On Carrier’s pre-Christian Jesus Myth
Richard Carrier is a freelance historian with a PhD in Ancient History from Columbia University. He is arguably the most prominent proponent of the Christ Myth hypothesis, today, and one of the few historical scholars with actual qualifications in history that holds to such a position. If you are unaware, the Christ Myth hypothesis argues that there never existed an actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth upon whom the Christian faith eventually became focused. Instead, the Jesus of Nazareth presented in the gospels is a deliberate attempt to tie myths about a celestial being into history. This view is generally dismissed, panned, and ignored by the vast majority of mainstream scholarship, and one could quite rightly describe Richard Carrier as a fringe scholar. However, the simple fact that Carrier is a fringe scholar is not a very good reason for dismissing his work, out of hand. The man is actually a qualified historian, with a PhD from a respected university, who has had articles published in respected academic journals. The fact that his hypothesis goes against mainstream scholarship does not invalidate the rest of his qualifications.
Carrier recently published a book entitled On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt which lays out his views and arguments. I have been meaning to purchase, read, and review that book for this site since it was released, but I refuse to pay $85 for the hardcover or $35 for the paperback version– I find such prices to be wholly excessive. Unfortunately, the book has not yet received an eBook release, which I might be more inclined to purchase (though not if the price is similarly high). Still, Carrier has engaged in a number of debates and public presentations, and it is easy to find at least an overview of his position. For example, he recently gave a talk at Zeteticon which outlines his view.
One of the major points that Carrier alleges, in his presentation, is that we have evidence that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial being which was actually named Jesus, and was the firstborn son of God, in the celestial image of God, who acted as God’s agent of creation, and was God’s celestial high priest. I have seen Carrier present this information numerous times, in different talks, including the one which I linked above, and he always presents it without actually quoting from the sources which he cites. Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t yet read On the Historicity of Jesus, and it is fully possible that Carrier addresses some of my contentions there, but I find his entire claim that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial Jesus to be almost entirely unsupportable.
Carrier’s primary source for his claims about the pre-Christian Jesus Myth comes from the works of a prolific and highly respected Jewish philosopher and theologian, Philo Iudaeus of Alexandria. Carrier cites several passages from Philo, but the most important one– the only one which Carrier can use to support his claim that this proposed pre-Christian celestial being was actually named Jesus– comes from a work known as On the Confusion of Tongues, sections 62 and 63. The passage reads as follows (from the Yonge translation):
I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” 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. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.
Having read that, you’re probably wondering precisely the same thing which I wondered when I first started researching Carrier’s claim. Where is the name, “Jesus?” The passage which Carrier cites to show that there was a pre-Christian belief in a celestial being named Jesus doesn’t actually mention anyone named Jesus, celestial or otherwise. So, why does he cite this passage? The answer is in Philo’s statement that, “I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: ‘Behold, a man whose name is the East!'” This is a reference to a Biblical passage, Zechariah 6:11-12, which says:
Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak; say to him: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.
Now, chances are pretty good– unless you’ve actually studied this passage and the linguistics behind it, before– that you are now even more confused than you were previously, but allow me to explain. First, let’s establish why we think the Philo passage is a reference to Zechariah, since Philo’s quote clearly says something different than the Biblical verse. Philo gives the quote as, “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” while the direct quote of Zch 6:11-12 (NRSV) reads, “Here is a man whose name is Branch…” There’s certainly a similarity, there, but why do we think that Philo is quoting from Zechariah? The reason is that Philo generally utilized a Greek translation of the Scriptures called the Septuagint, rather than reading directly from the Hebrew. The word which is translated as “Branch” in the NRSV is צֶ֤מַח (se-mah). In the Septuagint, this word was translated using the Greek word Ἀνατολὴ (Anatolē), which can carry the same connotation of “branching” intended by צֶ֤מַח, but which was very commonly used by Greek-speakers to refer to “sunrise” or “the East.” This is why it seems fairly clear, to scholars, that Philo’s clause, “Behold, a man whose name is the East,” seems to be a reference to Zechariah 6:12.
Now that we’ve established that Philo is referring to this Biblical passage, where does the name “Jesus” fit into things? That’s actually an easier thing to see. Zechariah 6:11 explicitly mentions “the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak.” The Greek language didn’t have all the same sounds which Hebrew had, so when names were being written in Greek translations, they had to undergo a process called “transliteration.” This is when we take a word, in one language, and try to reproduce it phonetically using another language’s alphabet. So, the Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁ֥עַ is transliterated into Greek as Ἰησοῦς. Later, the word Ἰησοῦς was transliterated into Latin as “Iesus,” which then found its way into English as “Jesus.” Thus, it is clear that Zechariah 6:11 actually is talking about a person named Jesus.
