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

A superbly qualified scholar will insist some piece of evidence exists, or does not exist, and I am surprised that I have to show them the contrary. And always this phantom evidence (or an assurance of its absence) is in defense of the historicity of Jesus. This should teach us how important it is to stop repeating the phrase “the overwhelming consensus says…” Because that consensus is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.

See Also: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014).

By Richard Carrier, Ph.D.
Independent Scholar
August 2014

Last year I had an erudite and friendly debate on London radio with an excellent and well-respected professor of New Testament studies, in which he claimed that in 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul wrote that he received the gospel he summarizes there “from those who were in Christ before him.” Indeed this professor insisted that “from those who were in Christ before him” was in the text. This was perplexing, because I knew that wasn’t the case. In fact, quite the opposite. Paul rather conspicuously never says this in any of his letters. He even explicitly denies it in one (Galatians 1). My opponent was a bit nonplussed when we looked at the text, and to his astonishment, the phrase he was sure was there, was not.

This is not an isolated story. This has happened to me countless times. A superbly qualified scholar will insist some piece of evidence exists, or does not exist, and I am surprised that I have to show them the contrary. And always this phantom evidence (or an assurance of its absence) is in defense of the historicity of Jesus. This should teach us how important it is to stop repeating the phrase “the overwhelming consensus says…” Because that consensus is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.

It’s time to rethink our assumptions, and look at the evidence anew.

There are at least six well-qualified experts, including two sitting professors, two retired professors, and two independent scholars with Ph.D.’s in relevant fields, who have recently gone on public record as doubting whether there really was a historical Jesus. I am one of them.[1] And I have recently published the first-ever peer reviewed academic study making the case for this conclusion. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt was published this year by the University of Sheffield (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014). It continues the case I began in a prior peer-reviewed book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2012), on why the methods employed in Jesus studies today are not logically valid, and what must replace them.[2]

Of course overthrowing centuries of assumptions cannot be done in a mere two thousand words. Hence the book. But I can here summarize the reasons for suspecting we’ve been wrong all along about how the Christian religion began. Objections one might then raise are of course answered in my book. Meanwhile, as Philip Davies recently said, “a recognition that [Jesus’s] existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.”[3]

I think it is more likely that Jesus began in the Christian mind as a celestial being (like an archangel), believed or claimed to be revealing divine truths through revelations (and, by bending the ear of prophets in previous eras, through hidden messages planted in scripture). Christianity thus began the same way Islam and Mormonism did: by their principal apostles (Mohammed and Joseph Smith) claiming to have received visions from their religion’s “actual” teacher and founder, in each case an angel (Gabriel dictated the Koran, Moroni provided the Book of Mormon).

On this model, Christianity, as a Jewish sect, began when someone (most likely Cephas, perhaps backed by his closest devotees) claimed this “Jesus” had at last revealed that he had tricked the Devil by becoming incarnate and being crucified by the Devil (in the region of the heavens ruled by Devil), thereby atoning for all of Israel’s sins, so the Jerusalem temple cult no longer mattered, the sins of Israel could no longer hold back God’s promise, and the end of the world could soon begin. On this theory, Christians did not go looking for proof-texts after their charismatic leader died, but actually conjured this angelic being’s salvific story from a pesher-like reading of scripture, finding clues to the whole thing especially in the conjunction of Daniel 9, Jeremiah 23 & 25, Isaiah 52-53, and Zechariah 3 & 6. Because it solved a major theological and political problem of the time: how the world could be saved when God’s temple (and thus atonement for Israel’s sins) remained in the hands of a corrupt elite “obviously” rejected by God.

It would be several decades later when subsequent members of this cult, after the world had not yet ended as claimed, started allegorizing the gospel of this angelic being by placing him in earth history as a divine man, as a commentary on the gospel and its relation to society and the Christian mission. The same had already been done to other celestial gods and heroes, who were being transported into earth history all over the Greco-Roman world, a process now called Euhemerization, after the author Euhemerus, who began the trend in the 4th century B.C. by converting the celestial Zeus and Uranus into ordinary human kings and placing them in past earth history, claiming they were “later” deified (in a book ironically titled Sacred Scripture). Other gods then underwent the same transformation, from Romulus (originally the celestial deity Quirinus) to Osiris (originally the heavenly lord whom pharaohs claimed to resemble, he was eventually transformed into a historical pharaoh himself).

Contrary to an oft-repeated myth in contemporary scholarship, before Christianity began both Romulus and Osiris were believed by their devotees to be slain deities subsequently resurrected to heavenly glory (as were many others of the type, from Zalmoxis to Dionysus to Adonis to Inanna), who now could bring glory or salvation to their followers.[4] Of these Osiris presents the most apt theological parallel: as Plutarch explains in his treatise on the cult, in public stories Osiris was placed in history as a historical king subsequently deified, but in private exegesis these were explained as allegories for the actual truth of the matter, which was that each year Osiris descends and becomes incarnate and is slain not on earth, but in the lower heavens, and then rises from the dead and reascends to power in the upper heavens, having gained power over death by this cosmic ritual, which he then shares with his earthly devotees. In the earliest redaction we can reconstruct of the Ascension of Isaiah this appears to be exactly what was imagined to happen for Jesus, only once for all, not yearly.[5]

On this theory, when Paul says “the scriptures” tell us that Jesus “died” and “was buried” and only then was he ever “seen” by Cephas and the apostles (1 Cor. 15:3-5), he means exactly what he says. Just as in this and all other summaries of the gospel Paul provides (from here to Philippians 2) there is no mention of a ministry, or of Jesus being seen by anyone (much less anyone taught and hand-picked by him in life), because these things did not yet exist in Christian conception. They would be allegorical fictions contrived later by the authors of the Gospels. When Paul wrote, the death and burial of Jesus were known only from hidden messages in scripture, just as Romans 16:25-26 says. And this knowledge was facilitated by this Jesus then at last appearing to the apostles to inform them of all this, and what it meant. In fact, being thus visited by the celestial Christ is what secured one’s status as an apostle (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal 1:11-12).

