Ehrman’s Most Bizarre Criticism Of All Against Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman’s attempt to deal with Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, is “filled with so many unguarded and undocumented statements and claims, and so many misstatements of fact, that it would take a [book three times the size] to deal with all the problems.”

I have quoted Ehrman’s own words to describe Doherty’s book and turned them against Ehrman himself. In the paragraph following that description Ehrman flagrantly misquotes Doherty to falsely accuse him of claiming that there was only a single world-view among the ancients. I addressed this in detail in my first post of this series.

From this point on Ehrman continues to demonstrate that he has simply failed to read much of the book he claims to be reviewing. As part of his effort to dismiss Doherty’s argument that Paul’s Christ had no earthly context, Ehrman accuses Doherty of asserting, without any evidence, that the mystery religions at the time of early Christianity “were at heart Platonic”:

What evidence does Doherty cite to show that mystery religions were at heart Platonic? Precisely none. (p. 192, Did Jesus Exist?)

But he [Doherty] then asserts that they [the mystery cults] thought like the later Platonist Plutarch. . . . 

Quite oblivious to everything Doherty wrote on the matter, Ehrman attempts to refute what he (wrongly) says is Doherty’s argument by explaining the very things Doherty himself points out in his book. That is, Doherty has argued that the beliefs of the mystery cults were for most part very probably unlike the philosophical views of the day and then offers the reasons for this judgement. Ehrman bizarrely says Doherty argues the very opposite of what he does, that the mystery cults thought like the philosophers of the day. He then proceeds to explain how it really was, and then presents Doherty’s argument as if it were his own and as if he is explaining what Doherty should have written! But what he thinks is his own argument against Doherty is exactly what Doherty did write! This is most bizarre!

Here are Ehrman’s “corrective” statements he obviously thinks (wrongly) that Doherty “should” have understood:

And it is highly unlikely that adherents of the mystery cults (even if we could lump them all together) thought like one of the greatest intellectuals of their day (Plutarch). Very rarely do common people think about the world the way upper-class, highly educated, elite philosophers do. . . .

In the case of someone like Plutarch there is, in fact, convincing counterevidence. Philosophers like Plutarch commonly took on the task of explaining away popular beliefs by allegorizing them, to show that despite what average people naively believed, for example, about the gods and the myths told about them, these tales held deeper philosophical truths. The entire enterprise of philosophical reflection on ancient mythology was rooted precisely in the widely accepted fact that common people did not look at the world, or its myths, in the same way the philosophers did. Elite philosophers tried to show that the myths accepted by others were emblematic of deeper spiritual truths. (p. 192)

One can only read this and shake one’s head in dismay. Doherty himself has written just that! Where was Ehrman’s mind when he was turning the pages that contained the following paragraphs?

Even the traditional religious myths which took shape in ancient society tended to be chaotic and lacking any sense of what we would call the rational and comprehensible (for example, Dionysos born from Zeus’ thigh). Yet such features were still looked upon as ‘real’, however illogical they may seem to us; they were allegorized only by the intelligentsia. If pressed, average devotees might have been mightily exercised to define exactly how they saw the stories Attis, Dionysos and Mithras unfolding in their world of myth, let alone to provide a location for them. (p. 155, JNGM)

This is highly esoteric stuff, almost unintelligible to the modern mind . . . which only the philosopher may have thought to understand. . . .  It tells us that in philosophical circles, and from the time of Plutarch, an application of the myths to a primordial earth setting was no longer in vogue. This may or may not give us a definite picture of how all the devotees of the cults looked upon such things, but it demonstrates that the thinking of the era had moved in an upward direction, and we have no contrary evidence to suggest that the interpretation of the myths in the cults as a whole did not follow. . . . In contrast with the philosophers, however, it can hardly be thought that the entire membership of the cults, even if following their lead into the upper world, went so far as to reduce the myths to pure allegory, things that never happened as described. The priests and even some male devotees of Attis literally castrated themselves, amputating their genitalia in a fit of devotional frenzy, this in emulation of Attis himself whose myth had him performing the original act. Would something viewed as mere allegory have been capable of prompting such an imitation? (p. 149)

We know that some philosophers rejected literality and saw such things as allegory for spiritual processes otherwise indefinable. (p. 145)

Nor would legends like those of Heracles or the Olympian gods interacting on earth with human beings have undergone a Platonic shift to some spiritual dimension. (p. 146)

But this does not tell us how the myths were understood within the context of the cults that were founded on their raw material. The myth of Egyptian Isis and Osiris had long predated the Hellenistic salvation cult which evolved later. (The native Egyptian cult of Osiris going back into the Old Kingdom was not a “mystery cult” in the later sense of the term, and of course owed nothing to Hellenism or Platonism.) But not everyone knew the understanding of that myth as conceived by the Hellenistic cult of Osiris, and any writer not in the latter group, or not choosing to address it—as Plutarch did—would have had no reason to present the myth in any other than the traditional way. In fact, anyone was essentially forbidden to do so.

