On the Historicity of Jesus (book) Richard Carrier

Unhistorical Jesus, 5

Editor’s note: Here I continue quoting some passages from Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014).

______ 卐 ______


Element 48: Finally, the most ubiquitous model ‘hero’ narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the fable of the ‘divine king’, what I call the Rank-Raglan hero-type, based on the two scholars who discovered and described it, Otto Rank and Lord Raglan. This is a hero-type found repeated across at least fifteen known mythic heroes (including Jesus)—if we count only those who clearly meet more than half of the designated parallels (which means twelve or more matches out of twenty-two elements), which requirement eliminates many historical persons, such as Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus, who accumulated many elements of this hero-type in the tales told of them, yet not that many.

The twenty-two features distinctive of this hero-type are:

  1. The hero’s mother is a virgin.
  2. His father is a king or the heir of a king.
  3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual.
  4. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
  5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby.
  6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him.
  7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents.
  8. We are told nothing of his childhood.
  9. On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom.
  10. He is crowned, hailed or becomes king.
  11. He reigns uneventfully (i.e., without wars or national catastrophes).
  12. He prescribes laws.
  13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects.
  14. He is driven from the throne or city.
  15. He meets with a mysterious death.
  16. He dies atop a hill or high place.
  17. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
  18. His body turns up missing.
  19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction).
  20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon or wild beast).


  1. His parents are related to each other.
  2. He marries a queen or princess related to his predecessor.

Many of the heroes who fulfill this type also either (a) performed miracles (in life or as a deity after death) or were (b) preexistent beings who became incarnated as men or (c) subsequently worshiped as savior gods, any one of which honestly should be counted as a twenty-third attribute. Of these qualifying features, Jesus shares all three. Likewise, many who fit this hero type ‘fulfilled prophecy’, and although that was commonly the case for heroes generally (far beyond the specific hero-type described here), it is another feature Jesus shares in common with them, and which honestly should be counted as a twenty-fourth attribute. But I shall work from the traditional twenty-two.

The fifteen people who score more than half of those twenty-two features, in order of how many they score (from most to least) is as follows:

  1. Oedipus (21)
  2. Moses (20)
  3. Jesus (20)
  4. Theseus (19)
  5. Dionysus (19)
  6. Romulus (18)
  7. Perseus (17)
  8. Hercules (17)
  9. Zeus (15)
  10. Bellerophon (14)
  11. Jason (14)
  12. Osiris (14)
  13. Pelops (13)
  14. Asclepius (12)
  15. Joseph [i.e., the son of Jacob] (12)

This is a useful discovery, because with so many matching persons it doesn’t matter what the probability is of scoring more than half on the Rank-Raglan scale by chance coincidence. Because even if it can happen often by chance coincidence, then the percentage of persons who score that high should match the ratio of real persons to mythical persons. In other words, if a real person can have the same elements associated with him, and in particular so many elements (and for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they actually occurred), then there should be many real persons on the list—as surely there are far more real persons than mythical ones.

The number of real persons in the course of antiquity must number in the hundreds of millions, whereas the number of mythical persons invented over that same course of time will be in the thousands at most. Certainly, by any calculation the latter could not possibly outnumber the former—and even if they were equally numerous, then half the names on the list should be actual persons. But this is not the case. No known historical persons are on the list (for Moses and Joseph, see references in earlier note). Only mythical people ever got fitted to this hero-type. Yet every single one of them was regarded as a historical person and placed in history in narratives written about them.

Therefore, whether fitting more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria was always a product of chance coincidence or the product of causal influence, either way we can still conclude that it would be very unusual for any historical person to fit more than half the Rank-Raglan criteria—because if it were not unusual, then many historical persons would have done so. But not even one did. We might not know the cause of this fact, but a fact it is nonetheless, and a fact we can make use of (as I will in §3 of the next chapter).

Jesus scores twenty out of twenty-two, according to Matthew ‘s Gospel (and whether these attributes were original or lately appended to his legend won’t matter, as I’ll explain in §4 of the next chapter; but note that even in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus scores a 14, and even that would place him well above the bottom of the list).

The first nineteen hardly require defense (e.g. his father is the heir of King David; he is seized by the authorities, abandoned by his followers, and driven from Jerusalem to his execution; strange things happen at his death, and the death itself is a strangely sudden expiration; he dies atop the hill named Golgotha; etc.). The remaining hit (number 20) may not be as obvious, but he scores it: just as Oedipus confronts and defeats the riddling Sphinx, Jesus confronts and defeats the temptation s of the Devil (also known as the Adversary, and as a Serpent or Dragon, and ‘Prince of the World’), in both cases before going to claim their kingdom (of course, even in earliest Christian tradition Satan is the power whom Jesus most decisively defeats so as to effect the salvation of the faithful ever after).

