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Was Musonius Better than Jesus? (2006)

Richard Carrier


In "Two Ancient Teachers, Two Bad Analogies" and "The Real Jesus: A Brief Portrait," Amy Sayers responds to my essay "On Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay" (1999), but she reads far too much into what I say there, and essentially argues against positions I never affirmed.

In "Two Ancient Teachers," Sayers makes two points. In the first, she performs her own exegesis on Matthew 6:25-34 and concludes that I was wrong to say that the "birds neither reap nor sow" metaphor "is related more usefully and clearly" by Musonius Rufus "in a context which makes the analogy sensible" because "the Gospel version seems snatched out of context and is not clear in its meaning." But the analogy does seem snatched out of context. The Musonius version makes the appeal to birds completely expected, and is explicable as deriving from a quotation from Homer. By contrast, Jesus just comes up with the analogy (the same analogy, worded differently) out of the blue, and it is not a good fit for his argument. In other words, it is unclear why Jesus chose this analogy, whereas it is entirely clear why Musonius did.

Moreover, contrary to what Sayers seems to think, I did not say the Gospel version was unintelligible, only that its meaning is less clear, and Sayers does not improve the matter with her exegesis. Jesus says God feeds birds and we are worth more than birds, so we should not worry about starving. The implication is that God will feed us, even clothe us. Jesus says so explicitly in Matthew 6:30, and clearly implies this in 6:33, where he issues the prediction that if you "seek his kingdom" then you will "get all these things." But that isn't true. Of course, we can "reinterpret" what Jesus was really trying to get at, in a manner like what Sayers attempts, but the fact that we have to do all this shows exactly what I claimed: that the point Jesus is trying to make is not as clear as the point Musonius made.

Sayers accuses me of quoting out of context, but as my explanation above shows, I was not asserting what she thinks I was, and what I was actually asserting is fair to the text, even in context. In yet another muddled argument, Sayers writes that "it is entirely amusing that Carrier would use" the phrase "he who does not work, does not eat" as "though it stood opposed to a Christian belief," asking whether I am "aware that this statement about working and eating is from 2 Thessalonians 3:10." She quotes this passage as: "For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat." But this commandment about Christian welfare--about not supporting members who don't chip in--has no relevance to my point. My point was that if we "looked after the kingdom" and acted like the birds, never worrying about cultivating food to eat, but expecting God "to add all things" to us--including food--we would starve. I was not talking about whether believers should feed lazy people--I was talking about whether God himself will feed us if we pursue the kingdom. It is true that one can reinterpret what Jesus said so that he didn't mean this, but the very fact that we have to engage that exegesis is what makes his teaching less clear. Not unclear. Less clear.

The same goes for Sayers' second point, her "reinterpretation" of what Jesus said about having lustful thoughts. Regardless of what Jesus may have meant, Jesus never said "freedom of speech means not suppressing whatever one chances to think," but Musonius did. That's a fact. And though Sayers doesn't think Jesus meant we should literally mutilate ourselves to suppress "bad" thoughts, it remains a fact that Jesus never said what Sayers does. This means Sayers is stating the point a lot more clearly than Jesus did, which is exactly my point about Jesus being less clear. Certainly, Jesus may have "meant" something more metaphorical or may have been speaking hyperbolically. I did not argue otherwise. Rather, I said that Musonius defends freedom of thought, whereas Jesus never does, and that Jesus tells us to suppress thoughts that are inevitable and natural, whereas Musonius does not. In fact, Jesus says that thoughts alone are as bad as deeds: "every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). That is exactly the opposite of saying that we should not suppress whatever one chances to think. So not only does Jesus abstain from defending freedom of thought, but the one time he mentions thoughts, he actually makes certain thoughts a crime. Some even interpret his statements against blasphemy (Mark 3:28-30, Matthew 12:31-33, Luke 12:8-10) as criminalizing thought--again, it isn't clear.

