Introduction to Earl Doherty

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by Neil Godfrey

I recently received Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. The Case for a Mythical Jesus, and have finally caught up with a chance to begin reading it. It may take a little while since I have a vicious habit of reading several things at once and a need to attend to real life occupations at the same time. But I have made a start by reading the Introduction and have been reminded why I have in the past found exchanges with Doherty both informative and stimulating gateways to knew perspectives. We often disagree, but then again I also tend to find I disagree with myself when I take a re-look at what I wrote a year or more ago.

I cite here a few quotations from Doherty’s introduction to his new book that make me look forward to entering new explorations of the evidence with him, and no doubt in dialogue with him, as I read further.

First, however, I might remark that I do not see this particular question — the existence or otherwise of Jesus — as a historical question. It is certainly important for history, but my personal interest is in engaging with the arguments and evidence presented by Doherty with a view to seeing how they might fit in the broader (and more historical) question of Christian origins. Doherty is certainly essential reading for that question. But his focus is, naturally and justifiably, primarily on the cultural question of the origin of what is possibly our central icon.

Enough preliminaries. On to a selection of quotations with a few comments. . . .

Gospels versus Epistles

If we did not read Gospel associations into what Paul and the [other New Testament epistle authors] say about their Christ Jesus, we could not even tell that this figure, the object of their worship, was a man who had recently lived in Palestine and had been executed by the Roman authorities with the help of a hostile Jewish establishment.

Could this be because they are not in fact speaking of any such figure? Could it be that if we remove those Gospel-colored glasses when reading early Christian writers, we would find that all of them, Paul especially, have been telling us in plain and unmistakable terms exactly what the earliest Christians did believe in, and what the Christ they all worshiped really was? (p. 2)

This is where we seem to find the most trenchant disagreements between those arguing for a historical and those for a mythical Jesus figure. Interpretations of Paul’s letters are often made, perhaps unconsciously, with the Gospel and Acts models in mind.

Diffuse strands coming together in the first Gospel

Yet to use the term “Christianity” or a phrase like “the Christian movement” is fundamentally misleading. It implies that the phenomenon being studied was a single entity, something unified, that it began in a particular location out of an identifiable set of circumstances and events. It also implies . . . that it was all set in motion by a specific historical figure, Jesus the Christ, and by the actions of those who responded to him. But such a picture evolved only later. In reality, “Christianity” in its beginnings was much more diffuse. It was made up of several unrelated strands of activity within the religious philosophy and culture of the time, strands which lacked any common point or figure of origin. Only through a unique set of circumstances did all of those strands come together to produce the picture of Christian origins which the world has envisioned for so long.

The focal point of that coming together was the first Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, which created the figure of Jesus of Nazareth and made him the personification of all the preceding strands. (pp.2-3)

Doherty posits two broad strands from which Christianity emerged. One was a preaching movement around Galilee from which the Q document emerged. Another set of such “Christian” strands in the eastern Roman empire was propagated by preachers of “a heavenly Son and emanation of God who was both an intermediary between God and the world, and a Savior figure.”

This Son and Savior was not identified with a recent human man or place in an earthly setting, much less given a ministry of teaching and miracle-working in Galilee. . . . He bore strong resemblance to two important expressions of the time. One was a philosophical idea we may call “the intermediary Son,” a spiritual emanation of God and a spirit channel between him and humanity; this was the dominant philosophical-religious concept of the Hellenistic age. The second resemblance was to a wide range of pagan savior gods found in the “mysteries,” the dominant form of popular religion in this period, going back to ancient roots. (p. 4)

I am not really sold on the Galilee origins of even one of the strands that was entwined to become what we recognize as Christianity today. (Presumably this Galilee origin is tied to the acceptance of the Q document.) I still tend to see Galilee as one of the metaphorical settings for the Gospel narrative. (The other being Jerusalem, of course). I keep wondering about Syria and even Asia Minor as more likely places of origin of the narrative that came to be set in Galilee. But I’m interested to hear what Doherty has to say nonetheless.

Tyranny of the Gospels and Acts

The point to be made is that the Gospels and Acts form only one small portion of the early Christian record. . . .

