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Cogito Ergo Sum

On the Historicity of Jesus Christ: The Euhemerization of a Myth

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Not long ago, I finished reading Richard Carrier’s latest book titled: On The Historicity of Jesus, and I must say that I was thoroughly impressed.  For those that are unaware of Carrier’s latest book, here’s a link to a summary as found on the publisher’s website, here’s another link to a great PDF presentation of Carrier’s case, and finally, a link to a YouTube video where Carrier makes his case more clear.  Basically, Carrier re-examines the evidence regarding the historicity of Jesus, after being inclined by some friends and colleagues to read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle, which basically makes the case for mythicism.  For those unaware of the mythicist positions (of which there are many), the most basic contention is that Jesus Christ originated as a myth and thus was never an actual historical person.  While most mythicist theories proposed thus far have been poorly researched and arrive at certain conclusions through fallacious reasoning and poor historical critical methodology, Doherty actually presented a plausible case for it.  After Carrier read Doherty’s book, he was asked (and inspired) to write a book on the topic.  Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus is in fact the first academically peer reviewed book to analyze such a topic, and a brilliant work at that.

Carrier dismissed mythicism for a long time and never took the claim seriously until relatively recently.  One of the main reasons for this was that the scholarly consensus was overwhelmingly in agreement that the man referred to as Jesus Christ did exist historically, even though he is believed to have been quite different from the man we read about in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.  However, when Carrier examined the reasons behind the scholarly consensus, he was surprised to see that there was a lot of fallacious reasoning used including the perpetuation of early Christian scholarly assumptions which were taken for granted to be true by later secular scholars.  Once Carrier confirmed this scholarly background information, he decided that he’d have to start from square one and re-examine the evidence from scratch.

Historicity or Myth?

In this new book, Carrier basically tests two hypotheses against one another; a minimal historicity position against one for minimal mythicism.  The two positions can be described as such:

Minimal Historicity

  1. An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
  2. This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
  3. This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod).

Minimal Mythicism

  1. At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.
  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus ‘communicated’ with his subjects only through dreams, visions, and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophecy, past and present).
  3. Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on Earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an Earthly depiction of his ordeals.
  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

Religious Trends & Other Background Knowledge

Carrier examined the background knowledge pertaining to the origins of Christianity within the context of the several centuries and cultures surrounding its development, and found that Christianity fit right in to the trend of other Hellenistic mystery religions that had formed prior to Christianity.  Various religions were forming as syncretisms of foreign cult deities and various Hellenistic elements, and in the case of Christianity, it appears to have been a syncretism of Hellenism and Judaism.  There were several other trends as well that were seen with newer religions in the centuries leading up to Christianity, aside from syncretism.  Another trend was the transition from polytheism to monotheism via henotheism, where there could be several gods or demigods (including angels and demons), but that were all subservient to one supreme God.  Yet another trend was that of individualism, where agricultural salvation cults were transformed or retooled into personal salvation cults.  A fourth trend was that of cosmopolitanism, where all races, cultures, and classes were admitted as equals, with fictive kinship (i.e. members were all “brothers”), and where people began to “join” a religion rather than merely being born into it.

Christianity was but one of many other religions that fit in line with these major cultural religious trends of the time.  Additionally, Christianity also shares some fairly specific elements with some earlier as well as contemporary mystery religions.  The concepts of a dying-and-rising Savior god (who is also the son or daughter of a Supreme God) that undergoes a passion or suffering of some kind, often sharing their victory over death by providing an eternal afterlife for their followers, also had a precedent in earlier Hellenistic/Pagan religions and mythologies (e.g. Osiris, Romulus, Zalmoxis, etc.).  Likewise, pseudo-cannibalistic rituals like the Eucharist were practiced by other contemporary and earlier pagan mystery cults whereby the participants would have a communal meal to symbolically eat the flesh and drink the blood of their gods.  Not surprisingly, baptism (whether in water, blood, or other media) was also a practice common to Egyptians, Babylonians, and other pagan cultures (e.g. followers of Mithraism, the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, etc.) for many years before Christianity originated.

