Friday, July 25, 2014

Richard Carrier's Mystery Religion Unravels (Carrier Chronicles II)

In his much-anticipated (and I must admit, interesting) new book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Richard Carrier offers a long list of 48 basic assumptions ("elements"), what he thinks are facts about early Christianity.  He justifies those elements he thinks are in dispute as he explains them.  One of the most crucial of these is Element 11: "The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion."  This point is echoed in subsequent "elements," and Carrier seems prepared, so far as I have read to date, to make much of it.  So let us analyze his argument for this point, and try to figure out what he means, and why he means it.  

The first mystery here is why Carrier defines the known (Christianity) by the unknown (something called "Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.")  Usually the procedure works the other way around: if I find a fruit tree on a distant planet, I tell my superiors at Mission Control, "It's shape and taste are like those of an apple, but is the color of a banana."  I do not tell them, "It may surprise you to learn that apples are actually the shape of a Malacandria hackabush, but taste a bit like an over-ripe Pelandrian obscumart."  

The point is that analogies from the unfamiliar to the familiar are more likely to confuse than enlighten.  We KNOW what early Christianity is, if we open our New Testaments.  That it is purported to belong to some larger class of which we only have a vague conception (Mithras?  Osiris?), and perhaps a mistaken one, may SOUND meaningful, but it may not be very enlightening, and may instead act to confusing the reader.   
As, indeed, Carrier's description turns out to do. 

Carrier argues that Christianity "conforms to four universal trends distinctive of Hellenistic mystery religions, and is therefore unmistakably a product of these same cultural trends:"

Before we analyze the four characteristics Carrier thinks Christianity has tellingly in common with "mystery religions," it seems to me the phrasing of this argument is also worth a little preliminary attention. 

If these "trends" are "distinctive of" Greek mystery religions, that means they distinguish them, set them apart either from other mystery religions, or from other religions in general.  So is Carrier claiming that no other religions bare any of these marks?  Or that no other religion bares all of them together?  And is he confining himself to the Greek, or at most the Greco-Roman, worlds?  Does that mean if some religion outside of those geographical spheres, say in India or China, also shares one or more of these traits, the "fact" that Christianity allegedly shares them would be at best only very weak evidence that Christianity derives in some sense from Greek mystery religions?  In other words, what would it take to falsify Carrier's claim that this alleged similarity gives evidence of influence? 

And what does Carrier mean here by "universal" trends?  If these trends occur only with Greek culture, how are they "universal?" 

Keeping such semantic "mysteries" in mind, we plunge into the characteristics of mystery religions themselves.  Here is how Carrier describes them:

"1. syncretism of a local or national system of religious ideas with distinctively Hellenistic ideas (and the ideas of other nations and localities whose diffusion was fascillitated by Hellenism);

"2. a monotheistic trend, with every mystery religion evolving from polytheism (many competing gods) to henotheism (one supreme god reigning over subordinate deities), marking a trajectory towards monotheism (only one god);

"3.  a shift to individualism, placing the religious focus on the eternal salvation of the individual rather than the welfare of the community as a whole;

"4. and cosmopolitanism, with membership being open and spanning all environments, provinces, races, and social classes (and often genders)."
Four characteristics is not many to define a class, still less to prove that a particular item belongs to that class.  But that depends in part on how common or "distinctive" those characteristics are, and how well the item really does share it.

Let us take these four, one by one. 

1. Syncretism, in the sense of joining ideas and customs from different sources into a new system (in Carrier's words, "the creative merging of religious ideas, borrowing and adapting elements from several religions to create something new"), is indeed universal, and therefore fails to distinguish of any theoretical framework in the world of religion (see James Thrower), philosophy, or even science.  Buddha was a syncretist: he joined the revolt against Vedic ritual, the mystical search of the forest assetics, the moral teachings of the Axial Revolution, and so on.  Confucius and Lao Zi were syncretists, as Carrier defines the word.  Plato was a syncretist.  So were Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and Chairman Mao.  Richard Carrier is himself an intellectual syncretist in that sense, whether or not he is Greek, still less a member of an ancient Greek mystery religion.   

