|Proof that St. Mark|
traveled in China.
After Ehrman wrote a synopsis of his views in the Huffington Post, Carrier responded with an angry diatribe, which I reported and responded to, two posts ago. Other scholars also weighed in on Ehrman's behalf, including James McGrath, to whose post Carrier then responded. (You don't need to read all this if you have bak choi or Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to saute right now: we have bigger fish to fry, ourselves.)
The argument is, of course, entertaining for us Christians in the peanut gallery -- like watching members of the wolf pack rip into one another before they descend upon the sheep.
Not that I think Richard Carrier's teeth carry much bite.
But let's keep in mind the bigger question -- not whether Jesus lived, but how he lived, and what his life means Carrier argues that the "dying and rising god" myth, as contained in the Gospel story, was borrowed by early Christians from a larger "mytheme" of dying and rising gods in the Near Middle East (NME). I think something larger than merely rebutting a fringe Internet theory can be extracted from this argument: a better understanding of God's work in the whole world through Jesus.
I. Questions to Dismiss Summarily, or not
I don't care to argue, as many Christians have, that no such dying and rising god "mytheme" can be found before the time of Christ in the NME. I don't mind if it can. Like C. S. Lewis, I think the Gospel fulfills truth in many pagan religious traditions. The "Dying and Rising God" trope may demonstrate that the need Christ fulfills was keenly felt in the larger, pagan world into which he was born. It may even show that God prepared Greco-Roman cultures for the Gospel beforehand.
Such, some early Christian fathers already argued.
How, then, can we discriminate between pagan myth and "Gospel truth," if indeed the gospels are telling the truth? How do we know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John weren't just inventing a fictional character who acted out what people in that region of the world wanted from their pre-fab, rent-a-cheap-tuxedo, made-up saviors?
This question also strikes me as wrong-headed. How do we know the Gospels are historical, not just mythological? How do we know rocks are made of crystals? That trees have roots? Or that tomatoes splat when you throw them against steel beams? By looking, of course! The Gospels can be opened, and read, and their qualities discerned. With all due respect to Josephus, and his fleeting and interesting references to Jesus, the observable character of the Gospels, as read by billions of observant people, is why "Christ mythicism" never has been, and never will be, more than a fringe position.
If you want a more detailed analysis of why the Gospels are credible, please read my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. In that book, I analyze 50 characteristics of the Gospels, and show how they differ from ancient fictional works to which they are often compared, like the "Gospel" of Thomas, the Iliad, and (though it may contain a few historical elements) Apollonius of Tyana, and why many of those differences underscore the essentially historical character of the Gospels.
Here I'd like to approach the question quite differently.
Three models for relating ancient myth and the Gospel of Jesus are commonly proposed:
(1) Carrier et al: Jesus' life, death, and resurrection resemble the Dying and Rising God motif. Therefore the early Christians borrowed that motif, and created a fictional character, Jesus, who reprises the themes of a prior motif almost unique to Near Middle Eastern cultures. For instance (Carrier argues, below), one does not find this motif in ancient China.
(2) Nash, et al: Jesus' life, death, and resurrection don't resemble any detailed pagan motif that can be shown to predate the emergence of Christianity, in much detail.
(3) Lewis, et al: Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do resemble the Dying and Rising God motif, as concrete, historical truth resembles mythological foreshadows of that truth. This is because the Gospel fulfills truth that can be found in mythology around the world.
The contrast between (1) and (2) is obvious, maybe done to death. But between (1) and (3) we have different, though equally significant, contrast in expectations. According to Carrier's model of cultural influence, one would expect motifs that are closest to the Gospels, to occur before Christianity arises, and in areas of the world that could influence the Gospels, such as the NME.
According Lewis' model, one might expect equally strong parallels in, say, China, where Carrier explicitly tells us we should NOT find at least one form of such parallels, as we shall see.
So what do we find in China? If one finds even more striking motifs related to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in China, than in, say, Egypt or Anatolia, then it seems to me Lewis' model would explain those facts far better than Carrier's model. (Or that of Nash. And, perhaps, better support the truth of the Gospel, which claims to fulfill truth God has placed in the heart of all humanity.)
