Review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man chapter 10 part two

I’ve finally found some time to post my second blog entry about chapter 10 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Here’s a link to my first post about this chapter. Ironically, even though I have written far more already on the first 1/6 of the book than one would ever find written about an entire book in a printed review, some mythicists have still complained that there are details in the book that I have not addressed. Since those complaints are a smokescreen trying to distract from the fact that the book’s shortcomings are so bad that they undermine anything positive that could be said about the book, presumably there is no point in trying any longer to be as comprehensive as possible. What good points there have been in the book thus far have typically been things that one can find in other books which consistently use a scholarly approach. And so from this point onward readers of this blog can expect me to focus entirely on the book’s many shortcomings, and can look elsewhere for other information.

This chapter at long last brings into the foreground something that is central to Doherty’s book: the question of where Jesus was believed to have been crucified (on earth vs. in a celestial realm). Also central to Doherty’s argument is a work known as The Ascension of Isaiah, which some have regarded as originally having been a Jewish text which Christian redactors made additions and changes to in order to adapt it to a Christian viewpoint, while others would say that the work is better viewed as resulting from the combination of Jewish and Christian works originally composed separately. There are several places online where one can read the text in English translation in whole or in part. The manuscript tradition is varied, and trying to solve the textual and literary issues is fraught with complexities. But if the oldest Jewish core is found in chs.1-5, there is no basis therein for Doherty’s claims about the pre-history of Christianity. The Christian version is dated by scholars to the second half of the second century at the earliest, and Doherty does not even address that conclusion or show awareness of it, much less present anything that might justify disagreeing with it. All he does is selectively quote from versions of the Ascension as it suits him, and implausibly posit that in some form the work is earlier than the New Testament writings.

This brings us to the crux of Doherty’s views. Doherty’s entire argument for mythicism can be viewed as an attempt to regard some parts of the Ascension of Isaiah as both the key to understanding the New Testament, and the fountainhead of what eventually became Christianity. At no point is the case he makes persuasive. Let me illustrate this point by point.

First, the Ascension of Isaiah in its Christian form has the descending Savior be transformed into the likeness of the various spheres into which he descends, including taking on the form of a baby in the womb of Mary. Doherty actually claims that the nativity account in the Ascension of Isaiah might be more primitive than that found in the New Testament Gospels, which no one who actually compares them will find remotely plausible. On the one hand, the Ascension largely follows and assumes the account in Matthew’s Gospel, while on the other, it adds to it secondary details of a docetic nature: the child simply emerges miraculously from the womb without labor, the child sucks at his mother’s breast merely so as to not be detected as a heavenly visitor, and the minds of others in the village are confused so that they do not perceive what is going on.

The work (particularly in the Ethiopic version containing such details) is plainly on the trajectory towards docetism, and perhaps itself appropriately viewed as docetic. And so is best situated in the period in which docetism arose, which fits with mainstream scholarship on the date of this form of the work.

Mythicism could be viewed as an attempt to claim that docetism was the original form of Christianity, but on the one hand its case for that is not at all compelling, and on the other hand, even works such as this one have the descending Redeemer take on the appearance of the spheres entered, and so in the forms in which we have it that include Christian components at all, the Savior appears in the human realm in human form. The Ascension of Isaiah therefore does not support Doherty’s claim for a crucifixion that takes place in a celestial realm. (And the same obviously applies to docetism in general, which posits an entity appearing in human history who seemed human to observers but really wasn’t, not the purely celestial entity that is part of Doherty’s mythical account of Christian origins.)

We see this in the relevant manuscripts of Ascension of Isaiah, where it says, “And after this the adversary envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the king, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol).”

And so, even if Doherty’s case for the primacy of the Ascension of Isaiah were to be found persuasive by someone, the text simply does not support his claims about the work’s view of the descending savior or about the character of early Christian belief. Like all other evidence, Doherty only cites the text selectively, and as usual he shows no sign of having familiarized himself with scholarship on this work, much less of having interacted with that scholarship in the necessary detail so as to draw persuasive conclusions and answer possible objections.

