McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting, I’ve set aside time to publicly summarize my take on James McGrath’s critique of (parts of) the book for Bible & Interpretation: “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.”

For my responses to all the other terrible articles by McGrath on this, see:

Here I address his “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space.” Critics have already adequately shown the problems with McGrath in understanding facts and logic, so I don’t need to reproduce their work. I fully concur with the responses of Covington and Godfrey (any quibbles I have I’ll mention here).

As Godfrey correctly shows, McGrath not only botches logic and facts, he misreports what my book says, such that “uninformed readers are falsely led to think McGrath has simply identified errors in Carrier’s work.” When in fact he did not identify any. And Covington rightly concludes that when you compare what McGrath says with what my book says, “he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.” They both show that McGrath gets my arguments wrong, makes obvious logical mistakes, and incorrectly reports what experts have said in key matters. This does not make historicity look well defended. It makes it look like it needs rhetorical warblegarble to survive.

The most detailed response to McGrath’s paper is that of Neil Godfrey [who discusses issues of method and fact]. But for a good brief response to start with, see Nicholas Covington, which is ideal for anyone who wants a TL;DR on the matter. (Although Godfrey also has posted a TL;DR of his own analysis here.)

Covington only asks me to address McGrath’s where-is-Sheol argument, but Godfrey (below) already nails that. In fact I think this is embarrassing for McGrath: I have an extensive section in the book addressing his very questions (Elements 34-38 in ch. 5), which McGrath clearly didn’t read. Because he appears wholly unaware of it, and addresses none of the evidence in it.

But note also (to add to Godfrey’s point) the observation I make on pp. 530-31 (in ch. 11), especially including n. 34 (which I also noted earlier, in ch. 3, on p.55, n. 18, and later, on p. 563, n. 67), as it illustrates a confusion in McGrath’s thinking: that we need the mythic death to occur in outer space rather than any other mythic realm, when in fact any mythic realm will do, including Sheol. This is yet another example of his not correctly grasping key distinctions that make his where-is-Sheol argument a red herring that doesn’t correctly address the actual mythicist thesis. Likewise my note 67 on p. 563 (also in ch. 11), which betrays another example of McGrath not getting it, as there the author of 1 Peter says Jesus only went “down” to the realm of the dead after his own death. So even according to the canonical NT, its location is of no relevance to the mythicist thesis.

I should also remind readers that McGrath evidently did not read my discussion in OHJ of Docetism, on pp. 318-20, even though the word “Docetism” is in the index. Because he never mentions what I said about it, even when it answers the very things he says about it. This is significant, because it means readers are not being told how my book, the book McGrath claims to be reviewing, actually responds already to the very things he is saying in this review, giving the impression that I didn’t already think of the things he is now coming up with, and that I did not address them, and have no response to them, even though I did, and as a reader of my book, he should know that, and honestly tell his readers about it.

Godfrey does miss one point, which is that McGrath actually falsely claims I said “that the [Ascension of Isaiah] ought to be dated contemporaneous with the Gospel of Mark.” This disturbs me because on the very first page of my discussion of this document I say “it was originally composed sometime in the first or second century” (p. 36), and that this is the same time the “canonical Gospels” (plural) were “being written.” McGrath has somehow confused a reference to the period of time all the canonicals were being written, with the specific date only Mark was written (the first of them). Moreover, I nowhere base any argument on the Ascension dating as early as the 70s, or any earlier in fact than the 130s. So why does McGrath think my dating of it is a problem? I cannot fathom. My dating of it agrees with all experts on the document, experts whose dating of it McGrath says he concurs with, and my arguments rest on nothing else. (Godfrey does nail this point well enough, so I needn’t belabor it.)

Godfrey also could have said more on an even more crucial point: McGrath devotes a single paragraph to rebutting my reading of the location of the crucifixion in the earliest reconstructed text of the Ascension of Isaiah…in which he does not mention or respond to any of my arguments for that reading. Let me repeat that so you get my meaning: he does not mention or respond to any of my arguments for that reading. I devote several pages to this (pp. 41-44). Yet he doesn’t even mention what my arguments are. He certainly does not rebut them. Why? And what use is a critique of a conclusion that doesn’t even address the arguments for it?

