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Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype



The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.



See Also: Did Jesus Die in Outer Space?

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
December 2014

In my first review, most excellent readers, I addressed what Richard Carrier began to do and to teach in his recent book On The Historicity of Jesus, focusing on his treatment of the Ascension of Isaiah. In this second review, I will focus on his use of the “Rank-Raglan Scale” as a tool which he claims will allow one to evaluate the probability of Jesus’ historicity.

Introducing the Rank-Raglan scale

There have been many different attempts to draw up lists of common elements in human storytelling, in particular in the early 20th century, when comparative mythology was a focus of much discussion. The list that is adopted (not without modification) by Richard Carrier is based on the work of Otto Rank and FitzRoy Sommerset or Lord Raglan. In one common iteration, these are the components:[1]

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

The attempt to see patterns and archetypes in fairy tales and folklore is closely linked, in its origins, to Freudian psychoanalysis, Otto Rank having been one of Freud’s disciples at the time when he wrote The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Indeed, Alan Dundes, in a study that focuses on this aspect of the approach, notes that Freud himself wrote a section of Rank’s book.[2] We must also keep in mind that the era which produced these works is one in which parallelomania (to use Samuel Sandmel’s famous phrase) often ruled the day, in ways that have subsequently been criticized so severely by scholars as to leave their validity in doubt.[3] This is not to suggest that a list of typical elements may not have a certain usefulness. But we should not assume that it does, and must ask critical questions about whether superficial similarities are being noted which obscure more substantive differences, and whether the scale is designed precisely to allow a claim to be made about the similarity of Biblical and Greek stories.[4] As Robert A. Segal notes in his introduction to In Quest of the Hero (a volume which includes works by Rank, Raglan, and Dundes), the proponents of these typological views were often adamant that questions of historicity of heroes were at best irrelevant, and that it was the mythic archetype and its psychological meaning that mattered.[5] And so do the scales that were developed demonstrate that, or are they attempts to give that impression which are not entirely persuasive?

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

Does Jesus score unusually high on the Rank-Raglan scale?

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

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

Do we know that people who rank highly on the scale are not historical?

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

In addition to knowing that some historical figures rank highly on the scale, it must also be pointed out that in many instances we do not know whether a myth is based, however distantly, on some historical figure. And so using this scale as though it could demonstrate non-historicity is actually assuming what needs to be proved.

Do historical people ever conform themselves to mythic archetypes?

Adrienne Meyer, in her book The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, gives Mithradates a perfect score of 23 using a combined Rank-Raglan scale.[11] This is explained in terms of ostension, which is the phenomenon of historical people patterning their lives on hero figures[12]. One can easily think of other figures who may have deliberately patterned themselves on famous heroes, or on expectations and myths. If the information we have about John the Baptist is accurate, then there were deliberate echoes of Elijah in his clothing, and perhaps in other details. Some of the messianic figures that we know of from the first century are said to have moved to the wilderness, or expected the Jordan to part, echoing the stories of the Exodus and arrival in the Promised Land. When Thomas Thompson wrote about Jesus in light of Israelite royal myths, and the expectations of a messiah descended from David, he offered a very plausible way of understanding Jesus – as one who may have taken this well-known pattern and sought to live it out, and whose followers may subsequently have taken the process further still.

And to whatever extent historical individuals may sometimes pattern themselves on heroes from earlier stories, it is clear that later admirers and followers of the individual may also do so, whether beginning the process or enhancing what is already there. For instance, Alwyn D. Rees studied the tales about saints that were popular in Ireland, using an adapted scale.[13] But one need not turn to the distant past for examples. One can look at some of the statements made about president Barack Obama by supporters – and then can turn to the way that some people who did not share their admiration have attempted to depict there being a cult of Obama which views him as lord, savior, and messiah. The entire discussion proves unhelpful, inasmuch as it obscures what was actually being said, but in that very process it serves as an illustration of the way in which claims and counterclaims can ratchet up the level of mythologically-laden praise being recounted about an individual, and alleged parallels with earlier figures can be exaggerated not only by supporters in the interest of acclamation, but also by opponents in the interest of discrediting the individual and the movement around him or her.

