Unhistorical Jesus, 4

Editor’s note: Here I continue with some passages from Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, especially a follow-up of what Carrier says in my first instalment of the series.

It really looks like the authors of the Gospels, presumably Semites, thoroughly plagiarised the foundational myth of Rome in order to sell us another myth (compare this with what my sticky post’s hatnote links about toxic foundation myths). This new myth did not only involve changing an Aryan hero (Romulus) for a Jewish hero (Jesus). It did something infinitely more noxious. As Carrier wrote, which I highlighted in bold in my first instalment of the series: Romulus’ material kingdom favoring the mighty is transformed into a spiritual one favoring the humble. It certainly looks like the Christian passion narrative is an intentional transvaluation of the Roman Empire’s ceremony of their own founding savior’s incarnation, death and resurrection [redish italics added].

On pages 225-229 of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt we read (scholarly footnotes omitted):

______ 卐 ______

Element 47: Another model hero narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the apotheosis, or ‘ascension to godhood’ tale, and of these the one to which the Gospels (and Acts) most conform is that of the Roman national hero Romulus. I discussed this already in Chapter 4 (§1), and the points made there should be considered a component of the element here.

The more general point is that this narrative concept of a ‘translation to heaven’ for a hero (often but not always a divine son of god) was very commonplace, and always centered around a peculiar fable about the disappearance of their body. All these fables were different from one another, and therefore those differences are irrelevant to the point: all still shared the same core features (see my discussion of how syncretism works in Element 11). And when it comes to the Romulus fable in particular, the evidence is unmistakable that Christianity conformed itself to it relatively quickly—even if all these attributes were accumulated over time and not all at once.

Romulus, of course, did not exist. He was invented, along with legends about him (largely put together from previous Greek and Etruscan mythology), much later in Roman history than he is supposed to have lived. His name was eponymous (essentially an early form of the word ‘Roman’), and his story was meant to exemplify ideal Roman aspirations and values, using a model similar to Greek tragedy, in which the hero sins in various ways but comes to self-understanding and achieves peace by the time of his death. He otherwise exhibits in his deeds the ‘exemplary qualities’ of Rome as a social entity, held up as a model for Roman leaders to emulate, such as ending ‘the cycle of violence’ initiated by his sin and pride by religiously expiating the sin of past national crimes in order to bring about a lasting peace. His successor, Numa, then exemplified the role of the ideal, sinless king, a religious man and performer of miracles whose tomb was found empty after his death, demonstrating that he, too, like his predecessor Romulus, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven.

The idea of the ‘translation to heaven’ of the body of a divine king was therefore adaptable and flexible, every myth being in various ways different but in certain core respects the same. But the Gospels conform to the Romulus model most specifically. There are twenty parallels, although not every story contained every one. In some cases that may simply be the result of selection or abbreviation in the sources we have (and therefore the silence of one source does not entail the element did not then exist or was not known to that author); and in some cases elements might have been deliberately removed (or even reversed) by an author who wanted to promote a different message (see discussion in Chapter 10, §2, of how myth­making operated in antiquity). For example, the ‘radiant resurrection body’ (probably the earlier version of Christian appearance narratives) was later transformed into a ‘hidden-god narrative’ (another common trope both in paganism and Judaism) as suited any given author.

But when taken altogether the Romulus and Jesus death-and-resurrection narratives contain all of the following parallels: 1. The hero is the son of God. 2. His death is accompanied by prodigies. 3. The land is covered in darkness. 4. The hero’s corpse goes missing. 5. The hero receives a new immortal body, superior to the one he had. 6. His resurrection body has on occasion a bright and shining appearance. 7. After his resurrection he meets with a follower on a road from the city. 8. A speech is given from a summit or high place prior to ascending. 9. An inspired message of resurrection or ‘translation to heaven’ is delivered to a witness. 10. There is a ‘great commission’ (an instruction to future followers). 11. The hero physically ascends to heaven in his new divine body. 12. He is taken up into a cloud. 13. There is an explicit role given to eyewitness testimony (even naming the witnesses). 14. Witnesses are frightened by his appearance and/or disappearance. 15. Some witnesses flee. 16. Claims are made of ‘dubious alternative accounts’ (which claims were obviously fabricated for Romulus, there never having been a true account to begin with). 17. All of this occurs outside of a nearby (but central) city. 18. His followers are initially in sorrow over the hero’s death. 19. But his post-resurrection story leads to eventual belief, homage and rejoicing. 20. The hero is deified and cult subsequently paid to him (in the same manner as a god).

Romulus, of course, was also unjustly killed by the authorities (and came from a humble background, beginning his career as an orphan and a shepherd, a nobody from the hill country), and thus also overlaps the Aesop/­Socratic type (see Element 46), and it’s easy to see that by combining the two, we end up with pretty much the Christian Gospel in outline (especially when we appropriately Judaize the result: Elements 3-7, 17-20, and 39-43). Some of the parallels could be coincidental (e.g. resurrected bodies being associated with radiance was itself a common trope, both within Judaism and paganism), but for all of them to be coincidental is extremely improbable. The Christian conception of Jesus’ death and resurrection appears to have been significantly influenced by the Roman conception of Romulus’s death and resurrection.

Even if we discounted that for any reason, the Romulus parallels definitely establish that all these components were already part of a recognized hero-type, and are therefore not surprising or unusual or unexpected. The story of Jesus would have looked familiar, not only in the same way all translation stories looked familiar even when different in many and profound ways, but also in the very specific way that among all such tales it looked the most like the story of Romulus, which was publicly acted out in passion plays every year. And this was the national founding hero of the Roman Empire. What better god’s tale to emulate or co-opt?