A Strange Critique of Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

There has appeared recently a blogpost critiquing Doherty’s arguments as found on his Jesus Puzzle website. This post has gained some recognition by an Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University as “worth linking to” because it brings Koester into the “debate” and illustrates “so nicely why [the argument for a mythical Jesus] is problematic.”

The blog poster, Metacrock, quotes Doherty from his website:

“Scholars such as Helmut Koester have concluded that earlier “allusions” to Gospel-like material are likely floating traditions which themselves found their way into the written Gospels. (See Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels and his earlier Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den apostolischen Vatern.) Is it conceivable that the earliest account of Jesus’ life and death could have been committed to writing as early as 70 (or even earlier, as some would like to have it), and yet the broader Christian world took almost a century to receive copies of it? (Jesus Puzzle, part 3:Evolution of Jesus Of Nazareth”

Metacrock responds:

The problem is Koester himself says that people were writing Gospels as early AD 50.(Ancient Christian Gospels)
Moreover he’s already distorted what Koester says. Nowhere does he argue that the early Gospel traditions blew in from non Christian sources, or merely “floating traditions” that found their way in late.

This is a strange criticism. If Doherty had argued that the Gospels were written as early as AD 50 then his point about their lack of impact for such a long time would be even stronger. Metacrock is actually strengthening Doherty’s case with this criticism. Equally dismally, Metacrock has failed to notice that Doherty does indeed allow for his argument to include dates as early as 50 ce when he writes, “or even earlier, as some would like to have it”.

Secondly, Metacrock faults Doherty for apparently distorting what Koester says, and explains: “Nowhere does he argue that the early Gospel traditions blew in from non Christian sources”.

This is a most strange reading for someone who boasts that he is a PhD student. Doherty himself does not say that any “Gospel traditions”, floating or otherwise, blew in from “non-Christian sources”. That is really quite bizarre. Doherty’s whole argument is about the variety of Christian sources that went into the creation of the Gospels. (When Doherty does discuss “non-Christian sources” he identifies them as Josephus and Tacitus.)

Doherty certainly follows Koester and “scholars such as Koester” when they suggest that some Gospel material derived from ‘floating traditions’. I don’t have access at the moment to Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels and have never read the German work also referenced by Doherty, so I cannot comment on Metacrock’s claim that Koester himself only sees “floating traditions” applying to the post-resurrection narratives. But it hardly matters. It is scarcely a novel or controversial claim that the Gospel authors used some sayings or turns of phrase from what was “in the (church community’s) air”.

I wonder why anyone, especially a mainstream professor of religion, would link to such a critique as containing something “worth” contributing to the discussion.

More on Mythicism also addresses two posts of mine, E.P. Sanders’ test for authenticity of the sayings of Jesus and Engaging E. P. Sanders point by point: John the Baptist.

My post Assumptions of historicity happens to address James’ objections to what I wrote in those posts. Hopefully I have clarified there what I have been attempting to point out all along — and what I have cited other historians as also arguing — that external controls are necessary in order to establish the historical value of the narrative of a text. This is what we have in the case of Josephus, Livy, Thucydides, Curtius Rufus and other ancient historians, but what we don’t have in the case of the Gospels. To assume historicity without external controls is to fall into the trap of “establishing” historicity by circular reasoning.

As for James’ second objection that I failed to show how the Gospels “invented” the figure of John the Baptist. Of course, what I was addressing in that post was Sanders’ strong claim that certain details about John the Baptist “correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship.” So James’ objection is quite beside the point.

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0 thoughts on “A Strange Critique of Doherty”

  1. I think the circularity can be summed up pretty succinctly with the observation that, because we have nothing else to define them with, we define the NT by itself.

    Then, having defined it, we use that definition to engage the texts. We use the texts to define the texts, and then use that definition to assess them. By the time we get to where we are now, we’ve gone ’round the mulberry bush so many times that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s the only bush we’ve ever been on.

    I think it’s another double-edged sword though, because for mythicism to win the day–or even be treated as an equal contender–they need to establish a positive case. That, inevitably, falls into the same trap, and there’s the same circularity underpinning Earl’s argument.

    It’s another example, I think, of how the two positions are different in their conclusions, but are not fundamentally different in method. It’s one of the reasons Ian Hutchesson often gives to justify his agnositicism on the matter. While I generally make it a point to disagree with everything he says, I’m increasingly persuaded that on this point he’s right. Maybe we shouldn’t draw any conclusion at all.

