This topic examines a curious little essay by Richard Carrier that maintains Musonius Rufus, a first century Roman Stoic philosopher, had a higher morality than Jesus.
We have to remember we don't have everything said or done by either (John 21:25), despite having four Gospels. To judge either's teachings as "lacking" because some subject isn't directly talked about is like a blind man appraising art.
This is not to say that Jesus' teachings, ethics, wisdom, and morality have major defects because of omission. Some subjects are not spoken of in depth at all by Jesus, such as drunkenness, homosexuality, and gluttony. Yet we know he was neither a drunkard, nor a glutton (Matthew 11:19). What we don't hear about from Jesus, we most certainly read in the rest of the New Testament and the Bible. And so below we examine the claims of Jesus' supposed moral inferiority and lack of clarity compared to Musonius.
I. The Morality of Musonius and Jesus
The main points are basically that Musonius' morality is better and that his instructions are clearer. Carrier writes,
He [Musonius] exemplifies the sort of man who should have been venerated and made the founder of a world religion, but was not, yet he was the moral superior in my opinion to Jesus--not perfect, but admirable within the context of his own day.
Yet Musonius was forgotten! Despite having been the teacher of a philosopher, Epictetus, who himself taught one of the more famous and well-respected by pagan or Christian emperors: Marcus Aurelius. So clearly he couldn't have made the impact Jesus did, whose Jewish cult survived despite persecution.
It's hard to place Musonius on the high pedestal that Carrier does. Aurelius' Meditations, a work not much bigger than what we have from Musonius' teachings, has many more ethical and moral instructions of an even higher degree than Musonius' writings. Obviously Jesus isn't exclusively the only person who ever had good ethical instructions - many of his tenets can be observed through natural wisdom. But it's a bit subjective to say who should've been venerated over whom, when both were respected sages.
Carrier's first example already starts on the wrong foot. He maintains that a joke by Musonius, with a moral subtext, is an example of moral superiority over Jesus:
There are uncertain tales of his endurance of jail and torture. But what makes him so admirably human is his sense of humor, a classic case of which, an example that in my opinion sets him above Jesus as a more human and interesting teacher, I will produce here:
"Musonius," Herodes said, "ordered a thousand sesterces [silver coins] to be given to a beggar of the sort who was pretending to be a philosopher, and when several people told him that the rascal was a bad and vicious fellow, deserving of nothing good, Musonius, they say, answered with a smile, 'Well then he deserves money'." (Fragment 50)
Does Musonius' charity to someone who happened to be a "bad and vicious fellow" while retorting with a somewhat clever joke mean that this "sets him above Jesus as a more human and interesting teacher"? A legend about Aristotle has him doing the same: he gives money to someone who was known as a "bad man," and upon being asked why he gave money to this "bad man," Aristotle replied, "I gave him money not because he's bad, but because he's a man."
Perhaps it's a pity we don't have these clever one-liners in the Bible, but when it boils down to it, a blind man being cured from his blindness isn't going to remember the clever quotes or jokes, but....the fact that he can now see! That Jesus gave to those who wouldn't appreciate it is amply demonstrated in stories like the healing of ten lepers only one of whom returns to thank Jesus (LK 17:11-19), and his response shows that he developed a thick skin to this, though apparently sometimes these could become too distracting in their impious self-centeredness (MT 15:24). In John 6 he anticipates that the Jewish crowd's excitement is only like the seeds thrown before a wind - fleeting emotions that change at the whim of the moment. So although commendable, it's better to help not a bad or good man, but a man willing to change: a point very well illustrated and emphasized in the Gospels. Even better if you could influence this person to change, such as Jesus' infamous "eating and drinking with sinners, publicans, and tax collectors" (Mark 2:13-17), where he was criticized quite frequently for him to compare himself to their hypocritical criticsms regarding John the Baptist on this issue (MT 11:16-19). And who could deny Jesus gave money to the poor (MT 19:21)? Of course the entire reason Jesus came was to give something very important no one deserved (LK 5:32; Rom. 5:6-8). Certainly Jesus and his disciples weren't doing background checks before giving alms to the poor.
Musonius never addresses the issue of a superficially "good" beggar. The anecdote Carrier gives has a very good point, but it is far from complete and does not have the breadth that Jesus' examples do. The evil beggar is not helped or reproved. "Good" beggars who forget their goodness as soon as they get what they want are not pointed out as bad examples. Moreover, I see Jesus' advice to always forgive the person who errs against you and says, "I repent", provided it is an honest repentance, as much better (Matt. 18:21-22). Of course, insincerity is to be ignored and thrown out (Matthew 18:15-20).
