by Neil Godfrey
Anyone who is familiar with Earl Doherty’s site will probably find this post superfluous.
The mysterious origin of R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views of Doherty
Dr Jeffrey Gibson is on record as saying he has no intention of reading any of Doherty’s books but that did not prevent him from pulling out a critical line from Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann’s preface to a publication reissuing Goguel’s rebuttal of mythicism, and placing it in a Wikipedia article.
A “disciple” of Wells, Earl Doherty has rehashed many of the former’s [Wells'] views in The Jesus Puzzle (Age of Reason Publications, 2005) which is qualitatively and academically far inferior to anything so far written on the subject. . .
To call Doherty a “disciple of Wells” who has “rehashed” many of Wells ideas actually indicates that Hoffmann has never really read Doherty’s books at all. Maybe Hoffmann was relying on something he read by Eddy and Boyd who in The Jesus Legend very often append Doherty’s name to that of Wells when discussing the argument that Jesus was fiction. But read what Wells says about Eddy and Boyd’s confusion:
Earl Doherty belongs unequivocally in category 1 of Eddy and Boyd’s 3 [categories -- category 1 includes those who think Jesus perhaps entirely fiction], and they make it easier for themselves to suggest that my ideas seem at first sight strange by repeatedly grouping me with him, even though they are in fact aware that I differ from him significantly. Doherty argues that, for Paul, the earliest witness, Jesus did not come to Earth at all, that, under the influence of the Platonic view of the universe, salvic events such as his crucifixion were believed to have taken place in a mythical spirit-world setting. I have never espoused this view, not even in my pre-1996 Jesus books, where I did deny Jesus’ historicity. (p. 328 of Cutting Jesus Down to Size by G. A. Wells)
So if Wells finds little in common between his arguments and Doherty’s, what does he say about Doherty’s work?
“In spite of our differences, Mr. Doherty has appraised my work generously, and for my part I regard his book as an important contribution…” (From Wells’ summation of a couple of give-and-take articles appearing in the British magazine “New Humanist” 1999-2000)
In this important book [Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle], the whole of this chapter on these second-century apologists repays careful study. But I find his conclusion too radical . . . (p.202)
Anyone who has followed Wells’ books over the years may well come to the conclusion that it is Wells who has come to rely quite heavily on Doherty in some aspects of the mythicist case — particularly the second century apologists. As for the work being “academically inferior”, again one wonders if Hoffmann ever did read the same book that . . .
– Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University, Stevan Davies, read. Davies said of Doherty’s work:
But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. . . .
Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more? (See Crosstalk #5438 for the full quote)
– Or that Professor of Biblical Criticism with the Council for Secular Humanism’s Center for Inquiry Institute, Robert M. Price, read. Price has the strongest praise for Doherty’s books, especially his recent one in the Youtube video linked at my earlier article on Robert Price’s view.
– Or that Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, read. Avalos writes:
Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. (See earlier post Legitimacy of questioning)
Reading Doherty and Wells: the essential difference
Reading mythicist books by G. A. Wells is easy. They are very easy to follow because the arguments are in a very large part a series of dot-point rebuttals to various claims by mainstream historical Jesus scholars. For example, two of his books that R. Joseph Hoffmann says are “worth reading” are Did Jesus Exist? and The Historical Evidence for Jesus.
Their chapter headings give one an idea of Wells’ approach to the question. Each of the subtopics addressed by Wells appears designed to respond to chapter headings one might well find in any mainstream discussion book of New Testament studies. Anyone familiar with the basic outline of how New Testament scholars approach their study of the historical Jesus can see immediate challenges and responses to each of the pre-defined concepts and thought-patterns that are part and parcel of the traditional view of mainstream Jesus scholarship.
From the table of contents in Did Jesus Exist?
Early Christian Epistles
Post-Pauline Letters . . .
Origins and nature of the gospels
and from The Historical Evidence for Jesus:
Non-Pauline epistles earlier than about 90
Epistles of the late first and early second centuries
Synoptic Gospels as post-AD 70 documents . . .
New Testament references to Jesus’ family
Perhaps Hoffmann sees Wells’ work as academically superior because it conforms to the basic way mainstream scholars approach the topic. (Doherty has other views that I provide a link to below.)
Doherty, on the other hand, steps outside of that approach altogether. He has taken a fresh look at the question and his whole approach is unlike that of Wells who breaks the topic up into silos that represent respective chapter headings of a mainstream textbook on Christian origins. Doherty challenges the reader to consider perspectives and relationships among the strands of evidence that are new lines of inquiry altogether.
