I asked Earl Doherty a few questions about his background and what led him to his Christ myth views; his understanding of the relationship between atheism and mythicism, and atheism in genera; influences leading to his own distinctive views and public/scholarly reactions to the mythicism, and towards him personally; his place in the history of the Christ myth idea and what he sees as the future status of Christ-mythicism. I also asked him about his website and books, including his novel.
His responses address other mythicists such as G. A. Wells and Paul-Louis Couchoud, a few mythicism’s current critics, and his views on American novelist Vardis Fisher. (The name of this blog, Vridar, is taken from the autobiographical character in Vardis Fisher’s final novel in his Testament of Man series, Orphans in Gethsemane.)
I am sure others will find his replies as interesting as I did.
And a special thanks to Earl for making time to respond as he did. I include a link to his Age of Reason and Jesus Puzzle websites at the end of his responses to my questions.
1. What led to your interest in the Christ myth theory?
Earl D: In 1982 I read a couple of books by G. A. Wells, and I was quite taken aback. While I had vaguely heard of the ‘no historical Jesus’ idea during the 1970s, I tended to regard it as unlikely. Not, however, based on any particular knowledge of the subject. But that has enabled me to understand the automatic dismissal which the Christ myth theory usually receives from those who really know very little about it. In 1984, after finishing a novel I had been working on for some time, I began to read more widely, and soon decided I would undertake my own research of the question, perhaps with a view to writing my own book. While I have a high respect for Prof. Wells, I felt that the subject could use a different approach. Fortunately, I had studied ancient Greek in university during the 1960s, as part of a degree in ancient history and classical languages. I could build on that earlier education and supplement it with my own private study. Before long, I guess you could say it became an obsession.
2. When did your Jesus Puzzle website first appear?
Earl D: In 1996. The year before, I had written a series of four articles on the Jesus Myth theory for Humanist in Canada, the magazine of Canadian Humanist Publications. Those articles were then posted on a web page owned and operated by a close friend, as I was Internet-illiterate at the time. Much to my surprise, having spent over a decade toiling in obscurity, I saw them gain very wide attention rather quickly, and I became somewhat notorious in biblical circles. Over the next couple of years I expanded the website considerably, and wrote The Jesus Puzzle novel (still posted on the website in its entirety after I was unsuccessful in convincing Prometheus Books to publish it, although it has since been published in Korean, Spanish and Portuguese). I haven’t spent as much time and effort on the site over the last few years, being occupied with other things, including my new book.
3. In your view, is the Christ myth idea necessarily related to atheism?
Earl D: In principle, it doesn’t have to be. But where Christianity is concerned, the Christian God is so tied up with Jesus Christ, one might conclude that the former without the latter has almost nothing to do. In Christian devotion, the Son virtually eclipses the Father. After two millennia, I don’t think Christian believers could shift their attention and devotion from a Son who was on earth to one who was entirely heavenly—even though that was good enough for Paul and his contemporaries. Losing the historical Jesus as the Son of God on earth might well unseat the Father in heaven as well.
4. Have you always been an atheist? If not, what led to your embracing atheism?
Earl D: I became an atheist at the age of 19. (I regret that it didn’t happen earlier.) It was largely an intellectual conversion, as too many things about the Catholic faith I grew up in were no longer acceptable. Once one sets aside the indoctrination of belief in a God, one sees the world through entirely different eyes. I recommend it.
5. What is your view of what is sometimes called the “New Atheism“, and of its main voices like Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and such?
Earl D: I applaud it, and I have a high regard for these writers. Religion has done and continues to do much harm in the world, on both the grand and the individual scale. It does not deserve a privileged position immune to criticism, as it largely enjoyed when I was young. If we have to get a little aggressive with it to make our case, I have no objection. I’m not known for pulling my punches either, as some of my writings on my Age of Reason website show.
6. You have written reviews of each of the novels in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man series. Why do you have such an interest in Vardis Fisher and this series of novels in particular?
Earl D: For about a year in the late 1980s, I took a break from my Jesus research and undertook a too-ambitious project of combining reviews of historical novels with a capsule history of the world! I read Fisher’s Testament as part of that project, and my reviews on the series were expanded for American Atheist magazine in 2000-2001. The scope of Fisher’s vision has no equal in the field in my estimation, and they were inspiring. As some may know, Fisher’s 11 novels of the Testament trace the evolution of humanity’s intelligence and its religious and moral beliefs from the dawn of self-consciousness two million years ago to the Christian Middle Ages. He drew on the most progressive scholarship of the first half of the 20th century, and the religious establishment of his day was not pleased! Fisher, incidentally, was not a declared mythicist, but he believed nothing could be known of the man if he did exist.
7. Is your own online novel about The Jesus Puzzle influenced by Vardis Fisher’s novels?
Earl D: To the extent that my novel was designed to be a novel of ideas (centered on the question of Jesus’ existence), but combined with an entertaining and suspenseful storyline with strong characters, as Fisher’s novels were (although I threw in a fair bit more sex than he did). I actually worked in a reference to each of the novels of the Testament within my own novel.