So the joining of disparate influences, even across cultures, into a new system does nothing to distinguish anyone.  We are down to at most three meaningful characteristics. 

2. If Christianity began among Jews, as it did, then how can it be described as participating in a "monotheistic trend?"  Carrier means that many Greeks focused their attention on one god, as Christians focused on one God.  Yes, of course they did.  Again, this seems rather universal among intense "cults," it is not restricted to the Greek world.  See, for instance, the Lotus Sutra's focus on Avalokitsvara.  But Jews, on Carrier's account, were heading in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION: from strict monotheism, to belief in satans, angels, and then a Triune God, in a few cases.

Well that just ruins Carrier's story.  He is pretending that movement in opposite directions is the same.  Christianity clearly does not fit the second plank in Carrier's definition.  There is no "monotheistic trend" visible in Christianity, because the first Christians already believed in God. 

Anyway, as the eminent sociologist of religion Rodney Stark shows, henotheism is the normal form that belief in God takes.  Theists HAVE to believe in an opposing spirit or spirits of some sort, to explain evil.  This was true in Judaism: indeed, most secular scholars would say that even the appearance of monotheism is a late development is Jewish religion.  Of course angels are not conceptually the same sort of thing as God at all: they are created beings, not the Creator of all.  Ontologically, they are closer to ling cod or fungus, in other words, than to the Creator.  So the word "god" for both sorts of beings is just confusing, and perhaps meant to confuse.

And we are down to two traits. 

3. In early Christianity, of course there is no contrast between "salvation of the invididual" and "welfare of the community."  No text takes more concern for loving others, and therefore for communal welfare (both among Christians, and also towards the world) than the earliest Christian documents.  Indeed, it is one of the very earliest, I Corinthians (which Carrier cites in this passage, wrongly, as we shall see) that the great Hymn to Love appears.  And Jesus is most obviously concerned for the social virtues, in a revolutionary way, in the Synoptic Gospels, which skeptics assume came first. 

The truth behind the third plank in Carrier's argument is that like the Greek mystery religions, Christianity was an unsponsored sect.  The government did not pay St. Paul to preach -- to put it mildly.  So unlike early established religions, which Stark describes in fascinating but rather depressing detail in Discovery of God, grassroots faiths were not just excuses for kings to prop up their power, or vehicles to appeal to the gods on the eve of battle or in the midst of a famine.  They were instead market religions, selling their intellectual wares as Carrier sells his, appealing to individuals.  Again, this is no proof of influence, but only demonstrates that the Greco-Roman world still retained a small, if suppressed (Stark again) market for competing religious beliefs.  The same, of course, is true wherever such markets develop, whether in Singapore or Seattle.  Kings are obsessed with state power, but ordinary citizens need not be.  Therefore sects not founded by politicians, are unlikely to be obsessed with politics.

And we are down to one potentially meaningful trait. 

4.  Cosmopolitanism is also, in part, a function of market, along with ideology.  If you're selling something, of course you generally want as large a market share as you can get, unless snob appeal is part of your sales pitch -- whether for automobiles, or faiths, or anti-faiths.  Indian religions were restricted by ideology from appealing beyond certain caste boundaries.  Some forms of the New Atheism tout their appeal to "brights," in contrast to "dims" who go to church.  But the Hebrew prophets promised that the Messiah would be for all peoples.  So it is no surprise that when the Messiah finally appeared, the earliest records indicate that he did, in fact, reach out to Gentiles as well as Jews, women as well as men (more than anyone else, Carrier's prior arguments aside), and sinners as well as saints. 

And in fact, Mithraism was for men, mostly army men, not for women. 

