Dr. Richard Carrier is the well known champion of Jesus Mythicism–the position that Jesus was originally conceived as a celestial being (by Paul), but only later become historicized by the Gospel authors and later Christians.
As you can tell, a core tenant of Jesus Mythicism is that the letters of Paul do not attest to a historical Jesus, but rather to a celestial or angelic being Jesus.
If a number of verses from Paul’s epistles immediately popped into your mind, you are not alone. Foremost among them will no doubt be Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 on the Lord’s supper which reads:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and after he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise also the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”1 Cor 11:23-26 | Lexham English Bible
Do these verses not attest to a historical Jesus? Carrier thinks not. I would like to examine his claims in his popular book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Location 35641 – Location 35719. Kindle.)
Tradition or Revelation?
Carrier asserts right from the gate that when Paul says “I received from the Lord” this means Paul got this message from his supposed hallucination of Jesus and that this should be understood as a claim of divine revelation like in Galatians 1:11-12.
But upon further investigation, we fine Carrier’s assertion to be less tenable, or at least less certain.
Whereas in Galatians Paul goes out of his way to make clear that he did not initially receive the gospel “from man,” that his gospel “is not of human origin,” and that he “received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ;” in 1 Corinthians Paul simply says, “I received from the Lord.”
It is also worth noting that in Galatians Paul is saying that he initially received the gospel from Jesus in a divine revelation in order to bolster his claim to apostleship. He is not claiming, and nowhere claims, that he didn’t learn anything from the other apostles.
In fact, such an assertion (one that Carrier does not make) would be absurd. Paul himself claims to have visited the Jerusalem church twice, specifically highlighting his encounters with Peter and James, the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:18-19, 2:1).
The purpose of the visitations was to affirm that Paul was not teaching “in vain”. He wanted to be sure his message coincided with the original, apostolic message being preached by the leaders in Jerusalem.
So, clearly there was corroboration between Paul and apostolic sources before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. I do not get the impression that Carrier would dispute that. I only bring it up to remind us that Paul had access to apostolic tradition and most likely would have received it from Cephas or James.
When it comes to Paul’s phrase “I received from the Lord” we can either say the source was:
- Jesus himself through divine revelation.
- Jesus via apostolic tradition.
Carrier cites Galatians 1:11-12 in favor of divine revelation. It should be pointed out that the Corinthians did not have the backdrop of Galatians 1:11-12 as a context for understanding Paul’s “I received from the Lord.” It is not as if someone in the Corinthian congregation would’ve said “Oh yeah, remember what he said to the Galatians.”
So as not to caricature, Carrier is correct that Paul did claim to have divine revelation and that is a possible interpretation. I make the above characterization to point out that using Paul’s language in Corinthians will be more suitable than using his phraseology in Galatians as an interpretive method.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 we find an early credal outline of the gospel message. Nearly all commentators, I believe including Carrier (but could be wrong), believe this to be a very early church tradition that preceded Paul.
Paul uses the same language of “receiving” and “passing on” here while notably dropping the “from the Lord”.
So what do we make of the data? It’s hard to tell. While Paul claims divine revelation in Galatians, he doesn’t explicitly say so in 1 Corinthians. He does use the qualification “from the Lord” however. We know from 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul was aware of earlier traditions and creeds that he surely received from the Jerusalem church with which he was acquainted.
It isn’t my aim to pick a side, for it doesn’t really matter concerning the question of Jesus’ historicity. I only want to point out that it isn’t as cut-and-dry as Carrier portrays and Galatians 1:11-12 certainly doesn’t end the discussion.
Carrier asserts that the similarities between 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and Mark 14:22-25 can hardly be coincidental and uses this as a basis for establishing dependence. Since 1 Corinthians is believed to be earlier than Mark, the dependence would be that of Mark upon Paul.
Again, this is peripheral to the question of Jesus’ historicity, but it should be pointed out that this is far from the certainty that Carrier assumes.
Of first importance, would be the dating of Mark. Carrier would undoubtedly date Mark later than I or any conservative would. In an email exchange with New Testament scholar Dr. Craig Keener, he responded to my question about Mark-Paul dependence saying he believed Mark was written too early and from too far away to be dependent on a letter in Corinth.
Nonetheless, if we answered the previous question about where Paul got this tradition from with “apostolic tradition” instead of “divine revelation” then what we will see is that Paul and Mark had similar sources: apostolic tradition. Considering Paul claims to know Cephas (Peter) and Mark’s Gospel has long been thought to be connected to Peter’s testimony, this whole situation looks quite a bit different.