  2. I’d be interested in your unpacking a little the circularity you see in Earl’s argument.

    The idea of a “positive case” is one often repeated but I suspect it’s missing the point of what the mythical Jesus idea really is. It’s not “a case” in the sense that Crossan presents “a case” for his particular historical Jesus. It’s a re-examination of the evidence and an invitation to have a re-look at the whole question of Christian origins. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame “mythicists” for not doing both. One is quite enough for any one person. But certainly there is a gap there, once that interpretation of the evidence is acknowledged. (But it’s not just an alternative interpretation, of course. It actually questions the very assumptions and methodologies of the traditional studies.)

    The danger is that if one does attempt to answer these new questions within the parameters of the new paradigm, it may be tempting for many to simply dismiss the paradigm if they find fault with one particular use of it. The paradigm itself needs to be established first. (Of course this is not how historical Jesus studies work. No attempt to reconstruct a historical Jesus has met with unanimous acceptance but no-one has questioned the paradigm itself. This ought, of course, be the natural thing to do after so many unsuccessful efforts to find a conclusive answer with this paradigm. But history and culture and all that. . .)

    Cultural baggage has blinded so many to the fact that their historical Jesus paradigm is without sound intellectual foundations. I see James McGrath’s latest post, for example, repeating his claim that the gospels narratives were set in their author’s recent past. He apparently fails to fully acknowledge that this is not a fact, but an inference based on a series of hypotheticals and a priori arguments. But such is the power of our cultural tyranny.

    There was a time I thought similarly to Ian H. But I also wonder if the idea that we “lack too much evidence” is itself a conclusion based on a certain “model” of Christian origins. What if the evidence we do have really does have the power to tell us a lot more than we expect. Maybe we too easily have limited it up to now because it has failed to answer the questions our present paradigm has been wanting to explore.

    But what if we first re-examine what we do have, and then see what questions we can validly ask of that – and proceed to find out where that approach leads?

    I think this approach potentially offers us much more insight into Christian origins (although along quite different narrative lines) than the current model has given us.

    It may not yield the absolutely final Truth. But we can only work with what we have, and keep everything tentative and open to new questions and explorations.

    1. I think we might be moving at cross purposes, so it might be helpful if I explain a little what I mean by the terms.

      What I mean by positive case is evidence in favour of mythicism, rather than evidence against historicity. I don’t mean a “case” in the sense we find in a Crossan or a Sanders. That’s an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s why Sanders was (for McGrath) such a bad example. You’re talking about how the foundation should be laid, he’s talking about how to decorate the living room. “Positive evidence” might be a better term.

      Doherty gives positive evidence. Despite Carrier, I am not persuaded that the argument from silence becomes a strong such piece of evidence on its own though. Or at all. But he cites things such as the language used in Hebrews, his interpretation of Minucius Felix, and so on. That is a positive case.

      The argument from silence has been beaten to hell. It’s the same discussions ten trillion times and it ultimately doesn’t matter at the end of the day, because I can explain the AFS from either side. 2Pet knows the gospels, and therefore the AFS is not inconsistent with either hypothesis.

      The other points–his positive case–are what can make or break the argument from silence, but the discussion never seems to move to them. Instead it’s the same debate about Rom.1.3, or the same ten thousand words on “brother of the lord.”

      I think for the conversation to move forward the historicist needs to grant that first point–“Okay, they’re silent. Now what?”

      That we haven’t owes, I think, to both parties. The historicist is unwilling to give up the point, and the mythicist (and Earl in particular) is unwilling to acknowledge that it doesn’t make a case on its own. If Earl, for example, quit cobbling together lists of 200 silences, many (most?) of which are half-assed anyway (he can refute, for example, his number 21–Rom.1.3-4 by reading the same Barrett commentary we find kata sarka in), and focussed instead on developing the other evidence, the entire case becomes stronger.

      Focussing instead on kata sarka, for example, does nothing. I know it’s possible. I don’t think it’s more plausible. There’s not much else to be said at this point. Build the case elsewhere it becomes more plausible.

      It’s one of the two points I see Doherty as most needing development on–the positive case from “spiritual language” and the like, and he needs to drop Q. A radical theory should be consistent with, but not reliant upon, the sayings source.

      I’ve drifted far afield here, though it may be helpful for a tentative historicist to explain where he sees the need for development, so there it is, I suppose. Back to the top now.