Other virtues of Musonius
The next point that Carrier makes is a very obscure set of observations and some muddled attempts to explain Musonius' views that he disagrees with as arising out of his belief in God. He points out Musonius' adversity to homosexuality, abortion, fornication, and his lack of secularism and adherence to a "divine rational order" as something that's not progressive, and thus he disagrees here with his temporary hero since his morality happens to agree with the Christian viewpoint. Carrier implies that Musonius' disgust with homosexuality, something Carrier sees as the wrong attitude, is due to his belief in God. He writes, "It is notable, for instance, that his attitude toward homosexuality was based on his belief in God." Yet, if one reads Discourse (or Lecture) 12 of Musonius, which takes about 2 minutes, one finds zero references and appeals to religion or God/gods, not even implied connections. Musonius' reasoning for calling homosexuality monstrous is that it is unnatural, as Carrier himself paraphrases him, and that it is unlawful, which means wrong. This he derives wholly out of his morality and ethics that Carrier is so excited about, and have no connections to his religion or invocation of deities. And later he accuses Amy Sayers for interpreting some of Jesus' words with their obvious meaning as putting words in Jesus' mouth!
On the other hand, Carrier's praise with respect to Musonius' teachings and methods are that through philosophy he sought prudence, temperance, justice, and courage, and that "[h]is program included logic and debating skills, for the purpose of building the ability to reason through ethical decisions competently." These are all good qualities, none of which are discouraged by Jesus (Matt. 10:16). But the Bible's focus is wholly different than bravery or school-work. It would be like criticizing a college course on electronics for not teaching about the importance of medical care - both are important, but only one is the focus.
Many of these secular virtues are subtly highlighted too. The courage to not give up the faith would certainly carry over to not be afraid into other, less stressful situations. Temperance is if anything a Christian virtue that was certainly not unique to the Greeks. Justice is a near-obsession in the Bible after repentance. Solomon is praised for his wisdom, despite falling into some errors later on. There's a lot of examples of secular, applicable both legally and socially wisdom in the New Testament (Luke 12:57-59; 14:7-11; Matt. 7:1-5, 6).
Carrier considers Matt. 5:29-30 and parallels to be some sort of repression. This could only be spoken by someone who cannot restrain himself, because in this context the Bible is speaking about sin. If one believes in God, this is the only advice: to end something bad as quick as possible. It would be like saying quitting smoking on the spot is repression.
Freedom of Speech and Thought
Indeed, in contrast with Jesus who called even those who think of adultery to cut out their eyes (Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 9:43-9), Musonius said "freedom of speech means not suppressing whatever one chances to think" (Discourse 9).
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...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.
What Musonius refers to is the freedom to express one's opinion in the face of the fear of punishment. His point isn't that it's ok to say or think anything, but that it's not ok for a human to restrict someone else from doing so. He's talking about slaves and exiles like himself.
Because in Discourse 12, he plainly writes, "So no one with any self-control would think of having relations with a courtesan (prostitute) or a free woman apart from marriage, no, nor even with his own maid-servant."
Thoughts that arise from beliefs or impulses frequently carry over into actions. This is why therapists and psychologists are not transgressors of freedom of speech (or thought).
Jesus did not spend much time on the duties of a citizen to his state. "Render Caesar what's Caesar's", which Paul develops a little in Rom. 13:1-7 (also 1 Pet. 2:13-14) is as close to that as one could get. Another place where he seems to criticize the Romans in their imperialism is Matt. 20:25. But this was never his focus and was a minor comment, quite accurate in his day, to illustrate a positive quality.
But it's hardly an error for Jesus to focus entirely on his religious ideals than to dwell on patriotic themes. If the opposite had been the case and Jesus devoted quite a bit of attention to that subject, we'd probably see complaints about how numerous wars were caused by this devotion to nationalism, patriotism, and civic duty. Not to mention he'd probably call Jesus' message distracted and off topic.
At least Carrier doesn't try to discredit Jesus on charity, love, and forgiveness, because the absurdity of that attempt would have been too much. He does, however, make this comment:
Epictetus, relates this example of a parable used by Musonius which exhibits this concept of forgiveness, which is in my opinion wiser and more sophisticated than that of Jesus:
When [Lycurgus of Sparta] had been blinded in one eye by one of his fellow-citizens and had received the young man at the hands of the people to punish as he saw fit, he did not choose to do this, but trained him instead and made a good man of him, and afterward escorted him to the public theatre. And when the [Spartans] regarded him with amazement, he said: "This man I received from you an insolent and violent creature; I return him to you a reasonable man and a good citizen." (Fragment 39)
This story was matched by a dictum (Fragment 41), "We say that the despicable man is recognized among other things by his inability to harm his enemies, but actually he is much more easily recognized by his inability to help them."
So Jesus' company of "publicans and sinners" isn't an example of this? "I repent" seventy seven times (Matt. 18:21-22) is nothing when most people wouldn't even do it once?
And to think Lycurgus didn't have a few scuffles with this (violent) guy along the way, the way Jesus did with the Pharisees, would be incredulous. The infamous passage in Proverbs, "spare the rod, hate the son," (Prov. 13:24) demonstrates this.
To lead a life by example, as Victor Gollancz tells us, was not unknown to the Christians (1 Pet. 3:1-2; 1 Cor. 7:12-16). Jesus didn't constantly argue with his opponents: he taught (Matt. 22:34-40), forgave (Luke 23:34), responded intelligently (John 18:22-23), or knew it was pointless to do so at all (Matt. 26:59-63). We have to remember, we don't have everything that was said and done by either man, Musonius or Jesus.
