Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

A Comment on Richard Carrier's Review of
The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?

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I am referring to this piece as a “comment” rather than a “reply” or “rebuttal” because I regard Richard Carrier’s book review, published on the Secular Web, as fair and perceptive, and I agree with and accept its general thrust. With a few exceptions, I also agree with his Appendix of critical recommendations (“Problems”), although some of them need qualification. For all of it, I thank him. This is criticism at its most constructive—and encouraging. The review will no doubt be widely read, and these comments on it will serve to further the discussion on many of the points he raises.

Carrier is correct in evaluating me as an amateur in the technical sense, although I have a degree in ancient history and classical languages (Greek and Latin), which is not lacking in relevance. (I also thank him for pointing out that the specific letters after one’s name do not matter as much as the arguments themselves.) I did not get as far as the PhD level because of a chronic health problem, which caused me to withdraw from university and go into an unrelated line of business for over a decade. When I came to undertake New Testament studies, it was entirely a private affair. By the time I set about creating the Jesus Puzzle website and later embarking on a book, my formal academic background lay long in the past. Consequently, for someone to miss the full flavor and efficiency of academic practice in The Jesus Puzzle, book and website, is not surprising.

This, however, was not entirely unintended. My approach has always been as a ‘popularizer.’ I have read enough academic tomes to know that I would never reach the general public by adopting all the “conventions” of strict professional scholarship. That said, I acknowledge that such scholarship is also part of the desired audience, and that a better middle ground could well be occupied. I welcome Carrier’s recommendations in that direction. If there is a proper Second Edition in the future (and I trust that there will be, once we have worked our way through the third printing of the First Edition—in perhaps another year), his recommendations will be addressed very seriously.

One other consideration, a rather mundane one, applies here. Carrier recommends a much fuller quoting and discussion of scholarly sources and supports. This, together with some of his other recommendations, would appreciably increase the size of the book, not to mention its cost. (Even more so, if I provided wider margins for note scribbling!) However, I was not only encouraged by Canadian Humanist Publications to try to “keep it simple,” they wanted it no more than a certain thickness in order to stay within a packaged dimension which made mailing cheaper and more efficient. Mundane, yes, but I’m reminded of Carrier’s observation in his Appendix that interpolators could be restricted in the length of their insertions by the overall size of a standard scroll, which could not be exceeded without creating problems. I’ve always claimed that mundane considerations would probably explain a lot more than we realize, even in the content of certain texts upon which we so often hinge grand arguments and interpretations and supposed eternal truths.

Before embarking on these comments the reader may wish to read Carrier’s review, through this link. (Use the “Back” function to return here.) If not, another link is provided at the end.

Summary of Argument

First, I would briefly like to ‘fine-tune’ Carrier’s summary of my position. I would not regard the original versions of some or all of the Gospels—certainly Mark, the first one—as the product of a politically motivated Church seeking advantages inherent in an historical Jesus. Rather, I would regard Mark (dating it perhaps a little earlier than the end of the first century) chiefly as an allegorical and ‘lesson’-oriented piece of writing, heavily employing midrash on scripture, to embody certain outlooks and practices within a sect centered somewhere in the Galilean/Syrian region. (This Gospel and sect syncretized two different religious expressions on the first century scene, the Pauline-type cultic movement and the Galilean ‘Kingdom’ preaching.) The first Gospel was not intended, as I see it, to represent historical fact, though it is possible that it was meant to build upon the tradition of a perceived historical founder on the Galilean side who had taught and worked miracles. I have argued, however, that such a perception would have been mistaken, and furthermore that the element of a death under Pilate was a complete and recognized (at the time) fiction on Mark’s part.

To what extent the later evangelists building on Mark (up to around 130?) also intended their Gospels as allegory, or may have accepted elements of Mark’s fictional creation as historical, is difficult to say. As the second century progressed, however, all four Gospels came to be regarded as corroborating accounts of historical events, and were undoubtedly edited and expanded with political advantage in mind.

