2011-09-04

“Rulers of this age” and the incompetence of the historicist case against mythicist arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

It is a sad thing to see scholars who are doctors and associate professors and holders of chairs demonstrate a complete muddleheadedness and inability to grasp the simplest of logical arguments when attempting to gainsay mythicist challenges to the historical Jesus paradigm.

One such scholar continues to insist that Earl Doherty has constructed an argument from a false antithesis: t0 the best of my understanding — and I have asked the scholar many times to clarify his position — Doherty is said to argue that 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 must mean

  1. EITHER that earthly rulers killed Christ
  2. OR that demons themselves directly killed Christ
  3. so the possibility that the verse means demons influenced human rulers to do the dirty deed must be excluded.

But this criticism, as far as I can determine, completely fails to address anything and everything that Doherty argues across several pages in relation to this question. Pages of argument are simply ignored. (And not only “pages”. Doherty explains in the chapter reviewed by the scholar that he will be exploring additional supportive arguments in the ensuing chapters.)

What I think can justify this criticism is that Doherty concludes, on the basis of argument, that Paul was thinking of option #2, and that the critic might fault Doherty’s reasoning that leads to such a conclusion.

But unfortunately the critic does not do this.

Firstly, Doherty argues (and in the process includes supporting references in the mainstream scholarly literature) that “rulers of this age” was a reference to demonic powers. Some scholars have preferred to interpret the phrase to mean earthly rulers who are swayed by the spirit of the age but there are valid arguments against this interpretation that a significant number of mainstream scholars follow, as does Doherty.

Probably all those scholars also believe that even though Paul was thinking of demons, he also understood that they acted though human agencies. That is where Doherty parts company with them. This is where he writes that sentence that so offended his critic:

“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” (p.106).

The critic describes this notion as “bizarre”.

But later in follow up discussions he appeared to concede that yes, there really is no explicit statement indicating that the passage in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 says that the crucifixion was the work of earthly rulers in an earthly setting:

It has taken some time for me to get back to this discussion. Neil Godfrey noted that there is nothing explicit in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 to indicate a terrestrial location for the crucifixion. I wonder whether Neil and/or Earl Doherty would agree that neither is there anything explicitly (or implicitly but clearly) indicating a celestial location for what Paul is referring to, either.

I responded that I fully agreed that there is nothing in the passage that indicates a celestial or other nonhistorical setting or location either.

My argument — and Doherty’s — is that there is absolutely nothing in the passage itself that indicates a setting of any kind, earthly or otherwise.

Any notion that the passage implies demons are working through human agencies must be brought into the text by the reader on the basis of other evidence and reasoning.

Now of course it is the most natural thing in the world for modern readers to assume that Paul is “clearly”, “obviously”, “naturally” implying that the demons are working through human agencies. To suggest anything else strikes modern readers as “bizarre” — the word used by this critic himself.

Where else could a crucifixion take place? You can’t have a crucifixion in heaven for Vulcan’s sake! Everyone knows Romans did the crucifying ergo . . . .

Unfortunately our critic cannot accept any possibility that all of this is fundamentally interpreting Paul through modern eyes. His modern bias shows again when he explains that he believes one should always accept the “apparent meaning” of Paul’s words (“apparent” to whom? to his 21st century mostly Christian students?):

I always tell my students both to be open to the possibility that an author’s work has tensions within it, but also to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that their various expressions made sense to them, appealing to self-contradiction only as a last resort.

I also think that one should treat an author’s use of clear vocabulary and grammatical phrases as meaning what they appear to unless it is impossible to do so, which of course Doherty does not do with terms like “born” and phrases like “brother of.”

I wonder that Elaine Pagels can get away with suggesting that Paul’s words need not be read this way but that Doherty who is much more conservative in his reading of the text cannot. Such little contradictions as these remind us that the real issue is anti-mythicist bias.

When we think about the critic’s argument, it is clear that he cannot conceive of any alternative understanding of 1 Corinthians 2:6-8.

It is also clear from his above comment that his mind is chained by his faith in “apparent” meanings of “born” and “brother of”.