      The circularity I have in mind isn’t circularity in the sense that an argumentum ad nauseum is. It’s more fundamental than that. The framework we approach the texts with can only be defined by the texts themselves (and, of course, our own leanings, which we should be doing our level best to alleviate).

      Thus, for example, Doherty suggests Paul is writing with a given purpose, and that given purpose would benefit from a “sound” when we only hear silence, it’s a point in his favor. But what is that expectation based on?

      It’s based on a purpose he inferred from the texts. A purpose that could be right, or could be fundamentally wrong. We don’t have the control to check it against. We don’t know what the earliest Christian missionaries did, we don’t know what earliest Christian liturgy looked like. We don’t know. . .we could go on all day.

      We don’t know how the early religion functioned, beyond the basest levels, and even those we argue about (just check any discussion on justification).

      Consequently, we can’t define any of the texts by anything except themselves. The NT defines the NT. And then we exegete based on that definition.

      I agree with your conclusion (and disagree with Ian H.), that we can proceed from asking new questions. That we need to start largely from scratch, and that we can (tentatively) attempt to answer those questions. But I don’t know how far we can go with that. How many steps we can take before we’re overstating our evidence, even if we speak provisionally.

      I’m not sure, at the present point at least, that the question can be answered. It’s not that I think both positions are equally good, on the contrary, it’s that I think both are equally ill-supported.

      1. Is there anyone else you would think a better candidate than E. P. Sanders, then?

        As for the circularity, rather than address your views on the argument from silence, is not Doherty’s case built on references to fewer hypotheses than the historicist one, and on more references to external controls for the interpretations given?

        (sorry for the delay in replying — you gave me too much to think about to allow me a quick response 🙂

  3. Equally dismally, Metacrock has failed to notice that Doherty does indeed allow for his argument to include dates as early as 50 ce when he writes, “or even earlier, as some would like to have it”.

    Does he write that in his new book? One of things that I am tracking are the dates Doherty proposes for early writings, so I’d be interested if Doherty put that in his new book. Some dates I have noted:

    * GMark dated in the 90s CE (p 404) and GMatthew and GLuke “within the first two decades of the 2nd century”
    * Papias (whom Doherty lists as living from 60 CE — 140 CE in the Appendix) is dated between 110 and 140 CE. (p 466)
    * 1 Peter and the three Johns perhaps in the 80s or 90s (p 17)
    * 2 Peter dated between 100-130 CE (p 17)
    * 1 Clement “early in the 2nd century” (p 296)
    * Theophilus of Antioch is 180 CE, though Doherty thinks it may be earlier (p 695)
    * “Ignatius” perhaps in the 120s or even 130s (p 695)
    * Doherty sees Q developing from oral tradition and within a “Q community” around 50 CE (p 361), with Q1 possibly inspired by Cynic philosophical sayings. He sees some parts of Q2 as possibly post-70 CE (page 403)
    * Thomas draws from Q, with final redaction probably towards the middle of the Second Century (p 362)

  4. The Gospels set their story in the time Caiaphas was high priest and Pontius Pilate was prefect. And so one cannot date them much earlier than they are usually dated without attributing to them a prophetic ability that I doubt either of us wants to. And one cannot move them much later without bumping up against not only later works that seem to know them, but also later issues that writers in the second century mention but the Gospels fail to. And so I don’t see major problems with the range of possible dates that are standard in textbooks.

    My point about John the Baptist was that you expressed yourself in such a way as to sound like you were denying any historical memory or tradition. But unless you want to suggest that the Gospel authors read Josephus, then there seems to be good reason to think that they knew of there having been a John the baptist, and that they filled in details about him from Scripture and from their own imagination. In other words, much what mainstream historians think they did with Jesus. And so my main point was that it seems that one can argue pretty much the same way about John and about Jesus. The same sorts of overlaps and intersections with Josephus are arguably there, the same sorts of Scripturally-derived creativity is evidenced. And so it isn’t clear to me why one would accept the existence of one and deny the existence of the other. Jesus at least gets a mention in Paul’s letters, after all! 🙂

  5. How do we know that the Jesus described in the Gospels was the one Paul is talking about? He warns about people preaching another Jesus. What historical methodology allows us to equate the two?

  6. (Addressing James McGrath above)

    Having read Doherty’s reasons for his dating of Mark (and its implication for Matthew and Luke) I find his arguments tie together a wider range of the internal and external evidence than does the traditional 70 date.