I posted a brief, preliminary challenge to Carrier on his web-site. He responded arrogantly and incuriously. I'll recount that conversation, in Part II. Then I'll respond in more detail, and show that in fact, very strong precedent for the death and resurrection of Jesus can be found in Chinese culture.
What will follow? Not merely that Carrier's argument will be undermined -- though that it will. Of course Mark was not reading the Chinese Classics. If they had been available to him, skeptics like Carrier would no doubt claim that he borrowed these themes from the Chinese sources. Which makes one wonder why the claim that early Christians borrowed from the Greeks helps explain anything. It would be like explaining a single rock in Stonehedge as an outcropping that had been weathered naturally -- ignoring the larger pattern of rocks which would be harder to explain that way.
But refuting Carrier, et al, is a minor achievement. Historically speaking, the Gospels are their own defense. No one but a fool would confuse them with myth, in the first place.
What is more interesting is to show how God has prepared the peoples of the world for the coming of Christ. I will touch on a few motifs, in a little detail, in Part III, this being the subject of my popular old book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.
II. Dialogue of the Deaf
Carrier: Mistake #3: Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. (See my chapter on the origins of Christianity in The End of Christianity, ch. 2, pp. 53-74.)
Marshall: I am inclined to dispute the claim that no such pattern (flexibly described, as you do) can be found in China. The popular goddess Miao Shan was daughter of a king, was killed, and raised to life because of her kindness. The parallel is arguably closer. In Journey to the West, furthermore, Tai Zong descends into hell, though he has not quite died, and is brought back. He is emperor, also son of the founder of the Tang . . .
Carrier: The popular goddess Miao Shan was daughter of a king, was killed, and raised to life because of her kindness.
But dating to when? Not antiquity. Miao Shan didn’t even exist as a deity until the 10th century, long after Nestorian Christians entered China. China also did not have a belief in hell or reincarnation until the Buddhists imported it, and the earliest known version of the Miao Shan tale appears from a Buddhist source. And that version does not in fact involve a resurrection (Miao Shan never actually dies in the story; she is snatched away by a divinity before her murderers can find her). We do not hear of the resurrection version until later still. Tai Zong is likewise a mediavel Buddhism-influenced tale (7th century).
Why didn’t it occur to you to check any of this? Do you see how you are defending historicity by acting exactly like the sloppy mythicists who pay no attention to chronology? Why do you start acting exactly like them the moment you desperately need to defend the contrary thesis? This isn’t the only time historicists do this. It is a very curious thing.
(I should also add: and in what respect is either of these examples a son of god or a savior deity? If we limit the trend to dying-and-rising savior demigods, these examples fail to apply altogether, and yet there were numerous dying-and-rising savior demigods in the West, thus a trend existed in the West that did not exist in the East; whereas when we allow all resurrection tales to count, there are literally dozens in the West [see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 3], and only two in the East, and both are late medieval and thus post-date both Buddhist and Christian influence, so again we have a downright fascination with resurrected heroes in the ancient West, and none in the ancient East.)
Marshall: "But dating to when? Not antiquity. Miao Shan didn’t even exist as a deity until the 10th century, long after Nestorian Christians entered China."
But you didn't say antiquity. I was responding to what you actually said.
In any case, the chance that the Religion of Light inspired these ideas is remote. Jing Jiao was not terribly influential by that time, if it ever was, among Han Chinese.
And that version does not in fact involve a resurrection (Miao Shan never actually dies in the story; she is snatched away by a divinity before her murderers can find her).
Actually, in most versions, she does die, descends into hell, and transforms the place as Psyche was said to. And then she is resurrected.
We do not hear of the resurrection version until later still. Tai Zong is likewise a mediavel Buddhism-influenced tale (7th century).
Probably later. I said Journey to the West, not Tai Zong himself, the historical character.
Why didn’t it occur to you to check any of this? Do you see how you are defending historicity by acting exactly like the sloppy mythicists who pay no attention to chronology? Why do you start acting exactly like them the moment you desperately need to defend the contrary thesis?
You're scatting, Richard. I don't need to check this because I know the facts. Apparently you delayed posting my comments until you could do a little searching, but didn't do enough. You should have at least googled "Journey to the West," if you didn't know what I was talking about, when I mentioned Tai Zong.
(I should also add: and in what respect is either of these examples a son of god or a savior deity?