Doherty’s fault is not that he argues for an alternative way of reading Paul (one that is freed from the “tyranny of the Gospels”). The critic does not address Doherty’s arguments. He shows no interest in them or ability to comprehend them. Rather, he faults Doherty for his conclusions. And to strengthen his criticism and denigration of mythicism he even denies that Doherty’s statements are conclusions of extensive arguments. He writes instead of

Doherty’s setting up of a false antithesis between celestial powers being involved in the crucifixion and earthly powers being involved

The arguments themselves (I avoid repeating them here) have been addressed in my own responses (here, here, here, here, with Earl Doherty’s response here and here) to Dr McGrath’s review. Curiously, Dr McGrath continues to say I fail to address his review or what Doherty himself writes! Other times when I point out his failure to address what Doherty writes he accuses me of “spending my waking hours pondering Doherty’s words and seeking to weave them into the fabric of my being and embed them in my memory!” :-/

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  • GakuseiDon
    2011-09-04 11:30:34 UTC - 11:30 | Permalink

    Neil, I think you have misread McGrath’s point. Let’s start with Doherty’s comment on Page 106: Doherty writes (I’m not sure how to bold, so I’ll put the emphasis in caps):

    “However, Brandon (like everyone else) fails to address the question of how Paul could have spoken in such terms if he knew the tradition of Jesus’ death in Judea, PROVIDING NO QUALIFICATION TO THIS SUPERNATURAL PICTURE. 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.”

    As you noted, McGrath calls this “bizarre”. And I agree. Let’s look at his point. McGrath writes:

    “One of the more bizarre moments in the chapter is when Doherty 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” (p.106). Doherty previously acknowledge that this view was widespread in those times and specifically in early Christianity, and he emphasized the need to read early Christian texts in light of that context. We see here that Doherty does not stick to his own stated principles when they do not lead to a mythicist conclusion.”

    Here is the point: If (as Doherty notes) such ideas were widespread, then would we expect to see “qualification to this supernatural picture” by Paul there? If not, then why is it a failure if Brandon and the others don’t address this?

    • 2011-09-04 12:42:56 UTC - 12:42 | Permalink

      Well as has been pointed out to James McGrath repeatedly, the idea that heavenly powers worked through earthly persons does not mean that the equally if not more commonly understood idea that heavenly powers were quite capable of acting independently of earthly powers as well is invalid. Are you really saying that because the ancients believed heavenly beings worked through humans that this was the only way they could ever or did ever function? Are you really suggesting that it was inconceivable to the ancient mind to imagine a demon or angel doing things in a spirit world that had nothing to do with making puppets of humans?

      Now that suggestion is really bizarre. Yet that is what you are implying, and what McGrath also implied. But he never could bring himself to explain what he meant in response.

      The whole point of 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 as even McGrath appeared to eventually recognize in some small way is to say that “rulers of this age” ignorantly crucified Jesus with not the slightest indication within that text itself that addresses the means or location.

      P.S.
      If I have misread McGrath’s point I would appreciate a specific — specific — explanation of where and how I have done so from McGrath. I asked him repeatedly in a dozen different ways for clarification of his point and he refused point blank every time, usually responding with insinuation and equivocation and outright avoidance. (Though he did once say he would be “happy” to repeat something he said earlier that he also said was “clear enough”.)

      I addressed the passage of McGrath that you quoted, including Doherty’s words, in my first response to McGrath’s chapter 10 part 1 review. McGrath eventually responded to my criticism with a surreal tirade that accused Doherty of “psycho-analyzing” Origen, himself “suffering” through his reviews, and me “weaving Doherty’s words into the fabric of my being”! http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/why-i-dont-trust-a-scholars-review-of-dohertys-book/#comment-18484

      • GakuseiDon
        2011-09-04 14:34:56 UTC - 14:34 | Permalink

        Neil, regardless of what else is going on, I think McGrath’s point against Doherty in this particular case is sound. If, as Doherty notes, such ideas were “the dominant understanding of Christian writers in the early centuries” (page 106), then would we expect to see “qualification to this supernatural picture” by Paul there? If not, then why is it a failure if Brandon and the others don’t address this?