The only two elements Jesus does not score are the last I’ve listed: we cannot establish (21) that his parents were originally imagined as related or (22) that he ever married (much less the daughter of his predecessor). However, the peculiar absence of that last element practically advertises the fact that he does merit that element allegorically: from the earliest time Jesus was imagined to have taken the ‘church’ as his bride, which was indeed understood to be the ‘daughter ‘ of his predecessor (the nation of Israel). So in all honesty we could assign him that element as well. But as it is not ‘literal’ I will leave his score at twenty.

Nevertheless, even then he is nearly the highest scoring person in history, next only to Oedipus; and if we granted that last element, he would be tied even with him for highest score. Jesus might even have outranked Oedipus. A later tradition held that indeed his parents were relatives, and it is possible that had been a tradition from very early on that just wasn’t recorded in our Gospels.

However, by the time we hear of this detail, Jesus was being transformed into a different character. For example, Infancy Gospels were then being written about him, introducing narratives of his childhood. If we scored on attributes all the way into the late second century, this would remove one element (‘we hear nothing of his childhood’), and add another (‘his parents were related to each other’), keeping his score the same. However, since the infancy Gospels clearly are discordant with the early mythology of Jesus and are an entirely new phenomenon, whereas the possibility of his parents being related might actually have been imagined much earlier, he might have scored the full twenty-two points, making him a better fit for the Rank-Raglan hero-type than any other man in history. And even without these assumptions, he still ranks among the highest. That is a stunning fact, which must be considered, and accounted for.

The point of this and the previous chapter has been to summarize all the facts we must take into account, as being in our total background knowledge, when assigning all probabilities going forward.

In my experience, a great deal of what has been surveyed up to this point remains unknown even to many experts in the study of Jesus. This is why I took the trouble to survey so much. Because all of it must be taken into account by anyone who wishes to reconstruct the historical Jesus or the origins of Christianity. It is equally crucial to understanding how to evaluate and interpret the evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus—and how to estimate the prior probability of either. And to that question I now turn.

5 replies on “Unhistorical Jesus, 5”

I don’t remember if I went into detail on this before, but:

In “The Golden Bough”, Frazer establishes, by presenting tremendous amounts of historical and anthropological evidence, that:

1) the basic myth-pattern of a god who dies as a scapegoat for the sins of the people is very widespread throughout preindustrial cultures, and that this is deeply tied to the yearly agricultural cycle and the belief in the magical necessity of human blood to assure good crops
2) the transference of this ritual belief to the physical presence of the king, and thus the necessity of the death of the king, was common
3) equally common was the (self-defensive) tendency of kings to establish an accompanying ritual, where for a period of time in the year the king would resign his position and be replaced by a “fool’s king”, who would make a triumphant entry into the city, spend a week or two acting extravagantly, making judgements, declaring people to be criminals, and sleeping with the king’s concubines, only to be then ritually killed in compliance with the original ritual, after which the real king would resume his position
4) these practices are unquestionably demonstrated to have been present in Hebrew society and to have still persisted somewhat after the Roman conquest
5) every detail of the Jesus story corresponds with this practice.

In other words, the Hebrews of Jersusalem in roughly 33 AD decided to put on a show like their grandpappies used to, and for that they needed a fool’s king that they could kill afterward, the picked a man and he played the part – complete with triumphant entry into the city and declaring the moneylenders in the temple to be criminals (who otherwise the Hebrews were perfectly fine with), only to be then seized by the mob so they could execute him in line with the old ritual, the Roman governor considered this absolutely barbaric behavior, insisting that the man they wanted to kill had done absolutely nothing wrong, and the mob insisted and got their way. And that’s the man we remember today as Jesus.

Afterwards, Saul of Tarsus had a brainstorm.

Imagine somebody with a bit of money started going to town on drug gangs and pedophiles today, had some success for a couple weeks, then got unlucky and died. And a few years later, somebody else said: “Hey, you know those Batman stories everyone likes? Well THIS guy was REALLY Batman. Those stories were all about him, and they were ALL TRUE.”

That’s what Saul of Tarsus did with the guy who died in Jerusalem in 33 AD as a victim of a blood magic ritual dating back to the stone age.

And that’s Christianity.

I used to believe until recently that behind so much myth, miracles and legend in the New Testament there should exist a historical layer. After reading Carrier I am not so sure. The point is that there’s no 1st-century account of Jesus outside the gospels, and most damaging for historicists is the study of the seven authentic Pauline epistles from the secular POV, which was the starting point of the Carrier’s study.

A first century account of “Jesus” would have to be an account of a man who went around preaching he was the son of the deity, etc. etc.

A first century account of a guy who got killed by a mob is an entirely different matter.

I’m not convinced Frazer’s interpretation is invalidated by the lack of corroborating accounts of “Jesus”, because the two are dealing with things that look very different on the surface.

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