The Book of Acts as Historical Fiction

Previously, I wrote a series of posts that mentioned several elements from Richard Carrier’s historical/literary analysis of the Gospels in the New Testament (showing that they are not historically reliable, but are rather allegorical fictions), as discussed in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.  I decided to write a complementary post which mentions various elements from Carrier’s analysis of the Acts of the Apostles, since it is believed to have been written by the same author as The Gospel According to Luke.  Let’s begin.

Although it is implied in the preface of the book of Acts that it is supposed to be some kind of historical account, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Acts has been thoroughly discredited as nothing more than a work of apologetic historical fiction, and the scholarship of Richard Pervo conclusively demonstrates this to be the case.  Regarding any historical sources that Luke may have used for Acts, the only one that has been confirmed with any probability was that of Josephus (a person who never wrote about Jesus Christ nor Christianity, yet was likely used by Luke for background material), and although there may have been more historical sources than Josephus, we simply don’t have any evidence preserved from those other possible historians to make a case one way or the other.  All of the other sources that we can discern within Acts are literary sources, not historical ones.  Included in these literary sources is what may possibly have been a (now-lost) hagiographical fabrication, and basically a rewrite of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in some of the Old Testament (OT) texts of Kings, although placing Paul and Jesus in the main roles instead, which obviously would have been a literary source of historical fiction (not any kind of historical account).

The scholar Thomas Brodie has argued that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in Luke’s Gospel and continues on until Acts chapter 15, thus indicating that Luke either integrated this literary creation into his story or he used an underlying source text, such as some previous Gospel that not only covered the acts of Jesus but also the acts of the apostles.  So it appears that Luke either used this source text or his own literary idea and then inserted more stories into it, effectively expanding the whole story into two books, while also utilizing some material from Mark and Matthew during the process (and potentially other now-lost Gospels) and some material from the epistles of Paul.  In any case, the unnamed source text mentioned thus far is a hypothetical one that can only be inferred to have existed from the evidence of what’s written in Acts.  Luckily, the remaining literary sources that scholars can discern Luke used are indeed sources we actually have and thus can directly compare to and analyze.

As an example, the scholar Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked fictional tales written by Homer, replacing the characters and some of the outcomes as needed to suit his literary purposes.  MacDonald informs us in his The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul (New Testament Studies, 45, pp. 88-107) that:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].

Paul actually tells us himself that he was shipwrecked three times, and that at least one time he spent a day and night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25).  It’s possible that Luke was inspired by this detail given by Paul and used it to invent a story that expanded on it, while borrowing other ideas and details from famous shipwreck narratives including those found in Jonah, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.  In fact, Acts rewrites Homer a number of other times.  Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus was based on the fallen Elpenor.  The visions of Cornelius and Peter were constructed from a similar narrative that was written about Agamemnon.  Paul’s farewell at Miletus was made from Hector’s farewell to Andromache.  The lottery of Matthias we hear about was built off of the lottery of Ajax.  Even Peter’s escape from prison was lifted from Priam’s escape from Achilles.  There are other literary sources besides Homer that the author of Acts used as well.  For example, the prison breaks in Acts share several themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks found in the Bacchae of Euripedes such as the miraculous unlocking of chains and being able to escape due to an earthquake (compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26 to Bacchae pp. 440-49, 585-94).

However, the source that Acts seems to employ more than any other is the Septuagint.  While MacDonald has shown that the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius story is based on writings from Homer, the scholar Randel Helms has shown that other elements were in fact borrowed from the book of Ezekiel in the OT, thus merging both story models into a single one.  For example, both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open up (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1), both of them are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9), both respond to God twice by saying “By no means, Lord!” using the exact same Greek phrase (Acts 10.14, 11.8; Ezek. 4.14, 20.49), both are asked to eat unclean food, and finally both protest saying that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).  Clearly, the author of Acts isn’t recording anything from historical memory, but rather is assembling a fictional story using literary structures and motifs that don’t have much if anything to do with what happened to Peter or Paul.  The author appears to be inventing this “history” in order to convince his readers of how the previously-required Torah-observance was abandoned in early Christianity, and to convince his readers that this abandonment of Torah-observance was even approved by Peter all along, and confirmed to be approved of through divine revelation.  Yet, we know this to be a lie because Paul even tells us himself (in Gal. 2) that he was for a long time the only advocate for a Torah-free version of Christianity, and it was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter (and often contentiously so).  Similarly, in Acts 15.7-11, we can see that it is basically just Paul’s speech from Gal. 2.14-21 put into Peter’s mouth, which is the exact opposite of what Paul told us actually happened.

In fact, all the other stories in Acts are just like this, where they are a fictional product created from prior literary sources that had no relevance to any actual Christian history, just so Luke could make a point that he thought was important.  There may have been some actual authentic sources behind some of the events we read about throughout Acts, but there is simply no evidence for them, nor any way to discern what those historical elements could even be since if any exist, they are embedded in what looks to be a literary invention as opposed to any kind of real history.  It seems that Luke was writing this to sell some particular idea of how the church began and later evolved in its early years.  Just as Luke had done in his Gospel, Acts tries to portray the Torah-observant and Gentile sects of Christianity as having been continuous and harmonized, it tries to stress the close relationship between Paul and the other apostles, and also the unity of the first believers.  In doing so, the author of Acts had to undermine the Epistles of Paul, most especially Galatians.