        • 2011-09-04 18:18:02 UTC - 18:18 | Permalink

          Ah, GakuseiDon, when the blind lead the blind . . . . You should follow Dr McGrath’s advice and engage both with Doherty’s words and McGrath’s reviews and not just blindly trust your favourite author. As it is you are merely doing what our good doctor does and not what he advises — ripping half a sentence from its context in order to “show” how bad Doherty’s arguments are. Here is the full sentence:

          One of the reasons why many modern critical scholars have been willing to allow that Paul means the demon spirits in 1 Corinthians 2:8 is because that was the dominant understanding of Christian writers in the early centuries. (p. 106)

          It was this very section of Doherty’s argument that Dr McGrath failed to address. The dominant understanding of Christian writers in the early centuries” was exactly what Doherty — and a good number of mainstream scholars as well — argues.

          But McGrath won’t allow this because he appears to be quite incapable of distinguishing between the concepts of “identity” of the rulers of this age and any other notion such as where and by what means they may have acted. He is not a clear thinker and I am beginning to understand why he never responds with anything but ambiguity or evasion whenever I ask him to clarify something he has argued.

          • GakuseiDon
            2011-09-04 19:43:53 UTC - 19:43 | Permalink

            Thanks Neil.

  • Steven Carr
    2011-09-04 16:12:49 UTC - 16:12 | Permalink

    MCGRATH
    also think that one should treat an author’s use of clear vocabulary and grammatical phrases as meaning what they appear to unless it is impossible to do so, which of course Doherty does not do with terms like “born”

    CARR
    What actually is the ‘clear vocabulary’ behind ‘born’? The vocabulary which is so clear tha McGrath beats Doherty over the head with its shining clarity?

    The KJV translates it as ‘But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,’

    How come come vocabulary is so clear that there are translations which say ‘made’, rather than ‘born’?

    As McGrath claims this is ‘clear vocabulary’ can he find one other instance in the Bible where ‘ginomai’ is translated ‘born’?

    After all, this is ‘clear vocabulary’ and McGrath has confessed to teaching his students that the the Greek word ‘ginomai’ is clear vocabulary which can only be translated one way – ‘born’.

    Doherty, being a scholar, knows that ‘ginomai’ is not ‘clear vocabulary’.

    Doesn’t McGrath know that as well? Is he an amateur or something?

  • 2011-09-05 04:58:28 UTC - 04:58 | Permalink

    GakuseiDon: Neil, regardless of what else is going on, I think McGrath’s point against Doherty in this particular case is sound. If, as Doherty notes, such ideas were “the dominant understanding of Christian writers in the early centuries” (page 106), then would we expect to see “qualification to this supernatural picture” by Paul there? If not, then why is it a failure if Brandon and the others don’t address this?

    Don, you are clearly an intelligent man (unlike a lot of the fellows you hang out with on places like the Matrix and FRDB), so I have to conclude that the deceptive presentation above is quite conscious. What did I say was “the dominant understanding of Christian writers in the early centuries”? That “the rulers of this age” was a reference to the demon spirits. Period. I did not say that the dominant understanding was “the demon spirits working through earthly rulers.” So it was a very valid question to ask–given his presumed knowledge of an historical crucifixion–why Paul, if he was referring to demon spirits, did not qualify that statement by explaining that the demons were working through earthly rulers. In fact, such an understanding is NOT evident in the very early period, and does not appear until Origen, and I demonstrated that in the immediately following pages of my book.

    It was also a valid question to ask why Brandon et al. did not trouble to explain to their own, modern, readers (a) that Paul meant through earthly rulers, and (b) how that process actually worked. Unlike the earliest period, we know that scholars today, insofar as they admit that “rulers of this age” refers to the demons, DO regard the meaning as “through earthly rulers.” But I suspect that someone like Brandon taking the trouble to explain this would highlight the perplexing question of why Paul himself had not supplied such an explanation.