And yet, the picture created by this minority subset of authors has been allowed to dominate the rest of the scene. Its shadow has been so magnified it falls over everything else; its ideas determine the interpretation of all else in the record. Scholars and believers alike view the world of early Christianity through the prism of a narrow handful of inbred writings, and it has distorted all that they see. (p.7)

I began to be weaned off this tyranny some years ago, and it is difficult to always appreciate the sway it holds over others when attempting to discuss pre-Gospel sources.

Something must have happened!

In response to the commonly expressed argument that “something must have happened” after the crucifixion of Jesus, something that persuaded the followers of Jesus to carry their faith in him throughout the known world, and that with such conviction and power that they won thousands of followers from among Jews and Gentiles within a few years.

Such a claim is only possible because we are so in thrall to the Gospel scenario and the distortion of early Christianity it created that we are unable to envision an alternative. We fail to recognize the much broader and more complex picture revealed by the non-Gospel record which can explain how the movement came into being and developed without the “Big Bang” requirement governed by the Gospels and Acts. (p. 7)

Here the Christian faith’s need for history surfaces. Even many liberal Christians hang their faith on “something having happened”. Is it really possible for faith and disinterested research to hold together at this point?

No need to be embarrassed

The [Gospel] story took time to develop, to be accepted as an historical account; it became a backward projection onto a misunderstood and disconnected past. No one ever preached it out of the blue, and no one accepted it that way. One need not worry about the so-called “criterion of embarrassment,” which maintains that since no one would make up such an embarrassing and disgraceful scenario as the leader of one’s movement being executed as a common criminal, it must have actually happened that way. (p.8)

Here is another area where I find myself not knowing if or how to answer the “criterion of embarrassment” claim for historicity. I have long been persuaded by Doherty’s point here about the more natural explanation (see below) not allowing for any room for this sort of embarrassment along the way.

A good blood-letting resolves a lot of problems

Why is there such dramatic and irreconcilable variety of Christian expression and belief from the virtual onset of the movement? Why is all sign of the Big Bang itself, not least the rising of Jesus to earth in flesh, missing in the non-Gospel record? Why does the Paul of the epistles contradict the Paul of Acts in key areas? And so on. Defenders of orthodoxy often base arguments on Gospel-inspired assumptions which have no concrete basis in the record, such as the overworked claim that all, or almost all, of the apostles died for the faith, which thus would hardly have been a lie or based on something that they knew never happened, until one realizes that the ‘fact’ of this universal martyrdom is nowhere supported except in later Church tradition, where it was invented along with so much else. (p.9)

This argument, I think, some believers find offensive. It strikes at an important part of the identity they have embraced with their faith.

Original intent of the Gospels

After speaking of the scholarly deconstruction process increasingly revealing that the Gospels are composed of anything but historical material, Doherty continues:

Ironically, [the Gospels] may never have been meant to represent literal history, as various indicators show, although whether their authors thought that the figure around whom they built their stories had actually been historical, or whether he simply served symbolic purposes, is not entirely clear. (p.9)

Stepping outside of the Gospels and Acts, into the epistles of the New Testament and other non-canonical documents, achieving that proper perspective I referred to, should also be possible, but it will require scholarship to set aside its Gospel presumptions and look at those writings in their own light. There they will find a vast new vista, a world quite unlike the artificial one that has been imposed on them; it will revolutionize our picture of ancient religion and the roots of Christianity. The pieces of that picture have always been in plain view, and some have long been recognized, but the tyranny of the Gospels has forced them into erroneous patterns. (p.9)

Silence is less than half the story

The mythicist case, and mine in particular, has regularly been accused of dependence on the argument from silence, a focus on what is not to be found in the epistles regarding the Gospel story and its character Jesus of Nazareth. But that is a misrepresentation, for it spotlights only half of the situation. My own case has laid equal, if not paramount, emphasis on what is to be found in the epistles, on the actual information presented by Paul and other early writers in describing their faith movement and the object of its worship. (p.9)

Doherty proceeds to discuss the differences between positive and negative silences in the record. The former in reality is qualitatively more than an argument from silence. The silence is a jarring intrusion into statements that contradict the expectation of the subject of the silence, and because it would intrude and disrupt an otherwise coherent thought of Paul’s.

