Chapter 2 is a refreshing change from what preceded it. Up until now, the impression one gets when reading Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, is that the author is simply trying out a different way of reading certain New Testament texts. In some instances it may seem plausible, and in others severely problematic, but in none did it naturally seem to arise from or be required by the available evidence. It has consistently seemed that the theory came first, and the major issue was how much the evidence would have to be cut or stretched to fit this mythicist procrustean bed.
In chapter 2, however, Doherty turns his attention to something that ought genuinely to puzzle modern readers of the New Testament epistles. Why do we have so many quotations from the Jewish Scriptures which are attributed to that source, but few if any quotations of teaching of Jesus that are clearly and explicitly attributed to him?
While this is a genuine puzzle, and if it has never puzzled you it should, this is not to say that the best explanation is that which Doherty offers – and which, I should add, he offers without any attempt to engage in a detailed analysis of the evidence for or persuasiveness of other possible explanations.
So what options are there besides Doherty’s, which posits that Paul and the churches to which he wrote did not focus on a Jesus who was thought to have lived a human life in human history? First and foremost, it must be said once again that the most fundamental consideration is one that Doherty is either deliberately downplaying or has altogether failed to grasp. Paul’s letters were written to Christians, and if there was any teaching that allegedly came from Jesus that was passed on to Christians, we would expect it to be presented to Christians in the process of persuading them to believe in Jesus, and in introducing them to the faith once they came to believe. We should not expect such things to be the major focus in letters, which seem for the most part to have been written in response to unexpected issues and questions for which answers were not readily available in the teaching of Jesus. Paul’s preaching is not what is in his letters, and this ought to be obvious, even though it seems that it is not to Doherty (see for instance pp.26-27).
At this point I must mention another issue with Doherty’s book. He regularly points to sayings attributed to Jesus in later Gospels which, if they had been known to Paul, he could be expected to have quoted to end debate and provide a definitive answer. But the study of a wide range of figures leads scholars (but not the conservative Christians who seem to be Doherty’s primary conversation-partners) to acknowledge that material was invented later and attributed to the central authoritative figure. And so what Doherty identifies is a motive for skepticism about some of the saying attributed to Jesus in later times. But this process of invention, like the even more impressive multiplication of hadith attributed to Muhammad, complete with chains of transmission supposedly vouchsafing their authenticity, does not demonstrate the non-historicity of the figure in question. That must be settled not by noting the proliferation of inauthentic material, but by determining whether anything can be deemed early and authentic when subjected to critical scrutiny.
Returning to the question of how one is to explain the failure to quote Jesus regularly in the epistles, Doherty offers another explanation, although because of the agenda that drives his book, he fails to use it in this rather obvious way. If Paul spent relatively little time with the Jerusalem apostles (a subject which we cannot attempt to tackle here without disrupting the flow of this post), then he would have had very little authentic Jesus tradition to quote. And we might expect him and others like him to offer teachings that were allegedly mediated to them by supernatural revelation. What isn’t clear is why this is not immediately recognized by Doherty as an explanation, whether whole or partial, of Paul’s failure to quote more frequently from teaching of Jesus and stories about him.
But another consideration might itself provide a better solution, even if we were to find the others I have mentioned thus far inadequate. In primarily oral cultures, notions of authorship are very different from our own, and it is noteworthy that the quotations Paul offers are almost exclusively from written sources (he does not clearly quote his opponents either, and even when we suspect that Paul may be quoting from the Corinthians’ letters to him, he doesn’t make it as explicit as we might expect someone writing today to). Doherty does not even investigate whether cultural norms for citing and passing on traditions prior to their being written in some sort of collection might be part of the explanation. It certainly seems that this ought, at the very least, to be thoroughly studied when evaluating possible ways of accounting for this puzzling aspect of the epistles. But one does not get the impression when reading Doherty’s book that considering all options, evaluating them as impartially as possible, and then choosing the conclusion that best fits the evidence is what he is setting out to do.
The authenticity of the epistles attributed to Plato is sufficiently disputed that it might be ill-advised to use them in an analogy. But perhaps other readers can think of ancient letters which fail to quote extensively, or to clearly attribute quotes to, someone we might expect them to if they followed our contemporary practices? Certainly if one thinks of the medium of oral preaching today, one scarcely needs to say “As John Newton wrote, ‘I once was blind, but now I see…’” And so there are examples even today that suggest that something sufficiently well-known can and will be mentioned without any need to specify where it comes from. And so it seems that whether we have teaching of Jesus that was widely disseminated among early Christians, or a situation in Pauline churches in which Jesus’ teaching was not at all well known, we have possible explanations for the dearth of explicit quotations which are at least feasible, and do not bring with them all the difficulties and problems that removing a historical Jesus creates.
At any rate, underlying his whole treatment of Paul’s letters is the problematic assumption that because Paul’s letters are our earliest sources, the earliest Gospels are not in any sense early sources. I won’t extend this post further by tackling that subject here, especially as the Gospels will be discussed more directly later in the book. But one thing I think we can say with confidence: the Synoptic Gospels are neither so early and so directly connected with eyewitnesses or the locations in which stories are set that they do not make errors; neither are they so late and so completely fabricated that they do not get enough details about geography, people and events right to exclude their being works of pure fiction. In later times, a Bram Stoker could go to a library and read about Transylvania without ever going there, and set a story against that backdrop. We must ask whether it is realistic to imagine something similar happening in the first century. If not, then the accurate details in the Gospels, which include things such as the proportions of common names typical in Jewish Palestine in the first century, suggest that the middle course of mainstream scholarship is more likely to be correct. It views the Gospels as, like most sources historians have to deal with, neither entirely trustworthy nor entirely fabricated. The conservative apologists and the mythicists share this in common: they both find genuine evidence that some things are authentic/fabricated, and then try to use that to argue that everything is authentic/fabricated, even when the evidence for some of the material does not fit. A better course, I believe, is that taken by mainstream scholarship, recognizing that we have a collection of material that combines the historical and the ahistorical. While we may never be able to completely disentangle the contrasting threads, and certainly are left wondering which is which in a great many instances, denying this multifaceted, composite nature of the evidence creates more problems than it solves. Neither the fundamentalist apologists nor the mythicists are completely wrong, and that is not why I reject both stances. The problem is that neither is completely right, and they are not the only two options. There are possible stances in between, which recognize that the situation is not as simple as either side would have us believe.
Albert Einstein is purported to have said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I have not been able to trace the source of the quotation. But either way it seems applicable to the current context. If it is authentic, it is applicable to the apologists on both sides of the spectrum who would have us believe that Jesus simply never existed or simply was exactly as described in the Gospels and the later creeds, when the reality seems more complex than either extreme does justice to. But even if the saying doesn’t really go back to Einstein, it then becomes relevant in another way, because the fact that spurious stories and quotations have been made up and attributed to Einstein is not an argument against his having been a historical figure.