Just as Satan was declared the Archon “of the powers of the air” (Eph. 2:2) and the God “of this Age” (2 Cor. 4:4), so when Jesus is said to have been crucified by the “Archons of this Age” (1 Cor. 2:8), we might be seeing what would later be described in the earliest redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah: a reference to Satan and his demons crucifying Jesus, not the Jews and Romans. And just as Adam was in some accounts buried in the heavens (as in chapter 40 of the Greek text of the Life of Adam and Eve), so possibly was Jesus imagined to have been. The incarnation, in a body of Davidic flesh, still would have been imagined as necessary to fulfill scripture. But as depicted in the Ascension of Isaiah, this would have happened in “the sky.”

This “Jesus” would most likely have been the same archangel identified by Philo of Alexandria as already extant in Jewish theology.[6] Philo knew this figure by all of the attributes Paul already knew Jesus by: the firstborn son of God (Rom. 8:29), the celestial “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4), and God’s agent of creation (1 Cor. 8:6). He was also God’s celestial high priest (Heb. 2:17, 4:14, etc.) and God’s “Logos.” And Philo says this being was identified as the figure named “Jesus” in Zechariah 6. So it would appear that already before Christianity there were Jews aware of a celestial being named Jesus who had all of the attributes the earliest Christians were associating with their celestial being named Jesus. They therefore had no need of a historical man named Jesus. All they needed was to imagine this celestial Jesus undergoing a heavenly incarnation and atoning death, in order to accomplish soteriologically what they needed, in order to no longer rely upon the Jewish temple authorities for their salvation.[7]

Such is the theory. Why might we conclude it’s the more likely explanation? Because the sequence of evidence aligns with it. As Bart Ehrman himself has recently confessed, the earliest documentation we have shows Christians regarded Jesus to be a pre-existent celestial angelic being.[8] Though Ehrman struggles to try and insist this is not how the cult began, it is hard to see the evidence any other way, once we abandon Christian faith assumptions about how to read the texts. The earliest Epistles only ever refer to Jesus as a celestial being revealing truths through visions and messages in scripture. There are no references in them to Jesus preaching (other than from heaven), or being a preacher, having a ministry, performing miracles, or choosing or having disciples, or communicating by any means other than revelation and scripture, or ever even being on earth. This is completely reversed in the Gospels. Which were written decades later, and are manifestly fictional. Yet all subsequent historicity claims, in all subsequent texts, are based on those Gospels.

We also have to remember that all other evidence from the first eighty years of Christianity's development was conveniently not preserved (not even in quotation or refutation). While a great deal more evidence was forged in its place: we know of over forty Gospels, half a dozen Acts, scores of fake Epistles, wild legends, and doctored passages. Thus, the evidence has passed through a very pervasive and destructive filter favoring the views of the later Church, in which it was vitally necessary to salvation to insist that Jesus was a historical man who really was crucified by Pontius Pilate (as we find obsessively insisted upon in the letters of Ignatius). Thus to uncover the truth of how the cult began, we have to look for clues, and not just gullibly trust the literary productions of the second century.

Jesus belongs to a fraternity of worshipped demigods peculiar to the Greco-Roman era and region. All were “savior gods” (literally so called). They were all the “son” of God (occasionally his “daughter”). They all undergo a “passion” (literally the same word in the Greek, patheôn), which was some suffering or struggle (sometimes even resulting in death), through which they all obtain victory over death, which they share in some fashion with their followers. They all had stories about them set in human history on earth. Yet none of them ever actually existed. Jesus can be shown to belong to several other typically mythical classes of person as well, unlike almost every other figure of antiquity (even the greatest of emperors and kings).[9] These people were, more often than not, not historical. Yet all were depicted as such in stories written by their believers. We cannot therefore simply declare Jesus the unusual exception. We need a reason. We need evidence. And when we look for it, it dissolves.

No evidence outside the Bible can be shown to be based on anything but the Gospels or Christian testimony derived from the Gospels. And inside the Bible we have (1) forgeries (which, being fake, cannot count as evidence), (2) the earliest Epistles that seem strangely silent or ambiguous as to the earthly existence of Jesus, and (3) the most suspiciously mythical Gospels. Not exactly good evidence to go by.

Of course there is much to debate. When Paul twice refers to “Brothers of the Lord,” does he mean biological kin, or baptized Christians (who were all Brothers of the Lord: Rom. 8:15-29)? When Paul says Jesus “came to be” (genomenos) from the “sperm of David” does he mean descended from David, or manufactured by God, literally from the sperm of David? When Paul says Jesus “came to be” (genomenos) “from a woman” does he mean literally, or allegorically (as in Gal. 4:24)? When Paul says Jesus was “tempted in every way,” does he mean as an ordinary man, or merely resisting the temptation to seize absolute divine power (as in Phil. 2:5-9)? When Paul says Jesus was “declared” the “Son of God in power” from his resurrection, is he referring to a post-hoc rationalization of a cult leader’s death, or to God’s heavenly re-bestowment of a humbled archangel’s prior status?

