2012-03-29

Earl Doherty’s comments on my posts about Ehrman’s treatment of his book

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here Earl Doherty’s comment — originally made on FRDB — about my recent posts on Bart Ehrman’s treatment of his book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man.

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I hope that all of you are following the postings on Vridar by Neil Godfrey relating to Bart Ehrman’s presentation of statements and arguments in my book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. . . . What Neil has focused on in this posting (“Bart Ehrman’s false or careless assertions and quotations concerning Earl Doherty“), the first of several he plans on the same problem in Did Jesus Exist [I now notice he has just posted a second instalment], is Ehrman’s handling of my discussion of the ancients’ views of the universe and how one in particular influenced early Christian cosmology and their placement of their Christ Jesus’ sacrifice in the heavenly world. Here, as quoted on Vridar, is what Ehrman says:

Ehrman continues to repeat and underscore this aspersion — that Doherty is so simplistic as to speak of a single view of the world among ancients:

To begin with, how can he claim to have uncovered “the” view of the world held by “the” ancients, a view that involved an upper world where the true reality resides and this lower world, which is a mere reflection of it? How, in fact, can we talk about “the” view of the world in antiquity? Ancient views of the world were extremely complex and varied

Neil points out that this is a direct misrepresentation of what I say in my book. Ehrman is discussing my page 97, which actually says (the square-bracket insertions are mine just made):

To understand that setting, we need to look at the ancients’ views [VIEWS, plural] of the universe and the various [i.e., MULTIPLE] concepts of myth among both Jews and pagans, including the features of the Hellenistic salvation cults known as “mysteries.”

But Ehrman has not simply ‘misread’ one word, the surrounding context, and in many other places in my book, contains further material like this:

From the documentary record both Jewish and pagan (and there is more to survey), it is clear that much variation existed in the concept of the layered heavens and what went on in them, just as there were many variations in the nature of the savior and how he conferred salvation.

Neil and some commenters on his posting point out that Ehrman’s language (see above) also implies that this particular “view” of the universe (the Platonic one) I present is somehow my own laughable invention, whereas any undergraduate student of ancient thinking knows full well that this was a widespread (and even pre-Plato) type of cosmology about the nature of the universe. Unfortunately, much of Ehrman’s readership will not even be undergrads.

In the same posting Neil quotes this blatant non-sequitur on Ehrman’s part:

This view of things was especially true, Doherty avers, in the mystery cults, which Doherty claims provided “the predominant form of popular religion in this period.” (This latter claim, by the way, is simply not true. Most religious pagans were not devotees of mystery cults.)

Something that is a “predominant form” is not necessarily indulged in by the majority. Ehrman’s criticism here is based on this fallacy. I have not said that a majority of pagans were initiates into the cults. Besides, the presence of the word “popular” gives a different cast to things. If I say that the predominant form of popular music over the last half-century has been “rock and roll” that does not say that a majority of the population of all ages and ethnic groups around the world have been enthusiastic about rock and roll. Ehrman exhibits serious logical deficiencies here.

On the “view”/”views” matter, Neil suggests that Ehrman may have been “more careless than dishonest,” while one commenter puts it “we must first assume carelessness and not malice”. (Dishonorable or incompetent, take your pick.) But I think this is bending over backwards unjustifiably. It is admittedly hard to believe that Ehrman could have deliberately misrepresented my words, consciously falsifying my arguments in order to put me in the worst possible light. But what is the alternative “carelessness” due to? What else but a blatant prejudice against all things mythicist, a deliberate closing of the mind to anything that could possibly confer a positive light on the mythicist argument (shades of Dr. McGrath), a conscious attitude toward mythicism as a satanic expression of anti-religion held by people whose sole agenda is the destruction of Christianity? In other words, “malice” against myself and mythicism, and what I and other mythicists are perceived to constitute. (I don’t yet know if the language of his Huffington Post article is fully reproduced in the book, but that wouldn’t matter; those sentiments were offered in a promotion of the book and clearly illustrate the author’s mindset.) That malice has led Ehrman (and others both today and in the past) into a culture of misrepresentation and closed-minded condemnation, a litany of fallacious argument, a practice of misleading—even deceptive—presentation of both mythicism and the case for historicism, especially to lay readers who are at the mercy of their own trust in the reliability of ‘professional’ scholars with their proper credentials.