Miao Shan is generally identified with Guan Yin, the greatest Chinese "savior deity," technically a bodhisattva. She's everywhere in East Asia.
But you didn’t say antiquity. I was responding to what you actually said.
I wrote “dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China)” (emphasis added). Can you please start reading what I write? (Or stop trying to make post hoc excuses for your mistakes, whichever is the case here.)And that is a lame way to avoid the issue, anyway. It should be obviously invalid to argue that a phenomenon post-dating Christian influence in China represents an independent trend. The point of my argument is that people don’t just spontaneously come up with dying-and-rising savior demigods. If you don’t get that point, you need to start thinking harder and reading more carefully. Because this is getting annoying.
Actually, in most versions, she does die, descends into hell, and transforms the place as Psyche was said to. And then she is resurrected.
Yeah. And my point is, those changes to the story long post date even the 10th century original story (which was Buddhist), and thus are even more likely inspired by Christian competition (as Buddhists started vamping up their myths to match the intriguing ideas that, after many, many centuries, they heard from Christians).
In short, neither independence, nor the existence of a trend, can be established here. It is therefore a shit example, and you should never have resorted to it.
Especially since this kind of chronological gaffe is exactly what you say mythicists shouldn’t do. Yet here you are doing it.
Miao Shan is generally identified with Guan Yin, the greatest Chinese “savior deity,” technically a bodhisattva.
You are playing semantic games. You do not achieve salvation by worshipping her. She is therefore not a savior deity in any relevant sense of the term. Nor is she a demigod (the daughter of God).
Again, such semantic tricks are the very thing you accuse mythicists of. Yet here you are doing it, too.
You should have at least googled “Journey to the West,” if you didn’t know what I was talking about, when I mentioned Tai Zong.
I actually knew all about that. I was only talking about the earliest versions of the relevant tales (Zong’s tour of hell in this case), since that was all that mattered to my point. Again, you are desperately ignoring what I actually said, and grasping at straws, and fabricating mistakes I didn’t make, to try and rescue yourself from admitting to having made a boner mistake that’s just as bad as the worst we get from any mythicist.
Someday, maybe, you’ll learn to admit a mistake, instead of spinning yarns and excuses.
And possibly, on the day after that, you’ll be less certain of Jesus’ historicity.
Marshall: Carrier does catch me in one error, here. He also makes new ones of his own, admits none of his old ones, then accuses me of never admitting mistakes. Let's review these trivial points, before going on to matters of substance about the Gospel and how it is foreshadowed in Chinese tradition.
* My error lies in stupidly overlooking the word "antiquity" in Carrier's original comment. In some ways, this is a major error, in others, trivial. It is major because ideally, to defeat Carrier's point, it would be best to point to examples from China that unambiguously predate any possible Christian influence. I will give such examples, in the final part of this blog. It is trivial, because there is little chance that either early stories about Tai Zong, or the stories of Miao Shan descending into Yin Jian, then rising from the dead, were derived from Christianity, for reasons I will explain a little more about below.
* Carrier responds to my correcting his claim that Miao Shan didn't die, by simply saying "Yeah." In the most popular versions, she does die, and I believe that version was quite early.
* Carrier then ascribes the story of Miao Shan to competition with Christians. This is almost impossible, since there was, effectively, no competition with Christians when this story germinated and grew, in the 11th or 12th Centuries. Furthermore, the legend of Miao Shan arose at a rural temple in Central China, where monks would have been even less likely to run into any Christians, still less see them as some sort of threat or competition. (It's true a few Nestorians were diffuse throughout China, but most belonged to Central Asian minorities, there was little effective outreach to Han Chinese, and most appear to have lived in the cities.)
But to be clear, I'll give stronger examples in Part III from before the time of Christ.
* You are playing semantic games. You do not achieve salvation by worshipping her. She is therefore not a savior deity in any relevant sense of the term. Nor is she a demigod (the daughter of God).
Guan Yin most certainly was, and is, worshipped as a savior deity, in almost every relevant sense of the term. This is clear already in the Lotus Sutra, where Avalokitsvara is almost a monotheistic deity:
“Suppose you are in a ship drifting on a great ocean, where dragons, fish and devils are rampant. If you think of the power of Avalokitsvara, the ship will not be sunk by the waves.”