    One of the problems here proceeds from McGrath’s statement, which Don quotes:

    “One of the more bizarre moments in the chapter is when Doherty 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.’ (p.106). Doherty previously acknowledge that this view was widespread in those times and specifically in early Christianity, and he emphasized the need to read early Christian texts in light of that context. We see here that Doherty does not stick to his own stated principles when they do not lead to a mythicist conclusion.”

    Perhaps either McGrath or Don would like to point out where I “previously acknowledge that this view was widespread in those times,” and what “view” specifically I was referring to. This sounds to me like yet another garbling of Platonic principles I’ve stated, such as that nations on earth have a heavenly champion (good angels for good nations, evil angels for evil nations). But nowhere have I stated that every action performed by an earthly ruler is determined and puppet-mastered by such heavenly counterparts; that would be carrying Platonism to a ridiculous extreme. So I acknowledged no such thing to which my accusation of a modern reading into the text of 1 Cor. 2:8 could be considered a contradiction.

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-09-05 07:25:47 UTC - 07:25 | Permalink

    Earl: Perhaps either McGrath or Don would like to point out where I “previously acknowledge that this view was widespread in those times,” and what “view” specifically I was referring to.

    The view was the idea that demons worked through human rulers and earthly events was “widespread in those times”. If that is what you are claiming, then McGrath has raised a good point.

    Earl: I did not say that the dominant understanding was “the demon spirits working through earthly rulers.”

    On p. 106 you write:

    “… spirit forces… who rule the lowest level of the heavenly world and who exercise authority over the events and fate (usually cruel) of the earth, its nations and individuals. That invisible powers, mostly evil, were at work behind earthly phenomena was a widely held belief in Hellenistic times, including among Jews, and it was shared by Christianity.”

    Earl, is it your view that the idea that demons working through earthly events and working through earthly rulers was widespread in those times?

    • 2011-09-05 10:02:07 UTC - 10:02 | Permalink

      Not to the extent that you would like to make it out to be, Don, as though earthly rulers had no minds of their own and were puppets in the hands of the demons. It is like modern evangelicals saying that Satan is behind the evil in the world (especially the anti-Christian variety), but that does not mean that they would maintain that therefore none of us have any free will and we have no say in, and no responsibility for, any of our evil deeds. Nor would we consistently speak of Satan as performing the evil in the world and never refer to the human beings who actually did it.

      If a modern evangelical were asked who had knocked down the twin towers on September 11, would he answer: “Satan!”? He might answer, terrorists under the influence of Satan if that’s the way he thought of things, but that is exactly the sort of thing that Paul fails to tell us. And it would have been so simple for him to have done so.

      Or would it? Let’s look at a point I raised recently. In that verse, Paul makes a point of saying that the rulers of this age did not know who it was they were crucifying; had they known, they would not have crucified Christ, since that act was to bring about the downfall of their own power. We know from other documents (including in the NT) that a prominent idea was that Christ’s death would destroy the power of the demons and reunite the universe and open the path to heaven. Now if Paul in 2:8 had in mind that Christ’s execution was actually the act of earthly rulers under the influence of the demons that would create a rather confusing presentation. He says the demons wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory since that led to their downfall; but wait, it was the human rulers who had actually crucified him–but wait, no, it was not they whom Paul meant would suffer downfall, but those who actually did not crucify Christ but only influenced others to do so…(whew!). Now, if Paul knew that it was human agents of the demons who had actually crucified Christ, that would make his statement not only misleading but literally false, wouldn’t it? And you think that he wouldn’t have wanted to express the situation a little clearer than he did?

      If we were trying to express what Paul is alleged to have meant, we would say: if the demons had known, they would not have had Christ crucified, just as we would not say that a wife who hired a hit man to knock off her husband had “killed him”. We would say, if she had known her husband had just changed his will to leave all his money to his mistress, she wouldn’t have had him killed (at least not yet).

      By the way, I am glad that this discussion has revealed that you agree that “rulers of this age” is indeed a phrase referring to the demon spirits. We’ve made a bit of progress.