I am also uncertain as to how literally we should regard the early cultic interpretation of Christ’s death “in the sublunar realm at the hands of demon spirits,” although it is accurate to state this in principle. That is, how literally, how graphically (even if in spiritual fashion), did Mithraic devotees regard Mithras’ slaying of the bull? How literally the self-castration of Attis? I think we can’t know for sure. Was there a difference in the literalness of outlook between the philosophers and the average devotee-in-the-street? The former’s are the only thoughts on the matter to survive, and they usually tended to render things allegorically, from Plutarch to the 4th century Sallustius. Philo speaks of a “Heavenly Man” who served as the model for the earthly man, but does he envision him walking about on two legs, complete with human functions, in some spiritual equivalent to our workaday world? Not at all. Do our modern scientific minds have the ability to “think mythically” as the ancients did? I certainly can’t. On this whole question, then, I would simply fashion the claim in this way: that, as it was possible for the devotees of the mysteries to base their faith and salvation hopes on the ‘myths’ of their savior gods—who were not regarded as having performed those acts in identifiable historical time—it would seem to be the case that the earliest cultic Christians, like Paul, envisioned the myth of Christ Jesus in the same way. I do, however, argue that the placement of such myths, both pagan and Christian, was in this period located in the upper, heavenly world, following Platonic principles, rather than in a primordial or distant past on earth. The mythic Christ was indeed “spiritual” and not material. As Carrier points out, his “Incarnation” would have been to a heavenly equivalent of flesh and experience, not one on earth.

Argument from Silence

Now to the Argument from Silence (AfS). Carrier seems somewhat reticent about giving it the value it ought to have in the matter of Jesus’ historicity, though he rightly states that my thesis is primarily dependent on positive evidence for the “mystical-revelatory” nature of the earliest Christian movement, rather than on an AfS. For that statement and insight on his part, I’m extremely grateful. However, I have no hesitation in offering the AfS as a strong second pillar.

While he foregoes itemizing any of them in the review, Carrier points out that I offer “countless examples” of the omissions and silences in Paul and other early Christian (non-Gospel) writings. Because this silence is so pervasive, across so many writers and documents, over so many years and in so many locations within a widespread movement, it must surely fulfil Garraghan’s standards of validity, as quoted by Carrier. If we apply them to this case, it might go something like this: No alleged facts about a reputed historical figure can be found in a comprehensive body of writing (that is, the first century epistles and other non-canonical works, always allowing critical scholarship’s general judgement of 1 Thess. 2:15-16 as an interpolation and its dating of the Pastorals in the second century). Yet that figure is supposed to have begun the movement, so that we have every right to expect that at least some of the alleged facts about his life and death (even if false) would have been known by, and been of interest to, some of those writers and would have been mentioned by them some of the time. (Not simply that such knowledge of alleged facts may be only “somewhat certain,” in Carrier’s qualification.). Consequently, in this case, as Garraghan puts it, “the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.” On these grounds, maybe the mythicist case ought to be considered something approaching a “slam dunk.”

But we can go further than Garraghan’s standard of moral certainty. Carrier says: “when (Doherty) argues that the sayings and deeds of Jesus are missing from the epistles, it is not the AfS aspect of this argument that is most effective…it is the ABE (Argument to the Best Explanation) element…” While I agree with him in styling much of my argument in terms of the ABE, I also want to point out that some of it can equally fit into the AfS category. So much of the silence in the NT epistles and elsewhere I have styled “positive silences.” These writers present topics such as the beginnings of the faith, the nature of the Christ they believe in, the source of the movement’s ethics and preaching gospel, in ways which do more than simply ignore, or happen not to mention, an historical Jesus—which would in itself be almost inexplicable. The picture presented is not only complete and coherent without him, the language and mode of expression gives every indication that no recent historical Jesus can be present in these writers’ minds. In some cases it is even more than this. The silence is “exclusionary.” The writer’s words exclude him by definition; they make no room for this missing historical Jesus figure.