This is the main reason why we are groping in the dark to try to understand how the savior god myths were conceived within the cults. We have virtually no writings of the period on the subject to reflect those conceptions. Plutarch (end of the 1st century) is almost our only source from the turn of the era, and we must work through his personal disposition to render it all allegorical. (p. 146)

Notice in the last line that Doherty is saying it is the allegorical interpretations of the myths by the philosopher Plutarch that makes it difficult for us to discern what was the thinking within the cults.

Ehrman makes it worse by also saying the he agrees with Doherty when he (supposedly) says we do not know what the mystery cults thought, Period. There is much we don’t know but we do know some things that are found in any text on the history of the period, such as their interpretation of traditional myths in ways that opened the way for personal salvation for initiates.

When, in his second edition, Doherty admits that we do not know what the followers of the mystery cults thought, he is absolutely correct. We do not know. But he then asserts that they thought like the later Platonist Plutarch. How can he have it both ways? Either we know how they thought or we do not.

As shown above Doherty does not assert the followers of the mysteries “thought like the later Platonist Plutarch” at all. Doherty even writes, as I have shown above, that it is Plutarch’s allegorizing that makes it extremely difficult for us to know what the average cult initiate thought.

Ehrman adds to his obvious failure to have seriously read Doherty’s book this bit of illogical nonsense:

[Doherty] admits that in fact we do not know if that is true and that we do not have any reflections on such things by any of the cult devotees themselves since we don’t have a single writing from any of the adherents of the ancient mystery cults. Yet he still insists that philosophers under the influence of Plato—such as Plutarch, whom we have met—certainly interpreted things this way. (my emphasis)

That is, Doherty says we don’t know the details of what the cult devotees thought [but Ehrman still castigates him for supposedly saying they thought like the philosophers of the day as if Doherty is the one contradicting himself] and then follows with the meaningless non sequitur that Doherty says philosophers under the influence of Plato thought in a Platonic way! Perhaps one might excuse Ehrman for assuming that in this case the philosopher was also a mystery cult initiate, but that’s not how he argues subsequently for a clear distinction between the thinking of the philosophers cult devotees.

Against this clear evidence of Ehrman’s failure to have done anything more than merely skim sections of Doherty’s book, we have the curious indication that he does know the contents of Doherty’s first edition of this book, The Jesus Puzzle, well enough to draw comparisons between Doherty’s thinking in the two works.  Did he have time to read the first book and to see where Doherty revised some of his presentation in the second volume, but failed to read what Doherty in fact wrote in the second volume? This is strange indeed. One might almost suspect that Ehrman was being fed arguments from a hostile critic of Doherty whom he fails to acknowledge in his preface. But I’m sure Ehrman is a lot more scholarly than to rely on anything but his own diligent research and that the best explanation is that Ehrman was under such enormous pressures that he simply had to take short-cuts and skip pages — after first catching up with Doherty’s earlier book.

What Doherty Does Argue

Nowhere does Doherty claim that we know how the mystery cults interpreted their myths. Rather, he says we have no clear evidence for what they believed. All standard text-book stuff. What he does argue is that we have certain evidence about the cults which could lead us to deduce that at least to some degree their interpretation of their myths was influenced by Platonism. Doherty presents that evidence and deductive argument.

Bold type within the main body of text is my own to draw attention to the key points that Ehrman obviously failed to read:

The Nature of the Mystery Cult Myths

The exact interpretations of the mystery cult myths during the period when Christianity was developing, the stories of gods like Osiris, Attis, Mithras, Dionysos whose acts provided personal salvation to their devotees (to be looked at in detail in the next chapter), are hard to pin down. We possess virtually no writings about the mysteries which explain the meaning of the myths themselves, since this was forbidden; certainly none from the average believer or apostle of the cults. What we have are a few writings by philosophers who seek to impose an allegorical interpretation on the myths. Plutarch is the most notable, virtually the only one from the turn of the era period, which is why we rely so much on his Isis and Osiris with its discussion of the myths of the Egyptian savior deities. Other hints and deductions which can be derived from archeological remains, such as the Mithraic monuments, can also be informative.

Plutarch, as we shall see, provides indications that Platonic-type renderings of the Osiris myth envisioned a heavenly location for it. But such myths, for the most part, had begun as primordial myths, stories set in a distant or primeval time on earth. In that form they had the weight of centuries behind them, and when Platonism became dominant they were not likely to undergo an immediate and universal recasting into a new heavenly context; nor would everyone, from philosopher to devotee-in-the-street, shift to understanding and talking about their myths in such a revised setting. The changeover in the mind of the average person may well have been imperfect, just as modern science has effected a rethinking of past literal and naïve views toward elements of the bible in the direction of the spiritual and symbolic, but in an incomplete and varied fashion across our religious culture as a whole.