Exposure of Children and Slavery
The Hebrews (and Egyptians) never practiced exposure. Yes, Musonius rightfully considered slaves just as human as freedmen. And yes it's a shame to force a slavegirl to have sex with her master as he writes. Jesus didn't have a lot of interactions with slaves in the Gospels, because most of his audience were the free but poor peasants of Israel. Since he gladly spent time with the lower segment of society, we can be sure on whose side he'd be. But this was a system no individual could really do anything about, other than to give practical advice as the rest of the New Testament sometimes does (1 Cor. 7:21).
Musonius illustrates this well. He does not see slaves as subhuman, but passively seems to have accepted the slave system given that slaves were treated with the same dignity and respect as humans. For example, in Discourse 3, Musonius states,
Let us examine in detail the qualities which are suitable for a woman
who would lead a good life, for it will appear that each one of them
would accrue to her most readily from the study of philosophy. In the first
place, a woman must be a good housekeeper; that is a careful
accountant of all that pertains to the welfare of her house and capable of
directing the household slaves. It is my contention that these are the
very qualities which would be present particularly in the woman who
studies philosophy, since obviously each of them is a part of life... [emphasis added]
I'm going to quote Carrier on his last point with respect to a superior morality:
He also taught that all human beings without exception have the same natural capacity for goodness, which directly challenged the prevailing view that slaves were morally inferior to the free (Discourse 2). But most remarkable of all, in his lecture about nonviolent disobedience (Discourse 16), the idea he develops is that it is right to disobey an unlawful command from any superior--father, magistrate, or master (despotęs)--because one who refuses to do wrong ought always to be praised, and all owe allegiance first and foremost to the father of all, Zeus, who commands that we do right. No one in antiquity--neither pagan nor Christian--came so near to an abolitionist sentiment as this.
Nonviolent disobedience (Matt. 26:52, John 7:25-26); refusal to do what's wrong despite the authorities (Matt. 26:42); owing allegiance first and foremost to the father of all...I won't even bother citing a biblical verse for that one because anyone could randomly flip the Bible and find it on the first try. Not sure what Carrier feels is missing or inferior in Jesus/Christianity.
Musonius does stress education and the use of reason to achieve rational and moral strength. As noted before, Jesus and the Bible lay stress on earthly wisdom, but its scope is vastly different and given a non-secular point of view, much more important. No culture or religion could have looked down upon intelligence.
For Musonius, men and women are equal in potential. They weren't spiritually deficient, an idea prevalent in the Middle Ages. The prevalent Greek view that, biologically, a woman was a "failed male" (literally the child failed to fully develop into a male). His attitude for men and women's roles is pretty sensible:
"Come now," I suppose someone will say, "do you expect that men
should learn spinning the same as women, and that women should take
part in gymnastic exercises the same as men? " No, that I should not
demand. But I do say that, since in the human race man's constitution is
stronger and woman's weaker, tasks should be assigned which are
suited to the nature of each; that is the heavier tasks should be given to
the stronger and lighter ones to the weaker. Thus spinning and indoor
work would be more fitting for women than for men, while gymnastics
and outdoor work would be more suitable for men.
Occasionally, however, some men might more fittingly handle certain of
the lighter tasks and what is generally considered women's work, and
again, women might do heavier tasks which seem more appropriate for
men whenever conditions of strength, need, or circumstance warranted.
For all human tasks, I am inclined to believe, are a common obligation
and are common for men and women, and none is necessarily
appointed for either one exclusively, but some pursuits are more suited
to the nature of one, some to the other, and for this reason some are
called men's work and some women's. But whatever things have
reference to virtue, these one would properly say are equally
appropriate to the nature of both, inasmuch as we agree that virtues are
in no respect more fitting for the one than the other. (Lecture 4)
This idea is pretty straightforward. Obviously even among men, a task would be divided in a way that the qualities of each would be best used. Many of Jesus' followers were women and there's nothing to suggest he considered them inferior either naturally or spiritually. Numerous times he used them as examples of virtues and values. Calls the Syrophoenician woman's faith great. Accepts Mary Magdalene as a disciple, which was uncharacteristic of the time. Hardly would Paul speak of women apostles (Rom. 16:7) if this egalitarian attitude didn't trace back to Jesus. The fact that the first witnesses were women and that this was acceptably recorded in all four Gospels also suggests the early Christians had no prejudice against women. That Jesus does not speak of women's education as being equal to men's means nothing as he emphasizes moral and not secular education.
Whereas Jesus employs violence and arrogance to remove the sellers of sacrificial animals (and those changing money, no doubt to aid in paying the temple tax) from the temple, Musonius uses only peaceful persuasion to get gladiatorial games removed from the sacred area of Dionysus, even though this was a far more deplorable sight.
Musonius was unsuccessful at removing these games and had to leave Athens, because of the popular reaction and was exiled again. Sadly, his protests amounted to nothing practical. For peaceful opposition to work, the vast majority in a given area have to be on your side. And even then it takes a long time usually, because there's an established system in place. This is why Gandhi's non-violent protests ultimately worked.