Godfrey does point out evidence that McGrath isn’t actually reading my book—not only by missing my entire extensive discussion about what the dead would be doing in outer space, but also by missing my explicit discussion of how the earthly copy of Jesus’ sacrifice in heaven is the Yom Kippur ritual, as in fact the book of Hebrews explicitly says (in Heb. 9; see my discussion in ch. 11.5)—so here this isn’t even my theory, it is a fact of Christian belief plainly stated in the canonical New Testament. And McGrath doesn’t even know this. How is that possible? This is disturbing to me as well, especially as someone who read my book could not still be ignorant of it. But if he only skimmed my book and didn’t actually read it, that would also explain how he missed all my arguments for interpreting the Ascension as describing a celestial crucifixion, and thus didn’t realize he was supposed to rebut them.

One last point Godfrey exposes McGrath on well bears further summary, and I will close with this, because it gets to the core of this whole debate:

McGrath gives the impression that my conclusion in favor of mythicism is “based on” the Ascension of Isaiah and things like the Talmud. This is strange, because I am hyper-clear and specific in the book that the effect of these documents on my conclusion is actually rather small, and I even explicitly state how small in mathematical terms.

I only assign the effect of the Ascension a Bayes’ factor of 4/5 against historicity in my a fortiori column (and even just 1/2 in my a judicantiori column: p. 357), and even that is not for the Ascension, but the combination of the evidence in the Ascension with the evidence in Ignatius, so if we teased out the Ascension by itself, its Bayes’ factor would be even lower.

Note how small a factor 4 in 5 is. It barely makes a dent against the probability of historicity. And it would be wholly impotent against real evidence for historicity (e.g. good evidence would have a Bayes’ factor of 5 to 1 or more, which would immediately overwhelm a poor 4 to 5 odds the other way). It is only because there is no such evidence for historicity that the evidence in the Ascension of Isaiah has any appreciable effect at all. Thus by waving his hands at a minor piece of evidence like this, McGrath gets to ignore the real elephant in the room: why such a weak piece of evidence can have such a notable effect on the probability of historicity. Answer: because the evidence for historicity sucks.

Likewise, for the Talmud, I don’t use it in isolation, but in combination with Epiphanius, who corroborates that what the Talmud says is what some real Christians were actually saying (that Jesus died a hundred years before Pilate). And yet even then I don’t give this evidence much weight. So, just as I only assign a Bayes’ factor for the corroboratory conjunction of both the Ascension and Ignatius, I likewise only assign a Bayes’ factor for the corroboratory conjunction of both the Talmud and Epiphanius–and again, the factor I assign is a mere 4/5 against historicity (a fortiori; 1/2 a judicantiori, same page, there labeled the “twin traditions” evidence).

So once again, McGrath falsely thinks I am “resting” on this evidence, when in fact I assign it a fairly small weight. I fully demonstrate that it alone could not bear the burden of establishing my conclusion. As one can tell just by comparing all the Bayes’ factors that go into producing that conclusion (all of which are summarized and tabled on pp. 357, 386, and 594).

I actually explain in the book what a critic is supposed to do if they disagree with my assignment of weight to evidence like this, and I even work through an example of how they could proceed: I show what happens when you exclude the evidence of Acts, and rule that it carries zero weight, rather than the small weight I assigned it (pp. 601-06; that even is its own labeled section, ch. 11.2, “On Trying to Avoid the Conclusion”).

But McGrath doesn’t do that. He doesn’t say what weight he would assign the evidence in the Ascension and the Talmud. He doesn’t explain why that weighting is to be preferred to mine. And above all, he doesn’t show what effect his weighting of this evidence has on the conclusion. That is, he doesn’t show what the probability of historicity then is, if we grant his weights instead of mine. And that renders his critique essentially useless.