This is the heart of the issue. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for supporters of political figures to depict them in relation to earlier figures, whether historical or mythological, making someone out to be a “new Moses” or a “new David” or a “new John F. Kennedy.” On the other hand, parallels are often in the eye of the beholder and are subject to exaggeration for a variety of purposes.

Is the scale useful for determining historicity?

It seems to me, in view of the evidence surveyed above, that the answer to this question is clearly “no.” The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.

Let me conclude with a quotation from folklorist Alan Dundes:[14]

The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents. Accordingly, if the life of Jesus conforms in any way with the standard hero pattern, this proves nothing one way or the other with respect to the historicity of Jesus.



Notes

[1] This list is provided by Prof. Mary Magoulick, a folklorist at Georgia College https://faculty.gcsu.edu/custom-website/mary-magoulick/hero_patterns.htm It is slightly different from the one that Carrier provides in his book, pp.229-230. Some have noted Carrier’s changes to the scale, which seem to them to be changes made intentionally to make Jesus fit the scale better. See for instance Johan Rönnblom’s blog post, which also comes up with a higher score for Alexander than for Jesus: http://ronnblom.net/is-jesus-a-rank-raglan-hero/

[2] Alan Dundes, Bloody Mary in the Mirror: Essays in Psychoanalytic Folkloristics, p.43. See also his Interpreting Folklore, Indiana University Press, 1980, which includes a chapter on “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus” - see esp. pp. 231-259. The book illustrates well the willingness of folklorists to stretch points on the scale to fit new data – such as when Dundes connects the manger scene with the element of being suckled by an animal (p.236).

[3] Debates about the work of Rank and Raglan among American scholars are detailed by Rosemary Lévy Zumwal in American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent (Indiana University Press, 1988). See also the discussions in this online forum: http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1052&start=10

[5] In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. xxvii-xxxi. See also p.xv, where he notes how poorly Moses fits Rank’s own scale.

[6] On the tomb of Jesus in Japan see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/the-little-known-legend-of-jesus-in-japan-165354242/. Atheist blogger Chris Hallquist gives Jesus a score of 13, and has critiqued Carrier on this point: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2014/06/richard-carrier-jesus-rank-raglan/.

[7] See Rank’s book here: http://sacred-texts.com/neu/mbh/mbh02.htm For the way Sargon I became increasingly mythologized, see here: http://www.ancient.eu/Sargon_of_Akkad/ For an example of Sargon-mythicism, see Jim Cornwell’s page here: http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterFour/SargonDidHeExist.htm

[11] Adrienne Meyer, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.371.

[12] See also the discussion of probability, and the possibility of subsequent accretion, on p.41.

[13] “The Divine Hero in Celtic Hagiology,” Folklore 47:1 (1936) 30-41.

[14] In Quest of the Hero p.190.





Comments (27)


While Professor McGrath raises a number of questions about the usefulness of the Rank-Raglan list of hero archetypes he fails to address Richard Carrier’s specific argument and use of the list.


Firstly, although McGrath refers three times to the list being used as a tool for “determining the historicity” of Jesus, Carrier in fact uses the list only to establish a prior likelihood of probability that Jesus would score as highly as he does if he were historical. This is set out (pp. 214-234) in the beginning of Carrier’s book where he sets out “background information” and again in his assessment of prior probability (pp. 235-53) before embarking on the main section of his book (pp. 254-618) where he undertakes his assessment of arguments for and against Jesus’ historicity.


Secondly, contrary to an impression a reader may take from the above review, Carrier explains that he is prepared to concede that one in three names that appear to score highly on the Rank-Raglan scale might indeed by historical (pp. 241-244). So simply finding several historical names to sit alongside the mythical ones (Carrier even allows one in three historical names) is beside the point and fails to address Carrier’s specific argument. Carrier repeatedly points out that he is attempting to argue a fortiori in favour of Jesus being historical and to this end his arguments is simply that it is comparatively rare for historical persons to score highly on the list (p. 243).