Jesus' Advice for Dependence on God
Carrier grossly misinterprets Jesus' advice about not worrying (for things outside one's control):
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've heard similar objections to this, which go along the lines of, "If I don't worry about next month's rent, I'm gonna be on the street."
Jesus wrote not to worry about things ultimately outside your control: something that any professional would tell you to reduce your stress today. If you live in an age where a harvest might fail, the last thing you should do is wonder day and night if it's going to. This is why David was concerned about his child when it was sick, but stopped with the worry once it died because as he stated, there was no more hope (2 Sam. 12:22-23) - he must've realized what would happen and gotten over it before the actual end.
Epictetus, a student of Musonius', has a quote that is a clear parallel to what Jesus says ("the birds don't think of tomorrow, yet they're doing fine" - clearly quite a few of them die and we see the survivors, but the point is, what can they or you do?). A fragment of Musonius himself says, "It is not possible to live well today unless one thinks of it as his last." (Fragment XXII) - you're not exactly planning for the future with that advice, but his point is clearly to use moderation with caution and freedom in this regard: obviously one day it'll be your last, and if you were only burdened by worry, whom did it benefit and what was the point?
It's not about never worrying about something, but making that worry your life's focus when it won't do any good. When Columbus sailed west, he and his crew were anxious so that their supplies wouldn't run out and leave them dead. Once they found land, they weren't worried about that anymore - food and water were guaranteed! It is the same point that Jesus makes, one which his followers used on their missionary travels (Luke 22:35). It's not about when you need to deal with it, but when it no longer depends on you.
II. "Brutish" parables
The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14)
Regarding the man who attended the king's wedding with inappropriate garments:
And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:12-14, ESV)
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.
If I were invited to a king's wedding, I'd make sure I at least researched what was appropriate to wear. You can be stopped from entering a courtroom if you had sandals or shorts at your own court date's expense. Not only would a king do this in Jesus' day, it's clear that someone didn't belong there and was too lazy and disrespectful to even qualify. Of course, Jesus cites this extreme example because the parable refers to the invited who try to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without the works that true repentance gives - the servant who wasn't doing what the master bid him to when he returns. Jesus is using the earthly conduct of people as an example, not in agreement with, but an analogy to something that is worthy of being bound and cast into darkness - unrepentance.
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
We can understand why Carrier considers this parable "brutish" - it seems as if the servant, out of fear, didn't want to lose the master's talent, for which he's severely punished. Carrier tries to excuse this by appealing to the servant's statement that he was afraid:
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.
The fact is, the servant was only saying that he was afraid, and was simply "slothful" (25:26) and would have invested the money with the bankers if he had really been afraid to lose the money (25:27). The loan market was not a fearful thing at all for the lender - only a fearful thing for the one borrowing the money. The only problem would be if someone ran away with it, which is why only people who were known would be lent to. We're told in the beginning of the parable that the money was given each according to his ability (25:15). So obviously we have laziness with an excuse that made the one that received one talent to bury it.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:16-31)
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.
If anything, a short relief only to resume torture is worse. But the issue goes into theology and not anything particular to Jesus. Hell was an established doctrine in Judaism, which, as the Cairo Geniza shows, was eliminated from modern Judaism by 19th century Jewish theologians (Shanks).
Moreover, Abraham's response best describes this hypocritical change of heart and how nothing will help it: "If they [the rich man's five unrepentant brothers] do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
III. "Simplistic" Lessons
Luke 16:16 - “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it." (ESV)
The last phrase, "and everyone forces his way into it" might sound strange, but in its Jewish context it makes perfect sense. J. P. Holding writes,
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. What is the meaning of this verse? Bivin and Blizzard (Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, 123ff) explain that it relates to a rabbinic midrashic exegesis of Micah 2:12-13, "I will surely assemble, O Jacob, all of thee; I will surely gather the remnant of Israel; I will put them together as the sheep of Bozrah, as the flock in the midst of their fold: they shall make great noise by reason of the multitude of men. The breaker is come up before them: they have broken up, and have passed through the gate, and are gone out by it: and their king shall pass before them, and the LORD on the head of them." The picture is of a shepherd penning his sheep for the night, blocking the exit with stones, which in the morning he opens by tossing some of the stones aside. The sheep are anxious to get out, pushing and shoving and breaking the hole open even more. Rabbinic midrash interpreted the shepherd as Elijah and the king as the Messiah. "Suffereth violence" here means "breaking forth" and "the violent take it by force" means "those who are breaking out, break out by means of it." The verse is therefore saying in essence that John opened the breach and now Jesus the king is leading the people, the sheep, through it. Indeed, one may regard this as a clear claim to divinity, as Jesus identifies himself as the Lord Yahweh. (Matthew 11:12)
Luke 16:17 - "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void." (ESV)
Exactly what's simplistic about this verse is beyond me. Jesus is in essence saying that the Law or any part of it has never and won't ever be void. Jesus always upheld the Law as inspired, but it was the new application of the Law that he now ushered. If the issues of pointless legalism is invoked, then this would be true only if the Law was something inflexible or outdated itself; and by Law, what is meant is the righteous, spiritual interpretation of the law (Galatians; Marxsen).