Towards the end of the chapter, Doherty once again uses the term “midrash” incorrectly, and while he and some of his defenders have tried to distract attention from this, it is crucially important. Doherty uses midrash not as the Jewish tradition does but as John Shelby Spong does, which seems in turn to be based on the manner that Barbara Thiering used the more specific term pesher. They all claim that people not only interpreted already-existing sacred texts in a manner that resembles their allegorical decoding, but composed texts of their own that were supposed to be interpreted in the same way. Doherty makes claims similar to the bogus ones made by Thiering, albeit ironically to make the opposite point to the one she does. But the effect is the same in one important respect: both claim that early Christians wrote things about Jesus or the early church that were not supposed to be taken literally, but later mistakenly were. And so far from being a mere problem of misused terminology, Doherty’s misuse of the term midrash is a sign of a crucial and fundamental flaw in his case. He is treating the Gospels as examples of a genre that did not exist, and turning them into allegories for the same reason that Christian preachers have so often done so: to make them say something that they do not.


APPENDIX: Online resources related to the Ascension of Isaiah:


Greek text

Ethiopic and Latin texts

Early Christian Writings

R. H. Charles introduction, translation and commentary (also on Google Books)

Magnar Kartveit, The Origin of the Samaritans

István Czachesz, ”
The Coptic and Old Slavonic versions of the Ascension of Isaiah: Some text-critical observations”

  • Anonymous

    James, there is one point that I don’t think you interacted with concerning the Ascension, and that is the story of Jesus born of Mary and killed by Satan the children of Israel was a later interpolation. That at least seems to be what Doherty argues, so quoting a part of the document that he argues was not original won’t be persuasive. If Doherty is right about an addition to the text, and there is scholarship that backs him on this point, then it does seem Jesus goes from the air to Hell and not stopping on the surface of the Earth.

    Other points being said above not dependent on this issue of interpolation are cogent, in particular that the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Bethlehem was more primitive than the Gospel stories–that seems wholly unlikely to me.

    • James F. McGrath

      Thanks for reminding me of something I think I forgot to include. While the Jewish legend about Isaiah’s martyrdom is older, there is good reason to view the Jewish core in the early chapters as later than the time of Nero, and the Christian parts as later still. And so when scholars discuss whether the Latin, Ethiopic, or Slavonic reflects the earliest form of the Christian parts of the composite work, they are not envisaging that that earliest form is older than the second half of the second century. Doherty clearly needs it to be earlier than that, but he makes no argument other than that it would be really nice if it were and would fit with the way he wishes to view things – hardly a persuasive basis for dating a work, if you ask me.

      • Anonymous

        Right, I think I follow you; the part of the story Doherty cares about is probably composed in the 2nd century. His argument is that it relates ideas from an earlier time rather than it was composed earlier, at least that is what I gather. Moreover, Doherty argues for the antiquity of the ideas by comparison with Paul since he talks of levels of heaven, prince of this world, those killing Christ not knowing who he is, etc. It doesn’t seem absurd to compare Paul and the Ascension and say the features of the latter find currency in a work that seems similar but written a century before. If he is right is another question.

        However, my point in the comment above was that you used a part of the Ascension against Doherty that he and others believe are interpolated by a scribe later than the descent/ascent portion of the text. That makes your point against Doherty very weak if in its more primitive form the text does talk of a Christ killed not on earth but in the heavens. The question is: can you show this to be a strained interpretation (or have a more plausible interpretation) without including later scribal changes to a more primitive form of the text, or can you show there is no interpolation here? This seems more a point worthy of argument.

  • Michael Wilson

    I hadn’t seen the information alleging the bit with Mary in AoI is an interpolation. Is that the consencus? Does Doherty relate the argument?

