Transcript of interview with Dr Richard Carrier, Part 3

This is the third part of the transcript from our interview with Dr Richard Carrier.

 

Seamus

I think you touched on some of this but just to be clear, people often assert that Jesus was a hodgepodge compilation of lots of other saviour gods. In fact though, he was just the Jewish version of those saviour gods. Is that your view?

 

Richard

Well, there are two different takes on that. There’s a lot of bad mythicism on the internet. I run into it a lot. Unfortunately, certain movies like “Religulous” use some of the bad material. It’s problematic, because you can easily refute a lot of the claims that are made and then what will happen is that someone will refute a few of things that are said and people will assume that the rest is false.

 

John

Is that the Bill Maher movie?

 

Richard

Yeah, it was Bill Maher. Unfortunately, he was taken in by some of the worst scholarship on this. Whereas, had he talked to someone who can square him away on what really we can defend, he could have done the same scene with different information and it would have been just as successful. This is a problem because, now people think, when they watch that movie, that this is the mythicist case. They don’t realise that there is actually a mythicist case that stands up to scrutiny. What they’ll do is they’ll look at that and then they’ll go look at the Christian apologetics that debunk the “Religulous” version of it and they’ll say, yeah, you’re right, that looks bad. So then that’s the end of the story for them. They won’t look further to see if there is a good version of this that avoids all of those arguments.

That’s what I wrote “On The Historicity Of Jesus” specifically to do. That’s the function of the book, which is to say, this is the version that is fully vetted and doesn’t have all the stuff that didn’t wash out when you checked into it. But there’s still a lot of this bad stuff we have to deal with, and one of those is the ‘Cookie Cutter Christ’ concept. Jesus is just Osiris 2.0. They took this other god and just changed all the names but kept the story. That’s not how it happened. They borrowed ideas and motifs from many of these deities and many of these religions, not necessarily the deities specifically. They Juda-ised them. They created a Jewish version. Jesus is very Jewish. He’s their version of the Jewish suffering saviour. They have them. There was a whole trope in Judaism. These heroes who would suffer, the righteous guys who would suffer and then be vindicated in one way or another. The Wisdom of Solomon is a good example of this.

So they took that and they said, we’ll attach this model here and we’ll add Jewish theology and Jewish soteriology and Jewish cosmology and we’ll create our own version. There are overlaps. There are borrowings from the other cults but they aren’t creating Jesus out of them. He’s not just Osiris with a name change. So we have to be more nuanced in the way that we look at this. The resurrection point is one of the examples where Bart Ehrman for example, keeps saying that there are no dying and rising gods before Jesus. That’s just ridiculous and easily refuted. We have tons of very good evidence for dying and rising gods before Jesus.

In none of those dying and rising gods do we have specific evidence that they were born of a virgin. But we do have other gods where we have evidence that they were born of a virgin. Like, virgin births is a thing. Romulus is probably an example. Romulus was both a dying and rising god and he had a virgin birth, according to one of his many legends. So there were some examples, but it’s not like Jesus is just Romulus and they were changing the story. They liked the idea of virgin birth because that accords with Jewish theology and the idea of how an incarnation would work, because they can’t have their god have sex. So obviously they are going to look around and say, how can we get our divine son of god without having the sex part? That’s what they find in the cultures around them, the virgin birth concept. Great, we’ll use that. It fits with our theology.

Then with the resurrection, there are different kinds of resurrection going on in different resurrection cults of the time. We expect resurrection to be of a particular kind. We’re a particular faction of Jews and we have a particular belief about resurrection. So when we build our resurrecting dying and rising god, we’re going to make it a Jewish dying and rising god, so we’re going to use our Jewish model of resurrection. So you often have scholars who will say, but this other god’s resurrection was different. Yeah, that’s the point. They got the idea of the resurrection but they couldn’t just take it because they needed it to be Jewish, so they made it Jewish. So when you’re looking at the difference between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of these other dying and rising gods, it’s specifically in respect to how they Juda-ise the motifs. So they took the myth theme and Juda-ised it and that’s called syncretism. I keep telling wanting to tell experts in Jesus Studies who keep making these stupid arguments, go to Wikipedia, type in syncretism, learn how it works.

 

John

Let me Google that for you.

 

Richard

Yes. That’s right. That’s how they’re doing it. It’s not a ‘Cookie Cutter Christ’ in that sense. There are connections and they are getting ideas from the other cults, but they are creating a Jewish version.

 

Seamus

I’m not asking you beat the horse of Josephus but a lot of Christian historians throw out Josephus. Now, if Jospehus doesn’t stick, if they need a back up or a little bit of support and they’ll throw Tacitus in. Why is Tacitus just as bad?