If we cannot trust a scholar to address and deal with the arguments of opposing viewpoints honestly and reliably, how can we trust them to be presenting and dealing honestly and reliably with the arguments in support of their own theories? And in fact, Ehrman has already been called out extensively on many of the book’s statements in defence of historicism, some of them blatantly insupportable.

Several months ago, when we were discussing the anticipation of Ehrman’s book on this forum, I said to Don that I would hardly be adopting toward Ehrman the same tone and style I often adopted toward some of those here who treat mythicism as a doormat. I would show, I said, respect toward a respected scholar who might be expected to handle the subject matter and its proponents with some degree of honesty and thoughtfulness. How naïve that was!

Robert Price has reacted to Ehrman’s book by calling it a “rag” and other derogatory labels. I won’t use that kind of language. Actually, it’s far worse. Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist is a massive failure of integrity, both professional and personal. This was a long-awaited book. First, from the time of its announcement over a year ago, for it was to constitute the work of a respected mainstream scholar who would devote an entire book to addressing mythicism and an attempt to effectively rebut it. But also long-awaited for several decades, for no one over that time had offered a full-length book to justify the widespread claim that historicism was a no-brainer and that mythicism had long been annihilated. To judge by quotes and comments (even by some not necessarily mythicism supporters), this book is a huge disappointment. One might even say a betrayal.

P.S. If my own reading of the book disproves or compromises this extremely negative evaluation, I will be the first to revise my estimation of it. I said in my first posting in this thread that I would be reacting to what others (on both sides) say about it, rather than to a reading of the book itself. Right now I am forced to mask my vision in the new cataract-free eye, since it contributes only a disturbing blur at monitor-screen distance, and I am having to rest frequently. But I found it impossible to remain silent on the sidelines until I am able to get a corrective reading lens and tackle the book itself. If anyone wishes to dispute my comments or evaluation of Ehrman on the basis of others’ quotes and criticisms, please feel free.

. . . . . .

Earl Doherty

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  • 2012-03-29 10:04:35 UTC - 10:04 | Permalink

    If you guys look beyond this particular case, Ehrman used the same hatchet job against Morton Smith the Columbia University professor who discovered the Letter to Theodore. I have been writing about this for sometime but the misrepresentations go beyond what is described here. http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com/2012/03/fifth-chapter-of-myth-of-jesus-christ.html

    I guess Ehrman believes that the ends justify the means. He is not alone in this view. It’s disappointing.

  • Bob Carlson
    2012-03-29 10:20:28 UTC - 10:20 | Permalink

    I am now reading Ehrman’s comments concerning G. A. Wells opinions about the Christ myth. He seems to treat Wells with greater respect. This may be because Wells, at least according to Ehrman, believed that there had been a historical Jesus, although Ehrman says that Wells believed that he had nothing whatever to do with the mythical Jesus of the New Testament. I haven’t read Wells book so have no idea what Wells really said.

    Concerning a possible solution to the the cataract surgery/eye-strain problem, I see that in the Kindle version of DJE text to speech has not been disabled, as it quite frequently is in newly released books. I presume that to indicate that there is no separate audio edition of DJE, as, if their were, Amazon would surely not have enabled text to speech in DJE. I just listened to a few lines of DJE as read by the text to speech mechanical lady, and it seems okay.

    • 2012-03-29 10:59:38 UTC - 10:59 | Permalink

      I think Wells is in favour for the reasons Tim alluded to in his post The Democratization of Knowledge and the Reaction of Reactionary Scholars. Ehrman writes of Wells:

      Wells is certainly one who does the hard legwork necessary to make his case: although an outsider to New Testament studies, he speaks the lingo of the field and has read deeply in its scholarship.

      See? You have to be an insider and to talk like one if you hope to be taken even a little seriously. Earl Doherty quite deliberately chooses the language of the educated layperson as his primary target audience. One notices this same principle in action with Dr McGrath’s treatment of Richard Carrier. McGrath is willing to acquiesce and apologize when Carrier points out that he has factually misrepresented him, but there is absolutely no way McGrath would ever stoop so low when found guilty of the same carelessness with respect to anything Doherty (or even I) writes. Carrier is “a scholar”, and McGrath makes it clear that this is the reason he has more respect for him. Ehrman, McGrath, and others must accordingly resort to appeals to authority and pour scorn on mere lay people who insist on logical argument and are not satisfied with pronouncements from authority.