    • Anonymous

      This position in mentioned on the website Early Christian Writings, which James linked to above. I can’t say it’s the consensus, but there are scholars that think as Doherty does, and Doherty also gives his own argument about how it seems to not fit.

  • James F. McGrath

    Interpolation is probably not the right word. One can certainly make a persuasive case that the near-final portion of the Ascension of Isaiah is a late addition to the Christian section, just as the Christian section is itself a later addition to the earlier Jewish account of the Martyrdom of Isaiah. The problem is that there may indeed have been interpolations by the same hand that added Asc. Isa. 11:2ff into the earlier section we think of as Christian. And so it is possible that what we think of as the body of the “Christian” section might itself be a Gnostic work about a descending redeemer, which was subsequently Christianized. And so the precise nature and character of the work, and what form of various parts is to be dated when, is a complex matter. 

    And so that is what I meant when I suggested the possibility that the earliest Christian version of the Ascension of Isaiah may well have had that material, precisely because it is unclear what if anything has been interpolated earlier, and so whether we are dealing with multiple Christian redactions on the way to the Ethiopic version, or Christian redaction of something non-Christian, resembling the Paraphrase of Shem, which also features a descending redeemer. That various Christian hands may have also intervened to make the work more or less docetic is also a matter to be considered. One reason I find Doherty’s treatment of the matter disappointing is that this topic is central to his argument and yet his treatment of it lacks the sort of detailed textual and linguistic analysis that would be needed to try to make a persuasive case of any sort about earlier and later forms, interpolation, redaction, and so on.

  • Neil Godfrey
  • Gakuseidon

    James: One reason I find Doherty’s treatment of the matter disappointing is
    that this topic is central to his argument and yet his treatment of it
    lacks the sort of detailed textual and linguistic analysis that would be
    needed to try to make a persuasive case of any sort about earlier and
    later forms, interpolation, redaction, and so on.

    Even Doherty’s proposed earlier layers, the Slavonic/Latin2, contained “a reference to human form and probably a reference to earth” in it, according to Doherty. I discuss this in my review of his “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”:

    In my view, the AoI is strong evidence **against** Doherty’s non-earthly Christ theory, since the AoI explicitly states the form of the Beloved at each level. In the heavens, the Beloved took on the form of heavenly creatures. Descending to the Firmament, the Beloved took on the Form of a firmament creature. Descending to the air, the Beloved took on the form of an angel of the air. So where did the Beloved take on the form of a man? Doherty needs to invoke the unseen hand of an unknown editor
    changing an undocumented text (“a document full of editings and amendments”) to counter the implications of this.

  • Neil Godfrey

    Dr McGrath writes:

    The Christian version is dated by scholars to the second half of the second century at the earliest

    I would like to ask Dr McGrath myself his sources for this. Usually when I read a scholarly review and the reviewer laments the work not addressing certain scholarship, the reviewer names the scholars that should have been addressed. I find a review lacking in professional quality that does not do this — and this the first one I can recall not mentioning the omitted scholars by name. Unfortunately Dr McGrath has said he will not reply to me but that he doesn’t mind others talking to me. So I would like to ask some others if they might solicit an answer from Dr McGrath. Who are his sources for the claim in the above quotation?It is a bit hard to address the scholarship if a professor won’t tell us who the scholars in question are.Thankyou.

    • Anonymous

       OK,  I’ll do it.

      Dr. McGrath,

      Who are the scholars who date the Ascension of Isaiah to the late second century?

  • Pingback: Cameron English

  • Anonymous

    If docetism and gnosticism predate orthodoxy, than the idea that docetism is late falls apart. What are the texts used to show that docetism is late?