So Carrier's definition of an apple turns out to define an orangatang just as well.  Christianity found truth in other ideologies, because there IS some truth in other ideologies.  Christians worshiped God, and recognized other spirits, just as their Jewish neighbors, and much of the world, did.  Christianity cared for individual salvation, because it was not a totalitarian kiss-up cult for the emperor's personal piety and post-mortum benefit, but it also cared deeply for the community.  (Paul is emphatic about paying taxes, for instance, and praying for rulers.)  And existing in a cosmopolitan environment, to which kitty dozens of tribes had made intellectual contributions, as Clement of Alexandria details, and following the universal promises of the prophets, OF COURSE Jesus transcended boundaries of class, gender, caste, and tribe -- as had long since been promised. 
While four defining characteristics is pretty thin to begin with, in fact NONE of these traits both define Christianity, and place it in a single narrow class to which "Jewish-Hellenistic mystery cults" even somewhat exclusively belong.
So that's not much good. 

But Carrier does not rely solely on these four alleged commonalities to make his case.  He also points out that Paul sometimes speaks of "mysteries," as did Christians in later centuries.  And he also has some Pauline verses to throw at us, which allegedly strenthen his case.

 Oddly, though, Carrier lays a lot of stress on a few passages from Origen and Clement and other much later Christians to make his case.  He claims Clement, for example, described a four-stage ranking system for Christians, which he thinks reflects or even demonstrates influence from mystery religions of some sort. 

I'm not going to bother checking whether Carrier gets 2nd or 3rd Century Christians like Clement and Origen right.  He often misrepresents early Christians, as Tim McGrew and I show in True Reason.  And I don't think he gets Origen right on this, either: Origen is not arguing that one has to rise in the ranks before being given secret knowledge, he is probably just noting (as he does elsewhere) that not all Christians are intellectually capable or have the time to learn all the deeper details of Christian thought. 

Still, given the failure of his definitional argument, and given the fact that the issue here is FIRST CENTURY Christianity, there's not enough prima facia cause to bother chasing those quotes down, right now.  Arguing from writings 150 years later would commit the sin of anachronism.  But notice the "argument" that Carrier relegates to a remarkable footnote on page 113, to preempt this standard historian concern.  I highlight four points of particular interest:

"Though we do not have conclusive evidence that Clement's four-stage system was already in place under Paul, I believe  (1) it is not unreasonable to suspect (2) that it was, or something approaching it.  That is not necessary to my point (since we do have conclusive evidence of at least two stages in Paul's time and that's sufficient to establish this element as fact (3), but the existence from the very start of the system Clement describes should be seriously considered.  Not only because such systems might already have been employed in earlier Jewish sects (and thus simply been adapted to the new gospel), but also because this is how religions develop: their originators elaborate systems and hierarchies within a matter of years, not centuries.  Hence I should not have to respond to the objection that developed systems and hierarchies within Christianity didn't arise for another century. (4)   That assumption has always been implausible on its face . . . "

Here lie some amusing ironies. 

(1) Carrier's former editor, the atheist John Loftus, says he has no "beliefs."  He merely notes the probability of things, believing nothing.  Carrier, obviously, is not so squeemish: he cops to having beliefs.  But based on what?  Not on evidence, clearly. 

(2) A genuinely world-renowned atheist, George Orwell, railed against the "non-un" construction.  I think he had a point, here.  "It is not unreasonable to suspect."  Which means, it is reasonable to suspect?  I suspect not. 

(3) Carrier's "evidence" of two stages of secretiveness in early Christianity consists largely of repeating Paul's words about "milk" for immature Christians, and "meat" for mature Christians.  He seems to simply ignore Paul's own clear explanation that he is talking about spiritual growth, not some proto-Masonic hierarchy of ranks.  He claims "there were levels of teaching kept hidden from lower ranks of Christians."  This is based on I Corinthians 13:2, which actually says:

"13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Carrier's here is a prodigy of bizarre interpretation.  Love trumps “knowledge,” implies that there are many “mysteries,” and “only the most advanced knew them all?”  And therefore Christianity was one of a class of “Hellenic-Jewish mystery religions,” and therefore a natural product of religious evolution and readily deconstructed by internet atheists with doctorates in ancient science from Columbia?

No, there is nothing of the sort to be seen in this verse.  It is entirely imaginary.  On the contrary, Paul is speaking, as he often does, of SPIRITUAL GIFTS given by God to individual Christians, for the good of all.  He often makes it plain that people receive different gifts by God's good will, so that believers can act like organs in a body, each helping one another in unique ways.  These are not stages in the pilgrimage of a single Christian from peon-status to Grand Feeba status. 