Luke 16:18 - "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." (ESV)
Strangely enough I've seen this cited as evidence for Jesus' respect for women. And if anything, it's showing that the social institution of marriage, which involved the commitment and respect of more than just two people in his day, isn't neglected.
These and other sayings considered "vague" and "unclear" by Carrier are easily understood by everyone today and no one had a problem back then. Carrier considers this interpreting beyond the text, but unless he says why, it's clear who the subject and object are and what the verbs and other qualities describe, as well as the meaning of the text or implication.
Luke 16:16 is easily understandable - Jesus brought the Gospel, everything else was applicable until John, and now the righteous follow Jesus, the shepherd, to the kingdom. Luke 16:17 needs no elaboration - none of the Law will be voided. Luke 16:18 is just as understandable - a divorced man or woman commits adultery if he marries another. Paul elaborates a bit more in 1 Corinthians 7:39, saying, "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" which is more like spelling out the obvious.
On the subject of equality between men and women, Jesus does not tell us much, mostly because these social issues are overshadowed by a moral teacher's concern for personal attitude and behavior. Hatred, greed, irreverence, disrespect and other similar sins were certainly much more central to the focus of Jesus and the Gospels than gender equality would have been.
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.
Does a math student accuse his teacher of being unclear when he can't understand something he's learning? The Gospels recorded the basic lesson and message and not his full words: only things that stuck were written down. In other words, witty sayings, controversial comments, etc. We can't pretend like we have a court-transcription of Jesus' speeches.
I'd argue the examples and parables Jesus gave are much more relatable and memorable than straightforward instruction. A lecture is easily compared to an entertaining or funny story.
Overexplaining things is not only a waste of paper and the readers' time, it insults their intelligence. This is why Einhard in the introduction to his biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Caroli, says: "My aim has been to omit nothing relevant which has come to my notice and yet to avoid insulting the intelligence of fastidious readers by explaining at great length every fresh item of information." (Penguin Classics, Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne (1969), p.51). I'm sure someone could try to argue, "how could anything as relevant as the words of the Son of God be guilty of overexplanation?" but clearly the early Christians as well as the Evangelist, who sometimes added his own comment (e.g. Mark 3:30), were content with the information they provided. It's not like these examples are hard to understand; most are repeated in different ways.
Jesus was purposely metaphorical and allegorical on occasion, but he explained everything directly to his real followers afterwards (MT 13:1-23). For both Musonius and Jesus to have been popular in their day, neither could've confusing. You can't exactly expect some kind of melodrama in a wisdom teaching (which is more relevant to life than entertainment). Nor can someone talk about who's clearer about two individuals, one a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, the other an overshadowed Stoic philosopher, with some fragments that lived 2000 years ago.
Carrier basically seems to think that the better the story is phrased, or the more dramatic, the "clearer" or "morally higher" the advice and moral is. This is not true, and I will give a somewhat surprising example. As any art historian will tell you, the sculptures of the ancient Greeks, compared with later European Renaissance ones, is very bland. Edith Hamilton writes in The Greek Way to Western Civilization:
This [Renaissance] art, the art natural to us, has always been an art of rich detail. In a Gothic cathedral not an inch is left unelaborated in a thousand marvellous patterns of delicate tracery worked in the stone. In a great Renaissance portrait minutest distinctions of form and color are dwelt upon with loving care, frost-work of lace, patterned brocade, the finely wrought links of a chain, a jewelled ring, wreathed pearls in the hair, the sheen of silk and satin and fur-bordered velvet, beauty of detail both sumptuous and exquisite. It is eminently probable that if the temples and the statues of Greece had only just been discovered, we would look at them dismayed at the lack of any of the elaboration of beauty we are used to. To turn from St. Mark’s or Chartres to the Parthenon for the first time, or from a Titian to the Venus of Milo never seen before, would undoubtedly be a chilling experience. The statue in her straight, plain folds, her hair caught back simply in a knot, no ornament of any description to set her off, placed beside the lady of the Renaissance or the European lady of any period, is a contrast so great, only our long familiarity with her enables us not to feel her too austere to enjoy. She shows us how unlike what the Greeks wanted in beauty was from what the world after them has wanted. (1959, p.48).
She also writes:
Familiarity has made their [the Greeks'] statues and their temples beautiful to us as none are more. (Ibid., p.49).
It is exactly the same situation with the Greek way of writing as Hamilton also tells us:
So the lover of great literature when he is confronted all unprepared with the Greek way of writing, feels chilled at first, almost estranged. The Greeks wrote on the same lines as they did everything else. Greek writing depends no more on ornament than the Greek statue does. It is plain writing, direct, matter-of-fact. It often seems, when translated with any degree of literalness, bare, so unlike what we areused to as even to repel. (p.48)
When commenting on scholars who ornament Greek translations into English, she writes:
The difficulty is there, no doubt, and yet if we are unable to get enjoyment from a direct translation, we shall never know what Greek writing is like...but to love the truth stated with simplicity as well as the truth set off by every adornment the imagination can devise, to care for the Greek way of writing as well as the English way, is to be immensely the richer...(p.49)
So, unless the lesson that is taught is defective, or the analogy that is used is very ambiguous, we can't really claim someone is "less" clear.