  • Bernard Muller

    From this website: Emil Schürer writes: “An apocryphal work containing an account of the martyrdom of Isaiah is repeatedly mentioned by [B]Origen[/B]. He simply calls it an αποκρυφον, tells us nothing of its contents beyond the statement that Isaiah had been sawn asunder, and plainly describes it as [B]a Jewish production[/B]. Again in the Constitutiones apostol. reference is made merely in a general way to an Apocryphum Ησαιου. On the other hand, in the list of the canon edited by Montfaucon, Pitra, and others there is a more precise mention of a Ησαιου ορασις. Epiphanius knows of an αναβατικον Ησαιου, which was in use among the Archnotics and the Hieracites. Jerome speaks of an Ascensio Isaiae. It is extremely probable that these references are not all to one and the same work, that, on the contrary, Origen had in view a purely Jewish production, while the others referred to a Christian version of it, or to some Christian work quite independent of it. C. Detlef G. Müller writes (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2, pp. 604-605):Composition and date: in its present form the Ascensio Isaiae is a Christian work, which was put together at the [B]earliest in the second half of the 2nd century[/B].

  • James F. McGrath

    Amng the scholars proposing a second century date are Tisserant, Flemming and Duensing, Barton, Borkett, Bari, and Simonetti (those are a few mentioned in Hall’s JBL article on the date and setting of the work from 1990). Hall himself makes an interesting case for early second century or perhaps even late first, which seems cogent, and might lead me to date the work slightly earlier. Of course, the turn of centuries does not represent anything more than a numerical convention, and the main point I was making is confirmed by Hall’s analysis – the Christian parts of the Ascension, and the combination of its parts into the form in which we know the work, fit well in the period in which docetism emerged, i.e. in the late NT period at the earliest, and not prior to the earliest of our Christian texts, which show no interest in that topic whatsoever. Hill suggests the time of Ignatius of Antioch fits well, and I commend his article to those interested in one scholar’s perspective on this still puzzling question.

    • Neil Godfrey

       James, Did you actually read anything more than just half a sentence in the 1990 Hall article? Did you even read the concluding paragraph in which Hall sums up his conclusions on the date:

      We have also suggested that the Ascensionof Isaiah belongs among writings which reflect prophetic conflict and which date from the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.

      Yet this is the only source you have provided when asked for support for your faulting Doherty for not even attempting to argue against a late second century date.

      Can you explain if this is incompetence or dishonesty or a reading disability on your part?

  • Neil Godfrey

    James, you have not answered the question that was asked. We are wondering who date the AoI to the “LATE second century”. Many scholars date the Christian portions to the second century but none I know date it to the LATE second century.

    All the references to the LATE second century that I have ever encountered refer to the compilation of the earlier documents into one — along at that time with, most likely, 11:2-22.

    Perhaps Vinny can ask you for me to address the question.


    • Anonymous

      I am going to leave you to your own devices on this one Neil.  I think your point has been adequately made.

      • Neil Godfrey

        Yeh, thanks Vinny. I was too tired to be let loose on the keyboard last night and afterwards realized I had mis-read part of the original comment.

  • James F. McGrath

    I’m happy to admit, in light of some further reading I’ve done on the subject, that a date in the first half of the second century seems most likely, rather than in the second half as I had previously thought. 

    I don’t see that that in any way helps Doherty’s claims that the vision section is pre-Christian or earlier than most or all of the New Testament.

    • Neil Godfrey

      Sorry, James, but I have been trying to find where Doherty says the vision section of AoI is “pre-Christian or earlier than most or all of the New Testament” or statements along those lines.

      Where does he say these things? What page?

      He does date the AoI to after the Pauline letters and he does say the Christianity in the earliest strata (on the basis of scholarly views of the various strata according to all the specialist commentaries that I have read at least) is neither docetic nor what became orthodox Christianity. But his point is to demonstrate that the Vision is an early Christian piece — not “pre-Christian”, is it not?

  • Neil Godfrey

    James, one more question while I am here. What evidence do you have that Doherty uses the terms midrash and midrashic any differently from its use among your scholarly peers?

    . . . or in any way at variance with how Jewish scholars themselves use the term? and

    Are you aware of Spong’s  disagreements and critiques of Barbara Thiering’s views? Are you also aware that Spong uses the term midrash in the same way Michael Goulder used it — that Spong was Goulder’s student — and that Goulder withdrew his use of the term primarily because it aroused controversy in some quarters and not because he believed it was incorrect?