(This must be distinguished from the category of references that may be “human-sounding” [blood, man, born of woman, etc.], which terms Carrier acknowledges can refer to the “sublunar incarnation” aspect of the savior god Jesus’ salvation activities, in keeping with the Platonic-style philosophy of the time, particularly where mythical salvation thinking was concerned. Moreover, these terms are never in themselves specifically identified with a recent or identifiable historical figure or events on earth.)

Thus, when the full range and character of the silence in the early non-Gospel record is recognized and taken into account, I maintain there can be no feasible, let alone convincing, explanation to account for such a state of affairs which still preserves for these writers a knowledge of an historical Jesus. Certainly none has yet been put forward. All these features raise the AfS, in this particular case, to an elevated level. I would maintain that it not only conforms to Garraghan’s standards, it is the closest we could expect to get in demonstrating the non-existence of such a figure—at least in the sphere of those circles represented by this portion of the record (more on that later).

Weight of Argument

Yet Carrier seems to resist giving it that weight. In fact, at several junctures in his review, he presents and acknowledges the strength of my arguments, the coherence of the case, and yet pulls back from what would seem to be the required degree of weight that ought to be given them. Even though I ‘win’ four out of six of the ABE criteria, and even though in the realm of history, especially ancient history, “it is not common for any theory to be as successful as [getting all six criteria],” still, he says, my theory is “not decisively better” than the historicist one. Even though my case is “bad news for the S[tandard] H[istoricist] T[heory],” it is “not its death knell.” Though it is “simply superior in almost every way in dealing with all the facts as we have them,” nevertheless “it is not overwhelmingly superior.” Though Carrier is “forced to rule against the historicist case,” it is “by a small margin.” (That shift in position from historicist to a-historicist on his part, even if he has only put his foot inside the door, is naturally a source of great satisfaction to me.)

The question to be asked is, why and why not? On what concrete basis does Carrier resist a more committed judgment? He provides no specific reasons or arguments for pulling back from granting the mythicist case the weight it seems to deserve, by his own analysis. It is not, as he acknowledges, because the historicist side has put forward a rival case of relative (even if weaker) strength. He admits that it has not even been tried. And here he may be moving onto risky ground. He suggests that “the fault lies with historicists who have stubbornly failed to develop a theory of historicity.” He seems to be implying that it can be done, just that no one has done it. And as long as it can theoretically be done, we cannot rule out the existence of an historical Jesus. According to his Conclusion, “all this is not to say that the historicity of Jesus has been refuted or that it is now incredible.” But this denial of a stronger ‘victory’ to the mythicist position seems based on his theoretical assumption, that a good case for the opposite is possible—except that no one has done it.

I’ll ask his pardon if I am reading too much into his remarks, but this is a fallacious argument I often find myself having to counter. There may well be or have been unicorns: it’s just that no one has yet uncovered evidence for them. Well, we can only go by the evidence we do have. We can only judge by the cases that have been made. We cannot call on the possibility of non-existent evidence that may have been lost, or may in the future be unearthed (possibilities that are regularly suggested to me). We cannot call on the possibility of effective counter-cases that someone may one day put forward. If and when that happens, then we can re-evaluate the situation. Until that time, reasoned and merited judgments must be made on the basis of what we do possess in the way of evidence and argumentation. (One might note that a vast number of books have already been written about Jesus—far more than on unicorns—and not one so far has provided such a case.)

Which leads me to a final observation on the questions addressed thus far. Carrier applies a court analogy: “…if Doherty could take early Christians to court for the crime of fabricating an historical Jesus, they would go free on reasonable doubt.” Well, no one’s imprisonment, much less life and death, is at stake here (I can imagine some believers wanting to dispute that!), so the principle of reasonable doubt seems a little misplaced. I and other mythicists are simply asking the reader to think, to come to a personal judgment about an historical question, based on a ‘balance of probability.’ This is not laboratory science; nor is it (despite the tongue-in-cheek format of my second book, Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case for Christ’) a courtroom case. We cannot seek to ‘prove’ in any legal or mathematical sense, much less to the complete satisfaction of a defense attorney, many statements historians seek to make, especially the negative ones. But that doesn’t mean we are completely hamstrung in getting a jury, especially one outside a courtroom, to come to a decision.