Besides which, Paul makes it clear that LOVE trumps all the rest.  And love is a matter of kindness, patience, long-suffering, and so forth.  "By their fruits you will know them," as Jesus put it. 

Yet Carrier has the gaul to cite this verse, without quoting it's actual words, as if it somehow supported his doctrine.  

What this sort of interpretation really means, is one cannot  trust any of the thousands of footnotes in Carrier’s book.  One has to check them, one by one, and rely on none on trust.  (Not a new phenomena -- I noticed this pattern already the very first time I began reading Carrier, on the advice of one of his more kindly fans.  And as we shall see, there are more like this one where it came from.)  
But here comes the coup de chutzpah: 

(4). “Hence I should not have to respond to the objection that developed systems and hierarchies within Christianity didn't arise for another century.

Carrier seems to half recognize how weak his case for early Christianity as a mystery religion really is, in the end.  But who needs facts?  “Why should I have to bother with the objection that my scheme is anachronistic and lacking in evidence?”  Uh, because you’re writing as an historian? 
It is revealing that he relegated such audacious mendacity to a footnote.  


Frank D said...

I'm an atheist and as such I have no interest in your views (or even Carrier's), but I think that if you want to retain your aspect of authority, it would be well if you had someone proofread your text for spelling errors: "bare" for "bear," "gaul" for "gall," and "squeemish" for "squeamish."

David B Marshall said...

Frank: What I describe above are facts, connected logically. I show above that one of Carrier's arguments fail. The facts don't care if you're an atheist and I'm a Christian: they're independent.

Thanks for the spelling corrections. As a linguist, I tend to view English spelling as somewhat arbitrary, though of course not to the same degree as Chinese, and therefore don't give it much attention. But perhaps I (and William Shakespeare) are wrong about that, certainly my BA adviser, the eminent historian Donald Treadgold, already thought so some 25 years ago. But anyway, this is not an Argument From Authority.

David B Marshall said...

Here's an attempt to respond to this critique (and a bit of the next one) on Amazon. Since the author hasn't given me permission to use it (though he has made it public, so that's OK), let me call him "Mr. T." This response is unusual so far among Carrieristas not in its silly and gratuitous personal attacks (modeled by Richard himself), but in that it actually attempts to answer my objections. So Mr. T deserves an answer, which I will give in the next comment.

"Dr. Marshall, I should not further comment, especially in light of your misrepresentation that I am "cautious about Carrier's citations", and because there are numerous others that have much more knowledge in this subject than I have. You certainly can `out-word' and `out-source' me with your doctorate in Theology from the highly acclaimed Oxford Center for Missionary Studies (rated 5th in the world - by a Christian organization - for missionary studies), and your years of experience preaching and writing about non-historical Christianity in your missionary work in Asia.

"Since no one has responded to your remarks yet, and you made the reference of your apologetic blogs on the Amazon thread that I started, I feel it is necessary to respond. Due partially to the nature of your education and experience, it is obvious that you cannot discuss this subject in an objective way. While you are highly educated in Christian studies, and may be intelligent and rational about general matters, it is obvious that you cannot be non-biased regarding Christianity. As Dr. Carrier has stated, OHJ was written only for the non-delusional. It is not possible to have a rational debate with an irrational person, one who evaluates evidence through a Christian Delusional Bubble, resulting in a distorted absorption of facts.

"With my limited knowledge of this subject, I would wish others would evaluate your comments. But until then, here are my comments. First, in response to your 2 blogs, referenced on my post, at

"1) Your target is obviously a non-skeptical Christian audience.

"2) You state "The first mystery here is why Carrier defines the known (Christianity) by the unknown (something called "Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.")" and "We KNOW what early Christianity is, if we open our New Testaments." This statement reflects a Christian biased understanding of early Christianity. As Dr. Carrier clearly points out, the NT's "extensive use of fabrication and literary invention" (p. 506) and "The Gospels wrote about JC in allegorical terms, much of which is "lifted and adapted and placed on the lips of Jesus" illustrates that one learns little about the early Christian church from the NT. Further, there was a 30-50 year "dark age" of Christianity in the latter half of the 1st century that makes your statement that early Christianity is "known" appear absurd.