In fact, she remains the most popular savior deity, not only in China, but also in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and among overseas Chinese, and I believe is popular in Vietnam. She plays a central role in Journey to the West, in which she is the goddess who alone (and easily) defeats the Monkey King, then sends him and his comrades on their salvific journey to India to fetch Scriptures.
It is incredible to me that anyone who knows anything about Guan Yin would say she is "not a savior deity in any relevant sense," especially with her connection to a dying-and-rising Miao Shan. I conclude, therefore, that Carrier knows almost nothing about Chinese religion.
* I actually knew all about that. I was only talking about the earliest versions of the relevant tales (Zong’s tour of hell in this case), since that was all that mattered to my point.
But what I mentioned was the Tai Zong of the Journey to the West. Responding to some other Tai Zong, fictional or historical, was irrelevant, since I introduced this fictional Tai Zong to support my point, which Carrier was responding to.
Talk about refusing to admit a mistake.
But let's return to the heart of the issue, now.
III. Dying and Rising in Chinese Tradition
The question is whether the story of Jesus was invented from earlier materials in the Near Middle Eastern tradition. Carrier takes the alleged resemblance between the pattern of Dying and Rising Gods, and the story of Jesus in the Gospels, as prima facia evidence (in some degree) for that borrowing. Some scholars say, in response, that the parallels are not really that close. Others (myself included) argue that while the Gospels do share a few characteristics with this "mytheme" (as, indeed, does the life of Gandhi), the Gospels are obviously historical records of a real person who really died -- and, yes, rose again.
But what if closer parallels to the Gospel story can be found in traditions so far removed from Israel, that borrowing is near-nigh impossible?
One might point to India to make this point. As Krishnan Mohan Banarjea pointed out already in the 19th Century, the Rig Veda foreshadows the Gospel in some remarkable ways, especially in its overriding theme of God sacrificing himself for the world.
But let's go even further, to render the possibility of influence not just unlikely, but quite beyond the bounds of plausibility. Let's go to China.
In oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), happiness is intimately associated with sacrifice. This is seen even in the character fu (福),the ubiquitous term for "happiness," which you find on doorposts, in Chinese restaurants, in names of people and cities and companies, everywhere in Chinese culture. Originally this character evolved from a sketch of a sacrificial vessel. In the earliest Chinese written texts, blessings come from God, in the context of offering. The theme of God's concern for the human race, the centrality of sacrifice as part of communion with Heaven and the Supreme Being, and idea that happiness is somehow related to that sacrifice and that communion, is an overwhelming theme of great ritual poems towards the end of what is probably the earliest Chinese classic, the Book of Poetry.
Philosopher Yuan Zhiming names four kinds of sacrifice: 褅祭, led by the Son of Heaven; 郊祭, the ‘border sacrifice’ of high-quality animals to Shang Di (God) by the ruler; and two sacrifices by which reports were made to Shang Di: 烟祭 and 类祭. Citing oracle bones, Yuan interprets fu as essentially meaning ‘what God gives.’
The key Chinese character yi (義), righteousness, shows ‘I’ on the bottom, and a sheep on top. Chinese Christians often read this as: ‘I sacrifice a sheep, the sheep (that is, Jesus, the lamb of God) covers me, and I become righteous’ (远: 2000, 7, 25).
At times of crisis, the idea sometimes also arises that the king (or sage) might sacrifice himself for the good of all. The idea of self-sacrifice for all the people is exemplified in the story of King Tang, the founder of the Shang Dynasty. When rains failed to fall, he offered to be the sacrifice for his people. While he was thus praying, the rain began to fall.
This concept is engrained in the Dao Dejing, which says the Sage-King will be "lord of the sacrifice." Yuan argues that the Sage is actually thought to be the sacrifice.
So several elements in the Christian story were prominent in the Chinese tradition long before the birth of Christ: God, blessing through sacrifice, the death of a sheep to make humans "righteous," the idea that the greatest person, the "holy man" or sage, might somehow redeem mankind through his own sacrifice.
The same concept seems almost to be imbedded in the Chinese language, as in (though this is not how the character formed) the Chinese word for "come:" 來
This character shows a picture of a man (人) on a cross, with two other people, one on either side of him. (You can see the cross and the three men, even if you don't read Chinese.)
So did John get his idea of "coming to God through the man on the cross" from the ancient Chinese language? If he understood that language, one might think he had!