What we do know is that the philosophers whose writings have come down to us did in fact transplant the myths and it was under the influence of Platonism. They transplanted them from a primordial time to a supernatural dimension, turning them into allegories of cosmic forces and spiritual processes. For them, the religious myths now symbolized things that happened beyond earth. And if that transplanting is the trend to be seen in the surviving writings on the subject, it is very likely that a similar process took place to some degree in the broader world of the devotee and officiant of the mysteries; it cannot be dismissed simply as an isolated elitist phenomenon. In fact, that very cosmological shift of setting can be seen in many of the Jewish intertestamental writings, presenting divine figures and salvific forces operating in the spiritual realm of the heavens, as in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah and other writings to be examined; in the New Testament itself, the Epistle to the Hebrews presents a spiritual sacrifice by Christ in a heavenly sanctuary.

This general shift to a vertical salvation process between heaven and earth from the older horizontal one between primordial past and present, a shift from a mythical time on earth to a mythical, spiritual world beyond the earth, needs to be applied as an interpretive tool to the early Christian record, especially given that this record has nothing to say about a life and death of Christ in an historical earthly setting. This is not to say that such an interpretation of Christian myth is dependent on establishing the same thing in regard to the mystery cults. Rather, the latter will provide corroboration and a wider context in which to understand and set the conclusions which can be drawn from the early Christian writings themselves. It is that early Christian record which reveals the nature of the original Christian belief in a heavenly Christ.

From page 114, not the words “postulating” and “we have suggestions” and contrast with Ehrman’s claim that Doherty merely “asserts”:

The savior god myths began as stories set in a distant or primordial time on earth. But in postulating their conversion to a more Platonic interpretation in the initial Christian period, we find indicators of a new, vertical thinking emerging. Plutarch equates the savior god Osiris with the Logos, and sees him as a symbol of the Logos’ activity as ‘immanent’ in the world, in the sense of it being an intermediary between the highest sphere of the timeless changeless God and the sphere of temporal changing matter. This is akin to the idea of the descending redeemer and of the cultic savior who operates in some lower celestial sphere impinging on the material world. The 4th century philosopher Sallustius regards the myths of savior gods like Attis as allegories of “timeless processes.” He calls the story of Attis “an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event of the past” (On Gods and the World, 9), which places his understanding in a timeless spiritual realm. Similarly, his mentor, the emperor Julian the Apostate, describes (Orations V, 165) Attis’ descent to the lowest spiritual level prior to matter, undergoing his death by castration to give the visible material world order and fruitfulness; he regards this as a symbol of the annual cycle of agricultural rebirth, the generative power which descends into the earth from the upper regions of the stars. Thus, we have suggestions in pagan literature of the concept of the descending god in the mystery cults’ interpretations of their myths.

To expand on a quotation I included above from pages 145-6:

In such an atmosphere, it is probably safe to assume that the mystery cult myths were carried along by the spirit of the times and were envisioned as taking place in a similarly ‘mythical’ dimension. But an important distinction must be made here. It is the religious context in which we would expect this transplanting to happen. Most of the savior god myths preceded the formation of the cults that came to surround them, even before they were styled ‘savior gods.’ What the Hellenistic salvation cults growing out of the old myths brought to them was a new or evolved interpretation of their meaning, a secret understanding which conveyed insight and consequent advantages both in this life and the next.


But this does not tell us how the myths were understood within the context of the cults that were founded on their raw material. The myth of Egyptian Isis and Osiris had long predated the Hellenistic salvation cult which evolved later. (The native Egyptian cult of Osiris going back into the Old Kingdom was not a “mystery cult” in the later sense of the term, and of course owed nothing to Hellenism or Platonism.) But not everyone knew the understanding of that myth as conceived by the Hellenistic cult of Osiris, and any writer not in the latter group, or not choosing to address it—as Plutarch did—would have had no reason to present the myth in any other than the traditional way. In fact, anyone was essentially forbidden to do so.

This is the main reason why we are groping in the dark to try to understand how the savior god myths were conceived within the cults. We have virtually no writings of the period on the subject to reflect those conceptions. Plutarch (end of the 1st century) is almost our only source from the turn of the era, and we must work through his personal disposition to render it all allegorical.

And one more from page 152:

For the ancients . . . much of the world around them was mysterious; fantastic views of reality abounded. . . . The ancient mind would have had no reason to think that such-and-such was impossible, that certain things could not exist and go on in the unseen spiritual realm. If gods lived in the upper part of the universe, there was no impediment to thinking that they could do things there. Since the gods were essentially anthropomorphic, it was feasible that they could do anthropomorphic things in geomorphic circumstances.