    ETA: (But the point here that Metacrock and GakuseiDon appear to be missing is that Doherty is well aware of proposed earlier dates, and his rhetorical point is actually strengthened by earlier dates. It would be to Doherty’s advantage if he did accept the 70 date, just as several have pointed out it would be to his advantage if he ditched Q. But he knows that’s not the way to argue a case with any sort of intellectual integrity.)

    As for how I expressed myself about John the Baptist, you are correct. The Gospels’ John the Baptist is a literary construct. Whatever figure there may have been in history has been replaced by a “new creation” in the Gospels. We can identify the sources of the sinews and transplanted organs. The end result is that “any resemblance to any actual person living or dead is purely coincidental” — and hence irrelevant.

    (Doesn’t mean I still can’t have a legitimate interest in the Mandeans or other early JB sects. And besides, I find the evidence for JB’s historicity also problematic, but I’m willing to go along with it for the sake of the argument. I don’t deny his historicity, but I do have strong doubts.)

    I fail to see any defensible rationale for what mainstream historians think the evangelists did with Jesus. What they think is based on circular reasoning.

    The Jesus of the Gospels is only one of the Jesus’s among early Christianities. And this Gospel Jesus is, like JB, also a ‘scripturally derived creation’. How this Jesus came together is the interesting question. I have no defensible justification for introducing a historical person (notwithstanding Josephus and Paul), so I work with the evidence we do have and see where that leads. Doherty has taken some significant steps in one direction. Much more needs to be done. It’s all unchartered territory.

    If we do introduce some historical person to “explain” the Gospel Jesus then our problems really multiply when we attempt to explain the Gospel portrayal of that person, and the presumed portrayal of him in the epistles. We suspect Jews of having some reluctance to deify mortals.

    1. Neil wrote:

      “If we do introduce some historical person to “explain” the Gospel Jesus then our problems really multiply when we attempt to explain the Gospel portrayal of that person, and the presumed portrayal of him in the epistles. We suspect Jews of having some reluctance to deify mortals.”

      If there is some deification process within the gospel account re Jesus, all that process relates to is Jesus ie the mythological figure. To assume that this process was also attributed to some historical figure that might have been inspirational to the early Christians is, methinks, not a necessary step to be taking. Particularly so, as such a deification of a human figure would, seemingly, have been so alien to Jewish culture. Consequently, ideas of a historical Jesus that was mythologized and deified is something that would be an abomination to Jewish thought. However, an historical inspirational figure that inspired a mythological Jesus construct – is an entirely different ball game….And one that keeps in focus the integrity of early Jewish Christians.

      History is one thing. Interpretation of that history something else. Hence, any historical figure that was important to the early Christians, any historical figure that might have inspired a new perspective re theology, prophecy or philosophy, would, at the very most, only warrant a dim reflection in any mythology storyboard that was created. To equate the mythological storyline with a specific historical figure is to attempt to concertize it – and thus to loose any theological or prophetic insights that it was designed to reflect. The ‘saving power’ within the Jesus mythology is not a historical figure – the ‘power’ is the ideas that are entwined within that mythology – theological or philosophical ideas. The Word became flesh – the idea became reality – ideas become us, they change who we are and they change our future and our world.

      Perhaps, rather than the continual debate re Jesus – historical verse mythicist positions – a far more relevant issue is trying to determine early Christian history. Here again, the historicists and the mythicist have two opposing positions – but two positions that are fundamentally in agreement!. Some mythicists seem to go with the idea that order came out of chaos – with Paul charging in on his white horse to put everyone on the straight and narrow path. The historicist are saying that straight and narrow path was already indicated some time earlier by a historical Jesus. Both positions are placing the turning point with one figure, either Paul or the gospel Jesus. If mythicists can see Paul in this light – then they have already conceded the point – that early Christianity owes its jump start to the ideas of one man. It is surely not a big jump from that to the idea of a man earlier than Paul who did the same thing – provide others with ideas that became foundational in their own lives.
      Especially so since Paul himself tells us he was a latecomer to the party.

      The fundamental issue is not did the gospel Jesus exist – the real issue is the historical time period relevant to the gospel story. The gospels have interpreted that history re prophecy and spirituality concerns. Consequently, one cannot simply work from an interpretation and expect to find a clear historical picture. Likewise, a clear historical picture does not equate with the gospel story’ interpretation of that history.

      A clear historical picture, for argument a picture of a historical inspirational figure, can provide an anchor of sorts, a point from which things can develop, move forward etc. Without an anchor in reality ideas are simply floating abstractions. Without an anchor in history, prophecy is, likewise, meaningless. That is, basically, the gospel’s answer to the Gnostics – ie real time please….