Thirdly, McGrath questions the relevance of later developments of mythical details but Carrier does in fact rely upon the details of Jesus found only in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (pp. 232, 239).


As for the function and origin of the Rank-Raglan list itself, while McGrath discusses the Freudian associations of Otto Rank’s list he overlooks the fact that Lord Raglan’s list (the one Carrier uses) is quite different in that it has no Freudian associations at all (See Part II of Lord Raglan’s The Hero). It is, moreover, simply a classification of those types of myths that were thought to have originated as from religious rituals. The debates to which McGrath refers in his review do not question the validity or reality of the elements themselves but are instead focussed on the disagreements over literary versus other cultural approaches in anthropological studies. Alan Dundes, whom McGrath cites, in fact himself uses the same Raglan list to score Jesus very highly indeed. (See Alan Dundes, "The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus," in Otto Rank et al. "In Quest of the Hero," Princeton University Press, (1990), Page 179 to 223) (Segal, also quoted by McGrath, similarly scores Jesus highly.) So McGrath’s assertion that his own belief that Jesus should not be taken as a more objective conclusion than Carrier’s score.


McGrath is correct when he says that the conformity to a list does not itself determine the historicity or otherwise of a character. Lord Raglan explained why this is the case: in the case of historical persons one can peel away the mythical layers and still identify nonmythical historical substance. Carrier does not dispute this and in fact buids this fact into his assessement of prior probability.


McGrath has unfortunately missed an opportunity to address Carrier’s argument concerning the Rank-Raglan case -- that what the list demonstrates is that a person who ranks highly finds him/herself in the company of more mythical persons than historical ones. This is a prior probability only, and not used by Carrier to “determine” the question of the historicity of Jesus.
#1 - Neil Godfrey - 12/24/2014 - 04:55



Neil is too modest (or forgetful) to mention his excellent post on Lord Raglan's list. http://vridar.org/2014/11/29/significance-of-applying-the-rank-raglan-hero-type-to-jesus/

Neil, I'd appreciate your take on the other Patheos blog cited here, Chris Halquist's take on the issue.
#2 - Mark Erickson - 12/24/2014 - 06:22



Good article, Dr McGrath. Readers might be interested in seeing an article by blogger Johan Ronnblom who looked at Carrier's use of the R-R scale in his OHJ here: http://ronnblom.net/is-jesus-a-rank-raglan-hero.

Johan Ronnblom concluded:

"Unfortunately, Carrier subtly changes the criteria to better fit Jesus,
and reorders them. Worse still, Carrier does not inform his readers that
he has done this. This is amounts to academic dishonesty, since he is
clearly misrepresenting his sources."

Johan goes through each R-R point to show how Carrier has 'tweaked' some of them. There is also a discussion on this on FRDB involving Johan and others (quite long!): http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1052

Based on R-R, Carrier calculates a prior-probability of between 6% and 33%. Bizarrely, the latter figure comes about because Carrier states 'fundamentalists would refuse to accept that Moses and Joseph are mythical' (page 243), so he has added them into the calculation as historical(!)

Interestingly, Carrier doesn't appear to refer to Alan Dundes at all in OHJ, despite his authority as a folklorist and his research on the Rank-Raglan scale.
#3 - GakuseiDon - 12/24/2014 - 10:07



I smell desperation from Carrier and the likes of other mythicists.
#4 - Matt Brown - 12/25/2014 - 05:09



Blogger Godfrey's posts on this already address Johan's critique (as well as Professor McGrath's "review").
#5 - Geoff Barrett - 12/25/2014 - 18:20



@Geoff Barrett,

Is that the answer that mythicists always give to critical responses? They either cite Carrier or lay bloggers as though their answers are somehow always infallible. Why can't they handle constructive criticism?
#6 - Matt - 12/25/2014 - 22:59



