apologetics

The Myth of Mythicism

The overwhelming (underwhelming?) minority of historians that claim Jesus is a made-up story fabricated by 1st century Jewish mystics would be pretty comical people if they weren’t serious…

But, this is actually a thing. Denying history is all the rage nowadays as pop-culture (and pop-atheism) attempts to justify its mindlessness and willful chronological ignorance.

Mindless or not, there is simply no good reason to buy into the myth of Jesus mythicism. That’s my thesis; a thesis that has been demonstrated time and time again by men like Bart Ehrman, Luke Barnes, William Lane Craig, and others.

I have addressed Richard Carrier in the past in a three-part series. In that series I took to questioning his antics throughout his critique against Alvin Plantinga. I’m not a huge Plantinga guy, but I found Carrier’s critique sloppy, ill-informed, and completely useless on any intellectual level. Needless to say, it just wasn’t material one would expect to come from an real academic. I wouldn’t have wasted my time with him if he didn’t have a platform with which he reaches a decent amount of people. His claims, false or not, raise questions for those less informed in these areas of study.

In this post, I’ll use him as the example of a mythicist. Being the outspoken individual that he is, he’s earned himself a seat in the dock.

The Significance of Jesus Mythicism

If this is a minority position within academia, why would I waste my time responding to it here? Well, we have to keep in mind that minority positions in academia often reach a lot of people outside of academia, and that’s the audience I’m concerned about. Minority positions can pull heart-strings using the “little engine that could” mentality which, often times, thrusts them into popular acceptance.

Jesus mythicism is no exception. It’s an irrational position, yet it has gained traction with many atheists looking for weapons to use against Christianity. Unreasonable as it may be, these left-field positions can still serve as rocks in the sling. Sometimes a blunt instrument is the most effective.

While mythicism may be able to deceive the ill-informed, it’s not effective insofar as the objective search for truth is concerned. When we get right down to the fact of the matter, mythicism is based on nothing but speculation. This is exactly what Carrier’s audience needs to recognize. He, and others, rarely ever show the link between historical similarities and the effort to track the genesis of one position to an antecedent concept. If they do try to show the link, it’s often sloppy or dishonest work at best. I’ll provide a lengthy example below.

An Example

In his article ‘On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review’, Carrier identifies Philo’s angel with the Christian Christ or at least as a foundational character in the founding of the Christian system. At this point, I’d urge Carrier’s followers to ask themselves, “What good reason does Richard give for identifying Christ with Philo’s angel?” If that question is honestly answered, it must be answered, “Not a one.” He actually doesn’t give a good reason for this at all. It’s almost as if Carrier assumes readers will be convinced simply because of similarities. But similarities alone are not good reasons to identify Christ with Philo’s “angel.” Quoting and responding to Daniel Gullotta, Carrier writes:

Gullotta strangely says “the most damning argument against Carrier’s claim” that such an angel existed in Jewish thought “is that there is no literary or archeological evidence within the entirety of the Mediterranean world and Second Temple period that validates [its] existence.” Philo says the angel existed. He wrote before Christianity. That’s literary evidence. So how can there be “no” evidence when there is very clear and indisputable evidence?

This is a rather dishonest (or at least silly) way to represent Gullotta. And, at $30.00 a pop to read the journal, I’m sure Carrier knows most people won’t have a chance to fact check. Let’s look at Gullotta’s actual words. He says:

The most damning argument against Carrier’s claim is that there is no literary or archeological evidence within the entirety of the Mediterranean world and Second Temple period that validates the existence of this pre-Christian celestial Jesus.

Interestingly, Carrier leads his readers to believe Gullotta was claiming that Philo’s “angel” never existed in Jewish thought. Now, if Carrier was right, Gullotta would look ridiculous, and this is exactly what Carrier is trying to accomplish—the tar and feather effect of his opponent. But it can be seen Gullotta was denying that Jewish thought contained some pre-Christian notion of a celestial Jesus. Carrier may say, “Well, Philo’s angel was that pre-Christian Jesus,” but Gullotta obviously disagrees with that assertion. Carrier has been caught misrepresenting his opponent. Needless to say, this is not a good practice for someone desiring academic accolades. He’ll never get them at this rate.