  • 2011-09-05 08:59:09 UTC - 08:59 | Permalink

    You will excuse me if I butt in, GakuseiDon, But this is exactly why I generally make as little effort as possible to engage you in discussion.

    The sequence in this thread is typical.

    1. GDon makes a fatuous charge that, supposedly according to Doherty’s words, strongly implies that the ancients could not possibly have had a common notion of demons acting independently of human agencies;

    2. I point out that this is indeed the implication of GDon’s initial accusation.

    3. GDon comes back and denies this by misquoting Doherty in a way that leads unwary readers to think Doherty says something he does not say at all.

    4. Both I and Doherty respond pointing out the fraudulent use of a half sentence in Doherty’s book.

    5. GDon returns to making a fatuous charge that, supposedly according to Doherty’s words, strongly implies that the ancients could not possibly have had a common notion of demons acting independently of human agencies.

    Usually the process is more long-winded than this and it takes a little longer to get back to point #1.

  • 2011-09-05 10:06:15 UTC - 10:06 | Permalink

    Sorry if my italics in my response to Don above are screwed up. I still get confused between the different blogs and DBs’ tags. (By the way, what the heck is “em” for italics?)

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-09-05 10:11:50 UTC - 10:11 | Permalink

    Neil, Earl, thanks for your comments.

  • John
    2011-09-06 03:00:40 UTC - 03:00 | Permalink

    I’ve said before that I could accept that the “rulers of this age” could be demon spirits, but I’m still inclined to see them as human beings, considering the context of human wisdom and other verses in Paul that give me the impression that Jesus was a human. I have mostly been on the fence, and have no emotion invested in it, but the more I investigate Doherty’s arguments (which I find interesting and thought provoking) and the overall historical Jesus question, the more I find myself leaning somewhat towards the “HJ” side.

    This is not an endorsement of any particular HJ argument, but rather my own thoughts based on the “evidence” (in which I include Jewish Christians sources, however late or uncertain those may be, and the Dead Sea Scrolls). The little reasons that tilt the scale for me a bit can be argued back and forth ad infinitum, but I remain open to the “MJ” argument and the discussion of this or that verse or issue.

    I understand that for every verse in Paul that “seems” to be a reference to an HJ (“according to the flesh,” “made of a woman,” “of their race,” “one man,” etc.) there is usually an MJ way of looking at it, and it is fascinating and sometimes “difficult” to accept, and I see no reason to dismiss what strikes me as a legitimate intepretation of Jesus. I’m only interested in learning and sharing what I think, and not changing anyone else’s mind.

    • 2011-09-06 07:57:31 UTC - 07:57 | Permalink

      Kosmokrator (world-ruler) is used in Greek ONLY on the Emperor. Yet Paul uses it in the plural Kosmokratoras, World-Rulers. Did multiple human emperors crucify Jesus???????????????? No. It would be a stretch even to make one emperor involved, since it was just a governor not the emperor. Then, Paul refers to rulers above the world, angelic rulers, when he puts Kosmokratoras in the plural. Its obvious.

      • 2011-09-06 07:59:13 UTC - 07:59 | Permalink

        Plus he speaks of them as existing “in heavenly places.” How can you people be so blind? World-rulers of the darkness of this world IN HEAVENLY PLACES (Ephesians 6) “OH That’s just human rulers.” Please, whatever you are smoking, put it down and never pick it up again.

        • John
          2011-09-06 09:21:38 UTC - 09:21 | Permalink

          I’m not sure if you are talking to me, rey, but in any event, in 1 Cor. 2:6 and 8, which I’m refering to, Paul says “rulers” (“archons”) of this “age” (“aeon”), and archon is used most often in the NT to mean humans rulers, both Jewish and Roman (e.g., Acts 14:5). Not to say that it couldn’t mean demon spirits here, as it sometimes does elsewhere in the NT.

          Archons is also used in the deutero-Pauline Eph. 6:12, and there they are heavenly beings that pseudo-Paul and his human followers contended against, which is something a human Jesus (if he existed) could have done, too.