Contrast Doherty’s presentation with those of Wells above. His Jesus: Neither God Nor Man is divided into four parts:
The Jerusalem Tradition
The Galilean Tradition
A Composite Christianity
The External Evidence
The first of these, the Jerusalem Tradition, is further subdivided into six parts:
Preaching a Divine Son
A Life in Eclipse
The Gospel of the Son
A World of Myth and Savior Gods
Views through the Window in Scripture
A Riotous Diversity
And each of these six parts of this first division subsumes 21 chapters that cover such topics as
- the philosophical outlooks of the age and how the New Testament writings relate to these contemporary outlooks,
- popular religious interests among Jews and gentiles and the evidence for the emergence of new and varied religious communities,
- a detailed critical analysis on the scholarship behind the hypothesis of the Q document,
- the literary and theological means of expression among Jews of the day and how these methods led to the creation of the gospels,
- the remaking of Christian story (or history) in the second century and the significance of the early Apologists,
- as well as a study of the external evidence for Jesus.
He adds 14 appendices that zero in on specialist aside issues such as:
- the question of interpolations in two NT epistles,
- the dating of Hebrews,
- some gnostic gospels and concepts,
- the significance of texts such as the Didache in the broader context of the above themes,
- and a lengthy and most incisive analysis on the Josephan references that pales the discussions of any of the mainstream scholars that I have ever read or seen referenced.
One cannot approach Doherty expecting to see neat capsules of this or that pre-packaged topic from a mainstream text on New Testament studies. If one does, one must immediately toss aside those expectations and open oneself to a new exploration of the topic in order to appreciate what he is arguing.
If one does not want to do that, then one will be frustrated and possibly tempted to toss the book out declaring he knows nothing of the way “real scholars” understand and tackle the issues. But Doherty’s extensive bibliography of mainstream and many up to date leading scholarly works will belie that wrongly assumed impression.
And this reminds me of one other common charge against Doherty that has come from mainstream biblical scholars. Some think that he does not engage with modern critical scholarship. His work is, on the contrary, thoroughly woven with responses and appeals to modern critical scholarship. Most instructive in this respect was Doherty’s introduction to an online discussion group for biblical scholars a few years back. The topic of Doherty had come up, and the mainstream academics were nearly unanimous in poo-poohing Doherty’s ideas — despite it being quickly clear that none of them seemed to have any first hand acquaintance with his works. Doherty himself joined the group to argue his case, and one can see the result from the moment of his introductory email on the Crosstalk list. Doherty has invited scholars such as Jon Dominic Crossan to address his views and critiques of their works. The claim that Doherty is not prepared, or is unable, to defend his argument before the scrutiny of mainstream scholars is simply false.
Doherty does not write in academic jargon but pitches his books for the educated layman. But there is nothing inferior about his insights.
Back to Hoffmann
Of course Hoffmann may still disagree with the estimation of Davies, Price and Avalos and still judge Doherty’s work as academically inferior to that of Wells; and maybe Hoffmann has not even read Eddy and Boyd linking Doherty with Wells; but putting all this together one suspects Doherty just might have a real case when he says of Hoffmann’s published claim:
Anyone who has read The Jesus Puzzle is not likely to interpret me as owing much if anything to Wells, my approach being entirely different, and this in itself would be sufficient to suspect that Hoffmann has in fact not even read my book, and is perhaps relying on certain others’ negative opinions about it. (Doherty on the Demise of the Jesus Project)
I began this section with reference to Jeffrey Gibson. Gibson is one of the least pleasant scholars to have been inflicted on students in real life and to have been let loose in certain internet discussion groups. One can read about Doherty’s exchanges with him here.
The flippant arguments of Stephanie Fisher
Dr Paula Fredriksen is one scholar who did “respond” to something Doherty had written, but her response demonstrated that she at no point attempted to read Doherty’s piece seriously.
I would even compare her responses to those like a naughty schoolgirl who has no interest in the content of the lesson, believing the teacher to be a real dolt, and who accordingly seeks to impress her giggly “know-it-all” classmates by interjecting the teacher with smart alec rejoinders at any opportunity.
Fredriksen’s responses indicate a stubborn ignoring of the theme and content of Doherty’s argument, and consist of a series of superficial quips on particular phrasings and sentences read without any grasp of their context. Her approach as is if to think the subject was beneath her, and Doherty could not possibly be saying anything new. Her remarks, and Doherty’s responses, can be found here.
In other words, even in making an appearance of addressing Doherty, Fredriksen was really treating the exercise as something of a joke.
