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Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


9. Was the Idea of an Incarnate God Really Repugnant?

James Holding cites Earl Doherty for the argument that Jews would never believe "that a human man was the Son of God," much less deserved "all the titles of divinity and full identification with the ancient God of Abraham." Therefore, Holding argues, Jesus must have proved he was the God of Abraham. Of course, Holding neglects to mention that Doherty can use the exact same evidence to argue the reverse: that originally Jesus was never a literal human man, but always a heavenly being, an intermediary and representative of God.[1] Doherty's construction of the evidence is plausible, but not thereby proved. But neither is Holding's position proved. Therefore, the logic of Holding's argument here does not work: by the law of excluded middle, from what Holding presents we cannot decide whether Jesus gave "proof" of his divinity or whether early Christians rejected the very theology that later Christians developed. Both are consistent with the premise Holding gives in this section of his argument, but only one is consistent with Holding's conclusion, and to pick one theory over another is unjustified.

Holding could perhaps justify it by presenting evidence that the Christians of Paul's time believed what later Christians claimed. But there is nothing in the evidence from Paul himself that Jesus was ever thought to be God Incarnate while residing on Earth. All the evidence there is consistent with the view that Jesus was merely a man, a Messiah possessed by the Spirit of God, who was adopted by God (either at his birth, baptism, or death) and thus was the "Son of God" only in a legal and spiritual sense, not a literal sense. Indeed, Paul outright says that Jesus "was born from the seed of David in respect to the flesh," but "ordained the Son of God in power in respect to the spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead." In other words, from the seed of David he was a man, but after his resurrection he was appointed Son of God--when he was not flesh, but spirit.[2] It was standard Jewish understanding that every "Messiah" ("Anointed" and "King") was adopted by God at his anointing and thus became a Son of God, including David himself.[3] And the earliest Christians made this universal: Paul says every Christian, through joining Christ's spirit, became an adopted son of God.[4] There is nothing un-Jewish about this.

We also know of some early Jewish Christian groups (like the Ebionites) who stuck to this view, against the emerging, largely Gentile "orthodoxy" of the second century, which saw fit even to doctor the Gospel of Mark in an attempt to eliminate its adoptionistic slant.[5] Even when the idea arose (whenever it actually did) that Christ was a preexistent spirit that descended into the womb of Mary to form the flesh of Jesus, the Christians were not deviating from what was acceptable to many Jews of the time: God could certainly create flesh, and the Spirit of the Lord could certainly inhabit a living person. This would not be the Nicene view of a literal identity between God and Flesh. But the Nicene view would be centuries in the making. In Christianity's first hundred years, insofar as it remained Jewish at all, there is no evidence supporting the exact formula of the Nicene creed. What reliable evidence we have is entirely compatible with a view that God remained incorporeal and enthroned in Heaven even as his spirit animated the body of Jesus. That did not contradict Jewish ideology. Indeed, it conformed to it: for the Spirit of the Lord was expected to enter the body of Israel's human King, as well as the bodies of God's prophets.[6]

Nor was the idea of a preexistent spiritual son of God a novel idea among the Jews. Paul's contemporary, Philo, interprets the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 6:11-12 in just such a way. In the Septuagint this says to place the crown of kingship upon "Jesus," for "So says Jehovah the Ruler of All, 'Behold the man named 'Rising', and he shall rise up from his place below and he shall build the House of the Lord'." This pretty much is the Christian Gospel. Philo was a Platonic thinker, so could not imagine this as referring to "a man who is compounded of body and soul," but thought it meant an "incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image" whom "the Father of the Universe has caused to spring up as the eldest son. In another passage, he calls this son the firstborn," and says "he who is thus born" imitates "the ways of his father."[7] That sure sounds a lot like what the Christians were saying--and this from a Jew! Not all Jews were Platonists, either. Simply couple Philo's idea with the more common Jewish belief that the Spirit of God can "rest upon" ordinary human beings, and in fact must do so in the case of prophets and kings, and you have the early Christian Christology.

Therefore, we can prove nothing un-Jewish about what Christians taught in the first century. Certainly there would be Jews opposed to their idea, as there were numerous Jewish factions all opposed to each other--the Pharisees against the Sadducees, the Essenes against the Pharisees, the Scribes against the Baptists, the Jerusalem rabbis against the Galilean rabbis, and so on. In the words of John Barclay, "there was no universal template of 'normative' Judaism," even in Palestine, but especially in the Hellenized Diaspora.[8] And this proves quite the opposite of Holding's assumption: since there were many different ways to conceive of God and his mission even among the Jews themselves, no conclusion can be drawn about what "all" Jews would think from the example of only a few--much less from a few within only a few specific sects. And there is even less reason to focus only on Jews who were ideologically opposed to the Christian message. That can tell us nothing about what other Jews who were sympathetic to that message thought. You can't simply attribute to their friends the beliefs of their enemies, especially when it is probably not a coincidence that Christ became more literally God Incarnate precisely as Christianity became less Jewish.