  • 2011-09-06 03:43:16 UTC - 03:43 | Permalink

    Paul’s remark that “the rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of Glory” (I Cor 2:8) is an eternal problem for those of us who think that the crucifixion was a mystical event that seemed to take place on the Firmament.

    I think the explanation has something to do with the early Christians’ accusations that the Jews had killed some of their own previous prophets. For example, Stephen makes this accusation in Acts 7:52. (I think there are some other examples, but I will have to assemble them.) The details of this accusation eventually were discarded from Christian teachings, so we can only speculate about them now.

    My speculation is that some prophets did not die on Earth, but rather were transferred alive up to the Firmament — like Elijah. Somehow, the Jewish priesthood was able to cause the killings of those prophets to happen on the Firmament. Perhaps some priests too were transferred alive to the Firmament and there hunted down and killed the prophets there. Or perhaps the priests did some priestly mumbo-jumbo on Earth that caused collaborating demons on the Firmament to kill the prophets there.

    In any case, this accusation was a Christian mystery-teaching that flourished for a while among some Christians (e.g. Stephen, Paul) but eventually was suppressed.

    In general, the Christian leadership eventually had to declare a termination to all further mystical visions, because too many elaborations developed. For example, anyone who experienced the mystical vision could start telling that he perceived that Jesus was crucified by some apparent “Jewish rulers”. When James joined the Christians’ leadership, he caused the termination of the Christian leadership’s validation of all further mystical visions. Henceforth, any Christian who claimed to experience a new vision was disavowed and excommunicated.

    And that termination of validated mystical visions is what prompted some new Christians to begin creating gospel stories. They did not claim or pretend that the stories were true. Everyone in that early Christian community recognized that the stories were imaginary, symbolic,

    * If Jesus came down to Earth, the first thing he would do would be to go to Peter’s home town, Bethsaida, and heal a blind man. We new-comers to Christianity are like the blind man, because we since birth have not been able to see the mystical vision that the earlier Christians saw. Jesus loves us too, and would console us and would give us the vision too.

    * If Jesus came down to Earth, then we new Christians would follow Jesus and his first disciples to the foot of Mount Hermon. We new Christians would not be allowed to climb to the top of Mount Hermon, The disciples would tell us to go away, but Jesus would say we could stay and wait, if we wanted to do so. When Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain, the disciples would tell us again to go away, but Jesus would say again that we could stay and even would make the disciples feed all us new Christians, because we had waited.

    These first gospel stories were an expression of the idea that “if Jesus in Heaven only knew how arrogant the older Christians are behaving toward us new Christians here on Earth, then Jesus would come down to Earth and intervene to correct the abuses.”

    Of course, all the Christians at that early time understood that these resentful, subversive stories were not true events. Everyone understood that Jesus had descended to the Firmament, not to the Earth. The first Christians had climbed to the top of Mount Hermon, from where they experienced a vision of the crucifixion happening on the Firmament. All those Christians — old and new — were in agreement about those facts. Nevertheless, some of the new Christians began creating and sharing stories in this new genre — the happy-ending gospel genre — in which the narrator and audience imagine that Jesus descended further to Earth to fix wrongs there and to console people there.

    And then over the course of about a century, these gospels developed into the four long, coherent, realistic gospels of the New Testament, and the Christians of that second century believed that all the events in those latter gospels actually had happened.

    • 2011-09-06 08:01:11 UTC - 08:01 | Permalink

      Ephesians 6 WORLD-RULERS of the darkness of this world IN HEAVENLY PLACES. Yea, that’s just human rulers. Emperors (world-rulers, kosmokratoras) who live in heaven — just the rulers of the Jews on earth, that’s all that is. An obvious reference to the government of the “chief priests and Pharisees.” Nothing to see here! Move along!

    • 2011-09-06 12:33:31 UTC - 12:33 | Permalink

      I don’t understand why 1 Cor 2:6-8 is a problem regardless of where Jesus was crucified.

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