One example that shows us the historical revisionism seen throughout Acts is the fact that Paul tells us himself that he “was unknown by face to the churches of Judea ” until a number of years after his conversion (Gal. 1.22-23), he tells us that after his conversion he went away to Arabia before eventually returning to Damascus, and he tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (Gal. 1.15-18).  Yet, in Acts 7-9, the author tells us that Paul was known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church non-stop from the beginning (even before his conversion), and rather than going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts we are told that he went immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem but a few weeks later, never ever spending so much as a minute in Arabia.  So Acts is filled with confirmed instances of historical revisionism, rather than any actual historical accounts.

Another more obvious example of Luke’s inventiveness in Acts is when he expands Jesus’ post-resurrection time on earth to an entire span of forty days, with Jesus hanging out (in secret) with his disciples and dozens upon dozens of other believers.  During this time, he has Jesus teaching them even more than he did while he was alive, before having Jesus fly up to outer space to reside with angels (Acts 1.3-12).  This is a clear-cut example of myth in the making.

The scholar Burton Mack has given other examples of how Luke’s version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is entirely unrealistic.  He tells us:

Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of the Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the whole world became the church’s parish overnight…[but this is] a story that does not make sense as history by any standard.

Not only is this nonsensical in terms of the ridiculously hyperbolized growth rate, but also in the most general sense of how people would have really behaved.  As Mack says:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah.  No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons.  The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians, Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem.  So what do we have on our hands?  An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century.  Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time.  He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel…That is mythmaking in the genre of epic.  There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.

To summarize Mack’s conclusion, the narrative we see in Acts is so incredible and unrealistic, it couldn’t possibly have been based on historical events.  Rather, it is what Luke wanted to have happened and/or what he wants his readers to believe happened.  This sentiment applies throughout the entire book of Acts.  In terms of background information, this conclusion comes as no surprise since all other “Acts” literature written by Christians was entirely fabricated as well, for example the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas, and all of these Christian fabrications look quite similar to the Acts that we find in the NT.  There simply isn’t any reason to trust the Acts found in the NT anymore than these other Christian fabrications, especially after having demonstrated that it is riddled with hyperbole and historical fiction.

Adding to this is the large number of literary coincidences (just as we saw in the earlier post-series concerning the four Gospels in the NT), which aren’t at all believable as history.  As the scholar Robert Price observed:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40, 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8, 14.8-10), each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15, 19.11-12), each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23, 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10, 16.25-26).

Likewise, just as Peter was sent by God to save Cornelius after he sends for Peter following a vision (Acts 10), Paul is also sent by God to save the Macedonians “when a certain Macedonian man ” sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).  Luke also made Paul’s story parallel that of Christ’s, where, as Price tells us “both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple “, and then “each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as acquitted by Roman procurators “.  Furthermore, both are interrogated by “the chief prests and the whole Sanhedrin” (Acts 22.30; Luke 22.66; cross-referencing Mark 14.55, 15.1), and finally both know that their death is pre-ordained and they both make predictions about what will happen afterward, not long before they die (Luke 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cross-referencing 21.4).

Notably however, Paul does almost everything at a larger scale than Jesus.  Paul’s journeys traverse a much larger region of the world, almost the entire northeastern Mediterranean in fact.  Paul also travels on and around a significantly larger sea than Jesus did (Mediterranean vs. Sea of Galilee).  Even during the one particular journey by sea where Paul faces death from a perilous storm, and is saved by faith, on Paul’s occasion his ship is actually destroyed thus dramatically exceeding the level of peril that Jesus had faced during the storm he encountered.  We also hear that Paul’s trial spanned several years rather than merely a single night as was the case for Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we hear that there were actual armies plotting to assassinate Paul, and also unlike Jesus, we hear that Paul had actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24).  Whereas Jesus was said to stir up violence against himself by his reading scripture in a synagogue (Luke 4.16-30), Paul actually stirs up violence against himself by his reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52, 17.1-5).  Though Paul and Jesus both die and are resurrected from the dead, Paul alone marches right back in the city unharmed and continues to preach the gospel in public throughout the region (as if entirely unimpeded), winning many more disciples for Jesus as a result (Acts 14.19-21), whereas Jesus didn’t win any new disciples after his resurrection and didn’t even attempt to do so.  Even at the end, unlike Jesus, Paul is eventually sent to meet none other than the emperor of Rome himself — another example of something that Jesus was never said to have accomplished.  So despite all the coincidental parallels between Paul and Jesus, by Luke’s account in Acts, Paul has been colored as someone who was not only far more famous and more successful than Jesus was, but also one who faced more dangers and at larger scales.

All of these parallels found between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are simply wholly improbable as history.  Another parallel (or set of parallels) worthy of mention concerns the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-20), which looks like nothing more than a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-35), which is another demonstrably fictional story.  Both stories involve a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Luke 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3).  Both stories feature a revelation of Jesus Christ; in Luke the revelation came as “they drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “they were going (poreuein) ” (Luke 24.28), whereas in Acts the revelation came as Paul “drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “he was going (poreuein) ” (Acts 9.3).  In both stories we read that Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and then gives them instruction, and accordingly they become believers and then continue on their way to preach what they’ve now come to believe.  Both stories involve at least three men on the road together and yet only one of those men is actually named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts, and Cleopas in Luke 24.18).  In both stories “the chief priests” of Jerusalem are portrayed as the enemies of the church (Luke 24.20; Acts 9.1, 14).  In Luke’s Gospel we hear that God said Jesus had to suffer whereas in Acts we hear that God said that Paul had to suffer (Luke 24.26; Acts 9.16).  Both stories feature some form of blindness, where Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in (Acts 9.8), and Cleopas and his friend are unable to see that their fellow traveler is Jesus (Luke 24.16).  Both stories also end with this blindness reversed (Acts 9.17-18; Luke 24.31).  In Luke’s Emmaus narrative, the visitation occurs on the third day (Luke 24.21), and in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness that lasts for three days (Acts 9.9).  Finally, in Luke, the blindness is cured after a meal begins (Luke 24.30-31), where in Acts, a meal begins after the blindness is lifted (Acts 9.18-19).