So we can see the obvious influence (or at least cultural precedent) that Pagan/Hellenistic religions had on some elements of Christianity during its development.  Obviously there are notable differences between Christianity & other contemporary and prior religions (just as there were many differences between one pagan religion and another) but it goes without saying that the similarities are far more important in analyzing potential influences to Christianity’s origins, and the great number of similarities and evidence of Jewish/Hellenistic/Pagan syncretism is fairly obvious.  So within the cultural and historical context of the geographic regions in mind, Christianity is exactly the kind of religion one would expect to develop.  Likewise, the euhemerization of Jesus Christ, where he was likely taken from myth and only later placed into history, also fits in line with what many cultures did with mythological beings.  In fact, one important element of analysis that Carrier employs is determining where Jesus Christ sits within what is called the Rank-Raglan hero class, which is a selection of hero-type attributes discovered by the scholars Otto Rank and Lord Raglan.  If we make a list of only those that possess at least half of the twenty-two features on the list, there are many mythological beings that meet this criteria (at least fifteen heroes that are well known), but not a single historical person has been shown to make the cut.  Here is the Rank-Raglan hero class to demonstrate the point:

  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.

The fifteen people who scored more than half of these twenty-two features (in decreasing order) were:

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

As we can see, even though the number of real persons in the course of antiquity numbered somewhere in the hundreds of millions, and the number of mythical persons invented within the same time frame only numbered in the thousands at best, every single person on the list is a part of that much smaller group of mythical beings.  Another important point that Carrier makes regarding the people on this list is the fact that “every single one of them was regarded as a historical person and placed in history in narratives written about them.”  That is, they were all eventually euhemerized.  So the probability of Jesus Christ being the only exception on this list, that he alone was a real person in the midst of all others who were mythical, is staggeringly low.  In fact, the gospels of the New Testament look exactly like allegorical fictions, produced to place a Jesus on Earth with mythical tales, miracles, parables and sayings.  Carrier includes this kind of background information, including a literary historical critical examination of the Gospels, in his overall analysis, thus complementing a quite thorough set of background knowledge.

So What are the Odds of an Historical Jesus?

Carrier utilizes a Bayesian probability method for establishing the odds of the two hypotheses mentioned earlier, and this is accomplished by estimating the prior probability of each hypothesis on their own merit, and by noting what the probability of each hypothesis is given the background evidence that exists.  In all cases of probability calculation, an upper and lower range were estimated in order to give a reasonable “best” and “worst” case scenario (with the “best” case being far more generous than is warranted).  After examining both hypotheses against the available evidence, Carrier concluded that the likelihood of the historicity of Jesus Christ (and minimal historicity at that) had the odds of 1 in 3 at best, and around 1 in 13,000 at worst.  In other words, it is very unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed as an actual historical person.  It seems much more likely that Jesus Christ originated as a celestial being and was later euhemerized, that is, placed into history, just as many other mythological beings were in times past.

This analysis in no way proves that Jesus Christ never existed, but it does establish that the burden of proof is now on those trying to defend historicity, as the analysis has indeed shown that historicity (and minimal historicity at that) is overwhelmingly improbable.  What I find most amazing is that so much of history over the last two millennia and so many different cultures across the world have been so greatly affected by the Christian religion, even up to this day.  Not only have these effects likely been based on the false pretenses of a historical Jesus, but almost all followers of the Christian religion throughout that history have been completely unaware of these likely mythical origins.

For those that wonder why we haven’t found large numbers of early Christian texts that support mythicism, one must realize that the early Christian church was looking for dogmatic stability, and this kind of stability is not as likely with a religion based solely on divine revelation (just look at the revelatory origins for Islam and Mormonism).  If the early church didn’t want someone else coming along saying that they also received revelations from Jesus (changing the dogma that was already in place), they would have better success if Jesus was placed in history, because once historicity is established (or assumed), it’s much more difficult to fabricate new and conflicting information.  Just as with the large number of other Christian sects that we know nothing about, the early Christian church that won the battle over these other sects would have chosen to preserve only those texts that supported their views, and in many cases would have destroyed those that did not.

It’s definitely worth marveling over the uncertainty of history, given the potent artificial selection pressures that largely mediated what has survived to this day.  Had we lost just a few more sources of historical information from antiquity, this analysis of Carrier’s wouldn’t have even been a possibility.

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