But again, we don’t need any of these counter interpretations to succeed in order to show that Paul believed in a historical Jesus. We can grant Carrier all of his assertions up to this point for the sake of argument, if we’d like. And I do like because it makes dialogue easier.
Using Acts for Interpreting Paul?
Carrier takes a turn that, I must say, took me by surprise, which is saying something.
He states that Paul’s divine revelation of this event must have been something like Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-17. He draws a similarity between the fact that they were both visions and included meals.
First of all, the dissimilarities far outweigh the similarities, but we’ll leave that to one side.
Acts was written decades after 1 Corinthians. If it is fair game to use Acts as an interpretive method, why on earth would it be off-limits to use Mark, which Carrier just stated has an astonishing amount of similarity? The similarity of Mark and Paul far outweighs the supposed similarity between Paul and Acts.
If Acts is fair game, then Mark certainly is, and even if we grant that Mark used Paul, we could still say that Mark understood Paul as recording a historical event, and that’s why he recorded the Lord’s Supper as a historical event in his Gospel.
Carrier would then be interpreting Paul differently than a very earlier source that possibly knew Paul and certainly knew the surrounding context better than any modern interpreter. Carrier’s thesis is 100% ad hoc. He is obviously being inconsistent with respect to what he counts as evidence and what he does not.
A Textbook Fallacy
Paul recounts Jesus as saying, “This is my body which is for you.” According to Carrier, Jesus’ body is obviously for “all believers” and not just a particular group of people that would’ve been present, if this were a historical event. Hence, this is not a historical event.
Here is where Carrier’s thesis completely falls apart and obviously so.
For one thing this is a text book case of a negative inference fallacy. If a father tells his son “I love you” and his daughter responds “What?! You don’t love me?” she has committed a negative inference fallacy. The fact that the father loves his son does not exclude, or negate, the fact that he also loves his daughter. The negative inference is unwarranted.
Jesus no where says my body is only for you. This means that Jesus could say to a specific group of people “This is my body which is for you” while at the same time maintaining that his body is for all believers, or even all people, because the specific group in question would be considered part of the whole.
We will argue below that this is not only possible, but most probable. For now, it is worth noting that the fact that this is possible brings Carrier’s entire thesis crashing down.
For the sake of argument, we have ceded all of his previous arguments because they do not prove that Paul had in mind a celestial Jesus. The only argument of weight was this one and it is based upon a textbook negative inference fallacy!
On That Night
The key to interpreting this text, which just so happens to be the one thing Carrier glossed over (how convenient), is Paul’s statement “on the night in which he was betrayed”.
Carrier interprets “betrayed” as “delivered up” which, according to Carrier, is a reference to Jesus’ death. So, “on the night in which [Jesus] was killed, or handed over to be killed”.
Everything that follows–the bread, the cup, the eating, Jesus’ teaching–happened “on the night in which Jesus was delivered up”.
Here’s the key: neither Paul, the Corinthians, or “all believers” were present “on the night in which Jesus was delivered up.” But someone was, namely the plural “you” in verses 24 and 25.
So, on the night in which Jesus was delivered up there were a plurality present which could not have been Paul, the Corinthians, or all believers.
Who was it? Well, if we’re allowed to use Mark as an interpretive tool, the answer is easy. But let’s restrict ourselves.
Carrier is quite correct that Jesus’ body is believed by Paul to be for “all believers” or “all people”. But let us point out the obvious: Jesus’ body is for only people, not animals, and we have no reason to believe his body is a sacrifice for celestial beings either.
So on the night Jesus was delivered up, he states that his body is “for you,” which should be interpreted as a present group of people, or humans. He is speaking to a group of people and stating that he is giving them his body and blood which are obvious Passover symbols.
Now, back to the original question: Does this sound like a historical event or a celestial vision?
We could go a step further and say that the symbolism of Jesus’ body being for the present group of people only makes sense if they took the literal bread from him. This would indicate a shared meal. But common sense tells us that obviously a shared meal is in mind anyway.
On the night Jesus was delivered up he shared a meal with a group of people and instituted what we now call the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. Jesus’ teaching applies to all believers, yes, but his words were initially spoken to a present group of people “on the night in which he was delivered up.”
This is much more consistent with the text and much more consistent with a historical event. Hence, we have Paul claiming to know about a historical event that included Jesus and a small group of people just before he was killed. The fact that Mark’s Gospel records the same event with more historical detail shortly after Paul’s letter reinforces the fact that this was conceived as a historical event all along.