  • Bernard Muller

    Neil wrote:
    “Sorry, James, but I have been trying to find where Doherty says the vision section of AoI is “pre-Christian or earlier than most or all of the New Testament” or statements along those lines.”
    In the original Jesus Puzzle, Doherty strongly alluded that ‘the vision of Isaiah’ was written before the gospel of Mark. See last paragraph on page 108, at the end of chapter 10. I do not know if something similar was incorporated in his latest book.
    Doherty views gMark as the first written gospel (around 90).

    • Neil Godfrey

      Bernard, James is claiming to review Doherty’s recent book, not his earlier one. Doherty clearly implies the AoI was written AFTER the genuine letters of Paul and AFTER the Hebrews and James – all of which he conservatively dates, with “traditional scholarship” to the middle of the first century, or at least all before 70 ce. He dates 1 Peter and the John’s to “perhaps in the 80s or 90s.” Mark to around 90. Revelation in the mid 90s.

      The earliest layer (according to traditional scholarly analysis that McGrath clearly has not read) of the Vision toward the end of the first century.

      McGrath states flatly that Doherty places the AoI before all or most of the New Testament and Christianity itself. That is, quite simply, a blatantly false assertion. It is contrary to the facts. It is not consistent with the truth of the matter.

      I welcome being proved wrong. But McGrath is behaving like a school child in refusing to talk directly to me. I suppose this gives  him an excuse to not have to feel he has to account for his blatantly false allegations about Doherty’s arguments.

  • James F. McGrath

    For those who may be interested, on pp.122-123 Doherty suggests following Knibb that “Jesus” and “Christ” might be later additions to the section chs.6-11. Doherty then goes further and regards it as “a case of Jewish sectarianism, although something that was in itself ‘proto-Christian’” (p.123). He then goes on to say that even the latest interpolation into the Ethiopic version in 11:2-22 is “more primitive than either of the Gospel birth accounts” (p.124).

    From the perspective of mainstream scholarship, it seems to me a more likely scenario that a Jewish Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic work has been interpolated with Christian additions, as we see in several texts from Nag Hammadi. The mistake, I suggest, is in reading the descent-ascent schema found in later parts of the New Testament and in subsequent writings into the origins of Christianity. When one is trying to make sense of the full range of sources available to us, it still seems far more plausible to envisage a historical Jesus who is then viewed by some through the lens of a viewpoint that expects a descending-ascending figure (see further for instance Charles H. Talbert’s work on this topic).

    • Neil Godfrey

      Thank you for letting me overhear you talking to others while not talking to me, Dr McGrath. (Isn’t this rather childish?)

      So you are saying that Doherty is following the scholarship of a recognized expert on the AoI. So presumably you are now going to withdraw your accusation that Doherty “shows no sign of having familiarized himself with scholarship on this work”.

      You also inadvertently forgot to inform readers that Doherty uses the word “if” to couch Knibb’s views as a conditional clause. Details, details.

      As for 11:2-11, Doherty repeatedly says that it is more primitive than the narrative of “ORTHODOX” Christianity — in particular the Gospel of Matthew’s narrative. There is no argument there, but this is not the same thing as “pre-Christian”. You seem to have missed where Doherty says that this piece of writing is “not only quite primitive, but even “non-Christian” AS ORTHODOXY is viewed.” (p. 122.) I am still trying to fathom what you meant by your claim that the first 5 Jewish chapters some-how undermine some supposed claim that the AoI belongs to “pre-Christianity”:

      in chs.1-5, there is no basis therein for Doherty’s claims about the pre-history of Christianity

      It appears you have been struggling to get a handle on this text. First you demonstrated a very superficial (and flat wrong) reading of its date and made no attempt to describe the history of the manuscript lines which are crucial to Doherty’s argument, simply saying it was all very complex. Doherty clearly demonstrates much more familiarity with the scholarship of the AoI than anything you have written so far.