Socrates and Phaedrus once were discussing a certain piece of writing for which the younger man had a great admiration. He insisted that Socrates should feel the same. "Well," said the latter, "as to the sentiments, I submit to your judgment but as to the style, I doubt whether the author himself would be able to defend it. I speak under correction, but I thought he repeated himself two or three times, either from want of words or want of pains. And he seemed to me ambitious to show that he could say the same thing over in two or three ways-" We are lovers of beauty with economy, said Pericles. Words were to be used sparingly like everything else. (Ibid., pp.56-57)
Of course, one can "interpret" these tales [Matthew 22:8-14, Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 16:19-31] 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.
These examples were, unfortunately, how people could best understand the point. They saw brutality frequently. It's very rare, but the reason Jesus mentions hints of violence is to emphasize how perilous one's sins are. If you want your child to be safe, don't you emphasize the dangers without which the point of the lesson wouldn't compute? Of course you won't mention a man burning, etc, but of course Jesus' audience was mature enough to hear this, even if there were a few younger people, because there are no graphic descriptions and most people have burned their hand to know more of the pain rather than the sight of it (which even if they had seen a burned man, would not refute this point).
The example of the master's harsh attitude toward his servant is no more a fault than Jesus' usage of the example of an invading king who considers his strength (Luke 14:31-32). It's simply more relatable. An example of this is The Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8): an unrighteous judge is bothered so much that he finally executes justice just to be left alone, "And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?" (v.7). Unless there's an actual defect in the analogies, "brutishness" is kind of a strange objection.
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.
Completely untrue. Some of the most powerful critiques were plays that had on the surface nothing to do with the actual issues addressed. But people understood their intent quite well. For example, the French play The Marriage of Figaro was banned in the Holy Roman Empire because of revolutionary overtones. Veiled criticisms like the Bulgarian Zheliu Zhelev's Fascism which explored its faults that were so similar to communism got the book revoked from publication. When someone explains these, they're simply giving the plain lesson. That's not reinterpreting, an objection which Carrier earlier claimed he wasn't even making. Any public speaker knows that a story is the best way to convey a message, rather than a continuous droning on of information.
Then we have this critique:
But what makes him so admirably human is his sense of humor, a classic case of which, an example that in my opinion sets him above Jesus as a more human and interesting teacher, I will produce here:
Again, we can't be certain Jesus didn't have a few jokes that weren't recorded. Nor does a different style make someone less effective. Jesus had clever traps (Luke 20:1-8), evaded such traps (Matt. 22:34-40), and used sarcasm (John 10:31-32; Luke 13:33). When questioned about the temple tax, a particularly touchy subject and nearly impossible to answer correctly, Jesus gives the infamous "Render unto Caesar what's Caesar's; what's God's to God" - which was probably the only way to not cause a riot. If he could peacefully preach to essentially pay taxes, then we can safely say Jesus was an effective teacher.
Without specific examples, it's hard to discuss what's unclear about the Sermon of the Mount. One thing everyone would agree with is that Jesus did not say it in the fragmentary way that we have it recorded in Matthew and Luke.
These verses clearly talk about the division Christianity would create amidst the most basic unit of society - the family. It is not explicitly stated in Luke's Gospel, but this is obvious from the parallel in Matthew 10:34-39, particularly from verse 37. So again, lack of clarity, if any, isn't because of Jesus.
These two verses are unclear, I admit, but due to Luke's arrangement, which is usually more disjointed than Matthew's. The parallel in Matt. 10:34-39 shows the clarity with which this message was given. In general, the isolated, unorganized sayings in Luke are much more numerous and this is not a mark against Jesus' clarity.
I don't see what's unclear about these verses. As above, if anything, Luke's arrangement makes it confusing. The message of the verses themselves, however, is completely understandable. In Luke 17:1-2 Jesus warns against those who create temptations for others. Luke 17:3-4 is a statement about forgiveness, far more profound in my opinion than the quoted example of Musonius. Finally, Luke 17:5-6 is about lack of faith.
This piece of advice is something that anyone who has had a job will understand. When you do your job, for which you are paid, you might get thanked in the beginning, just to welcome you to the team, but after a while, your job is your job - you don't get thanked except with a check. In the case of a servant, the same is true, except in the age when people worked their own fields and didn't have employers, the only example that could be given is that of your slave, and thanking him for something that wasn't anything out of the ordinary would seem silly.