There are other problems with Carrier as it relates to Gullotta’s article. You’ll notice in the above quote from Carrier that he says, “Philo says the angel existed. He wrote before Christianity. That’s literary evidence.” Literary evidence for what? Is it just literary evidence that Philo wrote about an angel? If so, who cares? Gullotta wasn’t denying that Philo wrote about an angel. He’s denying that this angel was a pre-Christian conception of Jesus. Carrier continues, “And since Philo interprets the Jesus in Zechariah 6 as this angel, he clearly believed this angel wasn’t just named Anatole but also Jesus.” But this is patently absurd.

In Zechariah 6, the Jesus Carrier is talking about is Joshua (which is a variation of the name Jesus, Yĕhowshuwa’). But this Joshua is not an angel; he is a Levite priest, son of Jehozadak (Zech. 6:11). This prophet is mentioned elsewhere, such as Nehemiah 7:7 and explicitly in Haggai 1:1. Joshua was a historical human priest. To point out another error with respect to Carrier’s adventures in Philo, he says:

Gullotta also weirdly argues “Carrier’s argument does not adequately explain why” this angel would be named Jesus. Maybe because he was God’s Savior? The very meaning of the name Jesus. As indeed I do adequately explain: OHJ, pp. 239-42. It’s no weirder than Philo thinking this angel was also named Anatole.

Again, Gullotta actually writes, “Carrier’s argument does not adequately explain why an angelic figure would have a name so commonly associated with human beings, let alone one which does not conform to typical angelic naming conventions.” Moreover, the name Jesus does not mean “God’s Savior,” it means Yahweh Saves. This is a subtle difference with big implications. The name is a proclamation rather than a designation. It should also be noted that Jesus was the sixth most commonly used name in 1st century Israel for obvious historical reasons.

There is a second reason Carrier’s way of thinking is just wildly left-field. Philo refers to the Word (logos) as an angel. This is not surprising since the Angel of the Lord, which is often what we would call a Christophany in Christian theology, is worshiped (Num. 22:31), an action that would have never been accepted in post-Exilic Israelite culture for any non-divine being (nor would have the angel accepted it if it was not God). In Judges 6:22, Gideon actually identifies the Angel of the Lord with Yahweh. Moreover, Carrier needs to understand the primary meaning of the word angel in both Hebrew and Greek. Both mal’ ak (Hebrew) and aggelos (Greek) mean messenger, primarily. The context must dictate whether or not an angel is simply a human messenger (like an apostle, prophet, etc) or a divine messenger sent from God (or is God Himself).

Biblical history reveals that the term angel is sometimes attributed to God Himself. So, this use of the term did not originate in Philo, but in the Old Testament authors. If Richard were to ask, “What about Philo’s calling this angel the ‘logos’ (XXVIII. 146)?” The Old Testament personifies the Word before Philo’s time. In Psalm 33:4, the psalmist writes, “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.”

Philo wasn’t the first one to do this, the Old Testament writers were. Granted the New Testament authors were hermeneutically influenced by the Old Testament, it is no surprise that Philo also would have understood this type of language. Another example is in Proverbs 2 where God’s wisdom is personified. The personification of God’s perfections is not surprising granted the fact God Himself is substantively identified with His perfections in Scripture (e.g. God is light, God is love, etc.; Deut. 4:24).

Selective Research

Carrier arbitrarily pinpoints Philo as evidence for a pre-Christian framework which eventually led to what we now know as canonical and church dogma. But, why doesn’t he see the Old Testament as a document that laid the groundwork for Christianity? Isn’t that the text with which Philo deals? In other words, why is Carrier trying so desperately to paint Philo as a progenitor of the Christian religion when the Old Testament is a much more reasonable suspect?

For example, Philo is interpreting Zechariah messianically, but why? Here is the fuller text:

Take from them silver and gold, and make a crown, and set it on the head of Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. And say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”’ And the crown shall be in the temple of the LORD as a reminder to Helem, Tobijah, Jedaiah, and Hen the son of Zephaniah. “And those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the LORD. And you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And this shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God.” — Zechariah 6:11-15

Why would Philo, an individual familiar with the Old Testament, interpret this passage in such a messianic way even before Christianity? For starters, the relationship between this Branch and His people must be understood in a broader sense. Jeremiah writes, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jer. 23:5).” And again, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jer. 33:15).”