      • Bob Carlson
        2012-03-29 11:53:21 UTC - 11:53 | Permalink

        Certain sentences or phrases of Ehrman’s in DJE strike me as rather hillbillyish.

  • 2012-03-30 09:26:51 UTC - 09:26 | Permalink

    I guess that is what you get when you have a Bible scholar turn celebrity. Seriously, I am a little surprised by Ehrman’s very obvious blunders, I would have thought he would have done a better job than this. I have not read the book myself, and do not plan on it either, but I have read several posts about it, and from what I have seen so far, it doesn’t look very good for Ehrman’s reputation. What puzzles me the most is that these scholars basically believe the same thing about a lot of other biblical figures as mythicists believe about Christ. According to them, Moses, Abraham, David, and many more were not historical people, and were certainly not the authors of any Bible books. These people were apparently invented much later by the Jews when the Hebrew Bible was supposedly written around the second temple period. How is this different than what mythicist believe? Again, these scholars do not believe the man Jesus was special or divine in any way, so why is he more important to accept historically than say Moses? So if these scholars do the exact same thing with other biblical figures, why all the scornful hatred? Is it because mythicist do not believe in a historical Jesus, or because they do not like their explanation as to why they do not think there was a historical Jesus? To me, there is no logical reason for this, which only leaves an irrational one. It is pretty obvious that the biblical figure Jesus occupies at least 90% of the average Christian’s knowledge of the Bible and his religion. That being so, it is not a really big deal if you dispose of Abraham or Moses, but do not say anything against Jesus’ existence or you will demolish Christianity, as he makes up around 90% of the religion. And if you demolish Christianity, you run the risk of demolishing all institutes founded on Christianity. And no one who has their livelihood so closely tied to one of these institutes is going to demolish himself. So I guess for them, it is better to play the part of a Christian even though they do not really have any faith in any of it.

    • 2012-03-30 10:04:46 UTC - 10:04 | Permalink

      Thomas L. Thompson is one scholar who has applied the same methodological approach to the Gospels as to the stories of David and Israel and written his own view that Jesus is as literary (and mythical) as David and Moses, and that if there is also a real Jesus in there somewhere he is essentially irrelevant.

      Several scholars and students have scoffed at his argument. They often will say that the difference is that the OT books were written long after the events they narrate while the Gospels are very close to the narrated events. But this overlooks the fact that when TLT and others began their studies of David they were working within the paradigm that sources for David dated to David’s own time or very shortly afterwards. It also overlooks the ideology at the heart of dating the Gospels: there is a general assumption that they “must” be dated as close as arguably possible to the time of Jesus, even though normal dating of documents (the “scientific method” as discussed by Lemche and that I addressed in a post here not very long ago) is by external references and supporting anomalous material within the narrative. By the normal dating methods the Gospels should be relegated to the second century.

      • 2012-03-30 11:05:37 UTC - 11:05 | Permalink

        Interesting, I totally agree with the idea that, “and that if there is also a real Jesus in there somewhere he is essentially irrelevant.” It is the same with scholars like Ehrman and McGrath, who fight for a historical Jesus, but the man they say existed is essentially irrelevant to the Jesus of Christianity. Christianity did not become what it is today because of some run of the mill Jew who had a handful of good sayings, it was because they thought he was the divine son of God, or even God himself. Do these scholars go out of their way to point out to the average Christian that their historical Jesus is not the same Jesus as depicted in the Bible? That is probably why these scholars works are only read in scholarly circles. How can some of these scholars even claim to be Christian when the word Christ means anointed, anointed to hold a specific position. Who anointed their Christ and for what position does that anointing include?

        “They often will say that the difference is that the OT books were written long after the events they narrate while the Gospels are very close to the narrated events.”

        It is clear that all events before Moses were not written down until later, but as far as the rest, their hypothesis is based on a lack of older manuscripts and a number of anachronisms found in the Bible. But I’m of the opinion, that when you have literally thousands of different people hand copying a text over thousands of years, your going to see all sorts of problems. But I would rather focus on the astounding integrity of the text after all those years of copying. But you are right, these scholars do the same thing here as well. Even though our oldest NT manuscripts date between 150 – 200 C.E. they have no problem assuming the original autographs were from mid to late first century. But our oldest Hebrew manuscripts are assumed to have been written shortly before the dating of the manuscripts.

