2011-08-25

My take on the “heavenly paradigm” apparent contradiction in Doherty’s argument

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by Neil Godfrey

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“This post is not for McG’s benefit but for any innocent but curious bystanders”

This is my take on one part of Earl Doherty’s argument that when Paul spoke of  “rulers of this age” ignorantly crucifying Christ he was not suggesting that the spirit powers were working through earthly potentates to do their will. Dr McGrath believes that Doherty is contradicting himself here because Doherty also notes that it was commonly believed by the ancients that “heavenly  events determine earthly realities.”

Unfortunately I do realize that nothing I can say will change Dr McGrath’s mind at all in relation to his belief that Doherty’s argument is “a self-contradictory mess” since he made it very plain that “no one with sense will believe” Doherty and that any attempt of mine to explain it will at best be “entertaining”. He does not ask whether or not Doherty’s argument is self-contradictory so any attempt to point out that it is not will not be accepted by him. (Further, since McGrath has online access to Doherty online it is to be noted that he has not chosen to raise this with Doherty himself.)

When I responded that I would be happy to explain it and that the perception of a contradiction was partly the consequence of continuing to read Gospel presuppositions into Paul, McGrath responded that he believed I would be objecting to the “methods [he shares] with those who work in the discipline of history”. (I have publicized theologians’ ground-breaking contributions to the field of history at NT scholars are pioneers and contrasted the way nonbiblical historians handle mythical and legendary sources at Can Hobsbawm recover the historical Robin Hood?)

I can’t argue with a mind closed. So this is not for McGrath’s benefit, but for any innocent but curious bystander.

Here is McGrath’s problem with what Doherty writes:

@neilgodfrey:disqus, would you care to explain one of the self-contradictory elements in this part of Doherty’s book? He writes on p. 104 of “that most fundamental of ancient concepts outlines earlier: the idea that the earth was the mirror image of heaven, the product proceeding from the archetype, the visible material counterpart to the genuine spiritual reality above. Heavenly events determined earthly realities.” Yet on p.106 he writes “The suggestion that since earthly rulers are considered to be controlled by heavenly ones the latter are seen as operating “through” the former is simply reading the idea into the text.” Isn’t that “reading into” the text the very idea that Doherty said we should just a couple of pages earlier: “Heavenly events determined earthly realities”? Why, having acknowledged that this was a “most fundamental of ancient concepts” does Doherty object that Paul “never feels compelled to explain what Origen is bending over backwards to do: how did the demons effect their crucifixion of the Lord of glory if he was crucified on earth? Indeed, he shows no sign of any such difficulty, no sense of what should have been a natural question in his readers’ minds: if the Roman governor Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross on the mount of Calvary at the instigation of the Jewish religious leaders, how could demons be declared to be responsible?” (p.108).

This part of chapter 10 is a self-contradictory mess, and I don’t think my treatment of it was as harsh as it could have been, as it perhaps deserved to be. Perhaps you would like to offer your own perspective on how Doherty makes perfect sense, and it is my own unwillingness to be open to the possibility of his genius that is the real problem? No one with any sense will believe it, but your attempts to argue that are usually entertaining.

McGrath’s problem unfortunately illustrates the point Doherty himself makes about what is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of his mythicist idea: that the ancient thought world is so alien to our own understanding. McGrath has an additional problem in that he habitually responds to both Doherty’s arguments, and mine, by so often recasting them as false dichotomies.

Doherty’s explanation of what some scholars call “paradigmatic parallelism” between the heavenly and earthly worlds is nothing unusual. McGrath himself has said that Doherty is telling us nothing new in his explanations of this ancient understanding. So in the Similitudes of Enoch there is a Righteous One in heaven who, at the time he comes to judge, will exalt all his human counterparts (righteous ones) on earth by raising them up to heaven to join him; this is similar to the Book of Daniel’s Son of Man’s role as the paradigm of the righteous holy ones on earth who are destined to take the kingdom. There is a temple and priesthood in heaven as there is on earth. There are spirits who rule nations just as those spirit rulers have their human counterpart kings. Compare the letters to the churches in Revelation. These are addressed to the angelic rulers of the churches who are mirrored by the human bishops of the same churches. In the Ascension of Isaiah we read of all the demons in the first heaven fighting, quarreling, lying, etc, and they are a “mirror” of what life on earth is like.