David B Marshall said...

(continued)"3) The statement "that just ruins Carrier's story" (regarding the monotheistic trend of religion) appears to be based on a lack of your understanding of the history of demons and angels in the Jewish religion, and the centuries long debate on the Trinity concept.

"2) Your need to have on-line debates (initiated by you) with laymen using arguments that are without evidence, and are spiritual, personal and arbitrary, especially without having (at least at the time of the comments) read OHJ yet.
"3) Your comment that William Craig wins debates. I agree that Craig is slick - just like a snake oil salesman.

"4) Based on my 40 years of varied work experience (including owning or leading companies over multiple continents - some companies with advanced degree employees who knew much more than myself on technical issues), you do not pass my BS smell test. (Though I do believe you are effective in the missionary position/environment).

"Dr. Marshall, it does appear that you believe generally in what you preach. Just as I would not put my comments on your Christian blog, I recommend that you keep your preaching limited to the non-secular audience."

"4) Your use of Rodney Stark to gain credibility diminishes your credibility. While (as a non-skeptical reader more than a decade ago) I enjoyed his "The Rise of Christianity" as plausible reasons for the exponential growth of early Christianity, I think he has proven since then that he should stay out of the area of ancient history.

"5) Your reference to Paul's "two stages of secretiveness" and relating it to Cor. 13:2 appears so wrong (or, at least, intentionally misleading), I am hesitant to note it. (I went over and over it because I thought it was impossible to make a mistake so flagrant, or to mislead that obviously). You state that Dr. Carrier claims "there were levels of teaching kept hidden from lower ranks of Christians" is based on Cor. 13:2 (which you restate), and then write that Dr. Carrier is obviously wrong to use this passage as support for the Christian mysteries. In addition to this passage not describing "stages of secretiveness" or support that "there were levels of teaching kept hidden from lower ranks of Christians", Dr. Carrier does not reference this passage anywhere in his book. (Unless I am missing something obvious, this makes all of your comments questionable).

David B Marshall said...

(continued, 3 or 3?) "a) In the detailed Element 13 where the plausibility of the secret doctrines of the Church are carefully presented, a dozen Corinthian passages are referenced, including Cor. 2: 6-7 and Cor. 3:1-3. Cor. 13:2 is not anywhere in this chapter or in the entire book.
(1) In Cor. 2:6, Paul describes the "mature".
(2) In Cor. 3:1-3, Paul describes "milk" and how the congregation is not ready for "solid food".

"b) Your failure to spend the time to verify or rebut Dr. Carrier's quotes on Clement of Alexandria and Origen on the different levels of the church congregation (easily verified in 10 minutes), especially with your blatant error/deception on Paul above, reflects either laziness or, more likely, a disingenuous attempt to deceive your Christian readers.

"Your subsequent blog on Dr. Carrier's use of Rank-Raglan does not warrant any comments as you unintentionally support the author by your clearly distorted conclusions on the RR's 22 features application to JC. I will still note:

"1) The RR is not the "cornerstone" of Dr. Carrier's probability of JC's historicity as you state. It is one factor, and an important one (but your comment is understandable since you have not finished reading the book).

"2) Your position that JC may have evolved into more of an RR figure (your example is the increase in RR ranking from Mark to Matthew) is consistent with Dr. Carrier's position. As he explains in Ch.6, JC may have begun as a RR hero type, or these features may have been added as the legend grew, as many fitting the RR hero type were "euhemerized" up to centuries later.

"3) You are obviously biased in your Christian evaluation of the RR application to JC in Matthew (where you admittedly give JC a score of 6-8). For those who want an unbiased comparison of JC to RR (with detailed sourcing), go to . This supports Dr. Carrier's position on JC falling into the high end of the RR scale. Those who deny this connection "always devolve into specious apologetics" (Ch. 5, Note 197).

"Your questioning of Dr. Carrier's educational credentials (including questioning whether Dr. Carrier earned a Doctorate in the History of Ancient Science from Columbia University) is consistent with your comments on these posts. No one has questioned your doctorate you earned from the esteemed Oxford Center for Missionary Studies.

"In addition to the comments on my post, evidence of your "irrational" positions includes:

"1) Your belief in miracles (even with your looser definition of a miracle) based on anecdotal "evidence". (When I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and all of my symptoms went away during the first day of chemo, many in my family (devout Catholics) believed that it was a miracle. I knew otherwise. An Islamic colleague, who placed a miniature family heirloom Koran under my pillow thought that created the miracle).

David B Marshall said...

My reply: There's no need to become sarcastic or upset. Nor is there any need to wax ad hominal -- though that is the example Carrier has himself set in these threads, and that seems the first response of many of his fans. Whatever devil you may think I be, from whatever evil fundie institution (my dissertation was examined by Dr. Gavin D'Costa, a leading scholar in the field from Bristol University), facts are what they are, and in my view much more interesting, and helpful to rational discussion, than spurious attacks on the person.

Invective such as you engage in again and again in your last post -- "delusional," "irrational," etc, plus your many guesses about my motives and ways of thinking -- are themselves the marks of extreme social communities, and while increasing in-group solidarity, usually do little to persuade ordinary readers.

The point of 2, of course, is not to beg the question about whether the gospels are true, but to note that most people know them better than they know so-called "mystery religions." Do try to understand, before you react.

In fact, for 3, I clearly point out that neither Judaism nor any other developed theism is monotheistic in the sense Carrier mentions. This ruins his point, because unlike the mystery religions he describes, Christianity was NOT evolving from polytheism towards monotheism.

4. Stark is one of the world's leading sociologists of religion, and has contributed immensely to the understanding of how theism developed. No serious historian would say the same of Richard Carrier. That does not, of course, make Stark omniscient -- I have pointed to some errors he has made, myself -- but it does mean his extensively documented arguments should be listened to, as serious students of religion often do.

5. Yes, you are missing something obvious -- page 111, where Carrier does exactly what I say he does. Do read it. Try not to embarrass yourself like that again. And read I Corinthians as a whole, not in the little bites Carrier dishes out.

David B Marshall said...

I have read enough of Clement and Origen, and explain why it would be anachronistic to go back down that rabbit hole. See True Faith, where Tim McGrew and I show how Carrier misreads the early Christians. If Carrier can't establish his case in the 1st Century, and he can't, then it's no good, period.

You also misunderstand and misrepresent what I say about R-R. I do NOT call it the "cornerstone" of Carrier's critique of Jesus' historicity. I say it is the cornerstone of his PRIOR PROBABILITY for that historicity -- as it clearly is, in Chapter 7.

I'll skip the petty personal attacks. I should explain to you, though, that my comments about Carrier's doctorate are what Zen Buddhists call a "koan," a riddle designed to bring people to enlightenment -- to see how easily Carrier's argument can lead to weird and disastrous results. I indicate clearly that my tongue is in my cheek. But given that Carrier in these forums has questioned my honesty, then proceeded to make a claim about me that was untrue, he couldn't back up, and he refused to disavow nonetheless, I don't think he can complain about a little mild tweaking.

Just for the record, my PhD is NOT from OCMS. (Though it is an excellent institution, with brilliant scholars from around the world.) My BA, MA, and PhD are all from secular state institutions. My supervisors were Catholic, Protestant, atheist, and unknown, and they all appreciated my work, and were willing to write blurbs and recommendations when requested. (Including the head of the History Department at the University of Washington, a Christian of some sort, and the head of the Anthropology Department, an atheist.) So if you want to go the ad hominem route, you'll have to try something else besides "he went to a podunk fundamentalist Bible College, everyone knows they handle snakes and pick their teeth with possum bones" routine.

But next time, it would be best to focus even more on the facts -- I appreciate the fact that you did at least try to respond to those I gave, even if unsuccessfully.