      You are also clearly unaware of the scholarship that analyses the text in a way that concludes the gnostic or docetic features are LATER additions — they almost certainly have to be if the date of the first Christian strata is the turn of the century.

      So from the perspective of the scholarship on the AoI Doherty is far more up to speed than you are with your idle speculations and uninformed second guessing on the basis of unrelated documents.

      You also fail to point out that Doherty does not just “say” the birth narrative in 11:2-22 is primitive, but he argues a case in detail why he believes there is a good case for this. All you have done in response is to ignore completely his argument, fail to inform anyone what it is or even that he has one — and simply say what you think. Don’t you advise your students that it isn’t good enough to present one argument — you must also demonstrate what is wrong with the opposing one?

      Isn’t a review supposed to give readers some idea of the argument of the work being reviewed?

      I think even I have studied the scholarship on the AoI in more depth than you have — that’s not to blame you since it is not your area of expertise — and have outlined my notes from the various sources in a number of posts at  If you look at those you will be brought up to speed and save yourself further embarrassment in this discussion.

      (You mention Talbert’s work on descending-ascending redeemers. That’s cool. Doherty does, too. But you didn’t mention any of that so presumably it’s because you have no argument with what D says about any of that.)

  • Neil Godfrey

    Presumably Dr McGrath does not respond to this comment because he is still in his immature silly little school-girl “I’m not talking to you” mode. But I have responded to Dr McGrath’s diatribes (he curiously calls them “reviews”) in depth at:

    Response #1:

    McGrath concedes Doherty was right all along:

    Concluding my response to McG’s review:

    Appendix to my review:

  • James F. McGrath

    Regular readers of this blog (and anyone who actually reads posts on Vridar carefully) will know full well why I have given up trying to have intelligent, reasonable discourse with Neil Godfrey, and it has nothing to do with any childishness on my part or any unwillingness, but having realized that Godfrey has no interest in being honest, fair, or doing anything other than waste my time.

    I invite you to read what Godfrey claims in his posts he linked to in his comment here (even in the titles), and to read what I actually have written (and if you can stomache the inanity of it, what Earl Doherty has written), and to judge for yourselves.

    How anyone could seriously think that my posts about how consistently wrong Doherty is (except on those occasions when he manages to repeat what actual scholars say without distortion) could be taken to mean that I was saying that Doherty was right all along is beyond me. But it illustrates well why I have chosen to limit my conversation partners to those who show at least a desire to be honest and not misrepresent those with whom they disagree.

    • Neil Godfrey

       James, are there any errors of fact in any of my posts? I welcome any corrections. I believe I have demonstrated your own errors of fact about what Doherty says in his book, and even about what mainstream scholarship has to say about the Ascension of Isaiah.

      If I am incorrect at any point I welcome correction. I admit I have made mistakes in the past and I have apologized when shown to be wrong. I recently apologized to you over a choice of word.

      Oh dear, I do admit sometimes my titles are a little attention-grabbing, but if anything in my post — even the title — is a serious or real misrepresentation of any facts then please do advise me.

      • Neil Godfrey

        Sorry, I forgot the rules of the game. Would anyone like to ask Dr McGrath if there are any errors of fact in my posts addressing his errors of fact in his denunciations of Doherty’s book?

  • Anonymous

    Dr. McGrath,

    If one clicks through on the link, one will see that the title of Neil’s post is
    “Dr McGrath: Doherty was right after all about the date for the Ascension of Isaiah.”  I think that is a fair point even though he might be chided on his comment here for failing to specify the nature of the concession he is claiming you made.

