We have reached the end of Part 1 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. In assessing the case and claims he has offered so far, I found myself inspired by GakuseiDon’s comment mentioning Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit (inspired by Carl Sagan’s). I thought I would apply that kit to Doherty’s book thus far, as a way of assessing what it has offered as well as bringing in an additional perspective to help me and others evaluate my own impressions.
Here are the questions Shermer encourages skeptics to ask, with answers based on what Doherty has written in the first part of his book.
1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
Michael Shermer rightly points out that everyone makes mistakes, and so errors do not automatically relegate one to crackpot status. That is fortunate for me, as I have made errors, even in print, and although I would have expected that all bloggers would know better than to throw stones in the glass house of blogging, I’ve still encountered some who are ready to treat a late-night post or failure to proofread carefully as evidence of thoroughgoing incompetence. Be that as it may, frequent errors do undermine credibility, and it is not clear in every instance whether Doherty’s failure to discuss evidence that undermines his claims represents an oversight or an attempt at spin. Presumably, at the very least, he is hoping to make a strong enough impression based on partial evidence, that the reader will be willing to ignore or reinterpret the evidence against mythicism if and when he discusses it later in the book.And at least with respect to the reading of later doctrine back into New Testament documents without discussion of other possible interpretations, Doherty is open to the charge of unreliability with respect to his failure to discuss major interpretative issues and offer justification for his own conclusions.
2. Does this source often make similar claims?
3. Have the claims been verified by another source?
I know a blogger and some commenters who finds Doherty’s views persuasive, and Doherty clearly found a couple of scholars to say favorable things about his work. Does that count in Doherty’s favor? It is hard to say. Neil Godfrey appeals frequently to a seemingly favorable statement by Stevan Davies, but elsewhere in the same discussion forum Davies indicates that he had not read Doherty’s book and describes it as equally nonsense viz-a-viz the dominant scholarly paradigm. And so the favorable statement is about what Davies had been told about Doherty’s stance, not about the actual articulation of it in detail in his book. While Doherty should not be blamed for what one of his supporters has done, this still serves as a cautionary reminder that quotes in favor of a fringe view sometimes are not what they initially appear to be.
I can only submit to the reader what I have been presenting in my blog series along with specific examples and illustrations: that I have been looking at Doherty’s claims closely and have found them wanting in the best of cases, in many others at best possible but unproven, and in still others patently false. So far there have been responses to my blog series which have nit-picked the tone and the wording of some of the posts, but have done nothing to salvage Doherty’s substantive points, as far as I can see. And it is not clear that other mainstream scholars who have looked at Doherty’s claims in detail speak in favor of the details, however much their words may have contained enough that is favorable to serve as a blurb.
4. How does this fit in with what we know about the world and how it works?
There is nothing in principle impossible with the core assumption of mythicism, namely that people invent stories and religious beliefs. Few things are strictly speaking impossible, so that isn’t saying much, but neither is it a criticism. Mythicism is not disqualified as baloney on the basis of this criterion, however much it might be on the basis of others. But if we are asking not merely whether mythicism is baloney but whether it is correct, then the issue is not whether the invention of stories ever happens (it surely does), but rather, since it does not always happen, the appropriate historical question is whether the evidence suggests it has happened in this case.
5. Has anyone, including and especially the claimant, gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?
As I have shown, evidence that runs counter to Doherty’s assumptions has been ignored, misconstrued, dismissed, or postponed for later discussion in the book thus far.
A different one. I don’t think that even most mythicists would say that it is as a result of specific positive claims and evidence that the mythicist case is made, but that it is largely a matter of how to interpret the lack of evidence in places where some expect to find it. If there are a few verses that might seem to directly support mythicism, depending on one’s interpretation of them, the same can surely be said even more so with respect to the case of mainstream secular history’s conclusions. The preponderance of evidence, even on the most sympathetic reading of the evidence Doherty has focused on, raises the question of why Paul does not unambiguously quote Jesus and discuss events in the life of Jesus more clearly and/or more frequently. This is genuinely a question for which we should seek an answer. But the fact that mythicism takes the question seriously and claims to have answered it does not mean that mythicism has in fact answered it in a way that follows or coheres with “the preponderance of evidence.”
This is a point that I think many supporters of mythicism are confused about. Having made an attempt to answer a question, or even having provided something that constitutes a potential answer to a question, does not mean that one has provided the best answer, much less the clearly correct one. Mainstream historical study has provided answers too, and if those answers to the specific question of Paul’s silence can be demonstrates to be inadequate, it does not follow that mainstream historical scholarship is wrong about Jesus’ existence. One should not make a claim akin to that made by creationists, that if there is doubt about the adequacy of a particular explanatory mechanism or a particular aspect of evolution, then the whole theory is placed under a question mark. Mythicism does not only have to provide what seems like a plausible answer to the matter of Paul’s relative silence; it needs to fit well with all the relevant evidence, and account for it in a more satisfactory way, before it can claim to have something better to offer than the mainstream scholarly paradigm. And however much mythicists may hope to get there, it should be clear to everyone that mythicism is not there yet.
7. Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others which lead to the desired conclusion?
In Doherty’s book there is an attempt to give the impression that appropriate research tools are being used. But having reached the end of part 1 with the discussion of substantial amounts of counter-evidence still being postponed leaves me no choice but to describe Doherty’s approach as unscholarly. So too is the failure to provide essential contextual and linguistic information on terms being interpreted, such as Messiah, when Doherty’s interpretation of them differs from generally accepted views of their meaning as evidenced by texts from the relevant period in history.
Doherty has been appealing to readers practically from the outset to accept his paradigm, even before he had finished the first part of his case in its favor. That is not part of the accepted rules of reason and research, and runs counter to the principle of critical thinking that encourages us to refrain from drawing conclusions before we have considered all relevant evidence.
8. Has the claimant provided a different explanation for the observed phenomena, or is it strictly a process of denying the existing explanation?
Doherty has done both, and so on this point Shermer’s criteria are favorable to him.
9. If the claimant has proffered a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation?
No it does not. It has thus far left all the references to what seem like details of a human life in Paul’s letters unaccounted for. In essence, Doherty offers an “explanation” that is supposed to account for what we do not find in Paul’s letters, and in the process he renders much of what we do find in Paul’s letters unintelligible.
10. Do the claimants personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa?
My impression is that it is biases that drive the conclusions. I know that Doherty would say the same about mainstream scholarship.
In some instances, Doherty’s bias might seem scholarly, but on closer examination it turns out not to be. Let me give an example of what I mean, where Doherty appears to have taken a legitimate principle of caution from scholarship and turned it into an end in its own right. Doherty takes the concern to avoid simply reading later material from the Gospels (or even later Christian orthodoxy) back into the epistles, and on the one hand, fails to do so consistently (he reads later Christology back into the New Testament), while on the other hand, he changes the caution against inappropriate anachronism into a principle that demands that one interpret the epistles in a manner that is at odds with what we find in the Gospels even when the two naturally converge or agree. That seems to me a principle that has no justification, at least when used in that manner. While one should not read later sources back into earlier ones when there is reason to think that the earlier source may have held a different viewpoint, it is nonsensical to demand that earlier and later works from the same religious tradition must hold different views. This is, in essence, the same error that some scholars committed in turning the criterion of double dissimilarity into a positive principle. And so it is an error that even scholars have fallen into, but the fact that Doherty in places resembles scholarship at its worst does nothing to improve the overall impression of what he is doing.
I invite others to take up the tools of the Baloney Detection Kit (whether Shermer’s or Sagan’s) and evaluate Doherty’s claims for themselves, as Shermer himself would encourage you to do.