The idea that Jesus or the Gospels have an incomplete view borrowed from Stoicism is raised:
[I]t is reasonable to see perhaps that these [developments of Stoic philosophy] influenced Jesus or Paul and all subsequent Christian doctrine. In fact, the analogy of the "birds who do not sow or reap" (Matt. 6.26) is found also in Musonius, and one wonders whether this was a popular idiom, or if the Gospels were infected by the sayings of other men, placing them in the mouth of Jesus[:]
Whence do the little birds, which are much poorer than you, feed their young, the swallows and nightingales and larks and blackbirds? Homer speaks of them in these words, "Even as a bird carries to her unfledged young whatever morsels she happens to come upon, though she fares badly herself" [Iliad 9.323]. Do these creatures surpass man in intelligence? You certainly would not say that. In strength and endurance, then? No, still less in that respect. Well, then, do they put away food and store it up? Not at all, and yet they rear their young and find sustenance for all that are born to them. The plea of poverty, therefore, is unjustified.
[I]t appears to be based on independent reasoning, whereas the Gospel version appears incomplete or the logic of the analogy unclear--one immediately notes that humans starve if they do not reap or sow, so surely something is missing, which is provided by Musonius. So it seems more likely that the Christian saying is a less competent borrowing from Musonius, or from a much older idiom circulating among the people. Whatever the case, whereas the Christians associate the analogy with a guarantee that "God will take care of you" (a claim we know from long experience to be false--he who does not work, does not eat), Musonius associates it with exactly the opposite notion: that humans can and ought to work for their keep and the welfare of their children.
This again ignores the nature of Gospel composition and how it transmitted Jesus' sayings. The simple comparison between poor men and birds is what would've stuck most with the community, needing little explanation, making its way to the Gospel tradition before being written down. This is not what one sees in Paul's writings where he develops his arguments the way Musonius does here: because it's what he actually said/wrote.
As far as the question of borrowing goes, Judea had been exposed to Hellenism for centuries by then, so it's irrelevant from what culture, Jewish or Greek, Jesus got his example to illustrate to his audiences a universal social point that we also see in Musonius.
Epictetus (Book I, chapter 9) makes a point that's phrased much like the Gospels, so it's hardly something "less" clear. The lesson is clear: not to go beyond what you can do and to essentially trust in God or fate as the Stoics saw it. If anything it makes more sense to trust a higher intelligence (God) than an indiscriminate force (fate). This is especially aimed at the poor whose lives depended mainly on farming, fishing, and trading, which usually depended on luck just as much as work.
Carrier defends the idea that Musonius' version is clearer and makes more sense in his response to Amy Sayers, saying:
[T]he 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.
I don't see how the appeal to birds being unexpected has any bearing on the clarity of the message. Epictetus' example above brings up animals as completely unexpectedly as Jesus' does, yet just like Jesus' message, it makes perfect sense. That Musonius derives it from Homer doesn't make the least bit of difference. And how is the analogy in Matthew 6:26 not a "good fit"? "Don't worry about tomorrow so much - like the birds who find food, so will you" is the basic message.
In conclusion, Carrier shows his bias and resulting intellectual handicap in the following argumentation about Matthew 18:8-9:
The same goes for Sayers' second point, her "reinterpretation" of what Jesus said about having lustful thoughts...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...
Is clarification for the linguistically impaired really the fault of the message? This isn't even true in this case, because Carrier is just trying to find objections out of nowhere. These are simple concepts in Matthew 6:25-34.
Then we have:
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.
I'm pretty sure Jesus wasn't trying to be very clear in those verses in the first place. He was being called names and he wasn't exactly instructing the spiteful Pharisees. What his comments might mean for Christians shouldn't be too different from the general idea of repentance each individual has. Whether you're a good or bad driver, everyone knows what a red light is. There's many ways you can describe a rude person: disrespectful, inconsiderate, tactless, so what Jesus did was essentially call them spiritual-less: irregardless of what the actual meaning of the words were. The objection for clarity is out of focus here because he's not instructing anyone.
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...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.
Once again, Carrier calls common sense and logic "spin". Musonius is certainly not more "down to earth" as the next section on his errors will show. Carrier's denial here is obvious:
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.
That's certainly not the impression Carrier's first article gives - he is clearly implying that the lack of Gospel verses testifying to Jesus cracking jokes means he is somewhat inhuman or certainly close to it. It's hard for chit-chat to make it to the Gospel writers several decades later; obviously Jesus would've joked and laughed, as Sayers notes, and the Gospels do not in any way dehumanize Jesus by not including such personalia: most of Plutarchs anecdotes about famous figures of the past include only episodes like these for his purposes, and they're one of the more colorful parts of biographical literature since his works were more famous than he was! He was completely unmentioned by name, having his works cited, for about a century.
The only thing that I find inhuman is the endless spin Carrier consistently just to make the obscure point that Musonius was a better [insert positive adjective here] teacher at every turn.
V. Errors of Musonius
Finally, I want to point out flaws in Musonius' character that separate him by far from Jesus. Not to disparage one person to make another look better, but I want to point out where I believe Musonius is a bit unjustly harsh in his judgment, the sort of thing that we do not see in Jesus.
