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Kersey Graves and The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors (2003)

Richard Carrier

[Editor's note: This is a conflation of three responses which were made by Richard Carrier to feedback and e-mail involving questions about the scholarhip of Kersey Graves, in particular, and about scholarship, in general, in the subject area about which Graves concerned himself in The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors.]

The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Or Christianity Before Christ is unreliable, but no comprehensive critique exists. Most scholars immediately recognize many of his findings as unsupported and dismiss Graves as useless. After all, a scholar who rarely cites a source isn't useful to have as a reference even if he is right. For examples of specific problems, however, see Hare Jesus: Christianity's Hindu Heritage, and some generally poor but not always incorrect Christian rebuttals. A very helpful discussion of related methodological problems by renowned scholar Bruce Metzger is also well worth reading ("Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity" 2002). In general, even when the evidence is real, it often only appears many years after Christianity began, and thus might be evidence of diffusion in the other direction. Another typical problem is that Graves draws far too much from what often amounts to rather vague evidence. In general, there are ten kinds of problems that crop up in Graves' work here and there:

  • Graves often does not distinguish his opinions and theories from what his sources and evidence actually state.
  • Graves often omits important sources and evidence.
  • Graves often mistreats in a biased or anachronistic way the sources he does use.
  • Graves occasionally relies on suspect sources.
  • Graves does little or no source analysis or formal textual criticism.
  • Graves' work is totally uninformed by modern social history (a field that did not begin to be formally pursued until after World War II, i.e., after Graves died).
  • Graves' conclusions and theories often far exceed what the evidence justifies, and he treats both speculations and sound theories as of equal value.
  • Graves often ignores important questions of chronology and the actual order of plausible historical influence, and completely disregards the methodological problems this creates.
  • Graves' work lacks all humility, which is unconscionable given the great uncertainties that surround the sketchy material he had to work with.
  • Graves' scholarship is obsolete, having been vastly improved upon by new methods, materials, discoveries, and textual criticism in the century since he worked. In fact, almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.

All this is not to say Graves didn't have some things right. But you will never be able to tell what he has right from what he has wrong without totally redoing all his research and beyond, which makes him utterly useless to historians as a source. For example, almost all his sources on Krishna long postdate Christian-Nestorian influence on India. No pre-Christian texts on Krishna contain the details crucial to his case, apart from those few that were common among many gods everywhere. Can you tell from Graves which details are attested by early evidence, and which by late? That's a problem.

On the other side of the coin, consider his emphasis on the December 25 birth date as a common feature. This is one of the things he gets right, at least regarding Greco-Roman religion: all gods associated with the sun shared the sun's "birthday," erroneously identified as December 25 (it is actually the 21st). But for Jesus, we can actually trace when and why Jesus was assigned this birthday for political reasons in the 4th century, 300 years after Christianity began. Graves seems oblivious to the distinction between the origins of Christianity and its subsequent development. Yet no Christian in the beginning believed Jesus was born on December 25. But Graves obscures this fact, leading to false conclusions about the origins of the Christ story. So again, he gets some things right, but uses them in the wrong way. Can you tell when? That's a problem, too.

Another example is something written by the first philosophical defender of Christianity, Justin Martyr, who wrote around 160 A.D. These passages show the sort of stories that even Christians acknowledged as predating their own, and you can see how Graves sometimes embellishes and goes a bit too far with this kind of evidence--and there is no better evidence before the 3rd century, when Christian ideas were already affecting pagan thought. However, you will see here that there is a small kernel of truth in what Graves argues, but since he rarely cites sources and engages in almost no critical examination of texts we can't tell when he is right or wrong and that makes him useless to scholars.

Justin wrote in his Dialogue of Justin and Trypho (the Jew) (69-70):

Be well assured, then, Trypho, that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that the devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and traveled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, 'strong as a giant to run his race,' has been in like manner imitated? And when the devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? . . . And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah's words?

Although I have not exhaustively investigated this matter, I have confirmed only two real "resurrected" deities with some uncanny similarity to Jesus which are actually reported before Christian times, Zalmoxis and Inanna, neither of which is mentioned by Graves or John G. Jackson (another Gravesian author--though both mention Tammuz, for whom Inanna was mistaken in their day). This is apart from the obvious pre-Christian myths of Demeter, Dionysos, Persephone, Castor and Pollux, Isis and Osiris, and Cybele and Attis, which do indeed carry a theme of metaphorical resurrection, usually in the terms of a return or escape from the Underworld, explaining the shifting seasons. But these myths are not quite the same thing as a pre-Christian passion story. It only goes to show the pervasiveness in antiquity of an agricultural resurrection theme, and the Jesus story has more to it than that, although the cultural influence can certainly be acknowledged.

The only pre-Christian man to be buried and resurrected and deified in his own lifetime, that I know of, is the Thracian god Zalmoxis (also called Salmoxis or Gebele'izis), who is described in the mid-5th-century B.C.E. by Herodotus (4.94-96), and also mentioned in Plato's Charmides (156d-158b) in the early-4th-century B.C.E. According to the hostile account of Greek informants, Zalmoxis buried himself alive, telling his followers he would be resurrected in three years, but he merely resided in a hidden dwelling all that time. His inevitable "resurrection" led to his deification, and a religion surrounding him, which preached heavenly immortality for believers, persisted for centuries.

The only case, that I know, of a pre-Christian god actually being crucified and then resurrected is Inanna (also known as Ishtar), a Sumerian goddess whose crucifixion, resurrection and escape from the underworld is told in cuneiform tablets inscribed c. 1500 B.C.E., attesting to a very old tradition. The best account and translation of the text is to be found in Samuel Kramer's History Begins at Sumer, pp. 154ff., but be sure to use the third revised edition (1981), since the text was significantly revised after new discoveries were made. For instance, the tablet was once believed to describe the resurrection of Inanna's lover, Tammuz (also known as Dumuzi). Graves thus mistakenly lists Tammuz as one of his "Sixteen Crucified Saviors." Of course, Graves cannot be discredited for this particular error, since in his day scholars still thought the tablet referred to that god (Kramer explains how this mistake happened).

There is great need of new work in this area. There really is a huge gap in modern scholarship here--this is one of the few subjects untouched by the post-WWII historiographical revolution. Most scholars today consider the subject dead, largely for all the wrong reasons. And there is little hope. The subject is stuck in the no-man's-land between history and religious studies, whose methods and academic cultures are so radically different they can barely communicate with each other, much less cooperate on a common project like this.

When I embarked on researching this stuff ten years ago (this actually partly launched my interest in history as a profession) I found it excruciatingly hard to find anything on the subject. Most of the relevant material (that is worth reading anyway) is buried piecemeal in academic journals or chapters in obscure out-of-print books. At the time, I ended up with no recourse but to personally contact experts worldwide item by item.

I haven't seen any improvement since then. I have personally acquired a great deal of expertise in the related subjects, but only after a decade of hard-core exposure to source materials and other historical studies. I have never seen any attempt to get all this experience into one book, and sadly, though I have a growing file for a possible future book, I have no plans to work on this any time soon.

In any given case there are sometimes relevant and available books in English that can at least give you enough background to go back and assess what Graves claims, but no direct updates of his work.

I have addressed more issues related to this question in these other essays:

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