Given all of this, why do I think that Carrier is wrong to claim that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial being named Jesus?
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Carrier is correct when he asserts that Philo had a belief in a celestial being named Jesus. Even if Philo actually believed in a celestial being named Jesus, this does not indicate that such a belief was, at all, widespread in Judaism. The context of the passage seems to indicate that it is simply the musings of a single Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt. There is no indication in any ancient evidence that any other Jews held a pre-Christian belief in a celestial being named Jesus, let alone that Jews from Tarsus or Jerusalem or Capernaum or Antioch, which were greatly separated from Alexandria both geographically and culturally, would share such a belief.
However, I don’t think that Carrier could even be justified in claiming that Philo, himself, held a belief in a celestial being named Jesus. Contrary to Carrier’s commentary, Philo is not talking about a celestial being named Jesus, in this passage from On the Confusion of Tongues. Rather, this passage appears in the middle of a discussion on the nature of the human soul. Philo spends a great deal of time discussing wicked men, especially men who act first and then attempt to justify their actions by God, afterwards. During this discussion, and immediately before the passage Carrier cites, Philo says that “there is a twofold kind of dawning in the soul.” The good kind, he says, is “when the light of the virtues shines forth like the beams of the sun,” while the bad kind is when those virtues are in the shadows so that vices show, instead. For an example of the good kind of “dawning in the soul,” he refers to the Garden of Eden which was “toward the East,” which Philo claims contained “celestial plants” which sprang up from an incorporeal light.
It is at this point in his discussion about the soul that Philo writes the passage which I quoted at the beginning of the article. Rereading that passage now, in context, presents a very different picture than the one Carrier has intended. When Philo makes note of “a man whose name is the East,” in the context of the passage, he is very clearly referring to Adam– not to the Joshua son of Jehozadak found in Zechariah 6:11. Just as the plants in Eden were not terrestrial plants, but celestial ones, so too was Adam not a terrestrial man, but a celestial one. It is to Adam that Philo refers, when he says, “the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn.”
So, if Philo meant to talk about Adam, why is he quoting a passage from Zechariah which refers to Joshua ben Jehozadak?
The answer is that while the reference seems to be referring to Zechariah 6:12, it is certainly not quoting that passage. Instead, Philo remembers having heard the phrase “Behold, a man whose name is Anatolē!” as having come from Scripture; and since he is now making reference to “dawnings,” and the “beams of the sun,” and “the East,” he misunderstands this phrase, thinking that it is referring to a man whose name is the East. Notice that Philo does not say something like, “as the prophet Zechariah said,” when he introduces this saying, but rather states, “I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this.” Quite clearly, Philo is remembering something he has heard, and not quoting directly from a book he has at hand.
Furthermore, when Philo says, “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” his original Greek phrasing for this is Ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος ὁ ὄνομα Ἀνατολὴ, while the Septuagint translation of Zechariah 6:12 instead renders this passage as Ἰδοὺ ἀνήρ Ἀνατολὴ ὄνομα αὐτῷ. Even if you don’t read Greek, you can fairly easily see that the former is not a direct quote of the latter. Of course, it’s possible Philo utilized a different translation into Greek of Zechariah; however, I know of no other Greek manuscript of Zechariah which phrases this passage in the manner Philo does. Furthermore, it is fairly clear and explicit from elsewhere in his work that Philo utilized the Septuagint, extensively. It would be fairly peculiar for him to switch to another translation solely for this passage.
In addition, if Philo had read Zechariah 6:11-12 for himself, he would have been very aware that the word Anatolē used in that passage has absolutely nothing to do with “dawning,” “beams of the sun,” or “the East,” which is his entire purpose for utilizing the quote. The “man whose name is Anatolē” from Zechariah 6:12 makes no sense at all in the context of the “dawning of the soul” which Philo intends to discuss. In contrast to the hypothesis Carrier tries to put forward, it seems fairly clear that Joshua ben Jehozadak is not being discussed by Philo, in the least.
Richard Carrier claims that stories about Jesus of Nazareth were most likely an attempt to euhemerize a pre-Christian, Jewish mythology about a celestial being named Jesus. In order to support such a claim, Carrier knows that he must show some evidence that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish mythology about a celestial being named Jesus. For this, he points to the works of Philo Iudaeus. However, it seems fairly clear that Carrier needs to take Philo entirely out of context in order to support this claim. A plain reading of the primary sources shows that Philo never makes mention of a celestial being named Jesus, in any of his works; and that Philo’s paraphrase of Zechariah 6:12 in On the Confusion of Tongues has nothing to do with Joshua son of Jehozadak. I cannot see how Richard Carrier’s particular mythicist hypothesis can stand without a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial being named Jesus, and Carrier has not successfully demonstrated that such a belief actually existed.