So much for the Jewish perspective. Holding then claims that even "in the Gentile world" the "idea of a god condescending to material form, for more than a temporary visit, of sweating, stinking, going to the bathroom, and especially suffering and dying here on earth" would be "too much to swallow!" I find that an astonishing claim. For Greek and Roman paganism was filled with the idea of ordinary men being or becoming gods. As to the idea of a "sweating, stinking, defecating" mortal who dies and then becomes a god, there are so many examples in Greco-Roman religion I can't believe I even need to cite them. This is also the case for the idea of a literal son of a God who "sweats, stinks, and defecates" and then dies, becoming a God in Heaven.[9] There were some elites who balked at these ideas (especially Epicureans like Celsus and Platonists like Plutarch), but they represented a small minority of the population. The incredible ubiquity of belief in countless deified men and earthly divine sons proves this beyond any doubt. Christianity would hit no greater obstacle than every other popular cult worshipping divine men.

Lest there be any doubt, Plutarch says point blank that "it seemed credible to the Romans" (and was accepted on the mere testimony of one man) that Romulus was an eternal god who descended from Heaven, lived on earth as a mere mortal, died, then rose again to rejoin the gods. How is that any different from what the Christians preached of Jesus? Even in Acts (14:11-13), the Lycaonians readily assumed Barnabas and Paul were the gods Zeus and Hermes physically descended from Heaven, declaring that "the gods have become like men and come down to us!" And the Maltans quickly concluded Paul was a god merely because he survived a snake bite (Acts 28:3-6). Likewise, Celsus knew several men who manipulated crowds by claiming to be "God or God's Son or the Spirit of God" descended from above, which could only have been a successful scam if the idea was acceptable to enough people to make it worthwhile.[10]

In the end, Holding has not made an adequate case that what Christians actually believed in the first century would have been incredible to all Jews, much less those Jews who actually accepted the Christian message. Nor has Holding shown that all Gentiles found the idea of a God Incarnate "too much to swallow." To the contrary, there is evidence the early Christian idea of the Savior and Messiah as Son of God was actually right in line with the thinking of many Jews at the time, and we've shown there can be no doubt that a great many Gentiles fully accepted the idea of a God Made Flesh. So there would be no need of "irrefutable" proof to overcome hostility to this idea among either group. Indeed, Holding's own logic argues against his own case: for the fact that most Jews and Gentiles rejected Christianity in its first hundred years would suggest the evidence was insufficient to persuade those who actually did scoff at the idea of incarnated gods. In fact, there is not a single example on record of anyone in the first century who clearly scoffed at that idea subsequently becoming a Christian--yet only such evidence would offer any support to Holding's argument!

Even then, Holding would still have to present evidence that what changed their mind was "irrefutable" evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, rather than something less impressive to us today--like an argument solely from scripture. Holding can present no such evidence. Therefore, his argument is unsuccessful. In fact, it is inherently dubious. For why would rising from the dead prove Jesus was God? How would Jesus prove he was literally God? N. T. Wright himself, a staunch believer and expert on the subject, warns that "it has too often been assumed that if Jesus was raised from the dead this automatically 'proves' the entire Christian worldview--including the belief that he was and is" God or God's son. But as Wright explains, it does not--there are Jews even today who believe Jesus rose from the dead (and did many other miraculous things), but conclude from this "that he was and is a great prophet to whom Israel should have paid attention at the time," and nothing more.[11]

Many who were not gods rose from the dead, even in Jewish legend (see Chapter 3)--in fact, from a Jewish point of view, such an event would sooner prove Jesus a great prophet than a god. Likewise for any of his miracles, which did not exceed in magnitude those of Moses or Elijah. So how would anyone come to believe he was God? There is only one possible way: God told them. In other words: visions and interpretations of scripture. Therefore, the only evidence that would ever convince any Jew that Jesus was the Son of God would be scripture and the word of contemporary prophets (confirmed by miraculous deeds), neither of which would we ever consider "irrefutable" evidence.[12] And a Jew who would be convinced by such evidence (and we know those were probably the only people Christians actually convinced, as suggested by the evidence in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17) would not even need any other evidence, since that was the only evidence possible for such a claim. Therefore, Holding cannot use "objections to incarnation" to confirm the strength of evidence for the Resurrection, even in principle. At most it could only confirm the strength of evidence from revelations and scripture--which comes nowhere near "irrefutable" evidence, and is not evidence at all except to those who already accept that God talks to people, and then inspired the entire Bible as well as the Christian prophets.


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[1] See: Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus, revised ed. (2000); Doherty's website: The Jesus Puzzle Online; and my critical review of his book: Richard Carrier, "Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity" (2002).