We can assert with virtual certainty that Caesar was assassinated, that the Spartans ‘won’ the Peloponnesian War, that it was the Egyptians who built the pyramids and not visiting aliens. That brief list increasingly progressed toward the statement of a negative. While it may be technically correct to say that one cannot prove a negative in history (unless one has a contemporary reliable statement to that effect), there are some negatives which a strong or overwhelming weight of evidence can lead one to adopt with compelling or near certainty. I can’t prove that aliens did not construct the pyramids, but I’ll have no hesitation going out on a limb and saying that on balance of probability based on the evidence, they did not. Can I ‘prove’ that Hannibal did not try to enter the city of Rome following his victory at Cannae, when every principle of good strategy in war would have urged that he do so (even given that I have statements saying he didn’t from later historians)?

Similarly, I would maintain that the ‘balance of probability’ as presented by the total picture of the Christian evidence—a cultic movement that ignores, excludes and is complete without an historical Jesus, the absence of first century holy sites, relics, artifacts, Aramaic originals or sources lying behind its documents, etc., contemporary secular silence, silences extending even into major second century Christian apologists, the problems and peculiarities inherent in the Q tradition, and on and on—should lead the neutral observer to adopt that balance of probability. (Let’s call it an “informed and specifically directed agnosticism.”) I acknowledge that we are getting onto ground that is partly subjective here. But history, to a great degree, is a subjective discipline. We adopt the best-deduced views and interpretations we can about the past and apply them in hopefully useful ways in the present. I would settle for persuading a large number of people as to the likelihood that Christianity began without an historical Jesus. But I would strongly invite them to make that commitment.

Appendix of Recommendations

As a way of getting into the “Problems” in The Jesus Puzzle which Carrier itemizes, I want to explore the question of Q and the Galilean side of the composite Christian tradition—which is one of the points raised by Carrier in his Appendix. In Point No. 8 he says that in the matter of Q, I “blur the line between fact and theory” and that I need to disentangle the two. This is an important question, and I will need to do some careful thinking on the matter for any future edition. But I wonder if the remark is not somewhat misleading. Everything to do with Q, including its existence, is theory, even if founded on good deduction, and even if widely supported by modern New Testament scholarship. (Make no mistake, the existence and overall nature/content of Q is supported by a majority of professional, mainstream NT scholars—I will take the liberty of excluding those who are of the ‘Bible College’ derivation and mentality, who generally find Q disturbing—and by a good margin.)

Consequently, it might be a little specious of me to label parts of my Q presentation in the book as “fact” and others as “theory.” I tried to make clear the nature of the Q hypothesis and debate, and what parts of it have support in varying degree, such as the layering of Q into different classes of sayings and their probable sequence in time. Perhaps this needs further clarifying in some respects, but when I go beyond the consensus and fine-tune or even radically alter generally accepted opinion, I think I have sufficiently specified that such things are my own interpretation, backed up with argument and not stated as a given.

Carrier is right in saying that this portion of the book is “the most complicated.” And it is probably also true that it is “the most likely to contain errors,” if by this he means things which are most likely to turn out to be wrong, if we had any conclusive way to discover and demonstrate it. But this is because of the hypothetical and deductive nature of almost everything to do with Q. All I can do is build on the ‘consensus’ groundwork of Q research, and alter the latter’s conclusions as I see fit, based on arguments that I present which I feel are better than the majority thinking. I am not sure how a supposed clarification of ‘fact vs. theory’ would be any more than that, or improve the force or legitimacy of my argument.

The one example of an “error” on my part which Carrier points to is really a semantic misinterpretation of my words, though it perhaps demonstrates that I could benefit from more detailed clarification. He quotes me as saying that Q1 contains “scarcely a Jewish idea.” However, a page later (159) I say: “Why do we find a complete void (beyond a passing reference to Solomon) on all things specifically Jewish” (emphasis added here). The key is “specifically.” The point is, there may indeed be phrases and ideas in Q1 that also find expression in Jewish parlance, but they are also, as Carrier admits, found in the pagan expression of the time, so they cannot be shown to derive from a Jewish milieu. My purpose is to try to undermine any assumption that the content of Q1 ought to be seen as deriving from a Jewish Jesus, especially the one envisioned by Christianity. And the further point is made in the text that the really important and specifically Jewish concerns of the time are indeed missing, something far more significant than whether some of the sayings may have had both a pagan and a Jewish expression.

