Chapter 4 of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man

Chapter 4 of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man May 11, 2011

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man - The Case for a Mythical JesusChapter 4 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man focuses on the subject of disciples and apostles. Doherty begins by asserting that “In the rough and tumble world of religious proselytizing, the appeal to Jesus’ own words and actions, the urge to claim a direct link back to Jesus himself in order to confer authority and reliability on each apostle’s preaching of the Christ, would have been an inevitable and indispensable mark of the early missionary movement. There would also have been an appeal to the apostles who had been chosen by Jesus and heard the words he spoke” (p.41). Doherty then proceeds to note that “such a picture is completely missing in all the non-Gospel evidence of almost the first hundred years.”

Several points are perhaps worth noting from the outset. First, the only early Christian letters we can attribute to named authors with any degree of certainty are Paul’s authentic ones, and reasons why Paul would not appeal to the authority of other apostles with whom he was sometimes in competition, and with whom he could not compete in terms of a comparable direct connection to Jesus, can be found in Paul’s own letters. Once again, we have an attempt to find a more complicated solution when a straightforward one is available.

Second, it is worth noting that the tendency to date the Gospels relatively late in the first century is an expression of caution on the part of scholars, not an indication that we are certain that they are not earlier. James Crossley has made the case for dating the Gospel of Mark to a time when the Caligula crisis was still ongoing, and so around 40 CE. Whatever one makes of his arguments, in the present context what is important is that it is not impossible that Mark’s Gospel dates from a time before Paul wrote, while the whole mythicist scenario Doherty requires a date for the Gospels that is significantly later. We cannot be certain that the earliest Gospel is as early as Crossley suggests, but we cannot be certain that it is late enough for Doherty’s hypothesis to work either.

Doherty then goes on to point out that the term “disciple” is not used in the epistles. This is true – although it is perhaps worth noting that the verb from the same root is used, e.g. in Ephesians 4:20. And another term for discipleship, namely following, is used in the way that we would expect if Jesus was viewed as a human being – for instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Corinthians 11:1, and 1 Peter 2:21.

Doherty suggests that Paul’s claim to have seen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1), offered as a defense of his authority viz-a-viz the other apostles, requires us to conclude that other apostles had only seen Jesus in the same way that Paul had – as a vision (p.42). It is not at all obvious why this must be the case, and Doherty seems at times to expect Paul to offer an impartial assessment of his own qualifications, rather than a polemical one that emphasizes what was in his favor and downplays or omits what could be counted against him.

Doherty discusses the Didache (p.44), which reflects a period/context in which itinerant prophets were still active. He seems to be treating prophets as though they should be links in a chain to apostolic authority, which is puzzling.

Next, Doherty seems to attribute to Paul an actual miraculous revelation. He notes that Paul claims to have received his Gospel by divine revelation (Galatians 1:11-12), and takes this to be the Gospel which Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. That Gospel, Paul emphasizes, was the same one that other apostles preached (1 Cor. 15:9-11). And so if Paul had the same exact Gospel as them, without learning it from them, would that not suggest that Paul did indeed receive a divine revelation? However, since I am approaching this using the methods of history, which is skeptical of claims to have received revelation, I am forced to consider a more mundane explanation, namely that Paul did indeed know things via human contacts, and his claim to not depend on any human being is apologetics rather than factual reporting. Indeed, he may well have persecuted the Christian movement because he already had some information about what it was proclaiming. If Doherty wishes to posit miracles, that is his business, but it will be yet another hurdle that will prevent his treatment being taken seriously by historians and mainstream scholars.

In the process of discussing Paul’s summary of the Gospel, Doherty is forced to say something about Paul’s reference to Jesus’ burial (pp.46-47). He mentions baptism, he mentions Osiris, but offers no account of what the words might actually mean in reference to events that supposedly occur in the celestial realm. Instead, we are told that “Paul could conceive of a burial of Christ to complement the burial of the believer (both being a symbolic mystical idea rather than a literal one), each before ascending to new life” (p.47). Even if this statement made sense (which I’m not persuaded it does), one gets the impression that Doherty feels that saying “it is symbolic” is an adequate way of dealing with evidence that seems to undermine his interpretation.

On pp.48-49, Doherty argues that Paul’s “tradition” about the Lord’s Supper which he handed on to the Corinthians was something he received by divine revelation and referred to a supernatural/celestial rather than a historical event. It supposedly then gets from him to Mark and from Mark to Matthew and Luke. Doherty’s remark is telling: “If Paul knows of this ‘Supper’ not through human reportage but by personal revelation, this removes the whole scene from any necessity of having taken place in history. It can be assigned to the realm of myth, where similar scenes in the mystery cults were located” (p.49). Doherty has already emphasized that in many instances a historical Jesus is read into texts in the epistles rather than found there. It is not clear to me that Doherty in any way shows that reading a purely mythical and purely celestial Christ into the epistles does not involve the same process. If one draws the conclusion that a historical Jesus likely existed and that Paul had reason to believe this was the case, then one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of this. If one draws a different conclusion, one interprets the epistles as a whole in light of those different premises. But this issue clearly should not be decided on the basis of whether it is possible to read texts both ways. The existence of mainstream scholarship and of mythicism indicates that there are people who find themselves able to read passages through both lenses and find them to make sense. The only way to avoid a deadlock is to actually take seriously those passages that Doherty dismisses with hand-waving and references to symbolism: mentions of birth, Davidic descent. taking bread, bleeding, dying, and being buried. It is certainly the case that puzzles remain in the early Christian literature even when one does so. But if anyone thinks that Doherty’s view is not creating puzzles of its own, and leaving some evidence in the epistles unsatisfactorily accounted for, then they haven’t been paying close attention.

The chapter ends with a discussion of Paul’s statement in Romans 10:14, which is taken to indicate that Jews required a preacher to tell them the good news. I have encountered this argument before from mythicists. Even apart from the fact that all Jews did not live in places where they might have encountered Jesus during his public activity, Doherty seems to miss entirely that a key element of the Gospel which Paul proclaimed was the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And as Acts also suggests, Christians seem to have believed that it was necessary to proclaim that message to Jews, even in places where Jesus himself had at some point been present. And so this is a very poor and thoroughly unpersuasive argument, although I fully expect that as I keep reading, I may encounter worse.

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