  7. But the point here that Metacrock and GakuseiDon appear to be missing is that Doherty is well aware of proposed earlier dates…

    Er, I wasn’t making a point, just asking where “Doherty does indeed allow for his argument to include dates as early as 50 ce”. I found something like that on p 404 of his book, but it’s not the same, so I was wondering if I’d missed it.

  8. Neil wrote. . .Is there anyone else you would think a better candidate than E. P. Sanders, then?

    Unfortunately I can’t think of any good candidate at all. Nobody has really addressed the question in the light of Doherty’s hypothesis, and any other answer is going to come up short. It is, as I noted in the comments on my ‘blog, to the historicist’s discredit that this is the case.

    You might be better off to see how Roman historians who conclude in favour of Romulus’ historicity (and there are a lot more of them than you might think–surprised the hell out of me!). But the problem there is that most refute their own arguments. They not only allow for the possibility that they’re wrong, they explain why they might be.

    Neil wrote. . .As for the circularity, rather than address your views on the argument from silence, is not Doherty’s case built on references to fewer hypotheses than the historicist one, and on more references to external controls for the interpretations given?

    I think this depends on who you’re comparing him to. Relative to a Crossan, a Meier, even a Sanders? Absolutely it’s true. They overstate their evidence hugely, and then back it up with their presuppositions. Even Schweitzer fell prey to that, after acknowledging the danger.

    But those who have engaged Earl more directly, such as some of the better discussions on the FRDB, the Jesus Mysteries list, or even XTalk on the rare moments (when he posted there) that people got past the polemic? I’m not sure about that one. Engaging his hypothesis forces the historicist “back to the basics” so to speak.

    I think we need to be careful about implications surrounding who is doing “history” or not and other such insinuations. In the huge majority of instances it has to be both or neither. The same rules, embarrassingly lax as they might be, are being used both ways.

  9. In response to part one of your comment, what this reinforces for me is that the basics have never really been methodically examined in Jesus studies at all — not just in response to Doherty. The closest exception might be the Dutch radicals? Whenever an academic has proclaimed that “Jesus mythicism” has been rebutted long ago and over and over, I ask for where I can read one of those rebuttals. If I’m lucky I get 2 or 3 references that, when I check, are more dot point slogans than arguments. They have failed to address the real points of “mythicism” as far as I can see. Not just in relation to Doherty, but also going back to Drews and co.

    By circularity I’m thinking strictly of the logical fallacy. Maybe I am missing something in what you are saying. But I don’t see the circularity in Doherty’s argument. But willing to consider if you address it. (Apols if I have missed your reference till now.)

    As for “doing history”, I am thinking primarily in terms of evaluation of primary and secondary evidence — in this case documentary or textual evidence; and working from that point up. By that I mean not approaching the evidence with any presuppositions about narratives etc. I simply don’t see that in Jesus studies. The assumptions are brought into the documents before the analysis really begins. This is why I keep coming back to “cultural baggage”. I don’t see it as a distinctly faith thing. It’s as much a part of the thinking of atheist scholars. It’s a cultural thing before anything else.

    1. I’m not sure that it’s entirely accurate to say that Drews hasn’t been addressed at all. His argument perhaps didn’t get many point by point addresses, but Drews fails because his sources fail–the history of religions school he built so much of his argument on is dead. Perhaps Drews got the right answer, but he got it for largely the wrong reasons. I’d agree he didn’t get treated as seriously as he should have (though he was leagues ahead of Doherty in terms of how seriously he was taken; again, to the historicist’s discredit).

      I think that is where we’re moving at cross purposes, I’m not speaking in terms of the logical fallacy. I’m speaking more about what you address in your third paragraph. The problem when dealing exclusively with texts is that everyone has to bring some sort of presuppositions to the table. They have to, since texts make no sense without an interpretive framework.

      Either that framework is born from the texts (which is the circularity I have in mind), or that framework comes to the texts (which is the presupposition you speak of). But it has to come from one of those places.

      That problem can be alleviated somewhat by the nature of the material–even without other evidence there’s a world of difference between a text like Caesar’s Civil Wars, or the Res Gestae and the gospels. But the gospels are about the most muddled type of textual evidence we can be left with.

      Which is where I find myself increasingly in sympathy with Hutchesson. If we could truly approach the texts entirely without presupposition, is there enough there to actually, objectively, justify a conclusion? I’m not sure.

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