The reason for calling the section on Q (covering some six chapters or parts thereof) the “weakest” part of the book is a bit unclear. The argument may be more hypothetical than others because of that peculiar situation of analyzing a document which isn’t extant, one that has been deductively extracted from other records. But I would dispute (a subjective opinion, to be sure) that the quality of the argumentation and the use of such deduced evidence as provided by majority scholarship is significantly weaker than anywhere else. (One reviewer on Amazon called The Jesus Puzzle the best book on Q of the many he had read.) It may be based on more uncertainty, but I think that the nature of that foundation should be clear to the reader. That said, however, I intend to give it close examination in any future rewrite.

But again, the object is to ‘persuade’ the reader. My analysis of Q serves two specific purposes. One is to demonstrate from both sides of the gap the clear divide that exists between the cultic side of what became Christianity, as represented by Paul and other non-Gospel documents, and the Galilean side, as represented by Q and the Gospels which partially built upon that document or its traditions. If the former record contains nothing of the latter, the divide is reinforced by demonstrating, or persuading as to probability, that the latter contained nothing of the former (save for some widespread common motifs, such as apocalyptic expectation). Mainstream Q scholarship concedes this, and I sought to strengthen that feature, arguing that the Q tradition could have known nothing of a death under Pilate or a reputed resurrection from the dead. Its Jesus is not even given a redeeming role.

Second, I sought through my analysis of Q to demonstrate that even where the Galilean side was concerned, one could not securely posit an historical Jesus at the root of the movement, not even a founding sage or Kingdom preacher whose death was unnotable. This argument is based on the prior argumentation as to Q’s existence and nature, but there is no getting around that. Perhaps this state of affairs constitutes a “weakness” but it is not something that can be corrected given the nature of the evidence; nor is it, I think, something that misrepresents itself to the reader.

Naturally, if Q could one day be compellingly demonstrated not to have existed, this portion of the mythicist case, certainly mine, would have to be re-essayed. One would have to look for a different basis on which to rule out the limited scenario of a Galilean preacher who gave rise to the root traditions of teaching and miracle-working and apocalyptic prophecy found in the Gospels, and it is possible that such a basis might not be so easily found. But, as I said before, we work with the evidence we do have. Thus far, the best of it makes a strong case for the existence of Q, and I argue from that position. This sort of thing is done by historians all the time. The best I can aim for may be a response like: “Well, based on the evidence we have and as things stand now, it looks like Doherty may be right.” Balance of probability. Agnosticism in a committed direction.

Failing that, and I’ve said this many times, I’d be happy even with half that commitment. “No historical Jesus in Paul’s thinking, in the world of cultic Christianity, but maybe a teacher-prophet of some kind behind the Q tradition and that portion of the Gospels, since Doherty’s arguments in that direction rest on less certain and securely analyzable ground than the other.” Perhaps reviewers would like to differentiate and give different ‘margins of victory’ to the different dimensions of the mythicist position. This, however, is not to say that I personally subscribe to that ‘half-commitment’ or that I feel any less secure with my reading of either side, and I invite readers to evaluate the argumentation on both the Pauline cultic and the Galilean teaching dimensions of the question. (Wells made the mistake of voicing a limited qualification on the possible existence of a Galilean teacher, and the orthodox team quite characteristically grabbed the ball and claimed to have scored a touchdown against him, if not to have won the game!)

Looking at the Problems

Now to the other specific “Problems” Carrier enumerates in my book. As I said, most of them are valid to some degree. I will not address them all, but offer some qualifications on several, and dispute only a few.