        • sahansdal
          2012-03-30 16:51:17 UTC - 16:51 | Permalink

          Howard,
          “Christianity did not become what it is today because of some run of the mill Jew who had a handful of good sayings, it was because they thought he was the divine son of God, or even God himself. Do these scholars go out of their way to point out to the average Christian that their historical Jesus is not the same Jesus as depicted in the Bible?”

          I posted a one-star review of DJE? on Amazon having read only the Harper Collins 30 pages or so excerpts but saying nearly the same as you. I was of course roundly criticized for this, by the fundies, and who knows who else, but I don’t care. Nobody says you actually have to read what you review, and I know Ehrman well enough to see what he’s up to with just a few pages skimmed. I incidentally recommend his “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” with five stars. The real question to be addressed isn’t DJE? but why Christians insist on claiming him as savior when he clearly stated he had no ministry beyond his grave! (John 9:4). Ehrman does a disservice by massaging the masses with his history-of-the-week when he is a textual critic, not a historian. I want more of Orthodox Corruption, not this kid’s college tuition gravytrain. One star! I hate it!

  • Bob Carlson
    2012-03-30 13:16:45 UTC - 13:16 | Permalink

    I have now finished reading DJE. I kept wondering about why so many arguments were being repeated chapter after chapter and why so much time was being spent on talking about classes on the New Testament at UNC. But after I got to the point where Ehrman explained his ideas on Jewish apocalypticism and Jesus having become a Jewish apocalypticist after coming under the influence of John the Baptist I felt that I understood Ehrman’s point of view. He has gone all-in on this concept of Jesus, and naturally wants his view of the historical Jesus to compete well with all of the others. He has been teaching his ideas about the historical Jesus for years in his New Testamant classes, and, in doing so, has convinced himself that his view is the only one that can possibly be correct. He doesn’t even mention in his classes that there are some people who claim that there is no evidence for a the historical person named Jesus. He just claims that it is such a fringe viewpoint that there is simply no need to bring it up. When Ehrman was given a Religious Liberty Award by the American Humanist Association in 2011, he was surprised to learn that so many of the members of the association believed that Jesus had never existed. He goes into detail with hypotheses concerning why they hold such views and blames the mythicists for having duped them. He says:

    IN MY VIEW MYTHICISTS are, somewhat ironically, doing a disservice to the humanists for whom they are writing. By striking out a position that is accepted by almost no one else, they open themselves up to mockery and to charges of intellectual dishonesty. But to accomplish their goals (about which I will say more in a moment), this is completely unnecessary. Of course, for mythicists, it goes without saying, belief in Jesus is a problem. But the real problem with Jesus is not that he is a myth invented by early Christians–that is, that he never appeared as a real figure on the stage of history. The problem with Jesus is just the opposite. As Albert Schweitzer realized long ago, the problem with the historical Jesus is that he was far too historical.

    …[Long discussion concerning the humanists and the mythicists omitted]

    What this means is that, ironically, just as the secular humanists spend so much time at their annual meetings talking about religion, so too the mythicists who are so intent on showing that the historical Jesus never existed are not being driven by a historical concern. Their agenda is religious, and they are complicit in religious ideology. They are not doing history; they are doing theology.

    Most of Ehrman’s approach to “history” consists of making a case for statements the various books of the New Testament, Q, etc. being idependent of each other and evaluating the statements by and about Jesus for validity by analysing them according to the criterion of dissimilarity (i.e. embarrassment). It will be interesting to see what historians like Richard Carrier will have to say concerning that.

    • 2012-03-30 15:18:01 UTC - 15:18 | Permalink

      I look forward to addressing Ehrman’s “quote-mining” of Schweitzer. Yes, Schweitzer believed in a historical Jesus. But when he indicated that he thought Jesus was “too historical” he was making a negative, not a positive, assessment about the place of Jesus in the Church. Schweitzer could see that a faith that rests on an argument for a historical event is vulnerable. He pleaded for “a new metaphysic” that replaced faith in a historical hypothesis.

  • KevinC
    2012-03-31 18:55:17 UTC - 18:55 | Permalink

    One thing I find interesting about the “view/views” issue is the way historicists will often declare that Jews were monolithic in their beliefs. Here’s Ehrman, in his HuffPo article:

    Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.