But this cosmic order of things does imply that those heavenly beings are directly leading humans by their noses to follow their every step and echo their every word. That is an extreme extrapolation for which there is no evidence at all in ancient thought. After all, note that “paradigmatic parallel” model can also include a single spirit being in heaven being the counterpart of many humans on earth, so such a notion would be inconceivable to even the ancient mind, I suspect.

What the heavenly paradigm model implies is that rulers such as Pilate, Herod, the High Priests, etc are subject to acting in the same evil ways as the evil spirits above. It is in this sense that heavenly events determine earthly realities.

There are also special moments when those spirit powers, such as the rulers of Greece and Persia, “stir up” their earthly counterparts to go to war, as we read in the Book of Daniel. But as explained above, the heavenly paradigm did not mean that every act of persons on earth was directly inspired by a heavenly counterpart.

So the question becomes — at least for those who acknowledge that Paul’s “rulers of this age” refers to angelic powers (argued elsewhere) — whether Paul meant to imply that those spirits acted through humans by inspiring them to kill Jesus or whether they themselves crucified Jesus.

Either is a quite reasonable and valid explanation within the context of the ancient belief in paradigmatic parallelism between heaven and earth. (Indeed, Doherty later argues that the latter is really the best explanation within the paradigmatic model for quite separate reasons from those discussed here in relation to 1 Corinthians 2:6-8. I’ll touch on that at the end of this post.)

We have a number of reasons for believing that Paul meant that the heavenly rulers themselves crucified Christ on the following grounds:

  1. the idea that such events happened in the heavens is consistent with what we know of the ancients’ mythical understanding of the cosmos — the same sorts of things and acts took place above as below;
  2. Paul elsewhere insists that earthly rulers (despite their evil ways in other respects) protect the righteous on earth and that the righteous having nothing to fear from them;
  3. Paul gives no indication of any earthly setting or actants in Christ’s crucifixion;
  4. Paul speaks of Christ being in the likeness of human flesh, not actually coming down to be crucified in real human flesh;
  5. Christ’s crucifixion in other NT epistles is portrayed as a conquest by/of demon powers;
  6. the Gospels do not appear to know anything about those crucifying Christ being made to do so by heavenly counterparts, and the demons in the Gospels are said to have known exactly who Jesus was anyway, so could not have crucified him ignorantly as per Paul;
  7. later Christian authors before Origen (e.g. Ignatius, Marcion, Tertullian) do not interpret Paul as meaning that heavenly beings inspired their earthly counterparts;
  8. the first time we find the idea of the heavenly stirring up the earthly actors is with Origen who is struggling to reconcile opposing concepts. The modern interpretation of Paul that the spirits worked through the humans is traced back to Origen and not to Paul.

There may be others that slip my mind at the moment.

I said there is another reason that Doherty has for resisting the devil-made-the-humans-do-it-for-them  interpretation.

If we think about the way the ancients understood the heavenly paradigm related to the earthly as we find it in 1 Enoch and the Book of Daniel, for example, it follows that if the Saviour did actually come down to the earth to be crucified then there would be no heavenly paradigm at all.

With the paradigmatic model, just as the Son of Man in Daniel comes to the Ancient of Days to take the throne to rule as a paradigm of what will happen to the saints below, so the Saviour Jesus would suffer and be raised again as a paradigm of what will happen to those who are Christ’s below. Those who are “in Christ” below identify with the heavenly act through baptism, and are thus guaranteed their salvation by being raised with Christ, too.