8. Have you attempted to engage the academic community with your ideas?
Earl D: I am periodically criticized by my dissenters on Internet discussion boards for not making a more determined effort to do that, though it’s clear that their motives are anything but prompted by a desire to have the case for Jesus Mythicism properly evaluated. They fully expect that if “peer-reviewed,” that case would be soundly trashed and mythicism revealed as charlatanry. Of course, “peer review” is a woolly term, and if the dissenters themselves are any indication (and they are), those “peers” would hardly give it an honest hearing, assuming journals were even willing to publish such things. One journal was not. (Short articles on individual topics is not the best route to go, since the case is a complex one, hardly to be done justice, let alone have a chance of gaining understanding and respect, in anything less than a book.) It’s telling that in the dozen years since mythicism underwent a resurgence in the hands of several writers like myself, there has not been a single response to it undertaken by mainstream scholars beyond the odd comment comprising the same tired old ‘refutation’ points we’ve been hearing for a century. Apologists on the Internet have attempted rebuttals, and one book by two well-known apologists (Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd) recently made an effort, but traditional scholars have largely adopted the three-monkey approach. Rumors abound lately that Bart Ehrman will undertake a book project, but his oft-declared dismissive attitude toward mythicism does not bode well for any effective addressing of the subject, let alone including anything new.
9. Were you surprised at the hostility that is sometimes directed at you personally? And how do you account for this hostility?
Earl D: I can’t say that it was unexpected. Shortly after my website appeared, I got onto the original Crosstalk. This was in the late 1990s, and the animosity by academic scholars who frequented it was palpable. I received more insult and personal attacks than professional rebuttal. Mythicism is, of course, highly threatening, as it upsets the paradigm cart like nothing else. One’s entire scholarly world gets turned upside down, and careers can hang in the balance. And, of course, confessional interests in one form or another are often involved, despite claims of critical and secular approaches. This is the sort of atmosphere one is up against in any attempt at “peer review.” I’ve just chosen not to waste my time with it.
But the most surprising expression of hostility is that which is directed at me, and mythicism in general, coming from self-declared agnostics and atheists, mostly on the Internet scene, though occasionally from ‘professionals’ in academia who frequent the Internet. They claim a complete absence of confessional motivation, and they can often be quite radical in other aspects of New Testament research, and yet their animosity toward the no-historical Jesus idea and those who promote it can be rabid. (And not because they are able to mount much of a case for rebutting mythicism or defending historicism.) I’ve encountered opponents like that right from the beginning, and I confess I’m still trying to figure that one out. Maybe the answer lies in their past, I don’t know. It’s one thing to repudiate and escape from a religious upbringing, it’s perhaps another to have to face the fact of having been ‘had’ to the extent that the figure one used to believe in never even existed.
10. Has there been any particular trend in the opposition to your views that you have noticed since your views have been gaining attention? What is distinctive about your particular Christ myth theory, and have any other Christ myth proponents had ideas similar to yours?
Earl D: As most reading this may know, my case for a mythical Jesus involves an element which, though not entirely unprecedented, has generated a lot of debate. Namely, that the early Christ cult which Paul belonged to regarded their Jesus figure as an entirely heavenly Savior-Son who underwent his death and rising in the heavenly world. I differ dramatically in that respect from G. A. Wells who was the major proponent of the no-Jesus theory in the quarter-century prior to the mid-90s. Prior to Wells, the mythicist whose views were closest to my own was Paul-Louis Couchoud who wrote in the 1920s, though I took my own fresh run at the question and drew very little from Couchoud himself. This “spiritual Christ and heavenly crucifixion” is a complex matter, and relies on a wide range of evidence and interpretation both within the Christian documentary record and outside it. It also has the disadvantage of being incompatible with modern scientific mindsets and tendencies of thinking; it really is quite alien to us today, and many seem to have difficulty getting their minds around it. But as I say in my Introduction to Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, “We cannot determine what constituted the original Christian belief according to what we today would be led to accept. The mythical heavenly Christ of Paul ought not to be rejected simply because we would reject it.” However, I do have to say that some who were formerly accepting of G. A. Wells’ interpretation (that the Pauline cult believed in a Jesus who had been on earth and crucified there, though at an unknown time in the past) have been won over to my “heavenly Christ” concept.
11. G. A. Wells appears to have moved away from the Christ myth idea in his more recent publications. What do you think of his reasons for going in this direction?
Earl D: Wells still regards the Pauline Christ as non-existent, even if Paul supposedly believed he had once lived on earth. (Wells subscribes to the latter apparently on the basis of certain pieces of human-sounding language sometimes encountered in the epistles, missing the possibility that such language can be understood within the Platonic conceptions of the time.) Wells does not link Paul’s Christ to any known historical figure, certainly not any figure portrayed in the Gospels. His ‘reversal’ has to do entirely with the so-called Q Jesus. He seems to have been persuaded by research like that of the Jesus Seminar who felt that a genuine Jewish sage could be unearthed at the root of the Galilean Q tradition. I disagree, and believe I have demonstrated that the Q Jesus was a later invented figure whose development can be traced through the various strata of the Q document, one who cannot be located at the movement’s inception.