Here's another character, also related to John:
This is an old Chinese form of the word for "world," or "generation." Probably it originally showed three "tens," the age of a generation. But it's also the word used in John 3:16: "For God so loved THE WORLD, that he gave his only begotten Son . . . "
This character also shows three crosses. One of the crosses (as in the story of Jesus on the cross) runs into the central cross, while the other runs down (in some versions, without touching the central cross).
Imagine how skeptics would shout if Mark or John had access to this character! The whole story of Jesus and the two thieves on the cross seems to have been pilfered from the Chinese character for "world!"
But, of course, it wasn't. Yet the coincidence, if that's what it is, remains: a picture of Jesus dying on the cross, next to two thieves, in graphic, visual detail, imbedded into the very Chinese language.
In the last of the Five Chinese classics, the Book of Rites, the idea of resurrection also appears. In fact, even the idea of a resurrection after three days comes up!
When mourners accompany a coffin to the grave, it is asked, why do themourners look forward eagerly, “as if they were following someone, and unable to catch up to him?” And then why do they return from the grave distraught?
“They had sought the (deceased), and could not find him . . . he was gone; he was dead; they should see him never again. Therefore they wailed, wept, beat their breasts, and leaped, giving full vent to their sorry . . . "
Why doesn’t one dress the body for three days after death? “The meaning is, that (the son) is waiting that time to see if (his father) will come to life."
So here we have the clear hope institutionalized in the authoritative Book of Rites, that the beloved will come to life again, in three days!
Obviously, St. Luke has been reading the Chinese Classics! Where else would he get such a clear prediction of the resurrection? (Well, yes, in the Old Testament, too -- more on that later.)
In a sense, Chinese New Years is all about the hope of resurrection. This is also called the Spring Festival. It is a time when Chinese place red poetic couplets on both sides of their doors and on top, like the Israelites sprinkling blood on the door posts. Spring, of course, is the time of life coming from the "dead," and that is often the implict theme of those couplets, whose sentiments go back to the Classics long before Jesus:“May Heaven increase your years of life, May Spring fill the universe and blessings fill this house!”
I could go into more detail on this. The word "spring" in Chinese, too, seems pregnant with intimations of Jesus' resurrection.
But to conserve space on the already crowded blogosphere, let's return to the main issues, now.
What do these parallels prove? Some claim that Jesus traveled to India during his youth to learn magic. As wild as this theory is, obviously India is not far away enough to verify Lewis' theory clearly enough. China is much better. No one can seriously claim the authors of the Gospels borrowed anything at all from the Chinese.
And what do we find, when we look at China?
Images of the death and resurrection of Jesus far more powerful than any "dying and rising god," at the heart of Chinese tradition, in the Classics and the Dao Dejing, in oracle bones, Chinese New Year's, even in the very language: God, blessings, sacrifice, death of the Sage for the people, hope of a resurrection after three days, even detailed pictures of the death of Jesus on the cross.
Skeptics can dismiss this when they see it in Isaiah or in Psalms. "Yeah, what a bunch of 'liars for Jesus' those early Christians were! They went through the OT and ripped off a bunch of motifs, then wrote them into the story of their dying and rising god, that they got from the Greeks!"
This is not tenable, since the Gospels (as Bauckham and others have shown, and it was obvious enough, already) are based on close eyewitness accounts, and are not at all the sorts of things anyone would. Nor, as I argue in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' have attempts to invent new Gospels proven at all successful.
But in light of How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, the Carrier Model falls to the ground with a thud. The Lewis Model is, however, still in the race, and seems even to have crossed the finish line.
Occam's Razor tells us to choose the simpler model that includes all of the evidence. Lewis' model, which is actually the Christian model, not only takes the true character of the Gospels seriously, it also includes a much broader swath of the data of human tradition than does the narrow and crabbed skeptical model that I have been identifying (perhaps unkindly, because he does make a better argument than is usually given), with Richard Carrier.
So Carrier does us a favor, by drawing attention to this phenomena. If even such minor coincidences as Carrier points out, are worth paying attention to, how about the many rich ways in which the Gospel fulfills the deepest truths of Israel, Greece, India, and China? It can't, obviously, all just be the ingenious invention of a scribe named Mark.