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Did Jesus Die in Outer Space?
Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus



The attempt to use later sources, interpreted in ways that are at best open to dispute, in an attempt to argue against what generations of skeptical scholars have concluded to be likely with respect to the early Christian sources, is never going to make mythicism seem more probable than the hard-earned and intensely-researched consensus of historians and scholars, namely that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth.



See Also: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?

Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom



By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature
Butler University
October 2014


This volume by Richard Carrier marks a welcome addition to the literature on Christian origins. It has been a long time indeed since someone with expertise in ancient history has sought to make a detailed case for the non-historicity of Jesus, and never before has someone with a PhD in history offered a case that is this detailed, or which adopts this precise approach. In a longstanding and crowded field in which it can often seem that everything significant has already been said, coming up with fresh ideas, whether plausible or outlandish, often seems impossible. And thus Carrier’s attempt to inject fresh life both through the application of Bayesian reasoning, and through the systematic formulation of a case for Jesus’ non-historicity, is bound to lead to interesting discussions, regardless of whether his claims and arguments manage to persuade many.

A volume of this length and detail deserves to be evaluated in comparable detail. The book attempts to clarify a great many details about the context of early Christianity, in ways that may be true whether there was a historical Jesus or not. Some of those are themselves worthy of consideration, and I intend to return to them in future articles (and blog posts). But the central thesis, that there is good reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus, depends on the strength of the details of, and arguments and evidence adduced in support of, the basic myth hypothesis. As Carrier notes, assessments of probability are frequently offered for complex and detailed scenarios, whereas the additional specifications inevitably reduce the probability of that specific scenario over against a more general one. And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course, especially if the field is one which has been around for a long time and is very crowded, requiring the very sorts of original creative thinking that Carrier seeks to offer in his book, if one is to hope to have something worth publishing at all.

And so, for instance, the question of whether any Jews before the rise of Christianity expected the Davidic anointed one to die before restoring his dynasty to the throne is an interesting one, but whether one agrees with Carrier’s treatment of the evidence or not, it is clear that such pre-Christian thinking about a dying messiah, if it existed, could have inspired a historical individual who believed himself to be the messiah to try to get himself handed over to authorities. And so we could devote a whole article just to that question, and yet not make any progress on the central question the book addresses, whether a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed.

Thus, while there is a place for standard-length reviews and review articles, this article will not try to provide an overview of the volume as a whole, but will instead seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that - a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.” The first tenet Carrier lists is this: “At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.”[2] Carrier’s chapter summarizing that mythicist core begins with the Ascension of Isaiah, a text which was central to Earl Doherty’s mythicist case,[3] and in turn has played a key role in Richard Carrier’s.[4] If their interpretation of the work is correct, Ascension of Isaiah provides an example of an ancient mythicist work. Unsurprisingly, Carrier continues to refer back to Ascension of Isaiah throughout his book, using it as evidence to interpret post-NT works, such as the letters of Ignatius, as well as earlier works, such as Paul’s letters, in a manner favorable to his mythicist case.[5] It therefore seems appropriate to take a close look at the relevant parts of Ascension of Isaiah. Doing so will not in and of itself either decisively prove or disprove either mythicism or historicity, nor even determine the overall usefulness of Carrier’s volume as a whole. But it may, once other details are given similarly close attention, affect the way the probability of Carrier’s case for mythicism is evaluated.

For readers unfamiliar with Ascension of Isaiah, translations of the text are available online,[6] including the earlier one by R. H. Charles,[7] and also the relevant section of M. A. Knibb’s more recent rendering of the text into English.[8]

Carrier provides a very brief introduction to the work, claiming that “The earliest version in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written. It thus includes some very early Christian belief, almost as early as anything in the New Testament.”[9] As Carrier notes, Ascension of Isaiah is a composite work, having brought together two separate works often referred to as “The Martyrdom of Isaiah” and “The Vision of Isaiah.” These two works, however, have been interpolated, whether by the author-editor of Ascension of Isaiah or subsequently. Whether details important to Carrier’s case can be dated as early as he suggests requires a careful study of the evidence.