As we can see, in order for Acts to be any kind of history, one would have to assume that all of these parallels are merely historical coincidences which is orders of magnitude less probable than that they are simply inventions that were intentionally created to reflect one another.  It’s certainly possible for a couple of these coincidences to be historical, but it is nigh impossible for all of them to be historical.  Either way, there isn’t any way to weed out any of the possible historical details from within this plethora of fictional constructions.  Overall, Acts just shares far too many features with popular adventure novels that were written during the same period, in order to lend it any trust as history.  Here’s an overview of those features:

1) They all promote a particular god or religion.
2) They are all travel narratives.
3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events.
4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people.
5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples that are separated and then reunited.
6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes.
7) They often include themes of persecution.
8) They often include episodes involving excited crowds.
9) They often involve divine rescues from danger.
10) They often have divine revelations which are integral to the plot

Since Acts shares all of these features and thus looks exactly like an ancient novel of the period, there is simply no good reason to assume that all of the parallels it has with other literary sources are merely historical coincidences.  Rather, we should conclude that they are in fact what they have been shown to be: literary constructs and other elements of fiction.

Luke, Acts & The Historicity of Jesus

Clearly Luke constructed tales that were meant to affirm the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (resulting in a conspicuously empty tomb), that he was touched by his disciples, that he slept and dined with them during a forty-day “retreat” that was held in secret behind closed doors, and that he then flew off into outer space while they all watched (Luke 24 and Acts 1).  It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and obviously not historical.  There aren’t any witnesses to these events other than fanatical followers, and so not a single disinterested person ever verified any of it.  It isn’t until Acts 2 that we first hear about the public history of the Christian mission where Christians start publicly announcing their gospel.

However, something rather strange occurs at this point.  Throughout Acts‘ supposed history of the movement, from the time it goes public in the city of Jerusalem, at no point in the story (not in any of the 28 chapters) do we hear about either the Romans or the Jews ever showing any knowledge of there being a missing body.  Likewise, we never hear about them taking any action to investigate what could only be to them a crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, which were both quite severe offenses punishable by death.  Matthew’s Gospel even claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself (Matt. 27.62-66; 28.4, 11-15), and although this too is certainly fiction, it does illustrate what could not have failed to happen, if a body actually went missing.

Due to the fact that Christians were trying to use the missing body as evidence for a risen Jesus, they certainly would have been the first suspects of such a tomb robbery, if it had indeed occurred.  At best, they would have been secondary suspects, if indeed Joseph of Arimathea was the last person known to have custody of the body (Mark 15.43-46; Matt. 27.57-60; Luke 23.51-56; John 19.38-42).  So he would have been the first person hauled in for questioning, and yet, conspicuously he is nowhere mentioned in this history of the church, as if nobody knew anything about him (or as if he didn’t exist).  If he hadn’t been hauled in for questioning (whether he existed or not), the Christians would have been next in line to be hauled in for questioning for such an offense.  Yet, we never hear a single event in Acts where Christians were accused by Romans or Jews of grave robbery, which implies that there wasn’t any missing body to investigate, and thus no empty tomb known to the Roman or Jewish authorities.  This means that Christians couldn’t have been pointing to an empty tomb as evidence, for they would have been questioned about it, and possibly convicted whether they were involved or not with the disappearance of the body.  Acts is conspicuously silent on this matter and suggests that there were never any disputes whatsoever regarding the body, there weren’t even any false accusations of theft mentioned, nor were there any questions about it at all.

More importantly, the Romans would have had a larger problem to deal with here other than simply grave robbery, for the Christians were said to have been preaching that Jesus had escaped his execution (whether described as a supernatural event or not), that he was seen congregating with his followers, and that he disappeared.  It is doubtful that Pilate or the Sanhedrin would have believed any claims that Jesus had risen from the dead (nor is there any evidence that they did believe this), but if the tomb was empty and Jesus’ followers had been reporting that he had continued to preach to them and thus was still a fugitive, Pilate would have been inclined if not obligated to haul in every Christian for questioning and undergo a massive manhunt for such a threatening escaped convict.  Furthermore, the Sanhedrin would have also been obligated to find and kill Jesus as per their initial plan.  However, we don’t hear any of this happening in Acts.  Nobody asked where Jesus was hiding at, nor who helped him to escape.  This is more than enough to prove that Acts‘ account of the events here is fiction, let alone completely unrealistic.  There was no missing body, no empty tomb, and thus no criminal that was on the run from the law, for if the Roman or Jewish authorities had heard any of this being publicly preached as claimed in Acts, we would no doubt have heard about the expected repercussions, including the likely persecution of Christians by the Roman and Jewish authorities that would have been interrogating them.