Who is the mythicist? Blogger Godfrey has raised a number of points against the view that Carrier misapplied R-R classifications. His points, based on Raglan, appear to directly under mine Johan's criticisms. It might be good to respond.
#7 - Geoff Barrett - 12/27/2014 - 03:34



Many of the Rank-Raglan elements centre on the theme of kingship: the hero's father is a king, he becomes king, he prescribes laws, he is driven from the throne etc. The story of the mythic hero is very much the story of a king. In this case, if we are trying to decide whether a certain (real or fictional) character belongs to the class of mythic heroes, the most important thing to know is whether the character actually becomes king.

Clearly, there is no absolutely objective way of scoring someone on the Rank-Raglan scale. So given the subjective nature of the scoring, it would be entirely valid to adopt a system whereby the score of the hero candidate is automatically set to zero if he fails to become king. In other words, we can validly argue that Jesus actually scores zero on the scale.
#8 - Thomas Fenton - 12/28/2014 - 17:36



"The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were."

Notice that on the site McGrath linked to*, out of the 16 figures who scored above 12, at least 10 are mythical (it is possible that as many as 12 are mythical, if King Arthur or Mohammed is mythical). Any way you slice it, over 60% of the figures who score high on the list are myths.

Pointing out that some mythical people don't fit the pattern (or that some historical people *do* fit the pattern) misses the point, and here's why. Suppose that I say, "Most people who drive a Lamborghini earn a lot of money" and James McGrath attempted to disprove this proposition by pointing to a couple of poor people who owned a Lamborghini but were not rich (they won the Lamborghini in a contest, let's say) or by pointing to the abundant number of rich people who do NOT own lamborghini's. If you can see why that's bogus, McGrath's argument flunks for the exact same reason. It's just incorrect logic, pure and simple.

* I have this in mind: http://department.monm.edu/classics/courses/clas230/mythdocuments/heropattern/
#9 - Nicholas Covington - 12/30/2014 - 03:57



I did not deny that there are LISTS which contain more probably-mythical people than probably-historical ones. I denied that the scale seems to consistently fit the former better than the latter, and with a higher frequency.
#10 - James F. McGrath - 01/06/2015 - 16:05



As Nick points out, if the only thing you know about someone is that he owns a Lamborghini, you can reasonably assume that he is rich. However, what if you know not just that the person owns a Lamborghini, but also that he won it in a competition? In that case you cannot assume that the person is rich. The extra information alters your assessment.

If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he has a high score on the Rank-Raglan scale, then we might assume that Jesus was a mythical figure. But is there any extra information that needs to be taken into account? In the list to which Nick links very few of the figures have birth and death dates. Furthermore, those that do have birth and death dates appear to be the ones who were real people in history. As far as I can tell, the only mythical figure with birth and death dates is Romulus. Since we have birth and death dates for Jesus, we can assume that Jesus is considerably more likely than not to have been a real person.

I have explained why I don’t think Jesus conforms to the Rank-Raglan hero type, but even if we are inclined to take the classification seriously, it does not justify the assignment of a low prior probability to a historical Jesus.
#11 - Thomas Fenton - 01/07/2015 - 10:33



@Thomas Jesus does not have a birth date, unless we're talking about the December 25 date that was assigned centuries after Christianity began and for reasons unrelated to historical truth. Jesus does have a death day: passover, which most critical scholars figure is a piece of fiction invented for symbolic reasons. As yet, you haven't adduced a reason why birth and death dates would even be something important for determining the historicity of a figure.

@James "I did not deny that there are LISTS which contain more probably-mythical people than probably-historical ones. I denied that the scale seems to consistently fit the former better than the latter, and with a higher frequency."

I didn't see a list of historical figures that fit the archetype. You threw out some suggestions, but did not adduce a longer list of historical figures that scored a 12 or higher.