[2] Romans 1:3-4. The words are unmistakable: Jesus genomenos, "came into being," "was born" a descendant of David (cf. gignomai), and then horistheis, "was separated out," "distinguished," "marked," "ordained"--the word in fact often meaning "deified" (cf. horizô), not in the flesh, but in the spirit, and not in life, but after death. It is true, however, that a few other passages from Paul imply preexistence, so (if we assume these other passages were not scribal interpolations) most scholars take this verse as representing the original Gospel, and Paul's view as a more Platonic development implying spirit possession (see discussion of Philo's "Son of God" later in this chapter and Note 7).

[3] See, for example: 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7 & 89:26-27; 1 Chronicles 17:13, 22:10-11, 28:6. Likewise, Israel (Jacob) was not only called "Son of God" but "God's firstborn son" (Hosea 11:1, Exodus 4:22-23). See "Son of God" in Jacob Neusner, ed., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period (1996).

[4] See, for example: John 1:12-13; Galatians 3:26-27 & 4:5-6; Romans 8:14-17; 1 John 5:1. And see "Son of God," Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): pp. 408-09.

[5] See: David Horrell, "Early Jewish Christianity," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 2 (2000): pp. 136-67 (for the shift in the first century toward a predominately Gentile Christianity: Todd Klutz, "Paul and the Development of Gentile Christianity," ibid.: pp. 168-97); Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1993), esp. "Anti-Adoptionistic Corruptions of Scripture": pp. 47-118 (note, for example, that one of the common features of known scribal tampering in Acts is the addition of Christological titles: see sources cited in Note 20 of Chapter 7).

[6] See, for example: Numbers 11:25, 11:29, 24:2; Judges 3:9-10, 6:34, 11:29, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14; 1 Samuel 10:6, 10:10, 11:6, 16:13, 19:20, 19:23; 2 Chronicles 15:1, 20:14, 24:20; Isaiah 11:2, 59:21, 61:1; Ezekiel 11:5, 37:12-14 (which anticipates the Christian idea that at the Resurrection God's spirit will inhabit all the saved, exactly as Paul says has happened); Micah 3:8; Zechariah 7:12. See also: Exodus 31:1-5; Numbers 23:7 (in the Septuagint text); Daniel 4:8-9, 4:18, 5:11, 5:14 (all singular in the Septuagint text). And for context, see "Son of God," Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: pp. 596-97.
       For example, Colossians 1:15-18 does not say when the preexisting spirit created as the "image" of God entered the man Jesus--it says nothing about this happening at birth, much less through a virgin's womb, nor does this say anything about the man Jesus literally being God. And this idea may even be a later development, since the authenticity of Colossians is in doubt: see "Colossians, Letter to the" in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000).

[7] Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues 62-63. The whole passage reads:

[The phrase] "Behold, the man named Rising!" [is] a very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul. But if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of 'Rising' has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the Universe has caused him to rise up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn. And he who is thus born, imitates the ways of his father...

In the same book, Philo says even if no one is "worthy to be called a son of God," we should still "labor earnestly to be adorned according to his firstborn Logos, the eldest of his angels, the ruling archangel of many names" (146). And in On Dreams 1.215, Philo adds "there are two Temples of God, and one is this cosmos, wherein the high priest is his first born son, the divine Logos." Compare these remarks with Colossians 1:12-19 and Hebrews 1:1-14, and the connections are obvious. Likewise with Zechariah 6:11-13, which not only says Jesus will "build the temple of the Lord," but "he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne, and he shall be a priest upon his throne."

[8] John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE) (1993): quote from p. 83. See also: Morton Smith, "Palestinian Judaism in the First Century," Israel: Its Role in Civilization, Moshe Davis, ed. (1956): pp. 67-81.

[9] On both, see examples (like Asclepius, Hercules, Zalmoxis, Attis, the Dioscuri, etc.) and sources on pagan religion (which cite many other examples) in Chapter 3. Many of these were already literally demigods and thus their divine body was trapped inside their body of flesh, which "sweated, stank, and defecated" as no doubt Romulus and Hercules did, yet Romulus was literally and physically a god from heaven, and Hercules was literally and physically a son of god. Of course, whether Christians believed Jesus "sweated, stank, and defecated" while on earth is not even established--Holding is assuming this is what was taught or claimed, though we don't really know for sure. The sources we have are silent on this question.

[10] Plutarch, Romulus 27-28; Acts 14:11-12; Celsus, quoted in Origen, Against Celsus 7.9. And see Note 11 in Chapter 1.

[11] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003): pp. 720, 721 (cf. pp. 719-38). Wright's evidence, in that same chapter, for an early belief in literal incarnation is far weaker. But it is notable that even someone who is convinced of that, nevertheless still rejects assumptions like that of Holding, i.e. that proving Jesus rose proves Christianity true.

[12] And as we shall see in Chapter 10 and Chapter 13, this was the only evidence offered in any known case of conversion in the first hundred years--in conjunction with the "miracles" of missionaries themselves, which we have also discussed in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.