If we are to grant that the original Christians believed any of the events in Acts as historical, then the absence of all of these pertinent details and expected events (regarding the missing body), at best, supports the theory that the original Christians were actually preaching that Jesus rose in an entirely new body (a spiritual resurrection) as opposed to the old one that he discarded and left in the grave.  In line with this theory is what Paul wrote, that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come “, but instead this buried body is left to be destroyed, while an even better “replacement ” body is already stored up in heaven waiting for each of us (1 Cor. 15.35-50; 2 Cor. 5.1-4).  At worst, and more likely than any other theory that has been proposed, is that Acts is entirely a fabrication, and there was in fact no historical Jesus, and the earliest Christians instead believed in a celestial Jesus (where he was effectively an archangel) whom communicated to them exclusively through revelation and through hidden messages in scripture, which is a theory that is supported by the material found in Paul’s epistles (the earliest and most reliable Christian sources we have in the NT).

In closing, we can see that Acts, just like the Gospels in the NT, is not at all reliable in terms of having any historical merit.  There are numerous parallels found throughout suggesting that there were many literary sources used for its contents, and Luke was inventing the material contained within, while adding some historical peripheral details (demonstrably obtained from Josephus) to add local color to the stories he was writing as most authors of fiction are known to do.  Other than those less relevant peripheral details, the actual events described within it are entirely unrealistic, not corroborated by any independent evidence, and are exactly what we’d expect to find in an ancient novel of the period in question.  Again, for those interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, as I have only mentioned a fraction of that which is contained in his overall analysis, and it is very important that one reads all of the background knowledge and evidence to fully understand just how weak the case for historicity really is.  You will not be disappointed.

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The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part I of 4: Mark

Previously, I’ve written about the historicity of Jesus, and mentioned how the most recent analysis, in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (the first comprehensive, academically published, and formally peer-reviewed book written on the subject), showed that it was in fact very unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed as a historical person, but rather likely began as a celestial deity who was later euhemerized, that is, placed into history as if he were a real person.  As a part of Carrier’s comprehensive analysis, he analyzed the Gospels, and thoroughly demonstrated (as many other scholars have before him, though to varying degrees) that the Gospels are quite obviously mythical allegorical fictions, and thus can not be used as evidence to support the historicity of Jesus.  As a former Christian, I never analyzed the Gospels from a literary or historical-critical perspective, as this wasn’t particularly relevant nor entirely feasible with my faith-based assumption that I was reading an “inerrant book inspired by God” supposedly based on nothing but true history.  As a result, I never gave it much thought, nor realized just how much literary invention there was.  In some cases, the care and thought taken to write these narratives is nothing short of brilliant.  I wanted to share some of the content and literary devices discovered not only to illustrate that the Gospels are demonstrably mythical allegorical fictions, but also because I thought some of the literary devices used were impressive feats in themselves which I believe deserve recognition.  I’ll be discussing a few of these elements found within the Gospels, as mentioned (though in greater detail) by Carrier in his comprehensive analysis.  I’ve decided to split this into a series of four posts, one for each Gospel.

First of all, before even identifying or examining these literary constructs, allegories, and prospective elements of myth, we can already see by reading the Gospels that they fail to show any substantive content of being actual researched histories.  Nowhere in the Gospels do they ever name their sources of information, nor do they read as eye witness testimonies (nor do they identify themselves as such), nor is it mentioned why any sources used would be accurate to rely upon.  The authors never discuss any historical method used, nor do they acknowledge how some contents may be less accurate than others, nor do they mention alternate possibilities of the events given the limited information they had from their sources.  They never express amazement or any degree of rational skepticism no matter how implausible an event within the story may be — something we would expect from any rational historian (even one living in antiquity).  The authors never explain why they changed what their sources said, nor do they even acknowledge that they did such a thing in the first place — despite the fact that Matthew and Luke clearly relied on Mark as a source (as did John, though less obviously so), for example, and then they all redacted Mark’s version as needed to serve their own literary and theological purposes (which explains some of the contradictions found between one Gospel and another).  Instead, the Gospels appear to be fictional historical biographies, likely written by specially interested Christians whose intent was to edify Jesus, just like many other fictional historical biographies that were made for various heroes and sages in antiquity.  In fact, all students of literary Greek (the authors of the Gospels wrote their manuscripts in literary Greek), commonly used this fictional biographical technique as a popular rhetorical device — where they were taught to invent narratives about famous and legendary people, as well as to build a symbolic or moral message within it, and where they were taught to make changes to traditional stories in order to make whatever point they desired within their own stories.

So we already have a bit of contemporary background information showing us that fictional biographies were commonplace at the time, and thus warrant caution when examining writings that may look like histories upon first glance.  However, there are also certain things we should expect to find in writings that are laden with myth and allegory as opposed to history.  We can’t simply try to categorize the writings as fitting within some particular genre, as myths have been written in any and all genres, even as historical biographies (as was just mentioned), for example Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.  In fact, quite a large amount of ancient biography, even of real people, was composed of myth and fiction, and thus we are forced to actually examine the content in detail to determine whether or not it is more likely to be myth or history.  Some characteristics of myth include (but are not necessarily limited to): potent and meaningful emulation of previous myths, or potent emulation of real events in some cases; the presence of historical improbabilities — which is not only limited to magic or miracles, but also natural events and human behaviors that are unrealistic as well as the presence of amazing coincidences; and also the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements, since a myth often incorporates some real historical people and places that surround a central mythical character and story (just as we see in most fiction, e.g., though Dorothy’s home-state of Kansas is a real place, the primary setting, main characters, and story in The Wizard of Oz, including the Wizard of Oz himself, are fictional constructs).  It should be noted that not all of these characteristics need be present simultaneously for a story to be myth, but the more that are, or the more instances of each type found, only increases the likelihood that what one is reading is in fact myth rather than history.