Finally, in "The Real Jesus," Sayers tries to elevate Jesus to the level of Musonius by highlighting his better qualities, or at least the better interpretations and "spin" one can put on what we are told about him. But, as before, nothing in this essay argues against what I actually said. I never said Jesus was a moral reprobate or that he had no redeeming qualities, yet Sayers' entire treatise seems aimed at rebutting only charges such as these, charges I never made. For instance, she points to passages that, in her opinion, show that Jesus was at least somewhat "down to earth." But I never claimed otherwise--I only claimed that Musonius was "more down to earth," and only in my opinion. Yet Sayers doesn't "care to say" whether I was right or wrong about that. Likewise, she agrees with my actual point that there is no record of Jesus laughing, etc., and merely retorts that she can imagine Jesus did such things. That does not challenge anything I actually said. Nor does her perfectly valid claim that Jesus was not completely inhuman. What I actually claimed is that Jesus was depicted in the manner of someone inhuman, and only in the sense that a man with no sense of humor is "disturbing and inhuman." I did not claim that Jesus was depicted as devoid of all compassion or any other human virtue. So Sayers is arguing against a position I never maintained.

Likewise, Sayers is at pains to justify Jesus' use of violence in the marketplace, even though all I said was that Musonius sought similar moral objectives without violence, a point that Sayers completely fails to address. Instead, she says "that Jesus chose one method over another does not indict Him, as the method He did choose was not an immoral one"--which may or may not be true (it depends on what we "assume" about the circumstances). But either way, this does not respond to any claim I actually made. It remains a fact that Musonius sought such ends nonviolently, whereas Jesus sought them violently. Conclude from that what you will. That is all my essay asks.

Meanwhile, Sayers completely misses my point when she assumes what I was calling "brutish" in the teachings of Jesus is the fact of Hell. That is simply not the case, and it is perhaps a bit scary that she missed my actual point. For this suggests that she does not see anything brutish in his parables, and it seems to me only a cold heart could not. These are only some of many examples:

  • In Matthew 22:8-14, a man invited to a party is tied up and thrown helpless into the night, simply because he wasn't well dressed. Imagine that happening in real life. Any decent person would call it brutish.

  • In Matthew 25:14-30, a man who saves money, out of innocent fear of the cruelty of his master, is fired from his job, rather than taught how to do better. The economics of the parable entail that what he feared was losing his master's money on the loan market--a valid fear in those days--and, after all, he was not instructed to do anything else. Imagine a boss who acted this way toward you. Any decent person would call him brutish. Indeed, in Luke's version of this same lesson, though the poor sod is told what to do (so in this version perhaps he deserved to get fired), his boss then murders everyone who doesn't like him (Luke 19:12-27), which is certainly brutish.

  • In Luke 16:19-31, an insolent rich man is suffering infinite pain and torment and begs merely for a moment of respite--he does not beg to be released from hell or for his torment to be permanently lightened. No. All he asks for is a single drop of water on his tongue! God won't even grant so humble a wish as this. Imagine that happening in real life. You would consider it brutish indeed.

Of course, one can "interpret" these tales and say they are just metaphors and so on, and thus we can make the meaning no more brutish than God's actual plan. I was not objecting to that. Rather, what I was getting at is that the stories themselves are brutish. They are needlessly brutish metaphors that tacitly accept brutality in the real world as a valid analogy for God himself to follow--even though God is supposed to be better than brutish people like these. Imagine telling your kids such stories, where wedding guests are bound and hurled out into the street simply for being poorly dressed, where innocently fearful bankers are fired merely for the crime of saving money, or where God lacks even enough mercy in his heart to place a single drop of water onto a burning man's tongue. Imagine the look of horror on your children's faces, imagine the skewed sense of decency they would learn; no loving soul can claim these are not brutish tales, no matter how "true" they may be.

Again, perhaps such brutishness is accorded righteousness by Sayers. But not by me. And that is my point: Musonius was, in my opinion, a better man than Jesus; at the very least, he comes off as a better man in surviving records, presenting a better model to follow. Sayers can disagree with my values. But she cannot disagree with the fact that my conclusion does follow from my values, which is why I emphasized that this was "my opinion" in the essay. Still, for anyone who wants to know why I hold these values, I explain this in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005). And every reader can decide with whom they side on this issue. Otherwise, nothing Sayers argues challenges my article one bit. In the end, I should note that I have said a lot more on the question of comparing Jesus with other ancient philosophers in "Some Godless Comments on McFall's Review of On Jesus" (2003) and in my even more extensive "Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher" (2004). I am sure Sayers will find even more to disagree with in those articles, but you can judge for yourself who has the better grasp of the facts.