Carrier’s Point 4:

On the question of “hyperbole.” I made the statement (p.26) that “if none of the sayings and deeds of Jesus found in the Gospels are attributed to him in the epistles…the Gospels cannot be accepted as providing any reliable historical data.” Carrier does two things with that statement which I must fault him for. First, in quoting it he leaves out the word “reliable,” which is the focus of the statement. My argument was a common sense one. If a story claims to present historical data, and yet a plethora of other documents from the same period and on the same subject fails to provide us with any of the detail of that story, big and small, we are justified in regarding the data of that story as “unreliable.” That is, we may have no basis on which to place reliance on it, and especially if many aspects of the story are already demonstrably unhistorical, far-fetched or midrashically based on scripture. I would say this is not hyperbole.

Second, in offering his analogy of Plato’s writings vs. Diogenes’ account of Plato, he has fudged the comparison in ways which compromise its applicability. The question of whether Diogenes’ account might not be “exactly reflected” in the letters is not parallel to my statement, which suggests that virtually none of the details of the Gospels are reflected in the epistles, not that there are simply minor or a few discrepancies. If virtually nothing in Diogenes were corroborated by Plato himself, we might indeed have to “throw [him] out.” We would certainly be justified in setting him aside as a source we could depend on, which is essentially what my statement said.

Carrier’s objection to my claim of ‘incredibility’ for the rapid spread of Christianity may be more valid, but I do point out that this presumed spread would have had to involve convincing large numbers of Jews (along with gentiles) that a man—a man!—they had never previously heard of was in fact the Son of the God of Abraham, preexistent with him through all eternity, the creating and sustaining force of the universe, a divinity who had risen from the dead, and had redeemed the world. This does exceed, I think, the scope of the claims that would have accompanied the spread of Mormonism.

And I do offer a mea culpa for the remark about “serious scholars” dating Matthew.

Carrier’s Point 6:

More cites, more specific dating, more clarification and discussion of the details relating to sources. Yes, all that would be preferable in principle. I could, for example, devote an entire chapter (instead of a page) to the Odes of Solomon and what it reveals about proto-Christian thinking; an entire chapter to the Ascension of Isaiah and its motifs of descent through the spiritual spheres and a crucifixion of the Son in the heavenly realm by “the god of that world” (Satan). I’d love to sink my teeth into Philo at greater length, or quote extensively from The Apocalypse of Adam, or show how the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (which I mention not at all) contains no knowledge of an historical Jesus. If I were a part of the mainstream New Testament industry, I could perhaps find a publisher to finance a two-volume work. Sigh. This is not being facetious. Carrier is right, in that more of what he recommends would make the case stronger and more convincing, and I can always do more ‘bumping up’ in some areas (Galatians 4:4 is probably one of them). But I am still bound by lengths of scrolls and by what makes a readable book for the general public, rather than a strictly academic study.

The latter also explains why I put a lot of material into the Notes (Carrier’s Point 7), so as not to overload the main text with ‘secondary’ arguments and observations that were not absolutely essential, even if they were often very supportive. (It also helped that the Notes are in smaller print!) But this is something I will look at for any Second Edition.

Carrier’s Point 10-i:

Yes, I essentially relied on Wells for the question of Pilate’s title, and whether Tacitus got it wrong. Wells points to an inscription as well as Dodd’s similar opinion on the matter (Did Jesus Exist?, p.14). I look forward to the publication of Carrier’s study on the question.

Carrier’s Point 10-vi:

On the question of the “he says” as found in 1 Clement and Hebrews, I would suggest that Carrier’s objection is not so valid in the context in which I discuss it. In general parlance, one might well, in some contexts, use the present tense to refer to past events. But when, as in the cases I offer, it is a reference, an introduction, to words in scripture, the situation is different. The writer is pointing to the scriptural passages: this is what is being ‘said’ in the present, and sometimes it is the Holy Spirit that is doing the saying. It would be difficult to regard the writer as envisioning that these are words spoken at some time in the historical past by an historical figure but styled in the present tense. One of them is Clement’s quote (chapter 16) of the entire Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. My presentation here sought to make the reader aware that passages in scripture could be regarded by these writers as the ‘voice’ of the Son speaking in a ‘timeless’ present, in other words in a mythological sense.