From a historical-critical perspective, the most important thing to note is that whenever there are elements of myth found in a story, the rest of the story can no longer be used as reliable historical evidence (concerning any of the more plausible events found within the same story), due to the principle of contamination — just as a court of law assumes that a personal testimony that contains claims of magic, miracles, amazing coincidences or other implausibilities occurring is highly suspect, unreliable, and therefore must be dismissed from the pool of evidence under consideration.  So in the context of the Gospels, if they are in fact demonstrated to be filled with highly devised literary structures constituting elements of allegory and myth, though that fact isn’t in itself evidence against a historical Jesus, it means that the Gospels can no longer be used as evidence for a historical Jesus.  Furthermore, if any mythic content found in the Gospels can be cross-examined with other examples of myth found in history, for example, if one demonstrates that there is a historically high probability that any person claimed to possess certain attributes (e.g. being born of a virgin) are usually non-historical people, then the Gospels can in fact be used as evidence against the historicity of Jesus (as opposed to them merely being unusable to support historicity).  Before I begin, I want to mention that although the Gospels in the New Testament (NT) had anonymous authors, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the authors as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

Beginning with the later story of Barabbas in Mark’s crucifixion narrative (Mark 15.6-15), Mark tells us:

“At the feast, Pilate used to release to them one prisoner of their choice.  And there was one called Barabbas, chained up with those who’d engaged in rebellion, who in the insurrection had committed murder.  The mob went up and began to ask him to do what he usually did for them.  And Pilate answered them saying, ‘Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?’  For he realized the chief priests had seized [Jesus] out of jealousy.  But the chief priests stirred up the mob, so he would release Barabbas to them instead.  And Pilate again answered and said to them, ‘So what should I do about the one you call the King of the Jews?’  And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, released to them Barabbas, and sent Jesus to be whipped and crucified.”

There are several elements in this passage alone that suggest it is surely myth, and not historical fact.  For one, no Roman magistrate, let alone the infamously ruthless Pontius Pilate, would let a violent and murderous rebel go free, and most importantly, no such Roman ceremony (i.e. letting the mob choose to free a particular prisoner) is attested as ever having taken place, as we simply don’t have any Roman documentation or archeological artifact found thus far to support such a claim.  Even more telling though, is the fact that this ceremony quite obviously emulates the Jewish Yom Kippur ritual, namely the scapegoat and atonement, and this apparent allegory takes place in a story that is itself about atonement (Jesus’ fundamental role as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel).  Since there is quite a bit of evidence that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus’ death served to merge the sacrifices of the Passover and Yom Kippur, it is surely no coincidence that Mark appears to have done just that, by having Jesus be a Yom Kippur sacrifice during Passover.

Another interesting coincidence is the name Barabbas itself, an unusual name that means ‘Son of the Father’ in Aramaic, and Jesus is often portrayed as the ‘Son of the Father’ as well.  So in this story we have two sons of the father; one released into the wild mob carrying the sins of Israel (such as murder and rebellion), effectively serving as an allegorical scapegoat (Barabbas), and the other sacrificed so his blood may atone for the sins of Israel (Jesus) — and we have one bearing the sins literally, and the other bearing the sins figuratively (just as we find in the Yom Kippur ceremony of Leviticus 16 in the Old Testament).  We get further confirmation of this belief in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9-10), where we hear Jesus’ death described as the ultimate Yom Kippur atonement sacrifice. Interestingly enough, it is also implied in this part of Hebrews that Jesus’ death and resurrection would have taken place in the heavens, as that was where the most perfect atonement sacrifice would be made and where the most perfect holy temple would be for which to pour the blood of that sacrifice (another element supporting the contention that Jesus was initially believed to be a celestial deity rather than a historical person).  So Mark here appears to be telling us through his own parable, to reject the sins of the Jews (notably violence and rebellion) and instead embrace the eternal salvation offered through the atonement sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, in this story, Mark seems to be pointing out how the Jews are erroneously viewing Jesus as the scapegoat, where Jesus is scorned, beaten, spat upon, crowned and pierced, and dressed in scarlet, and though Barabbas is the actual scapegoat, the Jews mistakenly embrace him instead.  So Mark seems to be portraying the Jews as acting completely blind to the situation and choosing their sins (i.e. Barabbas) rather than their salvation (i.e. Jesus).  Finally, this story seems to suggest that the Jews have also chosen the wrong model for the expected messiah.  Whereas Barabbas could be seen as the murderous revolutionary, in line with the common Jewish belief that the messiah was expected to be a kind of revolutionary military leader, Jesus on the other hand, exemplified the suffering servant model of the messiah (another Jewish messianic model, though arguably less popular than the former), and one that would circumvent any need for a military revolution by enacting a spiritual victory through his death instead.  So the Jews appear to have chosen the type of messiah they want, rather than the type of messiah that God wants instead (or so Mark believes anyway).  Furthermore, rather than using a random lottery (i.e. God) to choose which “goat” would serve as the scapegoat, and which would serve as the atonement, the Jews removed God from the equation and made the choice themselves.  If one looks at all of these elements together, we can see just how brilliant Mark’s story is, having multiple allegorical layers weaved into one.

Only a few verses later, we read about the rest of the crucifixion narrative and find a link (a literary source) with the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament (OT):

Mark 15.24:  “They part his garments among them, casting lots upon them.”

Psalm 22:18:  “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon them.”