We need to ask these questions. Because the old way of looking at the evidence does not fit so well as has been thought. And even among secular scholars this has until now been driven by Christian faith assumptions, rather than a new and genuinely objective look at what the evidence tells us.[10] When we look instead without those assumptions, that Christianity may have been started by a revealed Jesus rather than a historical Jesus is corroborated by at least three things: the sequence of evidence shows precisely that development (from celestial, revealed Jesus in the Epistles, to a historical ministry in the Gospels decades later), all similar savior cults from the period have the same backstory (a cosmic savior, later historicized), and the original Christian Jesus (in the Epistles of Paul) sounds exactly like the Jewish archangel Jesus, who certainly did not exist. So when it comes to a historical Jesus, maybe we no longer need that hypothesis.


[1] For a list (which I will continue to update), see item 22 in Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Historicity Recap,” Richard Carrier Blogs (24 July 2012): http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1794#22.

[2] Richard Carrier, “Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods,” The Bible & Interpretation (April 2012):https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/car368023

[3] Philip Davies, “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible & Interpretation (August 2012): https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/opeds/dav368029.

[4] The evidence for these being dying-and-rising gods (usually with associated personal salvation cults) is overwhelming, and it is a scandal that anyone who should know the facts of the matter would still be claiming the contrary. I collect the evidence and scholarship in Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 45-47, 56-58, 96-108, 168-73.

[5] Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 36-48.

[6] Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 200-05.

[7] Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 143-45, 153-59.

[8] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014).

[9] Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 168-73, 222-34.

[10] After reviewing the extensive new look at the evidence now surveyed in Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, see also Richard Carrier, “List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus” (18 June 2014): http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/5730.

Comments (38)

Thank you for this; the taboos on presenting even well researched arguments that go against prevailing points of view in a field seem to me to go against the spirit of academia, and I'll make sure to re-read the early epistles again in light of this. I do have a few questions though.

Don't you think this case is quite different from the very well attested classical gods who are later euhemerised as kings of the distant past? Though the line becomes blurry when these accounts tend to reach legendary figures, are quite clearly separate from historical people?

I also wonder why the study of religion, which seemed to be focused on striking parallels to Christianity in other religions across the world at the start of the last century, rejected this way of looking at religions? Would you say this was as a result of Christian bias, or overcoming it?

My last question is how much contemporary evidence would you expect to have survived for a non-elite religious figure in first century Judea and Galilee? How much written evidence attests to any one of the "messiah candidates" around that time, assuming you believe this phenomenon was prevalent?

#1 - Matt Gilson - 08/29/2014 - 10:28

I'm not sure I understand your first question. Do you mean to say other Euhemerized gods are not placed in a verified historical context? That’s only because the other examples that survive were set in periods for which we have no records. The similarity is that they are all ostensibly placed in determinate historical periods (complete with dates or datable details, accurate geographic facts, alleged magistrates in office, genealogies or named family members, etc.) and not in mystical or supernatural realms, yet began as gods occupying such. I say something more about this in OHJ ch. 6.7.

Your question about 20th century historiography is not something I’ve researched the answer to. The explanations of the shift given in reference works (see OHJ, p. 153n1) is vague and speculative. I’m not sure it’s been adequately investigated. That there is bias in the way all the historiography of Jesus research has been represented is the well-argued thesis of Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7.3 (2009): 211–53. So it might not be an easy question to answer without a graduate student doing their thesis on it.

Your last question is answered in thoughtful detail (including various possible whys and likelihoods) in OHJ ch. 8.3-4. I resolve to assume none would survive (and generate my probabilities from such, so in effect I put very little weight in the extra-biblical silences), but I also point out that that might be dubious. Among key differences I note are that none of (for example) the other messiah-candidates in Josephus became the central worshipped king-lord of the entire intercontinental apparatus for preserving literature through the Middle Ages (or even the king-lord of any successful document-preserving sect at all, so far as we know). Thus, that their records weren’t preserved can provide no analogy for Jesus, whose records had far more motives and opportunities of preservation available.

Another point of note is that we know Paul wrote more letters than we have, and that he could not possibly have been the only apostle writing letters in the same period, yet only a scant few of his letters were selected for preservation. This had to be by some Christian choice. Whose and why? And what was in the letters cast into the dustbin? We can’t say the same for (for example) the other messiah-candidates in Josephus, for none of whom did any sect survive to preserve any letters about them at all, much less even the scant few the Christians did. Whereas that the Christians preserved some of the first generation’s apostolic letters entails they had the means to preserve a great deal more, yet opted not to. Nor hardly any letters in the century after (despite the church having grown considerably and surely relying on regular correspondence no less than before). That holds a significance not shared by any other comparable historical figure (not even Apollonius of Tyana, given that Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages were not governed by Apollonius worshippers).

And so on. There are reasons to be concerned. Though I don’t make any weight out of them in my final calculation, I might have been wrong not to.

#2 - Richard Carrier - 08/30/2014 - 02:13

Nice ending line.

Can't wait to read all the cogent rebuttals from the guild in this comment section.

#3 - Mark Erickson - 08/30/2014 - 03:57

Linguistic point ( penultimate paragraph):

Does "Bestowment" exist as a word? I would have used "bestowal".

#4 - Peter Manchester - 08/30/2014 - 08:10

That Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh is a "consensus" going back to Marcion.
2cor 5:16 KJV
Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.
1cor 15:8 KJV
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
1cor 9:1 KJV
Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?
Gal 6:17 KJV
From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

#5 - James D. Williams - 09/01/2014 - 02:47

There appears to be an interesting parallel between superstring theory and modern theology. We have a variety of theories available to account for what little data exists in both cases. There is currently insufficient evidence to form a reasonable preference for one theory. The Stoic approach is to suspend judgement until such evidence is found.