BTW, you do know that Carrier argues against Mithradates fitting the archetype in a footnote, didn't you? Why isn't there anything in your article discussing that?
#12 - Nicholas Covington - 01/08/2015 - 22:13



Nick, I wasn’t referring to dates that are accurate to the day. It would be unusual to have that sort of information for someone in the ancient world. Why would having (fairly) precise information about the time when someone lived be relevant to the question of historicity? It just so happens that we don’t usually have that sort of information for purely mythical figures. There is no law of nature that would prevent the authors of myths from providing this sort of information, but, generally, they don’t. Equally, there is no law of nature that would prevent the attribution of the Rank-Raglan elements to a real person, but, generally, this doesn’t happen.
#13 - Thomas Fenton - 01/09/2015 - 10:22



" It just so happens that we don’t usually have that sort of information for purely mythical figures."

I don't know if that is true. But in any case, the date of Jesus' death has a symbolic significance. Regardless of whether we are talking about the specific day(Passover) or the approximate year (30 ad, which is roughly the time many Jews expected the messiah to come).
#14 - Nicholas Covington - 01/10/2015 - 17:21



Nick

Ultimately, it is all rather subjective, isn't it? We begin by asking how probable it is that someone like Jesus existed. And what do we mean by someone "like" Jesus? A Rank-Raglan hero?

The first thing I notice is that in spite of the importance of kingship to the Rank-Raglan classification, Jesus does not actually become king. The second thing I notice is that the story of Jesus is very much rooted in a particular historical and cultural context, as illustrated by the fact that we know when Jesus lived. This is not the case with other mythic heroes. The third thing I notice is that most, if not all mythic heroes, have killed someone. Jesus, on the other hand, never killed anyone.

In short, I find the attempt to place Jesus in a certain class and to use his membership of this class as the basis for calculations of probability to be completely unconvincing.
#15 - Thomas Fenton - 01/11/2015 - 13:40



"Ultimately, it is all rather subjective, isn't it?"

No, reasoning about history isn't any more subjective than any other field of inquiry.

"We begin by asking how probable it is that someone like Jesus existed. And what do we mean by someone 'like' Jesus? A Rank-Raglan hero?"

Sure. We are trying to find the best and closest comparison to Jesus that we can in order to make a probability judgement, and the Raglan scale seems like the best candidate for that.

"Jesus does not actually become king."

"If my kingdom was of this world I would have told you." Not to mention that there are numerous allusions to Jesus being a king (a Davidic messiah would have been David's rightful successor and therefore king, "King of the Jews" is inscribed on the cross, etc. etc. Jesus is a King, albeit not an earthly king with servants and a castle).

"This is not the case with other mythic heroes"

Sure it is. Moses, Romulus, King Arthur, Hercules, Osiris and many others were situated in historical settings at some time or other.

"Jesus, on the other hand, never killed anyone."

True, but just about all raglan heros are unique in some way. Nobody else taught enlightment like the Buddha, or slayed the twelve headed hydra like Hercules and so on.

Try looking at the evidence with an open mind instead of beginning with the assumption that Jesus existed and then looking for reasons to defend that belief. Also, take a careful look at the thesis that you're so intent on attacking. Read Carrier. Read Bob Price. You might change your mind. And if you don't, looking and learning with a certain openness will place you in a unique position to be able to spell out the problems with these viewpoints if there are any.
#16 - Nicholas Covington - 01/11/2015 - 23:47



Nick, the distant past is a blank canvas on which you can paint anything you want. If you want Moses to lead the Exodus you can make it happen. Mark’s Gospel was written forty years after Jesus died. Mark was describing a time that was still within living memory; he wasn’t working with a blank canvas. Yes, Jesus was the king of a spiritual kingdom, but this is exactly the sort of thing that you might say if you were dealing with real history, and were, therefore, not free to make up just anything you wanted. The story of Jesus is rooted in history in a way that pure myths aren’t.

By choosing to ignore the obvious differences between Jesus and the mythic heroes, you are making your own very subjective judgement.
#17 - Thomas Fenton - 01/12/2015 - 10:19



Dr. McGrath, have you read past p. 250 yet? Because I would enjoy reading your counter to Carrier's arguments. You've only touched the introductory part of OHJ with these two posts so far.
#18 - Mark Erickson - 01/17/2015 - 01:56



"Mark wasn’t working with a blank canvas."
And yet Mark evidently made up quite a bit: the day Jesus died, a worldwide supernatural darkness at his death, the cursing of the fig tree, the empty tomb story, etc. etc. etc.

Besides all that, I don't think Mark was intending to write history, I think he wrote a story to convey theological truth and that it was understood as such within the early church. Big difference.

"this is exactly the sort of thing that you might say if you were dealing with real history"
And exactly the sort of thing you would say about a heavenly savior. No points awarded : )

One of the other points you made was, I think, that if Jesus was a myth we might expect Him to have been placed long ago in the past. I take it your reasoning is that they would not have made up anything that people would have known was false, they would have placed their myth somewhere unobservable, like the distant past. But the whole point of carriers theory is that the Christians did place the life of Jesus somewhere unobservable: the bottom level of heaven. And, again the gospel stories that came later were symbolizing theological beliefs and events that took place in heaven. All of that probably has you scratching your head and thinking "where's the evidence?" But that is precisely the reason you need to read about mythicism in order to critique it: there's plenty of evidence that celestial deities were written about as if they had had a life on earth and that such stories were understood to represent heavenly events.
#19 - Nicholas Covington - 01/20/2015 - 06:21



Dr. McGrath,

It's been over a month now since your last installment. When are you going to get to addressing Carrier's arguments, rather than the background?
#20 - Mark Erickson - 02/04/2015 - 17:40



I knew that this would be the response of mythicist apologists online. If I dealt with the book in its entirety in a single article, I'd be told that I didn't do justice to the details of argumentation. If I work through them in detail at the inevitably tediously slow pace that requires, I'll be accused of missing the forest for the trees, and will be told that lynchpins in Carrier's argument are mere "background."

Dealing with what I consider to be an unpersuasive and unlikely-to-be influential scholarly tome is not my top priority. And Carrier's book is unlikely to have much influence on historians and scholars who are intimately familiar with the relevant primary source material and who will thus find his handling of it profoundly problematic, and is likely to be spun by mythicists in the manner you're trying to do here, comments like this one are more likely to persuade me that detailed engagement is a waste of my time, than to persuade me to continue.
#21 - James F. McGrath - 02/05/2015 - 12:51



Wow, James. Can you step back for a minute and understand what you've writen just now?

I'm happy you decided to review Carrier's book here, and take as many articles as you please. And the two articles you've written are on background (prior probability). You can call them lynchpins if you want, but it doesn't change the fact you've covered less than one-third of the book.

Prior probability is the starting point for a Bayesian analysis, but just the start. The meat of Carrier's argument for concluding an historical Jesus is unlikely takes off from this starting point, but doesn't end there, obviously.

You are the one who decided to review the book, you are the one who has spent so much time on mythicist claims, and you are the one who obviously has the time to complete the review. So don't put any blame on me and my comment.

I know what mythicists will say if you stop now, and they will be entirely justified in saying it.
#22 - Mark Erickson - 02/08/2015 - 04:18



While you're rer-reading, please take a look at your first two paragraphs in your first installment. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2014/10/mcg388028.shtml

Do you no longer believe some of that? Or has someone else already completed the necessary discussion and you agree with it? Or perhaps you have another way of reconciling these two paragraphs with your most recent comment.

In any case, please do not blame me for inquiring about when you intend to finish what you have started.
#23 - Mark Erickson - 02/08/2015 - 04:33



Mythicists will dismiss counter-arguments whether they are provided slowly in painstaking detail, or in broad brush strokes. I appreciate Carrier's attempt to bring more academic rigor to mythicist claims. The fact that not only the claims but the methodology he offers fail to satisfy and persuade makes mythicism less convincing than it was before he offered his more academic treatment. One can appreciate that someone has written something, but not think it has achieved what the person who wrote it wanted it to.
#24 - James F. McGrath - 02/11/2015 - 15:46



McGrath here reveals how blindingly biased he is on this subject. Since when do you hear an entire group of people labelled and dismissed as close-minded? Would McGrath ever say that low christologists would dismiss counter arguments no matter what? What's more is that I am beginning to suspect that McGrath is the most close minded person within this discussion. He cannot honestly say that he opened Carrier's work with the intent of changing his mind if the evidence warranted it. We can know this for sure because the poor quality rebuttals he has churned out suggest he is trying hard to find reasons to for a pre-determined conclusion.
#25 - Nicholas Covington - 02/11/2015 - 18:55



McGrath has failed even to interact with my arguments in chapter 6 of OHJ which already rebut everything he says here (since I had heard all of it before), so it's most strange to see no attempt at even responding to my already-existing rebuttal, in a book he claims to have read. In any event, I have summarized the issues (including McGrath's mistakes and failures in dealing with how I actually use this data) here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/6840
#26 - Richard Carrier - 03/06/2015 - 04:26



Carrier's argument is extremely strong, even if you only truncate it to looking at the Epistles of Paul and Peter, and Clement, it is persuasive. Here are three early Church documents that clearly and unambiguously are referring to Jesus as a God, and not as a man, even though a-priori, on a non-mythicist assumption, you would expect them to refer more to the man and less to the god as you got closer to the historical origin. On Carrier's model, you don't need to reject 1 Peter as a forgery anymore! That in itself is a great benefit, as this epistle is associated with Peter by tradition as strongly as Philemon is associated with Paul. The arguments for its inauthenticity all stem from denying mythicism.

The argument Carrier gives is overly conservative, and I believe his case is much stronger than his estimates of probability indicate to the naive reader. The mythicist idea makes definite specific predictions about which ideas about Jesus appear where, in what order in time they appear in the historical record, and these very striking and counterintuitive predictions are confirmed by the early documents in every single case, with no exception, and also by the documents that appear later, as they counter the heresies. The heresies are consistent with mythicism too.

For example, the evidence for the "light in the sky" in Ignatious of Antioch described on p. 320 of Carrier is an example of a striking confirmation. Ignatious is presenting an a-historical version of the star over the nativity, in which the light in the sky is associated with the risen Jesus, not with the birth, and is consistent with the mythicist arc. Etc, etc. All Carrier's evidence is THAT good.

I have only one quibble with carrier, in that he misses a slight modification of his "minimal mythicist" which is even more minimal. While it is clear that Paul/Peter had in mind a celestial Jesus who is crucified and resurrects, it is not clear whether Paul denied an Earthly form for Jesus, or whether Paul just didn't have a particular person in mind. They could have easily imagined that the events in the heavens were mirrored on Earth (this is a fundamental Jewish teaching also explained by Carrier) and then they would just have been agnostic about the Earthly presentation of Jesus. This would allow them to subsume whoever came along and had a particular person in mind, as it doesn't matter which historical person the stories are referring to, if any. There is nothing that requires that Paul insisted that Jesus is NOT historical, just that this is not the main story. The celestial Jesus was the main story, the Earthly sojourn was secondary and one did not rely on it to produce the religious teaching.

In that respect, Christians would be answering the question "Why did the Messiah not come?" by saying "The Messiah came, and you missed it." Only those who could have a vision of Jesus would know that the Messiah arrived, and whether this arrival was in the Celestial realm or on Earth, or whether there were many Earth events which correspond to the single celestial events, one cannot be certain of from the documentary evidence. Carrier discounts these possibilities too hastily, but they do not change his argument, only slightly alter the conclusions, and require no stretches regarding certain interpretation of "buried", "crucified", "born of woman" that Carrier might be accused of making (but he isn't guilty). I think his hypothesis is about equally likely as the one I just described, but he studied this for a long time, so perhaps it is more likely, and I am just ignorant.
#27 - Ron Maimon - 08/22/2015 - 00:17






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