Mark 15.29-31:  “And those who passed by blasphemed him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Save yourself…’ and mocked him, saying ‘He who saved others cannot save himself!’ ”

Psalm 22.7-8:  “All those who see me mock me and give me lip, shaking their head, saying ‘He expected the lord to protect him, so let the lord save him if he likes.’ ”

Mark 15.34:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22.1:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

On top of these links, Mark also appears to have used Psalm 69, Amos 8.9, and some elements of Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9-14, and Wisdom 2 as sources for his narratives.  So we can see yet a few more elements of myth in the latter part of this Gospel, with Mark using other scriptural sources as needed for his story, whether to “fulfill” what he believed to be prophecy or for some other reason.

Earlier in Mark (chapter 5), we hear about another obviously fictional story about Jesus resurrecting a girl (the daughter of a man named Jairus) from the dead, this miracle serving as another obvious marker of myth, but adding to that implausibility is the fact that the tale is actually a rewrite of another mythical story, told of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.17-37 as found in the OT, and also the fact that there are a number of very improbable coincidences found within the story itself.  In the story with Elisha, we hear of a woman from Shunem who seeks out the miracle-working Elisha, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help her son who had recently fallen gravely ill.  Someone checks on her son and confirms that he is now dead, but Elisha doesn’t fret about this, and he goes into her house, works his miraculous magic, and raises him from the dead.  In Mark’s version of the story (Mark 5.22-43), the same things occur.  We hear about Jairus coming to look for Jesus, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help him with his daughter.  Someone then comes to confirm that she is now dead, but Jesus (as Elisha) doesn’t fret, and he goes into his house, works his miraculous magic, and raises her from the dead.

As for some other notable coincidences, we see Mark reversing a few details in his version of the story.  Instead of a woman begging for her son, it is a man begging for his daughter.  While in 2 Kings, an unnamed woman comes from a named town (Shunem) which means “rest”, in Mark we have a named man coming from an unnamed town, and the man’s name (Jairus) means “awaken”.  In Mark’s conclusion to this story (5.42), he mentions that “immediately they were amazed with great amazement”, and he appears to have borrowed this line from 2 Kings as well (4.13 as found in the Greek Septuagint version of 2 Kings), which says “You have been amazed by all this amazement for us”.  It’s important to note that this verse from 2 Kings (as found in the Greek Septuagint), refers to an earlier encounter between the unnamed woman and Elisha where he was previously a guest in her home and this verse was what the woman had said to Elisha on that occasion.  Then Elisha blesses her with a miraculous conception (as she was said to be a barren woman in 2 Kings).  In fact, this miraculous conception was of the very son that Elisha would later resurrect from the dead.  So to add to this use of 2 Kings we also have another reversal from Mark, reversing the placement of this reaction (double amazement) from the child’s miraculous conception (in 2 Kings) to the child’s miraculous resurrection (in Mark 5.42).

Another hint that Mark is writing historical fiction in his Gospel is the way he structures his narrative such that he can successfully accomplish certain literary goals rather than historical plausibility.  One primary example of this is the ceaseless incomprehension of the disciples to what Jesus is saying and doing, where they are quite honestly dumber than can be reasonably believed.  This archetype of the “dense lackeys” appears to be adapted either from Homer’s similarly unrealistic portrayal of Odysseus’ fickle and clueless crew, or the portrayal of the Jews in Exodus.  Mark’s use of this type of literary device, requiring the invention of narrative material to make the structure work, thus allows him to accomplish a certain literary theme that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The disciples also behave unrealistically in other ways, such as being gullible beyond belief.  For example, in Mark 1.16-20, we read:

“As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, catching fish with a net.  Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.”  At once they left their nets and went with him.  He went a little farther on and saw two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat getting their nets ready.  As soon as Jesus saw them, he called them; they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and went with Jesus.”

So after one brief statement from Jesus, without even a second thought, these random fishermen simply dropped what they were doing and followed him?  These fisherman didn’t have to be persuaded at all, even though they know nothing about this man, who Jesus is, or his reputation.  They don’t bother making sure that their means of income and food (including their boat) are taken care of as they leave?  Instead, they simply drop it all, leave it all, and go without question.  This kind of behavior is incredibly improbable in real life, as people simply don’t act like this.  However, in myth and (unrealist) fiction, it happens all the time.

Another way Mark develops this theme is through an elegant ring composition, another common literary device popular at the time (used in myth as well as in history).  In the central part of Mark’s narrative (revolving around Jesus’ travel by sea), Mark carefully crafted nested cycles of themes specifically to convey an underlying message about faith and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to understand the gospel.  Here is what the ring structure looks like:

Cycle 1:

Phase 1 (4.1-34) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (preaching from a boat)

Phase 2 (4.35-41) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (5.1-20) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 1:  Step 1 (5.21-43) — First stop (after an uneventful boating)

Step 2 (6.1-6) — Second stop

Step 3 (6.6-29) — Going around

Cycle 2:

Phase 1 (6.30-44) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (6.45-52) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (6.53-55) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 2:  Step 1 (6.56-7.23) — Going around

Step 2 (7.24-30) — First stop

Step 3 (7.31-37) — Second stop

Cycle 3:

Phase 1 (8.1-12) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (8.13-21) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (8.22-26) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

It’s really quite brilliantly crafted when you look at it: three triadically composed intervals, each of which contains one triadically composite minimal unit.  Furthermore, every “Phase 1” in all cycles, takes place during the day and describes Jesus’ actions with crowds on one side of the sea.  Every “Phase 2” occurs on the evening of that same day (though not stated explicitly in Cycle 3’s “Phase 2”, it is implied by what would have been a long sea crossing), and also describes actions between Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat while in transit across the sea.  Each “Phase 3” represents Jesus’ healing (and/or exorcising) of people who either come to him or that are brought to him following his arrival on the other side of the sea.  Then there are other healings or exorcisms that are interspersed among the intervals that follow each “Phase 3”.  Each cycle of this triad occupies one day, so the whole ring structure represents three days, ending with a resolution on the third day — all of which concludes by transitioning into a debate regarding who Jesus really is and what the gospel really is (Mark 8.27-9.1, which is the first time we hear Jesus speak about any of this himself).