I mention this to compare her approach with another emerging scholar. Some may think Fisher’s views of Doherty unworthy of a response, and from one perspective I agree. But I also think it’s not a bad idea to have a response posted to views from someone whom others can view as speaking with some academic authority.
Stephanie Fisher is a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield and on record as an associate of R. Joseph Hoffmann in what was hoped to have been The Jesus Prospect. Her particular interest is in Doherty’s arguments about Q, a focus of her thesis.
Fisher has written that mainstream scholars have not addressed mythicism seriously and has implied that she has attempted to respond to it with more respect as an alternative viewpoint. She has even said that she herself at one point was contemplating the possibility of Jesus being a myth. But on closer questioning, this turns out to be nothing more than a “wondering about the possibility” in the wake of dissatisfaction with arguments of various scholars like Crossan and those of the Jesus Seminar. Her “mythicist” speculations were really nothing more than intuitive feelings and not related to any investigation of the question itself.
So while Fisher may have had more serious intentions than Fredriksen about addressing mythicism, her responses have been no less flippant.
Fisher has said criticized Doherty on the following grounds:
- he is not a properly qualified or professional scholar
- “depends on all the amateur myth bloggers“
- is “blindingly ignorant of first century Judaism“
- fails to make a detailed study of the synoptic gospels
- is ignorant of the most complex secondary literature
- does not engage with biblical languages in any comprehensive way
- is plain wrong when he writes in his introduction, “someone wrote a story [Mark] about a man who was God”
- uses Kloppenborg and secondary literature on Q “uncritically”
- takes the existence of Q for granted
- treats Q as a documentary source of information even though Q has never existed
- has a “truly frightful discussion of James the Lord’s brother“
This litany would imply that Fisher must have the lowest possible regard for the professors and doctors Davies, Price and Avalos cited above and who have found Doherty’s works to be rewarding and stimulating reading and that present a plausible case.
Fisher has not, as far as I am aware, publicly supported any of the above accusations with evidence or other reasons for her thinking Doherty is culpable on any of these counts.
To question Q or not to question Q?
Points 9 and 10 demonstrate the flippancy of her views of Doherty’s work. Far from taking the existence of Q for granted, or merely assuming it is a viable document capable of yielding its own evidence, Doherty in fact dedicates a lengthy chapter to an examination and testing of the arguments for the existence of Q.
More than this, however, is that Doherty also raises the arguments used against Q, especially those of Mark Goodacre, and argues them point by point detail before concluding with his reasons for explaining why he believes Q is still the most economical explanation for the “synoptic problem”. And among his remarks concluding this lengthy chapter, we read:
If the above arguments do indeed point to the existence of Q, . . . (p.324)
This does not sound like someone who “takes Q for granted”.
Doherty lays this foundation before ensuing chapters discussing the relevance of Q and the Q community with the Gospels of Thomas and Mark in particular, and with themes found in the Synoptic Gospels in particular.
No-one familiar with Doherty’s work and reading Fisher’s comments would ever suspect Doherty of being so thorough. Fisher is, indeed, bluntly making false assertions about Doherty’s work even though she repeatedly insists she has read his discussion of Q thoroughly. (She seems to have entirely missed the one titled “The Nature and Existence of Q”.)
Fisher’s criticism that Doherty “takes Q for granted” is worrying on other grounds, too. Since Q is a central focus of her doctoral thesis, one has to wonder about the likely quality of the scholarship of the completed work.
Equally unfathomable is Fisher’s contradiction of her points made in 9 and 10 by her point 8 – where she faults Doherty for using what is probably the most complex and detailed argument for Q of all, Kloppenborg.
So on one hand Doherty is accused of taking Q for granted, uncritically, despite an entire chapter by Doherty on the critical arguments for and against Q in which Doherty discusses Kloppenborg’s arguments, and on the other hand she faults him for relying on one of the most comprehensive scholarly arguments ever produced for Q (“uncritically” — despite Doherty’s detailed discussion of Kloppenborg in comparison with other views and his own independent contributions).
One suspects that Fisher’s real problem with Doherty over Q is that he does not agree with her conclusions about Q. It will be interesting to see if her thesis engages in the same depth of review of the arguments one finds in Doherty work.
(I might add that I disagree with Doherty’s arguments for Q, but no one can honestly suggest he does not have very good reasons for his belief. A number of people have suggested to Doherty that it would be to the advantage of his case if he dispenses with Q, but Doherty has rejected such a reason for dismissing Q as illegitimate.)