12. Albert Schweitzer blamed the negative tone of the Christ myth debate in his own day squarely on the arrogance and righteous crusading zeal of the mythicists. Do you think there is anything to that criticism that is relevant today?
Earl D: It is still relevant in that such criticism is still being levelled at mythicists. First of all, arrogance and righteous crusading zeal would hardly be the exclusive provenance of mythicism. And arrogance and zealotry is in the eye of the beholder. The negative tone in the whole debate is primarily due to the longstanding hostile and closed-minded reaction of established academia to all things mythicist, prompting a certain degree of push-back on the part of those who have an honest theory to promote and yet are being dismissed as kooks and know-nothings. Most of the mythicist books published in the last dozen years have been anything but arrogant and zealous, including my own Jesus Puzzle (it is often complemented for its non-argumentative tone), the books of Robert M. Price (despite his appealing ‘pop’ humor) and writers on the Internet. I would say that the arrogance and zealousness is more in evidence on the other side. I am admittedly capable of sometimes letting my hair down on Internet discussion boards, but mostly in response to extreme attacks from defenders of an historical Jesus.
13. What is your background in New Testament Greek?
Earl D: Four years of study of Classical Greek in university, supplemented by years of (still ongoing) private study. While my natural proficiency in Greek may be less than that of those who work with it constantly in the world of academia, it is more than adequate to the purpose. It has yet to be demonstrated that any linguistic analysis or translation I have offered in the presentation of my case is erroneous or seriously deficient. (Jeffrey Gibson, much touted as a Greek expert par excellence—mostly by himself—constantly impugned my proficiency without ever providing a concrete example of such, though he was guilty of a gross mistake himself on one occasion.)
14. Where do you see yourself in the history of the Christ myth idea?
Earl D: They say that history is written by the victors. I am convinced that within a generation, the Christ myth theory will be one of the principal theories of New Testament study, acceptable to the secular academic community (a segment which is growing, though not without opposition) and a significant portion of the interested lay population. Where I will be seen in the development of that process, it’s hard to say. Though it has come as an unexpected surprise to me, I know that my books and website have had a significant impact and that I am probably regarded as today’s leading mythicism proponent. However, if a prominent established NT scholar were to switch sides, I might well be eclipsed and relegated to a footnote. If I’m still around, I’ll have to settle for knowing that my contribution to the promotion of Jesus mythicism at the beginning of the 21st century was important, perhaps even crucial, to its resurgence and growing acceptance as a legitimate theory.
15. What is the difference between what people read on the Jesus Puzzle website and what they might read in your books?
Earl D: The website is less unified, though contains more detail (over half a million words and counting). After the Main Articles, which offer a capsule linear case, articles tend to address individual topics or documents. As well, I offer Reader Feedback and responses to critiques. My latest book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, is pretty comprehensive at 800+ pages. It builds on the earlier The Jesus Puzzle, but with much greater depth on just about every subject. Some of that depth in regard to more recent research will not be found on the website. I know the new book is pricey (at $40), but I approached it as though it would be my principal legacy, if you will, (rather than write a new book every year as Wells and Price tend to do) and a lot had to go into it. It won’t make me rich (that was never my intention), but I hope it will stand for many years to come as a must-read in the mythicism debate. (It is amazing how much condemnation I receive from allegedly knowledgeable people who refuse to read my books.) If nothing else, it demonstrates the depth and richness of the Christ myth theory, in the face of those who dismiss and condemn it on the basis of very little knowledge of what it has to offer.
16. You seem to be a very private person. I don’t think anyone in “internet land” has any idea of what you look like, your educational background, what you do or have done for a living. Why is this?
Earl D: I’ve revealed my educational background in a few places (including the Preface of my new book), and there are a few people I’ve met at conventions who frequent discussion boards who know what I look like. But I have kept a relatively low personal profile, perhaps partly out of caution but also because I don’t want to intrude my personality or background into the debate. I’ve been involved in a number of occupations in my life, but they are irrelevant to my research into the origins of Christianity and if introduced might be a distraction to that cause. And I don’t shrink from using that term. While I regard my scholarly integrity as not compromised by my personal views, there are few who are not aware that I regard religion, and Christianity in particular, as counter-productive to human progress. And if we have all been led down the garden path for the last two millennia as to the real origins of the religion which has affected so many lives in the western world and beyond, I am convinced that this must be brought to light.
17. What do you say to those who think that to doubt the historicity of Jesus is being hypersceptical?
Earl D: The more antagonistic people are toward an idea, the more they will cast it in extreme terms. (Consider the early Christian heresiologists.) If the evidence leads toward something being entirely non-existent, why should anyone settle for half an existence? There is no progress without correct knowledge. And there’s nothing “hyper” about trying to achieve that.