    • James F. McGrath

      Vinny, I still maintain that Doherty seeks to give the impression that the contents of the Ascension of Isaiah go back earlier than the Gospels and reflect something pre-/proto-Christian. I happily admitted that, having looked into the matter further, I am happy to date the work to the early second or late first century. That is a matter of scholarly deduction. What Doherty is doing with this post-NT work is trying to make it reflect the wellspring from which Christianity emerged. I still find that unpersuasive. Tweaking the date by a few decades in the post-NT period is no more me agreeing with Dohery than recognition that the Earth is not a perfect sphere is a concession to flat-earthers.

      • Anonymous

        Dr. McGrath,

        “Seeks to give the impression” is a rather nebulous phrase that raises red flags for me.   I have often seen it applied to Bart Ehrman by conservative Christian apologists in statements like “Ehrman seeks to give the impression in Misquoting Jesus that we cannot know anything whatsoever about the original texts of the New Testament.”    Such statements are usually followed by something like “What Ehrman never tells you is that the overwhelming majority of variants are trivial and easily resolved.”  When I read Ehrman for myself, I invariably find that the supposed intended impression is not what I understand him to be saying and the information allegedly omitted is in fact clearly stated.

        You may be correct about the impression that Doherty seeks to give, but I don’t know that there is any way to verify it short of his explicit admission.  For me, the much more important question is whether he is accurately describing the evidence and the scholarship.  If not, then his arguments fail regardless of the impression he intends.  If so, then maybe the impression is not completely unwarranted.

        • James F. McGrath

          That’s a fair point. Only Doherty can answer the question about what impression he was seeking to give.

          So let me put it in a manner that doesn’t involve me trying to interpret his motives:

          The Ascension of Isaiah is a work which fits a late first/early second century setting in the history of the development of Christianity as understood by mainstream scholarship, and thus it does nothing to support Doherty’s argument for mythicism.

          There are several scholarly proposals regarding the work, which include the majority of the second section being a composition by Docetic Christians, and it being a Jewish Gnostic or Esoteric work interpolated by Christians. The evidence does not allow us to decisively decide between them. But we have clear evidence of Christian Gnostics, interaction between Christian Gnostics and other Gnostics, and challenges being raised to the genuine humanity of Jesus, from the late first century onward. The work fits squarely within that setting. Doherty has offered nothing that makes it seem necessary or preferable to rewrite our understanding of the development of Christianity. It fits well, and better, within the framework of mainstream scholarship.

          And if Neil Godfrey is right that Doherty was not trying to suggest that the elements incorporated into the Ascension of Isaiah were pre-Christian and that the text takes us back to an earlier stage in the development of Christianity than much of the New Testament, then that means that Doherty devoted a chapter to something that does nothing to aid his thesis. And so it seems that either way, we agree on a key point: Doherty’s treatment of the Ascension of Isaiah does nothing to support a case for mythicism.  :-)

          • Anonymous

            Dr. McGrath,

            How do we determine who was challenging who?  If there were competing views on the genuine humanity of Jesus late in the first century, do we really have enough pieces of the puzzle to be certain that it was it wasn’t the gospel writers who were challenging the original understanding rather than the other way around?

            • James F. McGrath

              Can we do anything other than draw the best conclusion we can based on the available evidence, the order in which it appears to have been composed, and the most logical inferences we can draw on the basis of them? We must always leave ourselves open to changing our minds, whether because new evidence comes to light or because older evidence requires reinterpretation. But so far mythicism simply has not made a plausible case for its revisionist approach to early Christian history, and so I remain with what seems probable based on the available evidence, knowing that if we had other pieces of evidence we might draw different concusions, but also knowing that if we simply rewrite history because of what other evidence might say were it to exist, then we cannot really draw any historical conclusions about much of anything whatsoever.

              • Anonymous

                 Dr.  McGrath,

                It is the order in which things appear to be composed that keeps me on the fence about a historical Jesus because in the earliest writings it is the heavenly being who predominates and the historical person who is hardest to find.

                I am skeptical that our ability to draw historical conclusions would really be seriously impaired by acknowledging that the evidence isn’t all that good for a first century wonder working rabbi from an obscure region of the Roman Empire.  I think the kinds of people and events that historians of the ancient world usually draw conclusions about tend to leave a big enough mark that we can still be reasonably confident in our knowledge.