Ancient and modern mindsets

One of the problems in either defending historical Christianity or debunking it lies in the vast differences in the mindset of the 1st century versus that of the 20th or 21st. (p.10)

Thus, we need to be wary of bringing modern literality and rationality to the ancient record, of imposing our own standards on what is meant, on what we decide could have been believed or not believed by early Christians. . . . The mythical heavenly Christ of Paul ought not to be rejected simply because we would reject it. (p.11)

This, of course, is where Doherty’s argument for the Christ event being in the Middle Platonic, heavenly or “sub-lunar realm” comes in. This may be the most controversial aspect of his work, so I look forward to lingering with particular attention to the details of his argument here.

It is also where Doherty branches out in a new direction from earlier mythical Jesus proponents.

The more natural explanation

It is a natural human tendency to explain the development of progressive ideas, new technologies, better social and political systems, as the product of exceptional individuals, idealizes forerunners, sometimes even as proceeding from divinities. The reality is typically otherwise. . . . History is full of invented founders for religions, social and national movements, such as Taoism’s Lao-Tse, Lycurgus of Sparta, or William Tell at the time of the founding of the Swiss Confederation. (pp.11-12)

Now this is opening up the avenue to researching historical questions.

Our differences

I’ve mentioned some above.

Doherty also writes:

The idea of the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom was one of the driving forces of the age. Groups like the one which produced the Q document had formed to preach it.

Ouch! I suspect he has bought in to the mainstream argument about messianic expectations that seems to me to have nothing but repetition and authority in its support. Certainly some texts indicate such an expectation in some periods near the time of Jesus, but they can hardly be said to represent “a driving force of the age”. (I have addressed some of the evidence and discussion about this in Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity.)

As for Q, Doherty some years ago did for a time persuade me of the arguments for Q. It’s not something I am prepared to bet my life on, so I’m always willing to be reconvinced. Till then I remain a fence sitter. (A position that I normally despise. I always feel I can hold up my head with self-respect if I can insist on a  tentatively committed decision.) So I look forward to reading his discussion on Q, too. He has a whole chapter discussing the recent scepticism over Q led by Mark Goodacre. Should be interesting. Preparing for another lingering here as I compare his arguments with other texts sitting on my shelf at the ready.

My most recent differences with Doherty over Q were expressed here and here.

Comparative behaviours of sects

This development of a glorified or fictitious founder figure is a relatively common occurrence among sects and religions throughout history and around the world, and we will look at some of the factors in the behavior of sects which would have contributed to the emergence of a founder figure for the Q community and a Jesus of Nazareth for Mark’s Gospel.

Sounds interesting.

Looking forward to reading the rest.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Introduction to Earl Doherty”

  1. I’d be interested to learn how Doherty’s views have changed since his Jesus Puzzle book. What’s new? I hesitate to buy this book if it’s just more of the same, but I guess there’s no way around it if one wants to study the origins of Christianity.

  2. Neil, I’m really looking forward to any opinions you post on Doherty’s new book. I’ve read it, and will be putting my own review on-line sometime in the second half of this year.

    First, however, I might remark that I do not see this particular question — the existence or otherwise of Jesus — as a historical question. It is certainly important for history, but my personal interest is in engaging with the arguments and evidence presented by Doherty with a view to seeing how they might fit in the broader (and more historical) question of Christian origins.

    I agree. I’m less interested in the question of historicity (of which there is very little evidence indeed) and more in how people thought in those days. So my review will be going into some detail about Middle Platonist thinking and Roman views about their myths, and then examining Doherty’s own views of Hellenistic thinking, like his “World of Myth”/”Sublunar Incarnation Theory” concepts, in light of known pagan thinking.

    In fact, the reason I am in no hurry in getting my review out is that I am emailing academics who specialize in Middle Platonism, the works of Plutarch, and Greek and Roman philosophers, on their views of Doherty’s “Sublunar Incarnation Theory”. I quote Richard Carrier’s summary from his review of Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle” (I don’t do my own summary for obvious reasons!) . The responses have been interesting. One professor, a well-known expert on Middle Platonism — I suspect you know who I mean when I say that you have read his book as well! — wrote back that it sounded “quite bizarre”. But more to come on that in my completed review.

  3. Bill, the core of Doherty’s book is pretty much the same with regards to his theory, but he has expanded on that by adding new supporting material for his arguments, and also adding new sections dealing with other topics, like Josephus, Tacitus and Q. The coverage is excellent — it’s like the FRDB forum on the topic in one big book — and my review will describe his book as a “must have” for any mythicist who wants to debate the average Christian believer on the topic of historicity.