 

Richard

For the longest time, I was pretty sure that the Tacitus passage was entirely authentic. It reads like Tacitus. It would be really hard to forge the whole thing in the Tacitean style as it is. Usually forgers suck at that. They might use the vocabulary but they won’t nail the style. So I often believed that it was true and you can show a very easy trail, when Tacitus wrote letters to his best friend Pliny The Younger, when they were governing neighbouring provinces. It’s exactly when Pliny The Younger was first encountering Christians and wrote letters about the Christians to Trajan The Emperor, and then a year or two later (actually six years later) Tacitus publishes his book. You can see the chain of custody very easily where Tacitus heard about the ridiculous things that the Christians were claiming from Pliny. And Pliny outright says that he learned it by basically strong arming some female deaconesses of the Church. He says tormented, they were probably beating on them until they talked, telling him the story. So he probably got the story form them, who would have just been repeating what the Gospels said. So this is not independent testimony. This is not like Tacitus went into the archives and got a record confirming all of this. He wouldn’t even waste his time doing that, because the story is already so embarrassing as told by the Christians themselves. That for him would be like a statement against interests. He doesn’t even need to fact check this. This is just so ridiculous I’m just going to run with it.

So there’s no evidence he did fact check it. He was just repeating what Christians were saying. This was decades after the Gospels were already out there, so it doesn’t independently corroborate the Gospels. So even if it’s 100% authentic, it’s useless. It’s completely useless as data so we have to toss it. Now, had he said in there, we confirmed this. I went into the records and I confirmed that Pontius Pilate executed this guy and I found Jesus son of Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah and was King Of The Jews, in 31 AD like they claim. If he’d said that and we could confirm it wasn’t a forgery, that would be good evidence for historicity but that’s not what he says. He just says the Christians say this, and he tells their story. I was fine with that.

Then I did research on it for my book, where my fans paid me, they gave me a research grant to actually do this historicity of Jesus question. So I did it, like really hard core. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours of library work researching. So I thought I better actually read the articles challenging the authenticity of this Tacitus passage. These are peer reviewed articles in the field. These are not mythicists, there are mythicists of course like Earl Doherty who have written against the authenticity of the Tacitus passage. But I didn’t do that. I went and looked for actual peer reviewed scholarship in the field, in the academic journals. Unfortunately, it’s all in French, so if you can’t parse your way through a French article, you might not know what’s in these articles.

 

John

Is that just because the authors were French or is there another reason?

 

Richard

Yes. The best one is Jean Rouget. He published the most useful article on this. I took everything for granted, until I went and read Rouget’s article and realised, holy shit, he has a really good argument. I was surprised and so I looked at it further and I realised that you could really shore this up, that the case could even be made better than he made it, once you look at it from a Bayesian perspective. So I actually built a Bayesian argument for it and I published my case in English, citing him, providing all the evidence and details in an academic peer reviewed journal. So that’s actually a thing now and that’s reproduced in “Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ”, for those you want to see an actual, current, peer reviewed article in English, arguing that the Tacitus passage is, in relevant part, fraudulent. 

This is the key part. What had convinced me what was authentic before was the Tacitean style but what Roget’s argument is, is that just the one line about Jesus being executed, or Christ being executed by Pontius Pilate, just that one bit was the interpolation that was added later. The rest of the story is true but it’s the story about the Chrestiens, who were these Jewish rebels in Rome, following this instigator Chrestus, who was a completely different guy, where we have evidence from Suetonius. That’s his argument and that actually makes a lot of sense. When you look at the fact that nobody had ever heard of this story in Tacitus. Not even the Christians themselves, who were writing stories about Nero’s persecution of Christians, had ever heard of this story in Tacitus, for like 200 years, or really 300 years. The first time that anyone seems to notice that there was this Neronian persecution of Christians, involving the Fire Of Rome, the first time anyone seems to notice it, is in the late 4th century, decades and decades after someone forged the Seneca and Paul correspondence.

In the early 4th century, someone invented or forged all these letters between the philosopher Seneca and Paul the apostle. It’s a fascinating read but it’s complete 100% bullshit. In that, there’s a letter that’s in the voice of Seneca, saying something about like, yeah isn’t it tragic that when there was the Fire Of Rome and the Jews were scapegoated and the Christians were thrown in too and they were all killed under Nero. That’s the first time anyone invented a story that we can see, where Nero persecuted Christians in connection with Christian Fire, and that author was connecting it to a persecution of Jews. That’s interesting because that’s not in Tacitus, but that is in Tacitus if you wipe out the one suspicious line. Then he’s talking about the Chrestiens who were these Jews who were scapegoated for the fire. So it looks like whoever forged the Paul-Seneca correspondence, took this seed of this opposition to the Chrestiens and the scapegoating of them for the fire under Nero in Tacitus, and just threw some Christians in there to get a Neronian persecution. Whoever wrote it knew there was a Neronian persecution, even though all the previous stories of a Neronian persecution coming from the Christians, have nothing whatever to do with the fire and do not talk about a mass persecution. It’s just Peter and Paul and maybe at most a few other companions and that’s it. Again, it is not connected to the fire at all.

Then, suddenly we find this line gets added to Tacitus, it appears to be added to Tacitus, where it now fully assimilates the Chrestiens with the Christians. It says that was actually a passage about the Christians and then ever after, the Jews being involved is completely forgotten. It’s just the Christians being persecuted by Nero. When you look at the evidence, it’s really strong. I built it up in a Bayesian fashion. The peer reviewed journal didn’t like math. They were freaking out about the math. So they asked me to take the math out.