Carrier’s Point 10-viii:

While my Attic is very rusty (I never work with it now), and I get the impression that Carrier’s knowledge of Koine may be superior to mine, I can only point out that kuriotes is defined by Bauer’s Lexicon as “The essential nature of the kurios, the Lord’s nature, w[ith] ref[erence] to God, D[idache] 4:1.” And Bauer supplies secular sources to support “of the special meaning of a thing.” Further, Kirsopp Lake (in the Loeb Apostolic Fathers) translates the Didache clause “hothen gar he kuriotes laleitai” as “for where the Lord’s nature is spoken of.”

Carrier’s Point 10-ix:

On the matter of whether the “tois” phrase of 1 Timothy 6:3 bears the mark of an interpolation, I will survey the question further, but to the extent that it was very common practice in Koine to skip both insertions of the ‘redundant’ article, this makes it unusual when it does appear. In fact, Carrier points out the only example of even inserting it once that I am now aware of. When I was investigating the 1 Timothy passage, I surveyed every example I could find where a text offered the phrase “words of [someone, especially a divinity]” or an idea to that effect. I missed Romans 5:15 (which is preceded by a similar phrase that leaves out the article) because it did not contain the idea of words or pronouncements. But of the some dozen cases in the early Christian documents where the idea does appear, not a single one other than 1 Timothy 6:3 inserted the article.

For example, Hebrews 5:12: “…to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles [logon] of God”; no optional article between “oracles” and its qualifying “of God.” In the epistle of Barnabas 21:1, “he who has learned the ordinances of the Lord,” no article between “ordinances” and “of God.” The same is true of Revelation 1:3, 17:17, 22:18 and 19; Luke 3:4; John 3:34; Acts 15:15 and especially 20:35 which shows the identical phrase to 1 Timothy 6:3: “the words of the Lord Jesus: ton logon tou kuriou Iesou” with no article following logon (one looking back to that word with the same case ending). Even in the Greek Septuagint I could not find a single case of inserting the modifying article (which isn’t to say there could not be some).

Consequently, I felt it was valid to regard the 1 Timothy case as unusual, though I should not have stated it as though it were a grammatical principle. And considering that if some scribe had given birth to the phrase as a marginal gloss this would be the natural way to write it, I would say we are justified in looking at it with a suspicious eye. Especially so, since the phrase is missing in five other places in the Pastorals that make a reference to the same “wholesome words” and since here it seems carelessly done, failing to encompass the succeeding phrase “and to good religious teaching.”

J. N. D. Kelly (The Pastoral Epistles, p.133) also finds something unusual about the passage: “There is no definite article in the Greek before ‘wholesome words,’ and we should have expected one if the meaning were ‘the sayings of Jesus.’ Further, if this had been the meaning, it is odd that Paul did not simply write, ‘the wholesome words of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ but instead added ‘those of our Lord Jesus Christ’ as a kind of qualification of ‘wholesome words.’ (Kelly indicates elsewhere that he can be non-committal about the Pastorals’ Pauline authorship.)

Kelly’s observation about the missing article before “wholesome words” is telling. Compare these two statements: “Obey good teaching” and “Obey the good teaching of Jesus.” The first is natural without the article, the second requires it. Yet in the case we are examining it is missing, leading one to suspect that the qualifying phrase crept in, probably from the margin, and no article was brought in with it. Kelly’s nose has detected a certain odor here, but he can’t bring himself to identify the scent.

Carrier’s Point 10-x:

I am not sure (nor are some scholars—see below) about the certainty with which Carrier makes his statement about the “ei…an” clause in Hebrews 8:4. Most cases would bear out the general principle that with an imperfect in both parts of the statement, the sense is of a present (contrafactual) condition; and that in conveying a past condition, the aorist would be used. But what of a continuing condition that extends from the past into the present? None of the aorist examples I can find convey that sense, only the sense of a specific condition limited to the past. What formula would be used to convey an ongoing condition, one existing for some time and still existing? I suggest it would be the one using the imperfect, which is a tense in itself that entails an ongoing quality. Thus an “ei…an” statement using the imperfect tense could in certain cases be ambiguous.