Robert G. Hall, in a discussion of the date and community setting of the work, suggests that the references to the martyrdom in the vision, and to the vision in the martyrdom, stem from the hand of the final redactor.[10] Hall suggests that the work reflects debates also evidenced in the Gospel and Letters of John, in Revelation, and elsewhere, and he dates all of these to the early second or late first century.[11] That is at odds with Carrier’s claim that the work ought to be dated contemporaneous with the Gospel of Mark.[12] While a matter of decades might seem of little importance, according to mythicists, the time period between Paul and Mark witnessed the conversion of a purely celestial Jesus into the Jesus of the Gospels who lived on earth as a human being. Indeed, the attempt to place a purely celestial Jesus at the beginning of the process is at the heart of mythicism. And so a dating of Ascension of Isaiah to around the time of the Gospel of John, when mainstream historical study concludes that the earthly Jesus of the earlier Gospels had begun to be transformed into an earthly Jesus who embodies a pre-existent divine entity, creates difficulties for the trajectory which mythicists envisage.[13]

There are also important differences between various manuscripts and translations of the text, leading Jonathan Knight to emphasize, “It is therefore necessary at every stage to try to establish the most reliable form of text before attempting exegetical deductions of any kind.”[14] The text in some manuscripts refers to the Son descending in the form which Isaiah has, and says that “in the last days, the Lord, who will be called Christ, will descend into the world...And after he has descended and become like you in appearance, they will think that he is flesh and a man. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will lay hands on him and crucify him on a tree, without knowing who he is” (9:12-14). It also refers in some manuscripts to Jesus bringing many of the righteous with him when he ascends from the world (9:17).[15] Carrier notes that two key phrases – “he shall descend in your form” (8:26) and “they will think that he is flesh and a man” (9:13) are both missing from the Latin version. While Carrier notes that the Latin often abbreviates the text, he considers this insufficient to explain the removal of what he considers “the only statements outside the pocket gospel [in chapter 11] that refer to Jesus becoming like a man.” (p.42).[16] Their deliberate omission, however, is easily explicable in terms of the same motivation that led to the appendage of the “pocket gospel” which is not found in the Latin manuscripts, namely the desire to emphasize that Jesus did not merely appear in the world, as Docetists claimed, but actually became a human being.[17] And so what seem to Carrier to be additions to make Jesus like a human being, are phrases which could easily have been omitted by an orthodox scribe so as to eliminate language that seemed Docetic.

The forms of Docetism of which we are aware – unless the Ascension of Isaiah is an exception – do not deny that Jesus appeared in the world, but merely deny that he was genuinely human. Is Ascension of Isaiah an exception? The Beloved is told to descend to the firmament, and from there to sheol, but not to haguel (perdition or “hell”). Carrier rightly points out that some systems of thought located the realm of the dead not in an underworld, but in the heavens.[18] He nonetheless does insufficient justice to the fact that the realm of malevolent spiritual forces was thought to be, not the firmament alone, but the entire realm below the moon, including Earth.[19] And so references to a descent into this region need not be taken as excluding Earth.[20] And for many Jews, the souls of the dead were still thought to descend to an underworld, rather than (as for instance in many Gnostic sources) making a journey skyward immediately after death.[21] The question of where the realm of sheol was thought to be, and where “hell” was thought to be, by the author of Ascension of Isaiah, is a question that deserves attention in its own right, probably in more detail than can be provided here. But it is worth noting that, even in works such as 1 Enoch, which envisages the possibility of posthumous ascent, the realm of sheol is still thought of as one to which the living descend.[22]

There is, however, a common element of ancient thought which has important implications for the understanding of Ascension of Isaiah. In 7:10 we read, “And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what (is) in the firmament is here on earth.” As Carrier notes, “the narrative goes out of its way to explain that the firmament contains copies of everything on earth.”[23] And yet, presumably because of his aim to present a case for mythicism, Carrier does not discuss the natural implication of this: that even if the celestial Beloved only descended as far as the firmament, and was crucified there by demons, this would mirror some corresponding occurrence on earth. This is reminiscent of what we find depicted or hinted at in a number of Docetic texts. While the earthly Jesus is crucified, the real Jesus is seen above the cross, a spiritual being whom they cannot harm, laughing at the fools who think they have genuinely crucified him.

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth uses language very similar to Ascension of Isaiah at times:[24]

I was in the mouths of lions. And the plan which they devised about me to release their Error and their senselessness - I did not succumb to them as they had planned. But I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.

And I subjected all their powers. For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled. And I was speaking with them, mingling with them through those who are mine, and trampling on those who are harsh to them with zeal, and quenching the flame. And I was doing all these things because of my desire to accomplish what I desired by the will of the Father above.

And the Son of the Majesty, who was hidden in the regions below, we brought to the height where I in all these aeons with them, which (height) no one has seen nor known, where the wedding of the wedding robe is, the new one and not the old, nor does it perish.

Here is the relevant section of the Apocalypse of Peter:[25]

When he had said those things, I saw him seemingly being seized by them. And I said "What do I see, O Lord? That it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?"

The Savior said to me, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me."

But I, when I had looked, said "Lord, no one is looking at you. Let us flee this place."

