Introducing Doherty: his preliminary observations on ‘A Heavenly Christ’

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by Neil Godfrey

Cosmic Christ
Cosmic Christ by Alex Grey: Image by eworm via Flickr

In between (re-)reading at least half a dozen other works I have had a chance to catch up again with Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. My last post with reference to Doherty was my response to the introduction to this work. Here are some comments on my reading of his first chapter.

My notes do not by any means represent the extent and depth of Doherty’s work. I am merely picking out tidbits that I find easy and interesting enough to share in a few words.

The natural way to preach the message

Doherty refers to Peter’s speech in Acts 2:22-36 as being the sort of message that one might expect the early Christian evangelists to preach among new audiences. He talks about Jesus the man, his astonishing deeds on earth, and though crucified, how he was exalted to heaven where he was made Lord and Christ.

This would surely have been the most natural and inevitable way Christian discussion and preaching would proceed. The movement had supposedly begun as a response to a human man. (p.19)

It was the man Jesus who had had such a profound impact on his followers and that led them to abandon their homes and families, their old customs and livelihoods.

But it’s not how the evidence tells us it happened

But what do we find in the letters of Paul and other early writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human preacher and prophet who had recently lived. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God. (p. 19)

Paul summed up the core of the message he had passed on to the Corinthians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor.15:3-4)

Doherty wonders why the identity of the human incarnation of this Christ was not part of the central message — even why the incarnation itself is not central. But he grants that we may suspect Paul omitted such “preliminaries” in a summary like this. So he turns to Paul’s “definition” of Father and Son:

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor.8:6)

Doherty opines:

This is language very reminiscent of Greek philosophy. But it would seem that a fundamental description of the Son is not to include the fact that he was incarnated in the person of a human Jesus, the man through whom information about the Son was presumably derived. Such an idea Paul never mentions. (p. 20)

Faith is very important in Paul’s writings:

  • Faith in Jesus as the way to life
  • Faith God raised Jesus from the dead
  • (Faith that Jesus died, apparently from some passages)
  • Faith God has revealed the mystery about Christ now
  • But no reference to faith that the man Jesus of Nazareth had been incarnation of this Son, etc.

Other epistles contain “quite fantastic” descriptions of this Son:

He is the image of the invisible God, his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created. . . In him the complete being of God, by God’s own choice, came to dwell. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself. . . . (Col.1:15-20 NEB)

Here is a being who is the very reflection of God, the very agent through whom God created the universe, the same one through whom he holds it all together, yet there is not a single mention in the entire letter that this same supremely exalted being was once a man on earth who had died the death of a criminal and had been exalted to become part of the Godhead. Was not faith in such a man able to find any place any such writings? Compare also the book of Hebrews.

The question that scholarship has never asked, yet is the most natural one of all

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