#6 - Don - 09/02/2014 - 05:53

The logical principle that 'existence is not a predicate' should be remembered. If people debate whether X existed without being reasonably close to agreement on a list of predicates or attributes that would apply to X they are not talking about the same topic.
What would it take to be Jesus? I would suggest that we first need to identify, if we can, those groups existent in Pilate's Palestine that have the best claim to be regarded as precursor to the later Christian movement(s). I say 'if we can' because we have no guarantee either that this set will turn out to be empty, because there was no such precursor, or to have more than one member, because the Jesus Movement as we think of it was a conflation.
Suppose we do succeed so far we have to identify the ideas predominant in that group and then ask if we can find a teacher with supreme influence in the group who advocated these ideas.
The same 'if we can' clauses apply: for instance, the later Christians may have overestimated, as many schools of thought do, the role attributed to one 'founding' personality.
But if we do succeed we have found Jesus for the purposes of this discussion. Success in scientifically justifiable terms is very hard to foresee, but not quite out of the question.
We clearly have different ideas about Jesus from within the Movement, ranging from the idea that Jesus was a human being whom God adopted to the idea that he was the pre-existent Lord of Glory, who had perhaps at an earlier point been the Rock that provided water in the desert.
Part of the problem of identifying Jesus' teachings and ideas becomes, when we face these divergences 'Did he himself claim to be an angel or some sort of supernatural being?' It is not more difficult in principle to attribute that sort of idea to a religious teacher than to attribute (say) ethical ideas to him or her. If his first proclaimed followers all had the idea that he was an angel then there is no more difficulty in thinking that they got that idea from him than in thinking that he persuaded them to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
All in all I think we should first tackle the question of what we can know about the early Jesus Movement and only then ask about whether we can, for the purposes of science not of faith, identify a role for a Jesus figure within it. Without predicates existence is not worth discussing.

#7 - Martin Hughes - 09/02/2014 - 14:10

//That Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh is a "consensus" going back to Marcion.//

Actually, that's a consensus going back to Acts, since that orthodox account of Paul's encounter with Christ given there does now have Paul seeing Jesus at all, let alone in the flesh. Instead he sees a flashing light & hears an anonymous voice. The biblical chronology would not allow Paul to see him in the flesh anyway, since that Jesus of flesh left the world before Paul's conversion, and promised not to return until the end times.

//2cor 5:16 KJV
Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.//

No reference there to Paul seeing Jesus in the flesh, or do you think the entire Corinthian church had seen Jesus in the flesh as well (as would be demanded by this verse when interpreted that way)? I wasn't even aware Jesus ever went to Corinth.

But moreover, Richard himself has sufficiently explained this many times-
"Paul is not talking about Christ there but the Christians, i.e. it is our flesh (and the whole world of flesh) he is referring to, not Christ’s. That’s evident from the context (no one Paul is writing to ever knew Christ in the flesh…not even he did). See Romans 7-8 for what Paul is talking about (our being in the flesh or not). Hence the NIV transl. is “So from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer”; NRSV, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way”; etc.

That’s why Paul says we know “no one” (not even each other) “according to the flesh.” It’s not as if we all have lost our flesh and no men of flesh exist in the church. So clearly he isn’t referring to the flesh of the person known, but the fleshly existence of the person doing the knowing: they know each other not in the way men attached to the flesh know things, but in the way men attached to the spirit know things. Thus, knowing Christ “according to the flesh” means being materially aware of the story of Christ, physically hearing it told, and so on, which is not enough–and no longer the case once you are baptized, as then you are “in” Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and thus know him spiritually. Which makes you a new man."

//1cor 15:8 KJV
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
1cor 9:1 KJV
Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?
Gal 6:17 KJV
From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.//

Nothing in any of those about Jesus being IN THE FLESH.

#8 - Ana Neamos - 09/02/2014 - 18:59

Bestowment exists as a word (you can Google it).

#9 - Richard Carrier - 09/02/2014 - 23:58

James Williams, I don’t quite know what point you intended to make. But 2 Cor. 5:16 is not referring to the flesh of Jesus, but the world of flesh Christians cling to (like the difference between knowing the gospel carnally or spiritually: 1 Cor. 3:3; see OHJ, p. 571). And 1 Cor. 15:8 does not make any distinction between how Paul saw Jesus and other Apostles did (much less that theirs was an experience of Jesus wearing a fleshly body and Paul’s was not), as 1 Cor. 9:1 makes clear. And Gal. 6:17 is not referring to stigmata in the modern sense, but to wounds Paul suffered in service to Christ, as having the same value as circumcision (Gal. 6:12). Although on the thesis I believe better explains the origin of Christianity, Paul would have believed the celestial Jesus also assumed a body of flesh that was literally crucified (in the lower heavens) so he could easily have spoken of literally having the same wounds somehow, but that’s just not what he is talking about there.

#10 - Richard Carrier - 09/03/2014 - 00:11

Martin Hughes, I agree with your point. Hence my book deals extensively with precisely that question: what was the original Christian movement doing and talking about and why; and what role is left for a historical Jesus in that picture? I also discuss what predicates we need to settle on to debate the matter (I devote an entire chapter to that). Hence I quite concur. This is indeed the way forward.

#11 - Richard Carrier - 09/03/2014 - 00:14

Thank you, Ana Neamos. That was more effort in gathering facts to the point than I had time to assemble here myself. I appreciate it.

Although it's worth qualifying one detail, that on the theory I defend in OHJ, Jesus was "in the flesh" (for his incarnation and death in the lower heavens); he just didn't visit anyone on earth in that fashion. So the concept would have been available, even if Jesus did not really historically exist, but was only believed to exist, in the same way Paul would say Satan and Gabriel historically exist.

I don't want anyone to lose track of that fact.

#12 - Richard Carrier - 09/03/2014 - 00:20

Besides James McGrath's post which was highlighted here, who has responded to this article? I can't find any other scholars answering.

#13 - Mark Erickson - 09/06/2014 - 15:14

McGrath hasn't commented on this post nor has he provided any review of Carrier's new book. But yes, where are the "experts"?

#14 - Timothy Bagley - 09/09/2014 - 00:44

The problem, as I see it, for this format of a teasing blurb about a new book, is that it is a forum for the force of personality, where improvisation is the order of the day rather than reasoned interpretation. How can one respond here to Carrier's observation of the lack of textuality (for lack of a better word) in academe's assumptions about a historical 'figure' without discussing in some detail the deeper protocols of reading those very texts that he wants us to study based on a book he has just published? This format is not conducive to a book review. This is more a coliseum for verbal fencing. Mr. Carrier, thank you for letting us know of your publication.

#15 - Timothy Bagley - 09/09/2014 - 02:33

The idea that Jesus was believed to have been crucified in the heavens is nonsense. The first Christians lived at a time when hundreds of real people were being crucified. It is preposterous to imagine a crucifixion happening anywhere other than earth.

Perhaps the religious context is significant. Does it make a difference that Jesus was a divine being who died to save us? No, it doesn’t.

The Gospels are written from a religious perspective, and they place Jesus firmly on earth. In fact, they do more than that: they also reflect the mindset of first century Jews. Jews were interested in events on earth. This is no surprise. Jews had always been concerned with the way that God works through history. The Old Testament recounts hundreds of events that are set on earth. Divine beings may descend to earth from the heavens but the whole point is that they come to earth. They are not supposed to come halfway down and then change their minds.
Now, things would be different if someone had explicitly said that the crucifixion had taken place in the heavens. But there is no record of this ever being said. The idea that it was ever said is pointless speculation. Paul’s silence is no help here. Advocates of the myth theory have been appealing to it for a hundred years but it is no more convincing now than it has ever been.

#16 - Thomas Fenton - 09/29/2014 - 12:08

"crucified in the heavens is nonsense. ... It is preposterous to imagine a crucifixion happening anywhere other than earth."

ἀνασταυρόω; to raise up upon a cross, crucify-

The legend of Ixion had him crucified in the heavens LONG before the 1st century CE. No one appears to have had a problem with that concept, even after the Romans started literally crucifying people on wooden crosses here on earth centuries later. So this particular objection of yours doesn't pan out.

"It is by gods' work that they say Ixion,
fixed on his winged wheel, spun in a circle,
cries aloud ...
Zeus likewise wrought the crucifixion on the wheel,
Ixion's bane; and, spinning there,
limbs fast to the ineluctable circle"-
Pindar, Victory Odes (5th century BCE), Pythia 2.

"His punishment was to be crucified on a fiery wheel which revolves throughout eternity-i.e. presumably the sun; Ixion is condemned to become part of the operating mechanism of Zeus' universe."-
Dr. Alan H.Griffiths, "Ixion," in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, eds. S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth, E. Eidinow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 770.

"Zeus punished Ixion by binding him to a fiery wheel which rolled endlessly through the sky."-
Dr. Philip E. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 374.

Ixion crucified in the heavens, 4th century BCE, froma red figure attic vase currently at the Staatliche Museum in Berlin-

Nailing Ixion to his fiery cross, 1st century CE (or earlier), relief from Pompeii-



Moreover, even within the community you reference, there was a belief about a crucifixion upon a cross of light in the heavens, which survives for us in certain texts, words to the effect of-
"he showed me a cross of light fixed, and about the cross a great multitude, not having one form: and in it was one form and one likenesst. And the Lord himself I beheld above the cross, not having any shape, but only a voice: and a voice not such as was familiar to us, but one sweet and kind and truly of God, saying unto me: John, it is needful that one should hear these things from me, for I have need of one that will hear. This cross of light is sometimes called the word by me for your sakes, sometimes mind, sometimes door, sometimes a way, sometimes bread, sometimes seed, sometimes resurrection, sometimes Son, sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes life, sometimes truth, sometimes faith, sometimes grace. And by these names it is called as toward men: but that which it is in truth, as conceived of in itself and as spoken of unto you, it is the marking-off of all things, and the firm uplifting of things fixed out of things unstable, and the harmony of wisdom, and indeed wisdom in harmony. There are of the right hand and the left, powers also, authorities, lordships and demons, workings, threatenings, wraths, devils, and the lower root whence the nature of the things that come into being proceeded. This cross, then, is that which fixed all things apart by the word, and separate off the things that are from those that are below, and then also, being one, streamed forth into all things. But this is not the cross of wood which thou wilt see when thou goest down hence."

#17 - DN Boswell - 10/01/2014 - 21:54

"Now, things would be different if someone had explicitly said that the crucifixion had taken place in the heavens."

Carrier's book goes into an ancient document that he thinks *does* say this explicitly, but that aside, I think it is strongly implicit in the book of Hebrews:

#18 - Ryan - 10/01/2014 - 22:26

@ Thomas, There's an implicit mention of Jesus being crucified in heaven here:


#19 - Nicholas Covington - 10/01/2014 - 22:27


Thanks for the reference. I’m not an expert, so I would like to know how biblical scholars interpret the passage in Hebrews. However, there do seem to be problems. The implication of the passage is that things on earth are inferior copies of things in the heavens. Crucifixion was a brutal method of execution which was used to kill thousands of Jews. It is strange to think that crucifixion might be a copy of something that happens in the heavens.

Also, if the writer was implying that a sacrifice in the heavens was superior to one on earth, it would seem to contradict Paul’s thinking. In the very passages that Richard Carrier cites in the article, Paul says that Jesus humbled himself and that he was born of a woman. The message is that Jesus had to give up the perfection of the heavenly realm and become human in order to make the sacrifice effective.

Regarding the point that DN Bowell made about the crucifixion of Ixion, I think something rather odd is going on. We are told that we shouldn’t read Paul’s letters in light of the Gospels, but we can read them in light of pagan mythology. This is bizarre. How could we not read Paul’s letters in light of the Gospels? There simply isn’t any evidence that could be more relevant to the interpretation of Christian documents than other Christian documents from the same period.

The fact remains that no one tells us Jesus was crucified in the heavens, but people do tell us he was crucified on earth. Therefore, Carrier’s theory can only ever be speculation. It is extremely unlikely that scholars will be convinced by it.

#20 - Thomas Fenton - 10/02/2014 - 10:42

@Thomas (and for the most part, I only comment because I've read Carrier's book and find such voracious criticisms quite unfair)

I'm not sure if I'm coming at your argument sideways here, but the assertion that Jews of the time needed scripture to be firmly rooted in earthly reality, despite the fact that the bulk of foundational OT traditions of this type (e.g. that attributed to Moses or Joseph) are widely acknowledged ahistorical fictions, seems if anything to lend credibility to the possibility of the Jesus tradition being cut from the same cloth, as Carrier suggests in his book.

#21 - Jeff Krantz - 10/02/2014 - 11:37


Perhaps my criticism was a little harsh. Let's say that the idea of a heavenly crucifixion is speculative at best. There is no harm in putting forward eccentric theories for consideration. However, it is a different matter if Carrier is expecting to overturn the scholarly consensus with his theory. That really would be preposterous.

I don't think it would make a difference if we regarded the OT as complete fiction. It would still be fiction set on earth. Jews of that time were looking for God to act through earthly events, not events in the lower heavens.

#22 - Thomas Fenton - 10/02/2014 - 16:11

We should also note how weak the argument from silence is. Carrier points out that there is no mention of Jesus having disciples in Paul's letters. Ironically, it is on this very point that the argument breaks down. In 1 Corinthians Paul says that Jesus appeared to "the twelve". Clearly, the twelve must be very important, but Paul tells us nothing about them! This is very significant. Paul is obviously in the habit of not telling us things that we would expect to hear.

So who are the twelve? The standard view is that they are the people mentioned in the Gospels. If we are going to question this view, we have to justify our scepticism. The Gospels tell us that the twelve were followers of Jesus. If can't we believe this, then we must say that we simply don't know who they were. Something that previously had a straightforward explanation now becomes a mystery.

This shows the folly of declaring that we can't read Paul's letters in light of the Gospels. If the Gospels clarify things that would otherwise have no explanation, it would be absurd to dicount them.

#23 - Thomas Fenton - 10/04/2014 - 13:21

@ Thomas:

"However, there do seem to be problems... Crucifixion was a brutal method of execution which was used to kill thousands of Jews. It is strange to think that crucifixion might be a copy of something that happens in the heavens."

My point was not that crucifixion per se was a copy of something heavenly. My point was that Jesus' sacrifice was the heavenly counterpart to the earthly sacrifices (Judaism's annual animal sacrifices).

You say that it would be strange for anyone back then to imagine a heavenly sacrifice, but that is not true: The book of Hebrews says there was a heavenly tabernacle, Philo says that there were 'celestial plants' ("On the confusion of Tongues" 61-63), according to Revelation 12:7 there was a war in heaven, and so on and so forth. A crucifixion was readily conceivable to ancient people.

"Also, if the writer was implying that a sacrifice in the heavens was superior to one on earth, it would seem to contradict Paul’s thinking. In the very passages that Richard Carrier cites in the article, Paul says that Jesus humbled himself and that he was born of a woman. The message is that Jesus had to give up the perfection of the heavenly realm and become human in order to make the sacrifice effective."

'Becoming humble' need not mean 'came all the way down to earth.' Under Carrier's theory, Jesus was believed to have entered the lowest level of heaven (heaven being envisioned as having several levels in those days) which was the dwelling place of Satan and his angels.

"We are told that we shouldn’t read Paul’s letters in light of the Gospels, but we can read them in light of pagan mythology."

You said that it was 'nonsense' to think Jesus was believed crucified in the lower heavens, and DN answered you by showing you an example of ancient people who believed in a heavenly crucifixion. It has nothing to do with 'reading the gospels in light of pagan mythology' it has to do with demonstrating you were wrong on that it was 'nonsense' (how could it be 'nonsense' if there were ancient people who believed the same thing?)

"This is bizarre. How could we not read Paul’s letters in light of the Gospels? There simply isn’t any evidence that could be more relevant to the interpretation of Christian documents than other Christian documents from the same period."

I can't speak for DN, but I'd say that the problem here is interpreting the gospels as documents that are portraying (or at least attempting to portray) history. As Carrier documents, much of what the gospels say is symbolic fiction and was certainly intended as such. For example:

"The fact remains that no one tells us Jesus was crucified in the heavens, but people do tell us he was crucified on earth."

I think Hebrews does tell us Jesus was crucified in the heavens, and I think much of what is said in the Pauline letters (for example) is more consistent with such a scenario than with the earthly Jesus hypothesis.

#24 - Nicholas Covington - 10/05/2014 - 00:23


I have had a look at Hebrews and the meaning seems clear. The author is discussing not the lower heavens, but the abode of God himself.

"We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord... [the high priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven." (8:1-5).

The message here is that what happens on earth is connected with what happens in the highest level of heaven. When Jesus died on earth, his death had an effect that was manifested in the heavens. Jesus' death reconciles us to God. This is symbolic rather than literal. It can't be an account of where the crucifixion took place, because if it was it would be saying that Jesus was crucified in front of God's throne, and this would be absurd.

I can see nothing here to support Carrier's theory. Still, it doesn't matter what I think; it is the opinion of biblical scholars that counts. They will have the final say.

I'm sure you are aware of this but I should also point out the following line from Hebrews: "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death...". (5:7).

I'm not sure what Carrier hopes to gain by saying that we can't use the Gospels because they are fiction. If the Gospels contain a core of historical truth, then Carrier's argument obviously fails. If he is relying on the assumption that the Gospels are 100% fiction, then he can't be taken seriously.

#25 - Thomas Fenton - 10/05/2014 - 13:28

Mr. Fenton. I would like to point out that Hebrews 5:7 is not written as you cite it. The Greek: ὃς ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ δεήσεις τε καὶ ἱκετηρίας πρὸς τὸν δυνάμενον σῴζειν αὐτὸν ἐκ θανάτου μετὰ κραυγῆς ἰσχυρᾶς καὶ δακρύων προσενέγκας καὶ εἰσακουσθεὶς ἀπὸ τῆς εὐλαβείας only talks about the "days of his flesh". The words "on earth" are not in the GNT.

#26 - Walther Oldenberg - 10/06/2014 - 18:08

Mr Oldenberg

Thank you for pointing that out. I did look at other translations of the passage after I had posted the comment, but there was no opportunity to amend it.

Carrier would, presumably, interpret this as a reference to time spent in the lower heavens. Whether any biblical scholars would agree with him is another matter.

#27 - Thomas Fenton - 10/07/2014 - 08:52

Tom, your approach is anachronistic. It is unscholarly to "read Paul’s letters in light of the Gospels" for the same reason it would be unscholarly to read Old Testament or Inter-Testimental literature in light of Paul, and for the same reason it is unschoalrly to read the canonical gospels in light of non-canonical gospels or in light of the early church fathers or in light of the Talmud, etc.

We don't read the gospel of Mark in light of the gospel of Barnabas because it's anachronistic, Mark predates Barnabas, but we could however do the vice-versa for that very same reason. Mark WOULD have been available to the author of Barnabas. We can't read the Pentateuch in light of The Assumption of Moses, the latter post-dates the former, but we CAN read The Assumption in light of the Books of Moses because those WERE available as a source for The Assumption.

You talk about "scholarly consensus" and "the opinion of biblical scholars," well it's their consensus opinion that the gospels post date Paul's authentic letters, and by no negligible margin- at least two decades separate them, if not more.

The gospels were not available to Paul as a source. But we CAN read Paul in light of Philo, which Carrier does. And we CAN read Paul in light of the Old Testament and intertestimental literature, as those predate him and they both contain MANY references to groupings of twelve- the twelve Israeli patriarchs, the twelve minor prophets, twelve angels, etc., all of which went on to also be mentioned in canonical New Testament texts, hence any one of those groups could've been (as per afterlife theology) there in heaven and thus been among the first to receive & witness this alleged celestial Christ after his resurrection and ascension back into the highest heaven. The gospels were not necessary to explain a reference to a "twelve."

#28 - Susan Henderson - 10/07/2014 - 16:11

Susan, who said anything about Paul using the Gospels as sources? I’m certainly not suggesting that. Perhaps I can illustrate my point with an analogy from evolution. You may have heard about the discovery of dinosaur fossils that have feathers. This is good evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs. However, there is an objection. The feathered dinosaurs are found in the fossil record later than the first bird, therefore birds could not have evolved from dinosaurs. We can't use evidence from a later period to tell us about an earlier period. This argument fails because it assumes that feathered dinosaurs first appeared at the time when we find the earliest fossils. This is an unreasonable assumption. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that the fossils represent a lineage that extends further back in time. In fact, we have good reason for using the fossils as evidence. Feathers are not easily fossilised, so it is no surprise that we don’t have a good record of them. More importantly, the evidence of the feathered dinosaurs fits with the other evidence we have, including other anatomical similarities between birds and dinosaurs.

I suggest that it is perfectly reasonable to use the Gospels as evidence. Firstly, I am only using the Gospels to support a very modest idea: that a first century reference to a crucifixion is actually a reference to a crucifixion that happened on earth. When the Gospels tell us that someone was crucified on earth they are telling us something that fits into our understanding of the period. The alternative view – that of a heavenly crucifixion – is an eccentric, if not downright crackpot, theory. If we rule out the Gospels as evidence, then we are doing so on the basis of an assumption: the assumption that statements about a historical Jesus occurred for the first time when we find the earliest record of them. This assumption is no more reasonable than the similar assumption made in the case of feathered dinosaurs.

I don't want to make too much of my point about the twelve: that isn't my main concern. However, I don't think your objection is relevant. There may be an alternative understanding of the twelve, but Paul doesn't provide us with it.

#29 - Thomas Fenton - 10/08/2014 - 10:31

The good professor you discuss in the opening paragraphs of your essay here was undoubtedly referring to 1 Cor. 15:3a, in which Paul states: παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρὠτοις ὁ καὶ παρἐλαβον...etc. This translate "for I handed on to you at in the first place that which also I received" using the technical terms (paradidōmi, paralambanō) for the passing on and receiving of traditions. In this case, the tradition received (1 Cor. 15:3b-7) concerns the death, resurection, and subsequent appearances of "Christ" to the apostles (scil. the ones who had handed on the tradition to Paul). In spite of the fact that Paul elsewhere as you say explicitly and emphatically rejects human traditions of the source of his supposedly divinely revealed gospel, in fact here in 1 Cor 15:3b-7, and in particular by the language of 1 Cor 15:3a, he reveals his dependence on the alleged eyewitnesses.

It doesn't matter that the professor got the wording wrong in this case, because his memory was fundamentally sound. Paul's knowledge of the traditions about the (alleged) post-resurrection appearances is the basis of his appeal here; he is deliberately appealing to human tradition to support his contention that the idea of resurrection is fundamental to his Gospel. This is why he adds in 1 Cor. 15:6, "from whom [the 500 witnesses] the greater part remain [alive] until now, though some 'fell asleep' [i.e. have died]." It's a kind of weak appeal to the capacity of other people to verify his claims.

#30 - Matthew Baldwin - 11/04/2014 - 01:45

^None of the appearances/traditions/witnesses are incompatible with Carrier's thesis, it would simply mean they saw the resurrected cosmic Christ the same way Paul claims to have- through revelation.

#31 - C. Anderson - 11/06/2014 - 17:53

@Matthew Baldwin

"This is why he adds in 1 Cor. 15:6, "from whom [the 500 witnesses] the greater part remain [alive] until now, though some 'fell asleep' [i.e. have died]." It's a kind of weak appeal to the capacity of other people to verify his claims.'

The claim verified here, though, is the appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus. Of course, Paul had to have heard about Jesus from human sources (after all, he claims to have first persecuted Christians). What he appeals to here is the source of knowledge about Jesus. He, like others before, is the recipient of direct revelations of the Risen Jesus Christ. The point here is not that Paul never learned anything about Jesus from other people, but that his direct knowledge of Jesus comes from revelation, just like all these other people.

#32 - Geoff Barrett - 01/15/2015 - 15:32

Carrier said in his book: "Ultimately, the basic problem is as stated by Rudolf Bultmann in 1941: ‘the Jesus Christ who is God’s Son, a preexistent divine being, is at the same time a certain historical person, Jesus of Nazareth’, the teasing apart of which makes for a complicated task."
[Carrier, Richard (2014-06-30). On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Kindle Locations 1138-1141). Sheffield Phoenix Press. Kindle Edition.]
This virgin birth seems like an attempt to avoid the criticism that Christ was a euhemerism. He was God from the start. This is why I divide mythicist interpretations into euhemerist and historicizing. Carrier's basic mythicist version he describes not as euhemerism but as this historicizing. As long as it is a euhemerism obviously there was an historical person at first. This seems obvious but many mythicists are of this weak euhemerism variety.

#33 - Laurence Clark Crossen - 02/18/2015 - 19:35

Could you please summarise a timeline for the evolution of the idea of Jesus?

As I understand it, Jesus started out as a celestial being in Jewish mythology, this idea then became an allegorical gospel in The Ascension Of Isaiah, the "apostles" then used this to communicate to Israel why no longer having a temple didn't matter anymore in the epistles and from there it became euhemerised in Mark, evolving into Matthew, Luke and John.

Is this correct?

#34 - Jayden - 11/10/2015 - 23:36

1 Cor. 15 does not teach that Jesus was ONLY seen by Cephas and the apostles after he was buried. There's no denial in the text that he they had seen him during an earthly life.

#35 - Scott Simmons - 11/15/2015 - 15:31

^1 Cor. 15 likewise does not teach that I, C. Anderson, was ONLY seen by Cephas and the apostles. So do you agree that it's okay to assume without evidence that people back then saw ME?
There's likewise no denial in the text that they had seen ME during an earthly life. So do you agree that it's okay to assume without evidence that I, C. Anderson, had an earthly life in Roman Palestine during the 1st century CE? ;-)

#36 - C. Anderson - 01/10/2016 - 13:47

C. Anderson, I think you either misread me or the article, and likely both. Here's the point he was making: "Paul says “the scriptures” tell us that Jesus “died” and “was buried” and only then was he ever “seen” by Cephas and the apostles (1 Cor. 15:3-5)"

It's the "only then" part that was important to me, and you seem to have missed the "then." Carrier suggests that it was only after Jesus was "buried" that he was seen by Cephas. This is quite clearly not what Paul was saying. He wasn't denying that anyone saw Jesus prior to his death.

Paul also never says the Cephas only saw you after your death either.

#37 - Scott J Simmons - 04/22/2016 - 23:18

Some of the Jesus-myth case rests on Paul's infamous apathy/silence toward the specific teachings of the pre-crucifixion Jesus. Paul appears determined to disobey the Gentile mission regulation the resurrected Jesus required in Matthew 28:20.

I wonder how much of a hit it would be to the myther-position when it is pointed out that Paul's infamous silence can just as easily be accounted for under the theory that he was more intent on using the nascent church to promote his own agenda, than he was in faithfully adhering to what the founder taught.

Sort of like Benny Hinn. He only names the name of Christ so Hinn can make himself the center of the issue, not because he cares what the founder actually required.

#38 - Barry Jones - 12/07/2017 - 22:42

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