  4. Strangely enough, I also point people to that thread, to show the problems in Doherty’s theory. Doherty leaves the impression that his “Sublunar Incarnation” concept was something shared by Christians and pagans alike. So I pressed him for evidence on the pagan side. The reason I did this is that, while Christian sources that Doherty uses for evidence for his “World of Myth” like Ascension of Isaiah have been interpolated by “historicist” parties, it is less likely that pagan sources like Plutarch and Sallustius have been. So if the pagans shared similar ideas, I reasoned it would be better to look there. This was partly motivated by my interest in pagan writings as well as that no-one until that time had really investigated that side of Doherty’s theory.

    Doherty has said before that he has no direct evidence (and he says that again on the 3rd page of that thread), and then he brings “indicators” in which also don’t support him. As I said to Doherty on the above thread, HIS ‘indicators’ that don’t support his points become MY ‘indicators’ that he is on the wrong track.

    It became clear to me that Doherty was not using pagan sources to support his unique reading of Paul, but rather he was using his reading of Paul to support his unique reading of pagan sources. And Doherty admits that on the same thread, where he writes:

    Hello, Don. This will hopefully be my last contribution as well. But I’m glad we had this exchange because I think I now have a better understanding of what’s going on. You recently said that you felt I was arguing in a circular fashion, and while I don’t think I laid out my material in Part Four in a way that should have indicated that, you may have come away with that impression. I get the idea that you have interpreted me as though I were saying: the pagans placed the myths of their savior gods in the upper world, therefore we have good reason to interpret Paul that way. Actually, my movement was in the opposite direction. I have always worked first with the early Christian record, and come to a heavenly-realm understanding of it through internal evidence (supported by the unworkability of an earthly understanding of that record). My interpretation has not been governed by an a priori Platonic reading of the mystery cult myths, although I was of course familiar with them and Platonic cosmology in general and could recognize that my findings within the early Christian record would fit into the latter scheme of things. They were mutually supportive.

    Neil, you imply that in that thread I don’t understand Doherty’s ideas very well. Can you tell me where I am mistaken about his ideas, please?

  5. And for those interested, this is the quote from Doherty that got me started on the pagan side. From Doherty’s website:

    For the average pagan and Jew, the bulk of the workings of the universe went on in the vast unseen spiritual realm (the “genuine” part of the universe) which began at the lowest level of the “air” and extended ever upward through the various layers of heaven. Here a savior god like Mithras could slay a bull, Attis could be castrated, and Christ could be hung on a tree by “the god of that world,” meaning Satan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9:14).

    To be fair to Doherty, on page 2 of the thread that Neil gave the link to, he does say this about his statement above:

    The statement itself is too stark. Unfortunately, it implies that there is direct evidence from pagan writings to demonstrate it. Of course, over the years I have acknowledged to Don that this is not the case. While I have often pointed out and argued for “indicators” of such a view, there is no clear and direct statement about any particular pagan mystery cult deity which says that devotees or philosophers regarded the activities of its myth as taking place in the spiritual dimension, in heavenly layers above the earth (whether above or below the moon).

    To which I responded:

    I appreciate that. But there is an ‘urban myth’ that you do provide such evidence. Not your fault, I know, but when people start making claims about “sublunar realms” or “spiritual dimensions” and I question them on whether they have evidence for this, they refer me to your book. Like it or not, some people are more certain about your conclusions than you are.

      1. That thread is my look at Richard Carrier’s review of Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle”, where I question Carrier’s reading of Plutarch and applicability of using Inanna’s death in the underworld as “proof of concept” for death in the sublunar heaven. I provide on-line references for anyone interested in the subject to check whether I am right or not.

        That’s a challenge I have offered more than one supporter of the “Sublunar Incarnation Theory”. I simply don’t understand why anyone interested in this topic wouldn’t want to spend the 30 min to investigate whether Plutarch says what Carrier claims he says, and either prove me right or Carrier right.

        Anyway: In those two threads, where have I misunderstood Doherty’s argument, if I indeed have done so? Can you quote me where I have done that, please? At the least, it might be interesting for your readers if you describe the correct view of Doherty’s theory.

        Actually, I see that both I and Toto asked you to do that on page 3 of the thread. It would be great if you could do that here.

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