The most important point I'd like to make is Musonius' statements after his exile. Having been exiled, he certainly felt pain and was unhappy with the situation, though he tries to mask it. However, in the process of masking this pain, he attacks others for somewhat ridiculous reasons. Musonius calls it stupid to be sad that one is exiled from his beloved city. (Lecture 9) He also tries to justify exile with various good things that have happened to exiled people - merely because he himself was exiled, or the like - to soften the horror for others - and a bit of sour grapes. He chastises those who do not speak up despite the fear of punishment--death, beatings--as cowardly. Finally, when personally touched, and somewhat embarrassed by his exile, he calls those who do not like it stupid, just to somewhat placate himself. Not to mention that his exile analogy is unclear, and he is somewhat unclear about the cause and cure of some people becoming evil after exiled, whereas if you're virtuous, you are noble in exile.
We don't see such contradictory advice in Jesus, nor do we see Jesus lashing out at others when he is pressed by even more urgent matters than Musonius. For example, Jesus tells all the disciples that they would abandon him at his arrest. He gently admonishes Peter, saying he has prayed for him. Peter disagrees, saying he would gladly lay down his life for him. Jesus calmly tells him that he would betray him before the rooster crows, to which all the disciples continue to disagree that this would be so, which Jesus leaves alone.
Another example is when Jesus is saddened that Peter, John, and James were unable to stay awake with Jesus during his last moments. However, he comments that the "spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Where is the difference between this attitude and Musonius' hurt pride simply due to exile?
Yes, Jesus does call Peter Satan when the latter announces he'd defend him to the death. Jesus' anger, probably knowing Peter's character well before the latter cut off Malchus' ear, saw an obstinate villager in that moment, much like his annoyance with the Canaanite woman in Mark 7:24,27 whom he presumed to be yet another ingrate who just wanted physical help. But Jesus did not want a Zealot Roman-fighting Peter, rebuking his disciples when they wanted to rain fire on a village (Luke 9:54-6). And as he explained to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), a person wasn't just food and water (Matt. 6:25; cf. Job 23:12). Bread and clothes - these he could create. But real faith he wanted from people. His sarcasm with the Syrophoenician woman was justified. Imagine how celebrities feel today when constantly chased by fans and camera crews. Except Jesus wasn't safe even at the house of a friend because people barged in there (even through the roof - Mark 2:4). He had to hide in the mountains! So when the woman showed real faith, he didn't hesitate to help her (compare Matt. 8:10).
This reflects the indiscriminate nature of life. Jesus feels anger, sadness, fear - all lessons. These negatives, along with many positives, are just as useful in this fallen world. The Pharisees are portrayed so often not because the Bible needs villains, but because sadly we learn best from mistakes. As Steve Jobs' friend and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, said about how Jobs lied to him about several thousand dollars on a game the two worked on, Wozniak commented that we're all flawed humans, and he wouldn't want to know someone so boring who's perfect. It can hardly be wondered why disasters are remembered much clearer than accomplishments; that's the nature of problem-solving: focus on what needs to be corrected - less to worry about when there's no issue. A problematic child always gets more attention than the one that listens, and this has been so since the beginning of time for the older, obedient brother to get jealous in The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:28-30).
Carrier concludes as follows:
But from what we have, what strikes me is that I would much rather have him in my company than Jesus.
Carrier would probably be quick to part company with Musonius as soon as the latter starts talking about his disdain of homosexuality, abortion, and his acceptance of a universe ordered according to God's plan.
Jesus is never recorded as smiling or laughing or telling a joke, and a man with no sense of humor is no kin of mine. Indeed, such a man is disturbing and inhuman. Musonius, like Socrates and Epicurus and even Confucius and Lao Tzu, has more in common with us, is more down to earth...
Yet can Carrier show us one place where Socrates laughs? Where he smiles? To me the emotion Jesus displayed by weeping at the news of Lazarus' death (John 11:35) is much more human than smiling, laughing, or telling a joke. Later, apocryphal gospels do that just fine, and they include the imaginary acts of the gnostic Jesus to their imaginary criteria of what is down to Earth and human.
Musonius is a superior speaker and reasoner, and his ideals are more human-centered and practical, and ultimately more developed and defensible.
We've already shown why a superior speaker whose message is less profound is not superior at all. As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 10:10-11, "For they say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.' Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present." Jesus' actions can be condensed only so much in the Gospels. Musonius' reasoning is actually poorer in some situations: his argumentation that poor parents can provide for all their children the way birds do is clearly false; "the poor you will always have with you" on the other hand is a very human response of Jesus', wanting his disciples' company and devotion. Jesus' message of forgiveness is pretty inimitable and as human as one can get to be honest. It is not less "human-centered" in any meaningful way, because clearly Jesus' message has to do about man's obedience to God, not the social order that's more or less an arbitrary invention of man for most things.
To be honest, he agrees with Musonius when it suits him. The tireless cheerleading and applauding for Musonius is probably something the philosopher himself wouldn't have agreed with if he knew who Carrier was contrasting him with: a fellow sage, as the Mara Bar Serapion shows Jesus was considered by the Greeks and Romans to be.
Hands that help are better than lips that pray.
"Lips that teach are better than hands that clap."