    This is a far stronger assertion of Borg-like monolithic attitudes on the part of Jews than Doherty’s statements about the prevalence of quasi-Platonic metaphysics in the ancient world. It’s also false, as Richard Carrier showed in his rebuttal, e.g., the reference in Daniel to the Messiah being “cut off,” Isaiah 52-53, and so on. It’s also circular. If the mythicist model is correct, then there would have been at least one group of Jews who believed in a crucified Messiah whose salvific death was encoded in their ancient scriptures. “We know that no Jews could have been mythicist Christians because no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, would have believed in that shit.” This is actually the same kind of argument fundamentalist apologists make against people like Ehrman. “Jews would never have believed that a crucified criminal was the Messiah because they all expected that the Messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. So the only way Christianity could have gotten started was if Jesus really did rise from the grave and appear to his followers.” Since Ehrman knows this argument is fallacious (as he must, since he rejects it when applied against his own position), why does he rework it and use it against mythicism?

    Ehrman seems to have quite a penchant for stacking the deck in the way he phrases his arguments. E.g., he assumes that in order for mythicism to be plausible, Jews would have had to believe in a future, crucified Messiah. This isn’t necessarily so. If there was a strain of Messianic belief in a Messiah whose death would bring redemption, with some Scriptural support (the “future” part), the crucifixion detail could have been incorporated by the original Christians themselves, taking inspiration from the death of Spartacus, Scriptural passages about “hanging on a tree,” symbolism of the spiritual Messiah as the fruit of the Tree of Life, the symbolic effect of a crucifixion victim being suspended “between heaven and earth” (i.e., bridging the metaphysical gulf as the Logos or harmonizing proportion), and so on. According to the mythicist view, the proto-Christians placed the crucifixion of the Christ not in the future, but in the eternal past or a state of spiritual timelessness. So Ehrman’s requirement that there be Jews predicting a future crucified Messiah has nothing to do with the actual claims of mythicism as far as I can tell. He does the same kind of deck-stacking again and again in his short HuffPo piece (e.g., specifying Roman sources in his arguments, apparently requiring that said “Romans” be of pure Italian ancestry), which makes me reluctant to purchase his book, as much as I would like to have a solidly-written, well-argued case for the historicist position in my library.

    One problem the mythicist position has IMO is its name. In modern parlance, “myth” is synonymous with falsehood (e.g. “Mythbusters”). Thus, historicists assume that the mythicist model requires that somebody or some group sat down and “made up” a “Jesus myth” and then went around promulgating it. Ehrman’s HuffPo post again:

    This unusually vociferous group of nay-sayers maintains that Jesus is a myth invented for nefarious (or altruistic) purposes by the early Christians who modeled their savior along the lines of pagan divine men who, it is alleged, were also born of a virgin on Dec. 25, who also did miracles, who also died as an atonement for sin and were then raised from the dead.

    If I understand correctly, this is not what mythicists (especially the more credible ones like Doherty, Price, and Carrier) claim. From what I’ve read of JNGNM so far, the claim is that the earliest Christians believed that the existence and actions of the Christ came to them as divine revelation, “encoded” in the Scriptures and apprehended directly via mystical experience. “Christ Jesus” would have been perceived as something similar to a “channeled entity” in modern New Age circles (e.g. “Ramtha” or “Seth,” the “Jesus” of A Course in Miracles or “God” in the Conversations With God books. One or more (probably more) “channelers” producing “sayings” of the Christ could have sincerely believed in the validity of their mystical experiences and achieved notoriety in the early proto-Christian communities. These “sayings of Christ” could have been eventually compiled into “sayings sources” and then later, the sayings inserted into various narrative contexts in allegorical stories (parables, Gospels) and finally assumed to be the words of a physical Jesus on Earth. At no point is it necessary to assume that any of these people would think of their Christ as a “myth” in the sense that we use that word, or that any of them were deliberately “making it up.”

    I think “spiritualist” or “mysticalist” (or something along those lines) might be more accurate terms than “mythicist,” but we’re probably stuck with the latter.

    • 2012-03-31 19:23:52 UTC - 19:23 | Permalink

      Since Ehrman knows this argument is fallacious (as he must, since he rejects it when applied against his own position), why does he rework it and use it against mythicism?


      Oh how often does one see this fallacy dragged out when convenient to attack “mythicism”.

      As for the concept of “myth” in relation to “mythicism”, I recommend a discussion by Paul Louis Couchoud (not a “mythicist” but a “religious conceptionist”) who addressed this very point: Jesus: Neither Man Nor Myth.

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