  • Neil Godfrey

    Has Dr McGrath actually read Earl Doherty’s chapter 10? Only patchily at most, it appears. Doherty nowhere devotes an entire chapter to the Ascension of Isaiah. Dr McGrath has in fact completely omitted any mention of Doherty’s argument for “the where” of Christ’s sacrifice — completely omitted the ten pages of argument preceding his use of the AoI as an illustration of that argument.

    Yet McGrath would have his readers be misinformed that the AoI is central to his case. This is a blatant falsehood as I demonstrate from the actual words used by Doherty himself explaining why he is discussing the AoI at all and its relevance for his argument at

    And what is all this nonsense about “seeking to give impressions”? Doherty is very clear about when he dates the various works of the New Testament and the Ascension of Isaiah. There is no “seeking to give impressions” at all. It is all there in black and white. How much of this chapter and preceding chapters has Dr McGrath actually read?

    And ditto for what Doherty clearly states in black and white about the nature of the work and its relation to Judaism and orthodox Christianity and docetism. One only has to read what Doherty does say in black and white.

    Is Dr McGrath thrown into confusion because he is not finding in Doherty’s words the ignorance of the scholarship that he expected? Since McGrath himself is only now beginning to scratch the surface of that scholarship himself no wonder he has been confused.

    If Dr McGrath really believed he had a case against anything Doherty has argued he would clearly present what Doherty does indeed say about the AoI and then attempt to point out where Doherty’s mistakes and errors are. But I seriously suspect that McGrath does not understand what Doherty has written or what he is saying about the AoI. I don’t think McGrath is capable of explaining Doherty’s point about the AoI because he does not understand it — as indicated by the complete confusion and disinformation of his post about this section.

    What McG has said so far has at many points been outright false — falsehoods, inconsistencies with the truth — as I demonstrate by placing McG’s words beside Doherty’s at

    I don’t think McGrath is deliberately lying. I think he is simply thinking he is seeing what he expects to see in Doherty’s work and failing to understand everything else as a result of this misperception.

  • James F. McGrath

    For convenience, here is a link to my blog post on the first half of chapter 10, which I posted many months ago:

  • Neil Godfrey

    Vague motherhood statements about drawing the best conclusion on the available evidence tell us nothing. We need to test hypotheses with expected predictions.

    We would expect a polemic against an existing belief to be, well, polemical and going out of its way to attack the current belief. We would not expect the prior status quo belief to be anticipating future objections.

    So a useful question to ask is, Where do we find the first polemic against one or the other?

  • Ed Jones

    The key to NT understanding, the idiom: If you begin with Paul you will understand Jesus incorrectly. If you begin with Jesus you will understand Paul differently.
    If yoiu begin NT studies with Paul, meaning beginning with the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT,you will be reading in the context of the Christ of faith, not the man Jesus. If you begin with Jesus, with the Jesus-kerygma, the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition, you will see Paul differently, indeed as the source of the Christ myth, the corruption of the Jesus-kerygma located in this earliest layer of Jesus tradition, the apostolic witness. For such a reconstruction see Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar (of all places).   

  • Ed Jones

    The “No Jesus” debate needs to take account of the present understanding of NT studies by its top scholars. Schubert Ogden: None of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness. The original and originating apostolic witness is located in the earliest stratum of the Synoptic tradition accessible to us. Hms Dieter Betz: “The reason for our lack of knowledge (of Jesus and his teaching) are of a hermeneuticcal sort, and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile-Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged worthy of transmission.” He identifies this earliest stratum to be the Sermon on the Mount, derived from Jewish Christianity (more properly, from the Jerusalem Jesus Movement around 50 CE)  which had direct links to the teaching of the historical Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul,  the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testaament.” This calls for a radical new reconstruction of posthumous Jesus traditions. I have attempted such a reconstruction found at Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar.