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Mythicism and the Making of Mark

Carrier’s approach allows him to say that every single thing he finds in the relevant sources is “exactly what we’d expect” if mythicism is true – “as symbolic myth, every oddity is explained, and indeed expected.” This is because “they made this up” is compatible with everything that any text says – especially if one excludes in advance the possibility of using traditional critical methods and criteria for determining that some details may reflect actual historical events.

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
August 2015

Scholars of the New Testament typically view allegorical interpretation of the texts they study with disdain. There is a long history of Christians engaging first in allegorical interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, and then later, applying the same approach to their own Christian sacred texts. Allegory is notorious for reading things into the text that simply aren’t there, things that are exceedingly unlikely to have been in view for the authors and their earliest readers. Allegory is also notoriously unconstrained, allowing one to find in the text just about anything one wishes to.[1]

Richard Carrier has recently done more than merely offer yet another allegorical interpretation of a Biblical text. He claims that the Gospel of Mark was composed as an allegory (having suggested earlier in the book that proto-Mark was being proclaimed as an exoteric myth “whose real meaning (it’s [sic] esoteric meaning, that of a cosmic event) would be explained only to initiates.”[2] I will not discuss here his conspiracy theory approach to early Christian literature, summed up nicely when he writes, “This appears to be what typically happened to the evidence. It was erased, doctored or rewritten to support a historicity party line against a mythicist one.”[3] And I will only note in passing the irony that an approach which was often used by Christians to avoid having the Bible be untrue (as it often is on its surface level when treated as a depiction of fact), is here adopted by an atheist expressly with the aim of demonstrating that the Bible is untrue. Instead, what I will focus on in what follows is Carrier’s treatment of the character of the early Christian sources, his view of their composition (as largely constructed out of earlier stories), and his claims regarding their purported allegorical and symbolic meanings.

Carrier helpfully recognizes that identifying the genre of the work will not answer questions of historicity, “For in fact, a great deal of ancient biography, even of real people, was constructed of myth and fiction.”[4] His treatment of myth, and how to determine whether a work is largely or entirely myth, is less satisfactory. Carrier writes,[5]

Characteristics of myth are (1) strong and meaningful emulation of prior myths (or even of real events); (2) the presence of historical improbabilities (which are not limited to ‘miracles’ but can include natural events that are very improbable, like amazing coincidences or unrealistic behavior); and (3) the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements (because a myth can incorporate real people and places, but the central character or event will still be fictional). No one of these criteria is sufficient to identify a narrative as mythical. But the presence of all three is conclusive. And the presence of one or two can also be sufficient, when sufficiently telling.

Since similarity between real events and other real events is not at all unlikely, and on the contrary well-documented, the first alleged characteristic of myth simply doesn’t work. The third point is equally problematic, not only because it is unclear what “external corroboration” entails (external to one literary work and confirmed in another, or external to the entire tradition in question?), but also because a great many figures in the Judaism of this time, such as John the Baptist and Hillel, might be deemed unhistorical by this criterion. The second also fails to do justice to the presence of the allegedly miraculous in a range of sources about verifiably historical people and events.

For instance, Carrier largely ignores examples of Jewish historiography, which are likely to provide the closest parallels to the Gospels. 1 Maccabees, for instance, provides no indication of its author or its sources. And yet John Bartlett concludes his study of the work by writing, “From this study the author of 1 Maccabees emerges with credit as a serious historian.”[6] 2 Maccabees claims to derive from an otherwise unknown work in five volumes by Jason of Cyrene, provides no indication of what his sources were if any, and includes legend and miracle. Both these books include accounts of victories and other events which are implausible. Echoes are offered time and time again of stories from the Jewish Scriptures. And so a mythicist could easily account for these details in the same way Carrier accounts for similar phenomena in the Gospels. Yet these Jewish works are considered with good reason to be based on historical events, even if they are regularly weave legend and myth into, out of, and around those events.

It is interesting to compare Carrier’s allegorical approach to Barbara Thiering’s pesher approach to the texts.[7] Although they use different terminology, and reach quite opposite conclusions in important respects, they share in common the conviction that these texts are not about what they claim to be at the narrative level. Thiering writes, “If people such as the Qumran community, who held a definition of scripture in two levels, set out to write a new scripture, they would set it up deliberately for the same kind of interpretation, and would improve on the Old Testament in that the secondary meaning would yield a consistent sense without the need for forcing.”[8] Carrier takes much the same approach. He writes,

Mark even tells us (on the sly) that he is writing in parables, so that those who follow the exoteric meaning will not understand and thus not be saved – only those who follow the esoteric meaning (the symbolic meaning) will get the real meaning and be on the road to salvation (Mk 4.9-12...). So Mark even invented a story about Jesus that provides us with a model for how to read Mark’s Gospel...Christian and Jewish theologians regularly understood casual references to names and groups of names in scripture to indicate deep complex meaning. And as I noted before, if they could read texts that way, they surely would have written texts that way...[9]

For Thiering, the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation were telling the true story of what happened to the historical Jesus and his entourage, encoded using symbols. For Carrier, the Gospels take the celestial figure of Jesus and turn him into a historical figure, using the Jewish Scriptures as well as Greek classical literature in order to create new stories which have no actual basis in history. Since I have already addressed elsewhere the problems with Thomas Brodie’s approach (which Carrier adopts and draws upon), I will not repeat that discussion here.[10] But I will give an example of the kind of method that Carrier envisages the author of Mark engaging in, which resembles Brodie’s in many ways. Carrier is worth quoting at length, to provide an example of the kind of interpretation - and speculative reconstruction of authorial process - he offers:

Moses performs two water miracles that end the people's thirst: the tree revealed by God (making bitter water drinkable again, his second miracle), and the flow of water struck from a rock (his fourth miracle). Mark has split these up, so that each inspires two miracle narratives for Jesus, but in different sequences, thus keeping the total miracle narratives in each sequence at five - yet another conspicuous coincidence, evincing considerable artifice. In the first sequence Mark draws on the water-from-a-rock episode, which carried the theme of faith overcoming fear and thus obtaining salvation. Hence, the episodes of Jairus's daughter and the woman with a hemorrhage have the same theme of faith overcoming fear to achieve salvation from suffering or death. The woman also flowed with blood, while the rock flowed with water. And in the Jairus narrative Jesus takes only his top three apostles with him into the bed chamber (the pillars Peter, James and John: Mk 5.37), just as Moses is told to take only three elders with him to strike the rock (Exod. 17.5). The Exodus narrative likewise has the Jews perishing and worried about dying (17.3), thus Mark produces parallel narratives about a woman perishing (besides the obvious fact that she was slowly bleeding to death, that her condition was worsening is explicitly stated: Mk 5.26) and a girl who died.

In Mark's second sequence he draws on the magical tree episode. Which explains the otherwise very odd detail that the blind man of Bethsaida (8.22- 26) sees trees at first instead of men (Mk 8.24), just as Moses did; and to cure the deaf mute, Jesus looks to heaven and cries out, just as Moses must cry out to God in heaven, who shows him the magical tree. (I must wonder if a lost tradition held that the tree was revealed from the heavens and thus Moses was looking up at it.) In both cases, while Moses must put the tree into the water to drink it, Jesus must put spit onto the afflicted to open their eyes, ears or tongue. The magical tree episode also concludes with the declaration, 'if you will diligently hear the voice of the Lord your God, and will do what is pleasing in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments' then God will heal you (Exod. 15.26), in each case supplying inspiration for Jesus to heal eyes, ears and tongue (to restore the mute's 'voice').

Thus, Mark shows he has consciously created these double narrative sequences. He is not 'accidentally' duplicating them (as many scholars assume). He probably does not have sources for them, either. Because of the way he distributes allusions to the underlying miracles of Moses (probably signifying some mystical teaching not given in the text), he is clearly conscious of what he is doing in doubling the sequence of five, even in deciding what miracles they should be, and thus clearly has every motive to fabricate every single one of these stories, just as we have it, in order to fit his scheme of allusions. For example, he knew he was going to have two healing miracles in the first sequence echo the water-from-the-rock miracle, and two healing miracles in the second sequence echo the magical tree miracle, and thereby still maintain five miracles in each sequence. His reversals of gender are likewise organized, showing knowledge of both sequences mir-roring each other. Mark does this again for the fifth miracle (placed second in each sequence for Jesus), which echoes Moses' power over the forces of evil (the Amalekites). Here Mark divides different allusions between the two sequences: in the first sequence, the demons are equated with soldiers (they are named 'Legion'), thus reminding us of the Amalekite soldiers; and in the second sequence, the one cured is a Canaanite (a woman of Syria and Phoenicia), thus reminding us of the Amalekites themselves (who lived in Canaan). The extent of literary artifice here evinces considerable genius. This is what myth looks like.[11]

It is obviously very easy to find parallels when one’s standard for positing one text having inspired another is that there be prepositions in both, and when something being different (such as gender) can simply be treated as a deliberate reversal. Did the woman’s flow of blood remind you of Moses and the water flowing from the rock? Did the presence of Roman soldiers in the Markan story remind you of the Amalekites? What about the Greek woman in Syrian Phoenicia? Mark is described as a creative genius, but in fact the cleverness lies in the interpreter making connections. There is a long history of Jews and Christians reading texts in conjunction with one another, and drawing connections between them.[12] And interpreters who were persuaded of the spiritual insight of the Biblical authors have sometimes deceived themselves into believing that the connections they drew were intended – usually by the divine author of all the texts. Carrier applies the same approach, albeit with a different aim. And his allegorical view of the reason and basis for composition is no more persuasive than the allegorical interpretations of the text that have been offered down the centuries. Clever preachers have long made connections between texts, in order to find a way to bring a third meaning out of the intersection that is not present in either alone. And scholars have rightly regarded such homiletic techniques as something very different from the kinds of investigation they aim for. Allegorical homiletics are unconstrained except by the imagination of the preacher. The same may now also be said of mythicism (not only in Carrier’s version, but also in others), and scholars will rightly view this too as something very different from the approach to texts that they adopt.

We may here once again make reference to Bartlett’s work on 1 Maccabees, mentioned earlier. Bartlett surveys the Scriptural quotations and allusions in 1 Maccabees, and they are abundant. Yet he is not led to conclude that the author – even if inventing speeches and even whole stories at times – is creating a completely fictional account.[13] Connections with Scripture are a staple of Jewish literature. And what about purported agreements between the overall plot of stories? That certain set structures and stereotyped plot details recur in stories of a specific type is not a new and insightful observation. The entire field of form criticism has been dedicated to the exploration of precisely the things that Carrier treats as evidence of ahistoricity, namely similarities of structure and detail.[14] These patterns recur throughout ancient literature, across time and geographical space, and simply cannot plausibly be viewed as evidence of direct literary borrowing in each instance. Most scholars recognize these forms to simply be a feature of ancient storytelling – whether about real events or fictitious ones. And thus, just as Carrier said about genres, so too the same forms may convey very different kinds of content with respect to their historicity. This is true even of the same form found within a single work. Raymond Newell has explored the post-battle suicide as a form, in relation to Josephus’ narrative about Masada.[15] As he emphasizes, “Each individual narrative must be examined and evaluated separately.”[16]

Where Carrier merely alludes to “some mystical teaching not given in the text,” Thiering offers specific suggestions as to concrete historical occurrences that she believes are encoded in the story – so, for instance, in this section of Mark, Thiering’s interpretation of the meaning is:

The unclean were not only admitted to the congregation, but allowed to become ministers. During the gospel period they were classed as lay ministers only, confined to the west side. Peter was told “get to the west (opisō mou)”. There, their sacrificial occasions were once a month, and they were devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word. They wore black robes only, under Peter or Simeon the Black. Women were admitted to this side, the menstruous woman being “healed” of her perpetual sacrifices. In 31, the year they became lay deacons in the lower middle sanctuary, the healings of the two women, Mary Magdalene and Helena, were given. Mary was “raised from the dead”, meaning that she was reinstated and could enter new life as a minister.[17]

This rendering of the “real meaning” of the Gospel account is found persuasive by very few, if any – indeed, I’m not certain that anyone other than Thiering herself finds it compelling. Perhaps Carrier knows this, and that is why he refrains from expounding what the mystical meaning of the texts is supposed to have been? Perhaps he is aware that any attempt to provide an actual interpretation would expose just how speculative and unconvincing such approaches to the Gospels really are.

If the Gospels are not allegories, nor the euhemerization of celestial myths, then what are they? This is not a question about genre, as Carrier rightly emphasized. One can write a biography about a mythical figure or a historical one, and the latter can be well-researched and skeptical, or credulous and filled with not just the miraculous, but even with dubious information about the mundane.[18] The key point to note is that Mark – and those who wrote Gospels after him – wrote about a figure who makes good sense within the context of first century Galilean Judaism. That the later portraits sometimes seem far removed from the concerns of that context, and ill-acquainted with it, is precisely the reason why scholars believe that authors like Mark are not simply creating material from their own imagination, but are weaving a narrative influenced by traditions with roots in earlier decades, in a different linguistic, cultural, and religious context from their own, the mark of which is still recognizable on the material.[19] And just as debates about genre can be a red herring, so too can debates about eyewitness testimony. In the case of Mark, there is universal agreement that the author is not an eyewitness, and so that matter can be set aside. The key question is how far removed in time and place he was from the events he purports to describe – and contrary to the impression which Carrier tries in vain to give, the consensus view - that Mark intends to give an account of events, even if it is a theologized and scripturalized one - remains persuasive. We cannot determine precisely how many individuals intervene in the chain of transmission between things that happened in Galilee and Jerusalem, and the author of Mark.[20] But historians looking closely at the details of the Gospel have with good reason concluded that some of the material is more likely historical than not.

Before ending, it is worth noting the consequence of Carrier’s approach, including how his treatment of the Gospels relates to his overall mythicist hypothesis. By deciding that the Gospels are allegories, and that Paul believed Jesus to be a celestial figure in a realm where one could be “born of a woman, born under the Law,” “of the seed of David according to the flesh,” crucified, buried, and everything else that fits more naturally in the mundane terrestrial realm, Carrier has made it impossible for anything at all to contradict his viewpoint. Carrier’s approach allows him to say that every single thing he finds in the relevant sources is “exactly what we’d expect” if mythicism is true – “as symbolic myth, every oddity is explained, and indeed expected.”[21] This is because “they made this up” is compatible with everything that any text says – especially if one excludes in advance the possibility of using traditional critical methods and criteria for determining that some details may reflect actual historical events. If everything is compatible with mythicism – just as nothing can contradict Thiering’s pesher approach to the New Testament, and any details in a text can be allegorized if one is determined to do so – then far from demonstrating mythicism to be correct, this shows it to be unfalsifiable, and thus scarcely worthy of serious scholarly discussion. If the explicit statements in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels to the effect that Jesus was a historical figure are unable to count as counterevidence to mythicism, then clearly nothing can, and the appropriate scholarly response to this approach is to set it aside as “not even wrong.”


[1] See James Barr, “Allegory and Typology” and “The Literal, the Allegorical, and Modern Biblical Scholarship” chapters 26 and 27 in Bible and Interpretation: The Collected Essays of James Barr, vol.2, ed. John Barton (Oxford University Press, 2014). On allegorical interpretation in Judaism, see Louis Ginzberg’s article on the topic in the Jewish Encyclopedia: On allegory as a mode of interpretation more generally, see Morton W. Bloomfield, “Allegory as Interpretation,” New Literary History 3:2 (1972) 301-317.

[2] Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus, p.346. See also pp.114-124.

[3] Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus, p.352. Just as distrust of government can foster conspiracy thinking in the political realm, an exaggerated distrust not just for religion, but for all people associated with it, can apparently render conspiracy thinking seemingly plausible in relation to early Christianity.

[4] Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus, p.389.

[5] Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus, p.394.

[6] John R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees (Sheffield Academic, 1998), p.101. Bartlett also discusses the sources that scholars have sought to identify through source-critical analysis of the text, on pp.22-23.

[7] See my review of Thiering’s book Jesus of the Apocalypse See also Robert Price’s review of Thiering’s Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls:

[8] B. E. Thiering, The Qumran Origins of the Christian Church (Australian and New Zealand Studies in Theology and Religion, 1983) p. 7.

[9] Carrier pp.443, 451.

[10] See “Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom” in The Bible and Interpretation March 2014

[11] Carrier, On The Historicity of Jesus, pp. 417-418.

[12] We see an example of this in John 6, on which see my online article “Food for Thought: The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71) in Johannine Legitimation”

[13] John R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) pp.31-33.

[14] Carrier seems at one point (p.312) to be surprised by the possibility that the sayings of Jesus initially circulated independently of the narrative contexts in which we find them in the Gospels!

[15] Raymond R. Newell, “The Forms and Historical Value of Josephus’ Suicide Accounts,” in Josephus, the Bible, and History, edited by Louis H. Feldman, Gåohei Hata (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989) 278-294.

[16] Newell, “The Forms and Historical Value of Josephus’ Suicide Accounts,”p.286.

[17] Thiering, The Qumran Origins of the Christian Church, p.175.

[18] On this topic see the interesting blog post “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda”

[19] On this see for instance Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth (London: T&T Clark, 2010). Carrier’s confident assertion about talitha koum in Mark 5, “Certainly, Jesus never actually spoke those words, since the story is entirely a fiction” (p.410), illustrates how his presumption that the material is fictitious leads him to dismiss details which in fact suggest otherwise. Carrier’s speculation that Mark “adapted those words from a targum” is not persuasive.

[20] For a radically different view from Carrier’s, see for instance Richard Bauckham, “The Gospel of Mark: Origins and Eyewitnesses,” in Earliest Christian History, ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston (WUNT 2, 320; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2012) 145-169.

[21] Carrier, pp.487 and 425. A similar refrain is repeated time and again throughout the book.