But he said to me, "I have told you, 'Leave the blind alone!'. And you, see how they do not know what they are saying. For the son of their glory instead of my servant, they have put to shame."

And I saw someone about to approach us resembling him, even him who was laughing on the tree. And he was with a Holy Spirit, and he is the Savior. And there was a great, ineffable light around them, and the multitude of ineffable and invisible angels blessing them. And when I looked at him, the one who gives praise was revealed.

And so Ascension of Isaiah seems not only to fit the otherwise-attested Docetic view of Jesus (that the life and crucifixion of the terrestrial Jesus was a revelation of a spiritual reality which was made known in the world but did not become part of the world), but to do so much better than the mythicist interpretation, otherwise unattested in ancient times. This is not to say that these works all have precisely the same viewpoint, or depict the story unfolding in precisely the same way – far from it. It is merely to suggest that Ascension of Isaiah fits in its own unique way within the spectrum of Docetic Christologies otherwise attested in ancient Christian literature.

Before concluding, let us ask what one is to make of the parallels Carrier highlights between Ascension of Isaiah and the Descent of Inanna. Carrier writes, “It cannot be believed that the author of the Ascension just ‘by coincidence’ ended up telling almost the very same story, right down to its characteristic repetitions, seven-stage descent and disrobing, crucifixion by demons, and resurrection.”[26] Why Carrier suggests that those with whom he disagrees would view the similarities as “coincidence” is unclear. As Charles Talbert has conveniently summarized, there are many common motifs across a wide array of traditions which believed in some sort of descending and ascending redeemer figure.[27] Descent through the seven layers of the heavens was the only way to reach the Earth in this cosmology, and disguising oneself along the way was the only possible way to do so incognito. The parallels are between the outlines of the stories, which reflect the widespread ancient view that beings from the celestial realm come to Earth. The closer one looks at the details, the less similar the stories seem to be.[28]

But even if we were to grant that the author of this work takes the Inanna myth and directly adapts it into a Christian version, the obvious follow-up question would be, “So what?” That someone did this, not at the time of the composition of our earliest Gospel as Carrier claims, but at some point later in the first century when a wide array of views are known to us from many sources, would perhaps add to the diversity of Christianity in that period. But it would not change our perception of what the earlier sources say. Mythicists have a long history of trying to drive a wedge between the early letters and the Gospels, regarding the latter as the euhemerization of an originally purely celestial Jesus. But the attempt to drive apart sources which naturally cohere, separated in time by a mere decade or two, only to then bring in still later sources and use them to interpret the earlier ones, is clearly problematic.

In discussing Carrier’s treatment of the text, we have granted a number of points which are in fact open to dispute. And so it is important in concluding to notice what we find in Carrier’s treatment of Ascension of Isaiah, which is mirrored in his treatment of the Talmud, the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel, and other sources. Late sources are brought into the picture, with not-implausible arguments for their containing traditions that are much earlier. But these arguments for the presence of earlier tradition are no less weighty than the similar arguments that have been offered concerning traditional material about a historical Jesus being found not only in the Gospels, but also in the letters of Paul. The attempt to use later sources, interpreted in ways that are at best open to dispute, in an attempt to argue against what generations of skeptical scholars have concluded to be likely with respect to the early Christian sources, is never going to make mythicism seem more probable than the hard-earned and intensely-researched consensus of historians and scholars, namely that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

And so, turning to the question posed in the title of this article, does Ascension of Isaiah envisage Jesus being crucified in outer space, on the firmament, as Richard Carrier claims? That reading of the text still seems to me unlikely – the Beloved’s descent to the realm of sheol seems to envisage the journey including Earth and the realm of the human dead, given how that term tends to be used in ancient Jewish literature. But as we have shown here, even if Ascension of Isaiah does have this view, that the celestial Beloved descends from the highest heaven to the firmament and no further, then that still does not support mythicism. Ascension of Isaiah emphasizes that what happens on the firmament is mirrored in the terrestrial realm. We should not treat the crucifixion of the Beloved to be an exception. In that case, we would be dealing with a rather distinctive Docetist vision of Jesus – one that has the celestial Jesus mistreated in the celestial realm in spiritual ways, never becoming entangled with flesh, at a safe distance from human suffering, even though apparently being killed in some celestial sense. This would have a counterpart in the human realm, and so would presumably have been understood as a “behind the scenes” (or “above the firmament”) picture of the celestial-spiritual correspondents to events that ancient Christian sources consistently presuppose to have unfolded in the vicinity of Jerusalem in the not-too-distant past. In this, it would still be close to the vision of other Docetic texts, which have the one who descended located safely above the earthly cross, laughing. Of course, the depiction of the Beloved being slain, and subsequently plundering the angel of death, could be understood in ways that would situate Ascension of Isaiah closer to what became orthodoxy, than to the works from Nag Hammadi which I quoted above. But the death of the Beloved could also be understood in a manner akin to what Second Treatise of the Great Seth envisages, when it says “I did not die in reality but in appearance.” But whether it is Docetic or merely quasi-Docetic in outlook, the work seems to lend no support to Carrier’s mythicist hypothesis. Carrier is, however, quite right to highlight that the work is undeservedly neglected, and so, even if it does not depict Jesus as having been crucified in outer space, there are other reasons why it ought to receive much greater amounts of scholarly attention and study than it has.