Doherty shows that this particular model — the death of Jesus as a heavenly paradigm on behalf of believers below (who in other places we learn must mystically identify with this act at baptism or even undergo a physical martyrdom) — is best spelled out in the Book of Hebrews.

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  • silkworm
    2011-08-25 14:36:32 UTC - 14:36 | Permalink

    The doctrine of “as above so below” is essentially an astrological one. The good and bad spirits that influence the affairs of men are the good and bad aspects of the planets. The idea that these spirits are actual demons is a bastardized version of this astrological belief system. While there are traces of astrology in the Bible – e.g. the Magi who followed the star from the east – Judaic religion sets itself apart from the Graeco-Roman religion in that it rejects astrology. What we see in the Pauline epistles is a watered down version of astrological precepts to suit Jewish tastes.

  • 2011-08-25 16:54:22 UTC - 16:54 | Permalink

    Asking as someone who read the first edition of Mr. Doherty’s book a long time ago, and cannot remember much about it, I wonder how Gal. 4:4-5 can be fitted into the overall schema: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.” Does Mr. Doherty assume that the Son’s birth, too, was regarded by “Paul” as a heavenly event? (I apologize if the question has already been asked.)

    It has been argued by J. W. van Henten and other writers that, in Rom. 3:21-26, the Pauline author is drawing upon Maccabean martyr texts. Is this not suggestive that, at least in Romans, the crucifixion is thought of as a very earthly event? In 4 Maccabees 17:20-24, the martyrs are honoured because their deaths were “a ransom” and their blood “an expiation” for errant Israel. Similarly, in Rom. 3:25, traditional cultic terminology is used to express a non-cultic atonement through the death of a human being.

    An intriguing aspect is that, before the execution of the martyrs, the temple cult had stopped functioning: The martyrs are filling the role formerly taken up by the temple sacrifices, before the temple was defiled. This brings to mind the Christian doctrine that Jesus replaced the Temple.

    • Evan
      2011-08-26 01:58:56 UTC - 01:58 | Permalink

      Gal 4:4-5 strikes me as a direct statement of Gnostic-type beliefs that may be original to the Pauline author, if he were a Gnostic or sympathetic to those beliefs. Pagels:

      The apostle suggests that as long as God’s son, the pneumatic, remains “immature,” he finds his situation identical to the psychic “slave”: he too remains subjected to the cosmic powers until the Father acknowledges his maturity (4:1-3). But the psychics are not so much disciplined as “enslaved to the elements of the cosmos” (stoicheia tou kosmou 4:3) — to the demiurge and his archons who formed the elements (stoicheia) of Sophia’s passion into the “weak and impoverished elements” of cosmic creation.

      To redeem the psychics (“those under the law” 4:5), “God sent forth his son in the pleroma of times”, (for, as Theodotus says, he bore within himself the whole pleroma). The savior “came into existence from woman” (4:4b) taking on himself the psychic nature generated by Sophia. For according to the Excerpts from Theodotus Paul “refers to the woman above, whose passions became creation … because of her the savior came to draw us from the passion and adopt us to himself. As long as we were children only of the female, as of a shameful syzygy, we were incomplete (atele), immature (nepia), senseless, weak, and formless, brought forth like abortions … but when we received the form of the savior, we became children of a husband and a bridechamber.”

      This would be of a piece with a doctrine like that of the Gospel of Thomas. In pericope 15 that gospel has Jesus state: “When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your faces and worship. That one is your Father.” and in pericope 114, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’

      Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.'”

  • 2011-08-25 17:39:20 UTC - 17:39 | Permalink

    This is a can of worms, Michael. Doherty has written much more detail about this question in his new book. I am not able to address details at the moment, but there are big questions surrounding the meaning of Paul’s word-choice here. He did not use the word that would unambiguously meant “born”. I also have lots of problems with the integrity of our text of Galatians — quite apart from any mythicism question.