In short, McGrath gives no indication of how he knows historicity is highly probable (he certainly never ventures to say how probable it is). He doesn’t even seem capable of figuring out how one ever knows that.





I should also point out that McGrath incorrectly cites the Apocalypse of Peter as evidence of a double-Jesus Docetism involving one Jesus on earth and another in heaven. It does not. The word “apocalypse” means revelation, and accordingly the text makes clear the entire thing is a vision Peter is having, while sitting with Jesus chatting in the temple square, and not an actual historical event anyone witnessed. It is not an account of the crucifixion, but a symbolic scene, such as litters the canonical book of Revelation, or as Peter experiences in Acts 10.

And in fact the text of this vision says the same person is present in both places: there is not one Jesus in heaven and another on earth, but the real Jesus is the same person the villains seize and crucify as occupies the fleshly body they drive nails into (emphasis mine):

[Jesus says to Peter after Peter’s vision]: Be strong, for you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given, to know them through revelation, that he whom they crucified is the first-born, and the home of demons, and the stony vessel in which they dwell, of Elohim, of the cross, which is under the Law. But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the first in him, whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence, while they are divided among themselves. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind. So then the one susceptible to suffering shall come, since the body is the substitute. But what they released was my incorporeal body.

This is not Docetism. It is simply saying the body is worthless offal that Jesus left behind, escaping as an incorporeal soul, which could hover outside its body and laugh at those who think they can harm him by harming his body. This is basically the same thing as the Stoic doctrine of the sage, whose soul is above the body, serene, even as it occupies it, even in the midst that body being tormented. That’s not Docetism. It’s just dualism.

Meanwhile, the other text McGrath cites, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, is from the 3rd century, and thus cannot be assumed representative of the century-older sect(s) the Ignatians are attacking. But even that text does not say there were two Jesuses. It says Simon of Cyrene was crucified on earth, not Jesus. This is clearly a post-Gospel doctrine, as it simply embellishes ideas and characters invented by the Gospels. I already explain in OHJ why that renders texts like this useless (in my discussion of Docetism specifically, and my discussion of source methodology generally on pp. 254-56).

Notably, neither text involves a celestial crucifixion being copied by an earthly one, as McGrath’s interpretation of the Ascension of Isaiah would require. The Ascension itself meanwhile does not mention two crucifixions. It mentions only one, and in the earliest redaction indicates only one place where it occurred: in the firmament, at the hands of Satan. But one would have to actually interact with my discussion of the text to get that. And McGrath simply doesn’t.


  1. Hoosier X March 5, 2015, 3:12 pm

    I don’t think McGrath’s critique is intended for people who have read your book, Dr. Carrier.

    But I do fully believe that McGrath read most of the Table of Contents.

    So be fair.

  2. I’ve been tracking the criticisms of OHJ as posted on your blog and I must say, the historicity proponents have their work cut out for them. They appear to be grasping at straws, and the near (if not complete) lack of understanding of these critics with respect to the contents and arguments presented in your book seems to suggest that most of them are not interested in seeking the truth so much as regurgitating rehearsed replies and falling back on silly Christian apologetics. I very much enjoyed your book, and have in fact re-read it twice now (if only McGrath could show some professionalism and courtesy by reading it at least once), some parts several times, since there’s a lot of information to follow-up on and research further (including your papers on Josephus and Tacitus which I thought were well formulated and put the last nail in that coffin regarding their authenticity). I look forward to any future updates in this scholarly debate. Regarding the Rank-Raglan hero class, could you provide a list of scriptural references to the attributes of Jesus as mentioned in your book? Off topic I know, but it’s something I’ve been interested in since reading those elements you presented in OHJ. Thanks!

  3. Drudge16 March 5, 2015, 4:51 pm

    “In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting(…)”

    Is it just me, or is this absolutely huge for Mythicism? Isn’t the SBL the main paradigm-setting institution in New Testament studies?


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