Prior to this triad, Jesus had also journeyed to the sea and taught by the sea three times without embarking on a boat (Mark 1.16, 2.13, and 3.7), and then he embarks on a boat (Mark 4.1, and 3.9), and makes six journeys by boat, three eventful ones (each being a part of a three-phase cycle repeated three times) and three uneventful ones that constitute a looser pattern (Mark 5.21, 6.32, and 8.10).  In between the three eventful sea journey cycles, we find two intervals where Jesus travels inland away from the sea of Galilee and back again, and these two journeys also share another triadic pattern: three land journeys in chiastic arrangement.  The first one, from the shore to the house of Jairus (Mark 5.22), then another from the house of Jairus to the hometown of Jesus (Mark 6.1), and finally from the hometown of Jesus to circulating around the towns (Mark 6.6), thus completing “Interval 1”.  Then the sequence is reversed, first circulating around the towns (Mark 6.56), followed by stopping at Tyre (Mark 7.24), and finally back to the shore (Mark 7.31), thus completing “Interval 2”.  So the arrangement appears to be ABC : CBA.

In both intervals, the first stop is always at a house, and in each case involves women and children.  Each circulating phase involves both the disciples and the authorities (Herod or the Pharisees).  The second stop in each interval is also an inversion of the other.  In the first case, in his hometown (a metaphor for Israel), “Those hearing him” are “astonished” and don’t believe in him (a metaphor for the Jews rejecting the gospel), while in the second case, in a foreign country among the gentiles, where he miraculously makes a man “hear” and the people are “astonished” in the exact opposite sense, saying he does everything well and proclaiming and spreading his fame everywhere.  So in both cases, “they were amazed”, yet the first was negative amazement, and the second, positive amazement.  As we can see, every unit of this narrative appears to serve the same purpose, a particular message about faith and the gospel, with the incomprehension of the disciples and rejection of Jesus by his neighbors and kin on the one hand, and the near instant faith of outsiders on the other hand, despite the fact that they don’t even understand it.  We even see this cyclic triad beginning and ending with the theme of “seeing, hearing, understanding” (Mark 4.12 versus Mark 8.17-21), and it continually contrasts human expectations with the actual realities that Mark explains of the gospel.

Adding to this already brilliant triadic ring structure is another one interwoven within it: two matching sequences of five miracles each, interspersed with parables, preaching, and some general references to miracles.  All of the narrated miracles in the triad form a well crafted sequential structure:

1st Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Stilling of the Storm) 4.35-41

“Exorcism of a Gentile Man” (The Gerasene Demoniac) 5.1-20

“Curing an Older Woman” (The Woman with a Hemorrhage) 5.25-34

“Curing of a Younger Woman” (Jairus’ Daughter) 5.21-23, 35-43

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 5,000) 6.34-44, 53

2nd Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Jesus Walks on the Sea) 6.45-51

“Exorcism of a Gentile Woman” (The Syrophoenician Woman) 7.24-30

“Curing of a Deaf Man with Spit” (The Deaf Mute) 7.32-37

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 4,000) 8.1-10

“Curing a Blind Man with Spit” (The Blind Man of Bethsaida) 8.22-26

It should be noted that many miracle narratives of Jewish holy men, including Moses, exhibit a sequence of five miracles, and in fact the two sequences that Mark uses have notable correlations with the wilderness narrative of Moses (Exodus 13-17), thus suggesting another likely source that Mark used for his miracle sequences.

Another literary construct that Mark employs involves the way he structured the entire Gospel, basically into four different parts: The Discipling Narrative (Chapters 1-3), The Sea Narrative (as described before, chapters 4.1-8.26), The Road Narrative (Chapters 8.27-10), and The Passover Narrative (Chapters 11-16).  While there is already a brilliant internal several-layer triadic ring structure in the Sea Narrative, there is yet another chiastic ring structure surrounding it, where the Discipling Narrative and Road Narrative mirror each other around the central Sea Narrative as follows:

A – Peripheral ministry begins (1.14-34)

B – People looking for Jesus to be healed (1.35-38), but Jesus says he needs to teach more people.

C – Jesus ventures out (“throughout all Galilee”; 1.39-45)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (2.1-12), and explains that he can forgive sins.

E – Problems and controversies (2.13-3.12)

F – An important gathering on a mountain (3.13-19)

G – Jesus is accused of being in league with Baalzebul (3.20-35), and preaches that those who reject Jesus are damned.

— The Sea Narrative (Chapters 4-8) —

G – Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with Satan (8.27-9.1), and preaches those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are damned.

