

      I'd also like to point out that for the past 100 years there has been the "Jewish reclamation of Jesus". There are many Jewish rabbis, scholars and non-Jewish scholars who recognize the authentic Jewishness of the Jesus of the New Testament. When it comes to Jewish authorities, I recommend the survey given by Michael L. Brown in chapter 2 of his book The Real Kosher Jesus. Most of the chapter (or its entirety) can be read at the following link (pages 13-23). I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT. Notice HOW MANY Jewish rabbis and scholars accept that there was a real earthly and historical Jesus that the New Testament attests to. That's even though they reject his messiahship and divinity. They find in the Jesus of the Gospels (esp. the Synoptics) remnants of a truly Jewish rabbi.

      Carrier's position corresponds to the Flat Earth theories in historical Jesus studies because it goes contrary to all of the scholarly and evidential reasons for believing in a historical Jesus. Arguing against such a consensus (that includes conservative, liberal, some fringe, theists, atheistic, agnostic, Jewish, Christian scholars) requires a high degree of evidence and arguments, and Carrier just doesn't provide any. I hope he soon realizes how much he embarrasses himself with his Christ Myth theories and abandons them immediately.