To paraphrase Doherty’s words from elsewhere, what he has done is no more than suggest that we may deduce some degree of likelihood that the mystery cult myth interpretations within the cults themselves took a Platonic turn. To this extent Doherty argues that it is plausible to think that the mystery cults viewed salvation as being effected by gods from above rather than from a primordial past. He cites a shift in the thinking of the elites, certain archaeological evidence in relation to the Mithraic mysteries and Jewish sectarian literature as evidence of this shift. Certainly his interpretation of Paul’s heavenly Christ does not stand or fall on being certain about that possibility, since certainty is indeed not possible. But an argued possibility of corroboration from the cults is a legitimate exercise, and is definitely based on evidence he has put forward. 

For Ehrman to declare that Doherty merely asserts without argument a shift in thinking in the way the myths were interpreted, and to even state that Doherty claims the mystery cult devotees entirely thought like philosophers, is blatant and unconscionable misrepresentation.

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  • Manoj Joseph
    2012-04-02 03:40:40 UTC - 03:40 | Permalink

    I was reading Ehrman’s book as well.

    Building on Ehrman’s line of thinking in seeing independent traditions all over the place, I would say that we have two independent traditions about the mystery religions in Ehrman’s and Doherty’s books.

    In fact, if you think about it, we have three independent traditions! The common phrases (or Q), Ehrman’s own (or E) and Doherty’s (or D). And evidently, Q, E and D go back to the 30s CE.


  • 2012-04-04 03:50:07 UTC - 03:50 | Permalink

    It’s obvious that Ehrman and Doherty agree that faith in Jesus Christ is unwarranted and worthy of intellectual assault. They just go about the assault in different ways. Here’s how Ehrman puts it in his book’s conclusion:

    “In my view humanists, agnostics, atheists, mythicists, and anyone else who does not advocate belief in Jesus would be better served to stress that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of modern Christianity than to insist—wrongly and counterproductively—that Jesus never existed. Jesus did exist. He simply was not the person that most modern believers today think he was.”

    Ehrman is thus embarrassed to be associated with the mythicists – in the same way that either political party would be embarrassed to have flat-earthers among them – and the book is Ehrman’s means of distancing himself.

    In the end, however, Ehrman agrees with Doherty on what matters most.

    • 2012-04-04 16:12:46 UTC - 16:12 | Permalink

      Mike: “. . . Ehrman agrees with Doherty on what matters most.”

      That depends on what you believe matters most. For me, it’s personal integrity and honor, not whether somebody believes in some supernatural god-man.

      From that perspective, I’ll side with Earl.

      • 2012-04-04 18:51:17 UTC - 18:51 | Permalink

        Tim, are you saying that someone who believes in Jesus Christ cannot be doing so out of personal integrity and honor?

        • 2012-04-05 01:29:49 UTC - 01:29 | Permalink

          Not at all. I’m saying that Dr. Ehrman has written a book that is riddled with errors. I know from listening to the Bible Geek podcast that Robert M. Price had given Bart a list of several sources for researching mythicism. It would have been quite easy for Bart to send a copy of the book to Price and Ehrman to see if there were any factual errors he should correct — and we know there are many. He chose not to, because this is first and foremost a hit piece.

          • 2012-04-05 03:34:04 UTC - 03:34 | Permalink

            Tim, I can think of no one who has endured more hit pieces than Jesus of Nazareth.

  • James the Least
    2012-04-17 12:05:31 UTC - 12:05 | Permalink

    According to Robert M. Price, on his April 12 Bible Geek podcast, Ehrman didn’t read the Mythicist books. He just had some of his students read them and write summaries for him.

    • 2012-04-17 12:16:30 UTC - 12:16 | Permalink

      I have just emailed Dr Ehrman to ask him for confirmation that this rumour is not true. I assured him I would post his reply here.

    • 2012-04-17 16:38:53 UTC - 16:38 | Permalink

      Is there a reference to this please? At what time on what broadcast?

      On Price’s web page, I can only find references to Bart Ehrman on the April 16 broadcast.

  • Joseph
    2012-04-17 19:23:09 UTC - 19:23 | Permalink
    • 2012-04-17 23:47:12 UTC - 23:47 | Permalink

      on 16 April Bible Geek podcast, Price claims at about the 28 minute mark that Ehrman has responded that it is common procedure to get graduate students to read the books.

  • Pingback: Bart Ehrman assures us he read all the mythicist books himself — “very carefully” « Vridar

  • Albert Vollbehr
    2012-09-09 16:21:35 UTC - 16:21 | Permalink

    Thank you very much for this detailed analysis and pointing out serious flaws in Ehrman’s comments on Doherty. An excellent job.

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