F – An important gathering on a mountain (9.2-13)

E – Problems and controversies (9.14-32)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (9.33-50)

C – Jesus ventures out (expands his ministry beyond Galilee; 10.1-6)

B – People looking to Jesus for boons (10.17-45)

A – Peripheral ministry ends (10.46-52)

Just as was most typical in the myths and legends of counter-cultural sages, Jesus’ ministry has two phases, the central one (in Jerusalem) and the peripheral one (outside Jerusalem).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ central ministry doesn’t begin until the last narrative, that of the Passover.  In the Passover narrative we see a few more ways where Mark employs triads, having three women who appear three times, touching each of the three days of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and at three stages: his death, his burial, and his resurrection).  Another notable finding within the Passover Narrative are parallels to Jesus’ Baptism mentioned earlier in Mark.  For example:

A- John cries with a loud voice (1.3)

A – Jesus cries with a loud voice (15.34)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (Mark 1.6; 2 Kings 1.8)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (15.34-36)

C – The heavens are torn (1.10)

C – The temple curtain is torn (15.38), which is a symbol of the barrier between earth and heaven.

D – Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus (1.10)

D – Holy Spirit departs from Jesus (15.37)

E – God calls Jesus his son (1.11)

E – The centurion calls Jesus God’s son (15.19)

The final parallel that I wanted to mention was that found between the Passover Narrative and the story of a different Jesus, named Jesus ben Ananias.  This was a man who was known as an insane prophet that was active in the 60s CE who was then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (around 70 CE).  His story was told in Josephus’ Jewish War, and thus Mark was likely to have known about it, and the number of parallels between what Josephus wrote and that of Mark’s Passover Narrative are far too numerous to be a mere coincidence.  Clearly Mark either wrote his narrative based off of what Josephus wrote, or based on the same tale known to Josephus.  Here are the parallels between Mark’s Jesus and that of Jesus ben Ananias as found in Josephus’ writings:

1 – Both are named Jesus. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

2 – Both come to Jerusalem during a major religious festival. (Mark 11.15-17 = JW 6.301)

3 -Both entered the temple area to rant against the temple. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

4 – During which both quote the same chapter of Jeremiah. (Jer. 7.11 in Mk, Jer. 7.34 in JW)

5 – Both then preach daily in the temple. (Mark 14.49 = JW 6.306)

6 – Both declared “woe” unto Judea or the Jews. (Mark 13.17 = JW 6.304, 306, 309)

7 – Both predict the temple will be destroyed. (Mark 13.2 = JW 6.300, 309)

8 – Both are for this reason arrested by the Jews. (Mark 14.43 = JW 6.302)

9 – Both are accused of speaking against the temple. (Mark 14.58 = JW 6.302)

10 – Neither makes any defense of himself against the charges. (Mark 14.60 = JW 6.302)

11 – Both are beaten by the Jews. (Mark 14.65 = JW 6.302)

12 – Then both are taken to the Roman governor. (Pilate in Mark 15.1 = Albinus in JW 6.302)

13 – Both are interrogated by the Roman governor. (Mark 15.2-4 = JW 6.305)

14 – During which both are asked to identify themselves. (Mark 15.2 = JW 6.305)

15 – And yet again neither says anything in his defense. (Mark 15.3-5 = JW 6.305)

16 – Both are then beaten by the Romans. (Mark 15.15 = JW 6.304)

17 – In both cases the Roman governor decides he should release him. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

18 – But doesn’t (Mark)…but does (JW) — (Mark 15.6-15 = JW 6.305)

19 – Both are finally killed by the Romans: in Mark, by execution; in the JW, by artillery. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.308-9)

20 – Both utter a lament for themselves immediately before they die. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.309)

21 – Both die with a loud cry. (Mark 15.37 = JW 6.309)

The odds of these coincidences arising by chance is quite small to say the least, so it appears Mark used this Jesus as a model for his own to serve some particular literary or theological purpose.  In any case, we can see that Mark is writing fiction here, through and through.

The last scene in Mark’s Gospel that I’d like to mention is that of Jesus clearing the temple (11.18).  This is another unbelievable claim, especially since the temple grounds were enormous, occupying many acres (the temple as a whole occupied nearly forty acres, and a large portion of that, more than ten acres, was devoted to public space), and they were extensively populated.  In fact, there would have been hundreds of merchants and moneychangers there, and the temple would have been heavily guarded by an armed force deployed specifically to prevent this sort of thing from happening.  Jesus would have been killed on the spot had this actually occurred.  It appears that Mark added this scene for another literary purpose, namely the parallel between Jesus and Jeremiah.  When Jesus clears the temple he quotes Jeremiah 7.11 (in Mark 11.17).  Jeremiah and Jesus both enter the temple (Jer. 7.1-2; Mark 11.15), they both make the same accusation against the corruption of the temple cult (Jeremiah quoting a revelation from the Lord, Jesus quoting Jeremiah), and they both predict the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7.12-14; Mark 14.57-58; 15.29).  Mark thus appears to be exhibiting knowledge that the Romans would destroy the temple, further illustrating that he was writing this Gospel after 70 CE, and so he composed a fictional story to suit the fulfillment of that “prediction”.

So we can see a large number of literary sources that Mark merely re-wrote for his fiction, a large number of parallels with other sources, many strange coincidences and other implausibilities, and most impressively several intricately crafted literary structures (some interwoven into others and/or several layers in complexity) and other literary devices that obviously served some overall literary purpose that Mark was trying to accomplish.  It’s easy to see why Mark would have to invent the various narrative materials that he did (hence the numerous historical implausibilities) in order to get the literary structure he wanted to work successfully.  There were indeed more elements of myth than those listed in this post, but I think these were the most telling and some of the most impressive ones found within Mark’s Gospel.  In the next part of this series, I will be discussing some of the elements of the Gospel According to Matthew as mentioned in Carrier’s analysis.

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

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.