 

John

Who can trust math?

 

Richard

Right. So I just phrased it all in English. The math is still there, they just don’t know it. It’s just in colloquial English.

 

John

You just described the equations in plain language and they accepted that?

 

Richard

No. That would be too obvious. It’s just the way I frame my argument, the way I structure it, I have a prior, I have a posterior, I check my differential and the likelihood ratio. I just don’t use those words. I argue that way. In the version that is different to the published version, which I put into “Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ” I tack on the math as an appendix, for those who just want to see it spelled out mathematically, because it’s much easier to show it mathematically. I spell out the logic in English, but you know, Humanities majors are terrified by math. They want it hidden under all the sugar of English.

 

John

That’s a completely different podcast.

 

Richard

So I’m convinced now, that I think that line in Tacitus, to a high probability but not a certainty, to a high probability that line was added later. I don’t think that passage was originally about Christians at all.

 

Seamus

Even if it is it’s well after the fact.

 

Richard

Yes. Even if it is, it’s useless. Yeah.

 

Seamus

The other question I have, which I think is pretty well documented, a lot of the parables and teachings of Jesus including the Golden Rule have also been borrowed from other sources, whether Zoroastrian or whatnot. Can you expand on any of those?

 

Richard

Yeah and increasingly, more mainstream scholars are starting to admit this. There really isn’t anything original in Jesus. This talk about Jesus as the character in the Gospels, regardless of historicity, most non-fundamentalist scholars who are experts in Jesus Studies, agree, and I’d say most by far, agree that most of whats attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is made up. It’s not what he originally said. The most amazing example is the Sermon On The Mount. The broadest mainstream view is that it was a fabrication after the Jewish war. Yet that’s like the adulteress passage. That’s the one that everybody wants to be true. The one that talks about total pacifism and being meek.

 

John

Blessed are the cheesemakers?

 

Richard

Yeah, right. So to find out that it was made up, that’s quite a blow. Even liberal Christians have a hard time swallowing that pill. Even when they admit that maybe some of it comes from Jesus, they’re admitting that there’s not really anything original there. It all comes from, either prior philosophies, prior religions or Judaism itself. There’s a lot in Jesus that’s not actually radically new. One of the ones that Christians often love to talk about is the Pharisees. Jesus had much more sensible rules about the sabbath than the Pharisees and he’s arguing with them constantly. Jewish scholars have pointed out that Jesus is actually a Pharisee in his arguments. 

The Pharisees that are presented in the Gospels did not argue those things. In fact, they were on his side. The actual Pharisees would have agreed with him and said, yeah, that’s exactly what we teach. Now, there were some hardline Pharisees, that took on a more hardline view but there was the Hillel faction that was much more liberal about this. The Hillel faction of Pharisees were actually making these exact same arguments that Jesus is making against the Pharisees as a whole group in the Gospels.

 

John

Hillel is where the Golden Rule came from. Is that right?

 

Richard

Yes, the equivalent of it. This is one where the Christian apologists will get involved and say that Jesus is the first to positively frame it versus negatively frame it. Because I think Confucius and the Rabbinical version is I think “do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you” versus “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. These two statements are literally logically equivalent. They are literally identical statements. So there is no real significance about the positive formulation but even the understanding of the positive formulation exists in both Jewish and Greek philosophy before Christian times. So even if you don’t find the exact formulation, the idea of it is already present there. So there’s nothing original about the version that ends up in Jesus’ mouth, other than maybe the exact juxtaposition of words. Other than that, the actual meaning of it, the point of it, that’s not new at all.

The Beatitudes. We found Beatitude literature among Qumran scrolls. So the Jewish sect at Qumran, whoever stashed their books there, were already writing Beatitude literature, just like the Beatitude literature of Jesus. It’s not verbatim the same but it’s the same concept, the same ideas. So that’s not even original. So I can’t even personally think of anything in Jesus that actually is original. Or at least in any significant sense. The idea of forgiving your enemies, all of this stuff, the pacifism. You can find it in other places, whether Greek philosophy or Jewish religion before that time.

 

John

Could I suggest one? So I’ve challenged some of my friends and colleagues in the Irish Association Of Catholic Priests, that everything Jesus said that was moral and ethical is plagiarised, and everything that’s original is entirely depraved. One thing that seems to be original is, if you don’t believe that Jesus is your saviour, then it’s the blazing furnace with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

Richard

That’s a good one.

 

John

I think there’s another few examples. He appeared to John Of Patmos and said that he’s going to kill the children of Jezebel for the sins of their mother, or words to that effect.

 

Richard

Is that in Revelation? I’m assuming that’s in Revelation.

 

John

Yes. That’s right. Anyway, if you divide everything that Jesus said into the original parts and the plagiarised parts, all of the original parts are depraved and all of the plagiarised parts are where the ethics are.

 

Richard

That’s really interesting. I’m interested in this. Have you written this up anywhere?

 

John

Only in a sarcastically worded blog, unfortunately.

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