Notes

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

[2] Carrier, On the Historicity, p.53

[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/02/review-of-earl-doherty%E2%80%99s-jesus-neither-god-nor-man-chapter-10-part-two.html

[4] Carrier, p.36.

[5] Carrier pp.321-323,534.

[6] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ascension.html

[7] https://archive.org/details/cu31924014590529 Charles’ volume includes transcrip-
tions of the Ethiopic, Latin, and Greek texts available.

[8] http://www.pseudepigrapha.com/pseudepigrapha/AscensionOfIsaiah.html

[9] Carrier, pp.36-37.

[10] Robert G. Hall, "The Ascension of Isaiah: Community Situation, Date, and Place in Early Christianity," JBL 109 (1990), 289-306 (here p.290).

[11] In another article, Hall makes the case for the “Vision of Isaiah” representing a Jewish-Christian-Gnostic composition: Robert G. Hall, “Isaiah's ascent to see the beloved: An ancient Jewish source for the Ascension of Isaiah?” JBL 113 (1994), 463–484.

[12] Richard Bauckham argues for an earlier first-century date in The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (SBL, 1999), although still not as early as Mark. In his argument, Bauckham notes the same references to Nero which Carrier highlights. But Bauckham also highlights 4:13, which seems to stand at odds with Carrier’s mythicist view of the text in its early form, since it refers to people who had seen the coming of the one whom they awaited, who was crucified. Presumably a mythicist can simply assert that it refers to their seeing him in visions. But one problematic aspect of mythicism is that it seems quite happy to transfer things to the celestial realm even when there is no good evidence that that was what was meant – take for instance their treatment of Paul’s references to Jesus having been of the seed of David according to the flesh, and to his burial, as well as his crucifixion.

[13] Note also Jonathan Knight’s important cautionary remarks: “if chapters 6–11 were written in the first century but incorporated only in the early second century, we cannot be sure that we have the original form of text of this material, including the issue noticed in respect of chapter 6. Besides the difficult textual problems in this part of the Ascen. Isa., we must bear in mind the possibility that neither branch of the tradition in this section records the original first-century text.” Jonathan Knight, “The Origin and Significance of the Angelomorphic Christology in the Ascension of Isaiah” JTS 63/1 (2012), 66-105 (here p.71)

[14] Knight, “Origin and Significance” p.68. Knight also discusses the date of the work, and concludes that there is good reason to view it as, at the very least, incorporating first century material.

[15] The Latin has Jesus sending forth preachers into the world in 9:17, rather than merely carrying the righteous thence.

[16] Carrier, p.42.

[17] On the non-Docetic character of the redacted version of Asc.Isa. including the material in chapter 11, see Darrell Hannah, “The Ascension of Isaiah and Docetic Christology,” Vigiliae christianae 53/2 (1999) 165-196.

[18] Carrier, pp.41-2

[19] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2010/09/mythlocating-the-firmament.html

[20] See Carrier pp.187-193.

[21] See the texts conveniently surveyed in Charles E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) pp.45-62. See too J. Harold Ellens, Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife vol.1 (Praeger, 2013) ; Peter Schäfer, “In heaven as it is in hell: the cosmology of Seder Rabbah di-Bereshit,” in Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, edited by Ra'anan S. Boustan and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Cambridge University Press, 2004) 233-274.

[22] http://wesley.nnu.edu/index.php?id=2126

[23] Carrier p.45.

[24] Translation by Roger Bullard and Joseph Gibbons http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/2seth.html

[25] From the translation by James Brashler and Roger Bullard http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apopet.html

[26] Carrier p.46.

[27] Charles H. Talbert, “The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity,” NTS 22 (1976), 418–39. See also the material about the different ways that celestial beings were thought to appear in the world in Pamela E. Kinlaw’s book, The Christ is Jesus: Metamorphosis, Possession, and Johannine Christology (SBL, 2005).

[28] On this see further Maurice Casey’s posthumously-published volume, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) pp.230-232.