I suggest that this is what led Paul Ellingworth (Epistle to the Hebrews, p.405) to say the following (this is a fuller quote than I supplied when referring to Ellingworth in my book):
    “The second difficulty concerns the meaning of the two occurrences of en. The imperfect in unreal conditions is temporally ambiguous, so that NEB [New English Bible] ‘Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest’ (so Attridge) is grammatically possible. However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ’s present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth’.”

This ambiguity, entailing a condition extending back into the past, also makes sense in the context. I have asked why the writer would trouble to make a statement confined only to the present when in fact one part of the statement was supposedly contradicted by a recent past situation, and the reason now used to justify the statement itself also existed in that past situation. In other words, the “if he were on earth” clause is contrafactual, not true; yet it was supposedly very true in the recent past. No cognizance of this conflict is hinted at; the writer does not say something like “if he were now on earth.” Then, the reason for the conditional statement itself, that “if he were on earth he would not be a priest,” is implied as being because there are already priests here to do the job. But there were earthly priests in the past to do the job, including at the time when Jesus was supposedly on earth conducting his role as High Priest, which is Hebrews’ central characterization of him. If he wouldn’t be a priest “now” because there are human priests present on the scene, making him redundant or creating a conflict, why is it that he wasn’t rendered redundant or in conflict in the recent past, when those same priests should have rendered him so? Why would the writer of Hebrews choose to make such a trivial statement applying to the present, when its very opposite was true in the much more important situation of the recent past?

Ellingworth goes on to state: “The argument presupposes, rather than states, that God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition [that is, the earthly priests and Jesus as High Priest].” In fact, the passage as a whole stipulates that those earthly priests perform earthly duties and sacrifices, while Jesus the High Priest has his own duties and sacrifices, which chapters 8 and 9 place in a heavenly setting and category. Yet Ellingworth fails to perceive the contradiction involved, that the same conflict (between heavenly and earthly priests) would have existed in the recent past, something the writer of Hebrews should have been aware of and at the very least should have felt constrained to clarify.

(I’d be curious to know what insight or instinct led the scholars who translated the NEB to render this phrase in the past, something Ellingworth acknowledges is possible with this “temporally ambiguous” phrase, or how they resolved the conflict in their own minds.)

Thus a solely present contrafactual meaning to this particular phrase, even if it does use the imperfect tense, not only falters on this logical conflict, one can only make sense of it by extending its meaning back into the past as well. Grammars and lexicons are very good at formulating principles, but in practice usages and meanings can often be looser and have special applications. (Arguments over the para vs. apo debate in regard to 1 Corinthians 11:23, or the meaning of oikumene in the context of Hebrews 1:6, are good examples.) I submit that this passage can only convey one thing: that in this writer’s mind, Jesus had never been on earth.

Carrier’s Point 2:

My final comment is on Carrier’s Point 2. I am really not convinced that I need or ought to address all the religious arguments on the other side along with the secular, and certainly not to an equal degree. Individual points would have to be evaluated on their own merit, but if the lid were thrown open to the full range of supernaturalist argument (not just apologist), it would be a real can of worms.

How could a prosecuting attorney seriously deal with a defense lawyer who explained that his client had shown knowledge of details of the crime because he was clairvoyant, or that he had been present in a certain room because he could walk through walls? The problem is, arguments like this in the religious sphere are often unanswerable from a scholarly point of view. The best one can do is argue against the principle of supernatural assumption itself, as I do with Gregory Boyd and Gary Collins in Challenging the Verdict. Do I really want to address, let’s say, the question of how the stone may have been moved from in front of the tomb by having to take into account that an angel could have done it? The orthodox side would probably claim that I do. But The Jesus Puzzle and its author live and argue in a rational, naturalistic world, and I make no apologies for that. I also know that, for the most part, I am appealing to, and have a chance of reaching, those readers who live in the same world as well.

Once again, I thank Richard Carrier for a review that is honest, intelligent and constructive, and the most important The Jesus Puzzle has yet received.

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