Thursday, March 22, 2018

Is Jesus a mythical hero?

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

The twenty-two features distinctive of this hero-type are:
1. The hero's mother is a virgin. 
2. His father is a king or the heir of a king. 
3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual. 
4. He is reputed to be the son of a god. 
5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby. 
6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him. 
7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents. 
8. We are told nothing of his childhood. 
9. On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom.
10. He is crowned, hailed or becomes king. 
11. He reigns uneventfully (i.e., without wars or national catastrophes). 
12. He prescribes laws. 
13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects. 
14. He is driven from the throne or city. 
15. He meets with a mysterious death. 
16. He dies atop a hill or high place.
17. His children, if any, do not succeed him. 
18. His body turns up missing. 
19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction). 
20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary
(such as a king, giant, dragon or wild beast).
21. His parents are related to each other. 
22. He marries a queen or princess related to his predecessor.

1. Qedipus (21) 
2. Moses (20) 
3. Jesus (20) 
4. Theseus (19) 
5. Dionysus (19) 
6. Romulus (18) 
7. Perseus (17) 
8. Hercules (17) 
9. Zeus (15)
10. Bellerophon (14) 
11. Jason (14) 
12. Osiris (14) 1
3. Pelops (13)
14. Asclepius (12) 
15. Joseph [i.e., the son ofJacob] (12)

Jesus scores twenty out of twenty-two, according to Matthew's Gos­pel (and whether these attributes were original or lately appended to his legend won't matter, as I'll explain in §4 of the next chapter; but note that even in Mark's Gospel, Jesus scores a 14, and even that would place him well above the bottom of the list). The first nineteen hardly require defense (e.g. his father is the heir of King David; he is seized by the authorities, abandoned by his followers, and driven from Jerusalem to his execution; strange things happen at his death, and the death itself is a strangely sudden expiration; he dies atop the hill named Golgotha; etc.).194 The remaining hit (number 20) may not be as obvious, but he scores it: just as Oedipus confronts and defeats the riddling Sphinx, Jesus confronts and defeats the temptations of the Devil (also known as the Adversary, and as a Serpent or Dragon, and 'Prince of the World'), in both cases before going to claim their kingdom (of course, even in earliest Christian tradition Satan is the power whom Jesus most decisively defeats so as to effect the salvation of the faithful ever after).195

The only two elements Jesus does not score are the last I've listed: we cannot establish (21) that his parents were originally imagined as related or (22) that he ever married (much less the daughter of his predecessor). How­ ever, the peculiar absence of that last element practically advertises the fact that he does merit that element allegorically: from the earliest time Jesus was imagined to have taken the 'church' as his bride, which was indeed understood to be the 'daughter' ofhis predecessor (the nation of lsrael).196 So in all honesty we could assign him that element as well. But as it is not 'literal' I will leave his score at twenty.197 [229-33]

Note that crucifixion was supposed to take days to kill; thus Jesus' rapid death is itself mysterious [232n194]

The way Carrier scores Jesus is beset by equivocations and outright falsehoods. He says "The first nineteen hardly require defense". Really?

For starters, Carrier tampers with the original list. So let's score Jesus in reference to the original list:

1. His mother is a royal virgin
2. His father is a king, and
3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
6. At birth an attempt is made, often by his father, to kill him, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and
13. Becomes king
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully, and
15. Prescribes laws, but
16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
17. Is driven from the throne and city.
18. He meets with a mysterious death,
19. Often at the top of a hill.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchers.  


i) Mary wasn't a royal virgin. 

ii) Because Jesus fails the criterion, Carrier alters the criterion by dropping "royal". That's making the evidence fit his theory by redefining the criteria. 


i) Joseph wasn't the king.

ii) Because that's a bust, Carrier changes the criterion by adding "or the heir of a king." But that's an ad hoc modification to salvage his theory.

iii) Moreover, Joseph wasn't a royal heir. At that point in Jewish history there was no continuous Davidic dynasty, and even if there was, that wouldn't make Joseph the heir apparent. 

3. No evidence that Mary and Joseph were close relatives. 

4. Equivocal

5. Equivocal. 


i) Carrier omits "often by his father". But of course, Joseph didn't try to kill the newborn Jesus. Just the opposite, he protected him.

ii) If you make the comparisons sufficiently abstract, you can draw parallels, yet that's not based on the original sources as they stand, but a process of abstraction that factors out the specific details to manufacture generic parallels. For instance, both Moses and Jesus are at risk when young, but Jesus is specifically targeted for death by Herod whereas Moses is endangered due to a general decree regarding Jewish boys. 

iii) According to legend, the mother of Sargon I set her newborn adrift in a basket on the Euphrates, yet that doesn't make Sargon I a legendary figure. 

iv) Many newborns were left to die in the ancient world. Exposure was routine. Some might be rescued–though not necessarily to protect them, but to enslave them. So this is not a mythical motif.

v) In the case of Oedipus, this is to thwart an oracle of doom. So the context is completely different. In that respect the story of Oedipus is more like the story of Joseph the patriarch, only Joseph was a teenager. 

8. Jesus wasn't raised by foster parents. He wasn't an orphan or foundling. 

9. Matthew and Luke both give details regarding the childhood of Jesus.

10. Jesus was a lifelong resident of Palestine. He didn't return to his birthplace since he never left.


i) The original criterion is "after a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast".

In "hero" stories, this involves real mortal combat. But Jesus didn't conquer Caesar in combat. 

Likewise, in stories like Beowulf, there's physical combat with a real dragon or monster ("real" in the story), and not figurative warfare with a metaphorical dragon or monster or psychological warfare with an evil spirit. 

ii) Because that's a bust, Carrier reengineers the criterion to "he is crowned, hailed or becomes king". Once again, Carrier indulges in special pleading by massaging the data. 

12. Jesus was a bachelor. Never married, much less to a princess. The church as the figurative bride of Christ, but that's not comparable to "hero" stories, where the hero gets a flesh-n-blood woman. 

13-14. Jesus didn't reign in Palestine.

15-16. Jesus didn't have royal subjects since he wasn't formally a king in Palestine. Jesus never lost his Father's favor. 

In Scripture, the messianic kingdom isn't at a particular place and time, but a future global rule. There's a sense in which Jesus currently reigns, but that's interadventual: between the Ascension and the Parousia: not during his time in Palestine. 

17. Jesus wasn't dethroned or banished from the capital. 

18. He died by crucifixion, exacerbated by blood loss due to scourging. Is that mysterious? 

19. "Often" is a weasel word. 

20. He had no children.


i)  He was entombed.

ii) Because that's a bust, Carrier substitutes "his body turns up missing".

Actually, Jesus turned up alive. 

22. Shrines to Jesus developed long after the NT was written. 

I'd add that legends can evolve around real people. Take Gilgamesh. Although an archetypal hero, he's a historical figure. 


  1. Carrier's argument can also be turned against him. C S Lewis argued that God 'seeded' the world for the coming of his Son, by spreading true expectations across the world among pagan cultures. In a sense, that's inevitably true for the Messiah - the gospel resonates across the globe, because people (aided by the Holy Spirit) tacitly feel a correspondence between what it says, and what is needed, and how rescues in this world work. It resonates because we do actually need a hero to slay the Great Dragon, and Jesus really is that hero.

  2. Putting it another way - if there was no correspondence whatsoever at any point between Jesus and what people across the world have perceived a hero 'ought' to be like, then:

    a) Would it be reasonable for God to send out such an arbitrary message and call on the nations to believe it?
    b) Would people like Carrier fail to use that lack of correspondence as an argument that Jesus was surely not the Messiah?