    What you offer from van Henton overlaps with what I have discussed in other posts from Levenson and the death of the first born son. It may have been at the time of the Maccabean martyrs that Isaac’s blood was also interpreted as atoning for all the sins of the Jews. (The angel had to call the name Abraham twice — implying that the first time did not work and Abraham plunged the knife in. But God undid the damage after the blood was spilt.) This atoning death idea was applied to the Christ figure.

    • 2011-08-25 23:23:16 UTC - 23:23 | Permalink

      Thanks for helpful reply. I enjoyed reading through your recent posts, and now I am looking forward to reading the new edition: Jesus, Neither God nor Man.

      With regard to Abraham and Isaac, it really seems that, in 4 Maccabees, Isaac is envisioned as having actually been sacrificed; cf. 4 Macc. 18:10-11. The martyrs’ endurance in their sacrificial deaths is portrayed as Isaac’s endurance in his. Margaret Barker believes some early Christian texts might be referring to Isaac’s “resurrection” (Temple Themes in Christian Worship, p. 28).

  • maryhelena
    2011-08-25 17:53:56 UTC - 17:53 | Permalink

    Neil, here, for what its worth, is my take on this earthly/heavenly parallel, ie what goes on in heaven is parallel to what goes on here on earth.

    Basically, both the historicists and mythicists like Doherty are wrong here. Why? Because one is working from the assumption of a historical JC and the other from the assumption of a historicized Pauline cosmic Christ figure. Both positions are seriously flawed. The earthly/heavenly parallel does not require that a choice must be made between the gospel, earthly, JC crucifixion and Paul’s cosmic JC crucifixion. Ie either JC was crucified on earth or he was crucified in a heavenly spiritual realm. It requires that we acknowledge not one but two crucifixion stories. Which means this whole present argument over where JC is crucified continually goes around in circles – and is also nonsensical.

    We have the crucified gospel JC and we have the crucified Pauline JC. Two crucified JC stories not one crucified JC story. Two separate contexts that may rub shoulders at the edges but need to retain their separate identities and focus, ie one ‘earthly’ and the other ‘heavenly’.

    The gospel crucified JC story centres around Pilate and an earthly crucifixion. The gospel JC crucifixion is focused upon earthly concerns, realities (not a historical gospel JC but historical realities of crucifixion, of which there were many that would have interested gospel writers for their historical interpretations.)

    The Pauline JC crucifixion is heavenly, spiritual, intellectual. The rulers of that spiritual world crucify JC. In ancient terms that could have been interpreted as taking place in some sort of real out there in space other worldly sphere. A modern understanding would suggest a more individual intellectual world – our mental world, the world of our mind. It’s in that world, a purely intellectual world where ‘crucifixion’, death, of old outdated ideas can have great value, salvation value. ‘Resurrection’ deals with the fact that even new ideas owe something to what has gone before in the sphere of human intellectual evolution.

    Simple? Perhaps – but all of this convoluted argumentation, between JC historicists and those mythicists who opt for a historicized Pauline cosmic JC, are beating a dead horse. Both sides will be at one another’s throats until kingdom come. Yes, we need a new paradigm – and perhaps Doherty might well have opened the door – but to cross the threshold requires more than his anti-thesis – it’s the synthesis that is vital. A synthesis where elements from both the thesis and the anti-thesis can produce forward movement

  • 2011-08-25 19:53:27 UTC - 19:53 | Permalink

    You’re not an innocent bystander in this discussion, Mary 😉

    • maryhelena
      2011-08-25 20:21:47 UTC - 20:21 | Permalink

      Sure…;-)

      But, Neil, I don’t write off the JC historicists as having nothing to offer the debate. However inarticulate they maybe in putting forward their position – at the base level – it’s a historical core they are seeking to uphold. ie it’s not all in the mind of Paul. (whoever he might be)

      So, perhaps a foothold in both camps – historical realities matter as much as intellectual ideas.

      Both McGrath and Doherty need to up their game to move this debate forward. I would suggest that Wells might have something to offer…

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