Chapter 3 of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man

Chapter 3 of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man May 10, 2011

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man - The Case for a Mythical JesusIt is certainly an advantageous aspect of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus that it consists (at least thus far) of relatively short chapters, suitable for blogging.

Chapter 3 begins with some general information about the Hellenistic world, before turning its attention to the argument that Paul’s language of Jesus having been revealed suggests something spiritual, and does not naturally serve as a reference to an incarnation (p.40).

This last point I do not disagree with, since I don’t think that Paul thought of Jesus in incarnational terms, at least in anything like the sense of what that has come to mean in subsequent Christian theology. Jesus is not the first Adam, as per Philo’s interpretation of Genesis’ two creation accounts, but the last Adam. Even though he attains the status of the heavenly Adam, we are told that the spiritual Adam did not come first, but the earthly (1 Corinthians 15:46).

Be that as it may, here as elsewhere I can easily imagine someone unfamiliar with ancient Judaism and Christianity finding Doherty’s claims persuasive. To us, the language of revelation might well seem ill-fitting for reference to a historical individual.

For me as someone who studies the literature of this period, however, my mind quickly turned to the way that Jewish sources speak of the coming of the Messiah, or Elijah, or other figures who they believed to be historical human beings who would appear at the end of history in order to usher in God’s kingdom. Here are some examples:

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 35 includes the statement “And Jakob proceeded and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder, the place from whence, it is to be, the King Meshiha will be revealed at the end of the days.” (See also the same Targum to 49).

b. Sukkah 52a includes the statement, “Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’…”

 Song of Songs Rabbah 8:1 reads “‘And at that shall the King Messiah be revealed to the congregation of Israel…”

And so it seems that there were other Jews in antiquity who thought that this term was well suited to what they expected God to do in relation to the Messiah they were awaiting.

One should always be wary when one gets the impression that one has stumbled across the “true meaning” of texts and that meaning is not something that anyone before you understood them to mean. Sometimes one has genuinely discovered something, but more often than not, there is a good reason why no one previously understood the texts the way you do. In this case, Doherty overlooked or was unaware of evidence that Jews in later times used precisely the terminology of revelation in reference to the appearance of the Messiah. This doesn’t in and of itself determine what Paul meant, but it at least shows that Doherty’s claim, that this language doesn’t fit the traditional understanding of Paul’s Jesus, is not beyond dispute. And presumably ancient Jews, even from a later time, may be closer in their linguistic usage to Paul than modern English speakers are today.

At any rate, it is never a good idea to reach conclusions about ancient people and thinking based on an impression about what someone’s words seem to mean in English translation.

Doherty’s approach in this chapter is to focus on those passages which are open to being understood in a mythicist way, and he promises to return to the verses which seem to refer to Jesus as a historical figure – referring to things like his birth – at a later point. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on evidence that seems to support your hypothesis first, and then turning to evidence that appears to tell against it later. But obviously the persuasiveness of a case will depend not only on how well it makes sense of that evidence that appears to fit it, but also how well one can account for the evidence that does not.

One final thought. Doherty detects the same characteristics not only in Paul’s authentic letters, but also later, potentially pseudepigraphal ones. A question that arises for me is why, on Doherty’s scenario, those works that may have been produced in the period after Gospels had begun to appear do not polemicize against the historicization of their celestial figures by others. If one or more Gospel authors deliberately combined the celestial figure of the epistles with teaching from Q and set them in history for the first time, it might be expected that there would be some controversy about this move, and yet nothing comes to mind in our sources that might provide evidence of such a controversy.

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