Compared with Zechariah 6, the author of Jeremiah also believes this Branch is a ruler of God’s people. But, why does Philo seem to think this Branch is divine? With a proper knowledge of the Old Testament, which Philo would have had, it’s easy to see why this Branch would have been viewed as divine. In Isaiah 43:11 we learn that there is no Savior except Yahweh. But the Branch in both Zechariah and Jeremiah is represented as a noble Savior, the one who will rebuild the Temple of the Lord using those who are “far off.” This is the function of the Messiah in the Old Testament—He is a Redeemer or Savior, but He is also Lord. In both Isaiah and Jeremiah, Yahweh is King of His people. Thus, this Branch, who occupies the throne mentioned in Zechariah, who has royal honor, is the Lord God of Israel.

Philo, after quoting Zechariah 6:12, says, “A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity (On The Confusion of Tongues, XIV. 62).” The Old Testament was hi basis for drawing this type of conclusion. It’s plain to see that a 1st century Jew is wrestling with the very facts Jews before him were wrestling with—this idea of a man, an offspring of David, who would rule as King; yet, this King must be divine because Yahweh is the King of Israel, no one else. Moreover, Yahweh is the only savior and thus any true Redeemer King must be Yahweh, the Lord of all creation.

So, when Carrier tries to use Philo as a basis for Christianity but doesn’t properly investigate the basis for Philo, he completely misses the point. Of Course the Old Testament sets us up for what’s to come in the New Testament, this is the Bible’s very own claim (Jn. 5:46; Ps. 119:97). And if Philo was simply considering the aggregate data of the Old Testament, it would make sense for him to conclude that the Redeemer King of Israel, or the Branch, would be divine even as he is referred to as a man. Paired with the actual evidence of Jesus’ existence, contrary to Carrier’s position (Phil. 2:6-11), this is actually powerful data arguing strongly for fulfilled prophecy rather than 1st century mythical fabrication.

Lastly, Carrier writes:

What remains is fact: Philo’s angel is the same being the first Christians thought their Jesus was. Which is equally weird, and thus equally likely, on either historicity or mythicism. And even apart from that (which Gullotta advances no arguments against), the evidence looks pretty strong that Philo also believed this angel had “Jesus the Son of God” among its many names. The coincidence seems unlikely. Indeed, very unlikely. But whatever the case, this point has little effect on the probability of historicity, as we already have a likely source for the name (it being peculiarly apposite that a worshiped savior of God be named Savior of God), so the name hardly matters. Refuting the name, doesn’t refute that. Of any name (or indeed if he was renamed Jesus, as Philippians 2:9-11 could be telling us), the angel Christians identified their Jesus as definitely came from Jewish angelology. So why is Gullotta trying so illogically hard to deny it?

First, Philo’s angel was not Philo’s angel at all, as I’ve demonstrated above. Philo was just writing in accordance with the Old Testament, as were the New Testament authors. Second, the Jesus Carrier refers to (in Zech. 6) was actually Joshua, son of Jehozadak, mentioned in Haggai 1:1, Zech. 6:11, and Neh. 7:7. And he refers to Joshua (who could be called Jesus) apart from the angel. Branch (or East) is not Joshua the high priest, as Zechariah 6 makes abundantly clear. Branch (East) is the Messiah. And even if Philo was talking about Joshua in Zechariah 6 in this way, it wouldn’t mean Philo invented anything, it would simply mean Philo got it from somewhere else, namely, the Old Testament authors. Third, if by “Jewish angelology” Carrier means to say God came to His people as the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, then great, because that’s exactly what happened, as I’ve proven. If he means the angelology which Philo and others faddishly adopted at the turn of the millennium, then Carrier is wrong. The concept of God as a divine Messenger (i.e. angel) preceded Philo and even Plato for that matter, appearing repeatedly in the Old Testament.

Conclusion

What can be seen here is that Carrier’s argument, that Philo came up with this idea of an angel-God, is actually misguided. Philo didn’t come up with the idea of Yahweh condescending as Messenger (aggelos). This is an Old Testament concept. Nor did he invent the personification of the Word. That too has Old Testament backgrounds. Further, it can be seen how Carrier misrepresented his opponent and, not surprisingly, this is the trend in much of his writings (I’ve shown this is my earlier articles).

The life of a mythicist must be hard. Trying to invent a myth, maintain that myth, and then sell that myth as an academic fact must not be a task for wimps. These guys have to constantly come up with more dirt to cover their tracks.

 

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