Point 7 is a silly flippant remark that no one would take seriously if it did not come from a scholar who claims to speak with some authority on account of her learning and association with reputable academics. Fisher wrote:
Earl Doherty start his introduction ‘someone wrote a story [Mark] about a man who was God’ – but Mark doesn’t! John does. Why does the author make up Jesus suffering in a very human way in Mark and not at all in Luke and John?
Fisher here actually borders on a dishonest representation of Doherty by her omission of the words Doherty really does use to “start his introduction” and that set the tone of the sentence as entirely rhetorical and not in the least intended to be understood as an academic critical claim:
Once upon a time, someone wrote a story about a man who was God.
Fisher’s statement confuses a rhetorical introductory line designed to capture the attention of a reader with a more nuanced discussion of the issues that Doherty certainly does undertake later in his book. Fisher is engaging in pedantry at best, and by omission of the initial “once upon a time” she is creating a false understanding of Doherty’s context and intended meaning. The words she says Doherty uses to start the introduction are not the ones she quoted, and her omission is misleading.
Quite to the contrary of Fisher’s flippant complaint, Doherty does discuss the less than Godlike nature of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark’s compared with that in the Gospel of John, Doherty does make the clear distinction that Fisher accuses him of failing to observe in a rhetorical opening to his Introduction:
It is true that the Gospel of Mark does not portray its Jesus in the elevated fashion of the Christ cult. Indeed, it is sometimes pointed out that Mark’s Jesus is scarcely divine, certainly not overtly so. He is not the Logos of personified Wisdom of the epistles, the emanation and image of God involved in the process of creation. None of these things are present in Mark’s Gospel, and even the soteriology is primitive. . . . (pp. 395-396)
Fisher’s point 2 (that Doherty depends on all the amateur myth bloggers) is simply risible, or, more correctly, ‘contemptible’, and serves only to demonstrate that she does not take Doherty seriously at all. I suspect there are not very many “myth bloggers” who know the first thing about most of what Doherty does address, primarily through engagement with the sources and the mainstream scholarly works about those sources.
On point 3, being “blindingly ignorant of first century Judaism”, I suspect Fisher means that Doherty does not attempt to re-create early first century Judaism through very late Rabbinic texts the way Casey and Crossley (sometimes anachronistically) do. Rather, he concentrates on the known literature of the day.
Presumably her objection to Doherty’s failure to make a detailed study of the synoptic gospels (point 4) is based on Doherty’s failure to address the topic through the same memes and concepts as found among other scholars. Doherty certainly addresses their contents and compositions, and comparisons among them, at length and in depth. But he is not playing the same game with the same perceptions that have failed mainstream scholars for generations to come to any agreement on what they tell us about the historical Jesus.
On number 6, I am quite sure Fisher is right when she says Doherty does not engage with the Aramaic language, which is a special interest of hers and her thesis supervisor’s. Doherty would probably “naively” respond that Aramaic, apart from a few words here and there, is not found among the New Testament texts. Of course, Doherty’s whole thesis would invalidate any need to speculate on the existence of now-lost Aramaic sources. Perhaps this is what upsets Fisher the most. Doherty has, by the way, been commended by a scholar such as Professor Davies for showing a commendable knowledge of Greek.
The more things change the more they stay the same
Albert Schweitzer lamented the tone of the mythicist debate in his day and laid the blame squarely on the mythicists for their arrogance. Today the tone is the same, but the blame is reversed — today it lies squarely on the mainstream historical Jesus scholars for their arrogance and their unprofessional and ignorant accusations against Earl Doherty in particular.
Schweitzer also praised the few voices that did speak up for reason and civility, and I have mentioned some of the present day voiced who have done the same on Doherty’s behalf today. Fisher has said that Maurice Casey, who I understand is her thesis supervisor, plans to publish a book in a couple of years that will address mythicism, including the arguments of Doherty. I am not holding my breath in anticipation of anything as serious as Schweitzer’s own reviews of the mythicists of his day. Few can ever quickly appreciate the possibility of learning that everything they have been working has been built on a false assumption.
As Professor Stevan Davies also wrote in the post I partly quoted above,
Earl’s paradigm is a paradigm. It’s not simply a reworking of the usual materials in the usual way to come up with a different way of understanding them. It’s not an awful lot different than the claim “there is no such thing as phlogiston, fire comes about through an entirely different mechanism.”
New paradigms are very very rare. I thought that my Jesus the Healer gave a new paradigm rather than just another view on the subject, but no. Earl’s is what a new paradigm looks like. . . . A new paradigm asserts not that much of what you know is wrong but that everything you know is wrong… more or less. Your whole perspective is wrong. The simple thing to do is to want nothing to do with such a notion, which simple thing has been violently asserted . . . . by various people.